Category Archives: Republic of Letters

John Garth, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien

Serious fans and scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien need little introduction to John Garth.  His Tolkien and the Great War (2003) is among the best books of this century on the creator of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  With urgency and clarity, Garth laid bare the biographical and historical roots of Tolkien’s legendarium, along with the unique gifts and vision of the man who gave it life.

In the acknowledgments for The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Garth promises that another major book on Tolkien’s creative process is in the works.  Until then, what an delectable hors d’oeuvre we have to sate our appetites!   Focusing on “the places that inspired Middle-Earth,” Worlds is gorgeously illustrated with snapshots, paintings and drawings from Tolkien’s life, along with many more maps, illustrations and stunning photographs (sampled below).   

But it’s Garth’s commentary — always accessible, always deeply empathetic  — that leaves us richer for the reading.  He probes much farther than any mechanical equation, i.e. “Tolkien saw this [location/building/natural feature] and this place from the legendarium was obviously the result.”  In fact, knocking down some of the wilder theories in play is part of his brief — the family names in the Shire don’t all come from two villages in Kentucky; the “two towers” aren’t a dystopian refraction of Birmingham’s dark satanic mills.  Instead, Garth strives to see Tolkien’s art as the holistic fruit of his life — the circumstances, people, environment, culture and education that shaped him, working together organically with his mind and heart, loves and hates, interests, friendships, education, vocations and travels.

The result can seem unsystematic, yet it’s satisfyingly thorough, surveying how Tolkien drew on the creation he knew to realize his sub-created imaginary world over six decades.  The chapter “The Land of Luthien: from Faerie to Britain” is perhaps Garth’s most delightful achievement here, tracing the evolving picture of Middle-Earth and its correspondences with this world from 1918’s The Book of Lost Tales through to The Lord of the Rings.  But there’s a great deal more on display, as Garth muses on the impressions that seas, mountains, rivers and lakes, forests, centers of learning and towers of guard made on Tolkien — not just in his early life, but throughout his years as a scholar, soldier, husband, father, linguist, storyteller, colleague and friend.  The penultimate chapter, “Places of War” focuses once again on the crucible of the Western Front; Garth is in his element here, digging ever deeper into how the Battle of the Somme and its aftermath refined Tolkien the man, ultimately unleashing Tolkien the legend-maker.

For all this, John Garth and the design team at Quarto Publishing deserve heartfelt thanks.  Words and images work in concert throughout The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, convincingly showing how the bardic depths of Middle-Earth are firmly founded on Tolkien’s experience in — and meditations about — the wonder and beauty of the fields we know.

To order The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien direct from the publisher at 50% off (ending June 28 at 11:59 pm EDT), click here.

— Rick Krueger

 

 

 

 

An Ontario Tempest

The next Shakespeare@Stratford film to hit YouTube is the Festival’s 2018 production of The Tempest, premiering on Thursday, May 14 and running for three weeks.  Here’s my review from when my wife and I saw the play live in October of that year.

This is the third production of The Tempest we’ve seen at Stratford, Ontario; since we started attending in 2004, the Festival has usually marketed the play as a chance to catch an actor of high skill and reputation (and often getting on in years) in the role of Prospero. 2005’s Tempest served as a grand farewell for William Hutt, the most accomplished classical actor in Canada’s theatrical history; the 2010 production was built on Christopher Plummer returning to the scene of his earliest triumphs. This time around, the hook was seeing Martha Henry (since Hutt’s passing, the current Greatest Living Canadian Actor) playing the exiled magician — part of a season with multiple productions (a gender-swapped Julius Caesar and a gender-fluid Comedy of Errors, along with the drag-rock musical The Rocky Horror Show) trendily exploring postmodern conceptions of freedom.

But any dreams or fears of a transgressive Tempest faded quickly; Henry forthrightly played Prospero as female — duchess of Milan, mother of Miranda, wizard ruler of an uncharted, enchanted island — with a few modest tweaks of the script not even scuffing the verse rhythms, and that was that. (After all, it’s a fairy tale; if you’re worried about the lines of descent for Renaissance Italian nobility being messed up, you’ve come to the wrong play.) Even better, this was an ensemble Tempest, with Henry clearly featured, but also clearly first among equals. Rather than chewing scenery a la Plummer or waxing grandiloquent like Hutt, she drove the plot without swallowing the stage, working to provide for her daughter, bring those who exiled her to book, reward virtue and punish wrong with formidable focus, aplomb and dry humor. And all the while, she genuinely wrestled with conflicting impulses: would she take vengeance on her adversaries, or show them mercy? It’s a tribute to Henry’s and director Antoni Cimolino’s conception that, even if you knew the play, the answer wasn’t telegraphed.

The strong cast also elevated this production, consistently playing off Henry’s indispensable work while fruitfully developing their own characters. Andre Morin’s Ariel did Prospero’s bidding with delight, while holding her to the promise of eventual freedom; Michael Blake’s Caliban chafed convincingly under her authoritarian rule. For once, the shipwrecked mariners were three-dimensional characters, not plot tokens — the King of Naples Alonso (David Collins) ripely autocratic, Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Graham Abbey) convincingly sociopathic, counselor Gonzalo (Rod Beattie) more of a sage and less of a fool than usual. Tom McCamus as butler Stephano and Stephen Ouimette as jester Trinculo clowned to perfection, nailing every laugh possible whether on their own, with Caliban or with the ensemble. The young lovers were the most pleasant surprise; Ferdinand and Miranda can feel like weak sauce in the wrong hands, but Sebastien Heins & Mamie Zwettler were spunky, passionate, intelligent, fully cognizant of their developing affections — strong & spot-on.

And yes, the special effects and pageantry (serious creature puppetry by the ensemble of Spirits & Monsters at key moments, Festival stalwarts Chick Reid and Lucy Peacock regally presiding over Act Four’s celebratory wedding masque) were impressive as always. But Stratford productions go deepest when they cut to the heart — and this Tempest showed us, beyond its numerous charms and delights, the depth of Prospero’s sacrifice. To become truly great as well as truly free, the exiled ruler must serve her enemies as well as her friends — forgiving wrongs, securing Naples and Milan’s future through Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage, releasing the spirits of the island, and abjuring her “rough magic.” Martha Henry’s reading of Shakespeare’s Epilogue – bereft but relieved, slyly humorous in its appeal to the audience for final release through prayer and applause – communicated both the cost of Prospero’s renunciations, and their true worth. It was a lovely end to the best, most bracing production of The Tempest we’ve seen at the Festival.

Watch the premiere of The Tempest on the Stratford Festival’s YouTube channel tomorrow at 7 pm EDT; a pre-show chat with Martha Henry, Mamie Zwettler and Antoni Cimilono starts at 6:30 pm.

— Rick Krueger

Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

I have never before heard anything quite like this album.  And since I first listened to it at a friend’s urging this past weekend, I find myself returning to it again and again.  It resists description, yet compels a response; it’s utterly fresh but feels like it’s been around forever.

Working as a loose creative collective since the mid-1980s, Liverpool’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus have consistently pursued what they describe as “echoes of the sacred” in their work, striving to access a sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world.   On their fourth album Songs of Yearning, they’ve discovered new room for rumors of glory to run, and the result is uniquely powerful, its resonance strikingly amplified by the shadows of doubt that now openly stalk our lives.

RAIJ’s music calls to mind much that I’ve heard and loved over the years — abstract soundscapes by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno; the “holy minimalism” of composers Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki; the sparse, charged post-rock Talk Talk found with Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, to name a few.   But comparisons to other artists fall short of describing Songs of Yearning’s rich mix of reticent modesty and bold experiment. Dissecting the music into its component parts — a breathtaking gamut of sound sourced from liturgy, folksong, chamber music, pop & rock of all stripes, ambience, industrial noise, found dialogue and much more — won’t do the trick either.  The only way to catch the breadth and depth of what’s here is to dive in:

Short and relatively direct as it is, “Celestine” unfolds the Revs’ approach with inviting clarity.  The simple acoustic guitar pattern and the female vocal in French doubled by bells — they’re straightforward enough.  But that flute — is it slightly out of tune, or carving out its own tonality?  The acoustic bass and harmony vocals — how is it they sound now consonant, now dissonant, flickering in and out of sync by the second?  And in the end, each layer goes its own way, ever so gently drifting apart harmonically and rhythmically, but still bound up in an organic, contemplative whole.

Continue reading Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

Shakespeare @ Stratford on YouTube

Since 1953, the little Ontario town of Stratford has hosted what is arguably North America’s premier repertory theater.  Down the decades, every summer the Stratford Festival has presented world-class productions of plays by William Shakespeare, along with other classics of the world stage and new, cutting-edge efforts.  (Not to mention musicals ranging from vintage Broadway to The Who’s Tommy.)

As with so many other performing arts institutions, Stratford’s 2020 season is currently on hold.  To fill the gap, the Festival’s YouTube channel kicked off free screenings of its Stratford on Film series last night — Shakespeare’s birthday — with an intense, gripping 2014 production of King Lear:

 

Each film of the series (an effort to film all of Shakespeare’s plays in ten years) will be available to view for 3 weeks, scheduled as below:

  • King Lear (2014): April 23 to May 14
  • Coriolanus (2018): April 30 to May 21
  • Macbeth (2016): May 7 to 28
  • The Tempest (2018): May 14 to June 4
  • Timon of Athens (2017): May 21 to June 11
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost (2015): May 28 to June 18
  • Hamlet (2015): June 4 to 25
  • King John (2014): June 11 to July 2
  • Pericles (2015): June 18 to July 9
  • Antony and Cleopatra (2014): June 25 to July 16
  • Romeo and Juliet (2017): July 2 to 23
  • The Taming of the Shrew (2015): July 9 to 30

My wife and I have been regular attenders at the Stratford Festival for over 15 years.  We return again and again because of the Festival’s consistently high quality  — an acting company of impressive craft, dedication and emotional heft, working together on the unique thrust stage of the Festival Theatre and other more intimate venues, creating utterly immersive artistic experiences.  (And all in a welcoming, delightful small town environment.)   We hope to return later this summer to see Richard III, Wolf Hall and Spamalot (!)  but in the meantime we agree: the Stratford on Film series is the next best thing to being there, and a first-class way to drink in Shakespeare’s luminous genius.

— Rick Krueger

LOOK to GOD’S PROVIDENCE with Humility

Auld Pop (Thomas Munro, Sr.) said we should always look to God’s providence with great humility. In all our affairs and business of a family and nation we had to depend upon His blessing.

Both my father and Auld Pop believed that the family was the basis of our culture and civilization and If God were not acknowledged there we would have no reason to expect his blessing. Auld Pop often said the “best laid plans o’ mice an’ men aft gang agley.” For enriching a family or nation some are so grasping and avaricious and Midas-like that they forget what really matters which is love and the happiness of one’s race and line.

Yes, that was an expression I often heard that we should have pride in our race and line (as Munros and as Gaels) and that we should “Dread God” (Biodh T-eagal Dhe Oirre; we should reverence unto God: this is the ancient Munro motto of course). Money was important, of course, because one needed bread “but man did not live on bread alone” and also “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” I think it was very clear to me that my father and grandfather were unfailing opponents of the passion for wealth, advancement in society or the preoccupation with material things. Neither man played golf of spent more time than necessary with business associates preferring to spend their holidays and weekend entirely with their wives and children. My father and grandfather taught me to read and write before I went to school and gave me the rudiments of Spanish, Latin, French and Gaelic at home. They considered children to be God’s gifts, a heritage, a blessing and special a reward : a thousand treasures in one.

They often spoke of “our splendid ancient heritage” which I suppose was our entire civilization of music, poetry, literature, art, language, song and our faith and free institutions. My father and Auld Pop also lived through the Great Depression and had memories of the Highland Clearances and the Great Hunger of the 1840’s. They had seen war, experienced hunger, exile and immigration and knew that there was no absolute security to be found in material wealth anywhere at any time. At best money could be a cushion but over and over I was told the “man was the gold and that a man could not be measured by the colour of his skin, or by his speech, or by his clothes and jewels, but only by the heart” (from Mika Waltari) Real wealth was richness of experience, joy in friends and family and delight in conviviality, music, verse, art and literature.

The author RICHARD K. MUNRO after a hike in Sedona, Arizona

Another Miracle: The Flower Kings at 25

Interior art, Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES (Sony/Inside Out, 2019).

Looking death straight in the eye

You will never feel that much alive

—Roine Stolt

For anyone in the prog world, Roine Stolt is a grand and solid name, a trusted master of the craft and a man as honest about his opinions as anyone ever has been in the rock world. From The Flower Kings to Transatlantic to Anderson-Stolt to Steve Hackett’s band, Stolt is anywhere and everywhere excellence is. 

Simply put, when I think of Stolt, I imagine that other master of amazing things, Tom Bombadil. And, yes, that means Goldberry is nearby. “He is.”

The new Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a thing of beauty, delicate yet everlasting.  Sounding a bit like FLOWER POWER and SPACE REVOLVER, the new album has everything a fan loves: mystery, lingering, soaring, contemplating, undulation.

This is glorious and mighty prog.

The album opens with the fragile and compelling “House of Cards,” moving immediately into the Tennyson-esque rage against fate, “Black Flag.” Followed by ten-minute “Miracles for America,” a plea for the future of the free world, and then another ten-minute track, “Vertigo,” disk one is nothing if not dizzying.  If there’s a rock anthem on the album, it’s track no. five, “The Bridge,” which might very well have topped the rock charts in 1983, with its reminder of the theme of the album, “waiting for miracles.” “Ascending to the Stars,” track six of disk one, gives us a mysterious and dark Flower King, an instrumental and orchestra joy somewhat reminiscent of Kansas in its heyday. Despite its name, “Wicked Old Symphony” is the poppiest of the tracks on disk one, a track that hints at the Beatles as well as early 1970’s America. “The Rebel Circus,” track eight, is another wildly wacky and infectious instrumental, followed by the intense and aptly-named, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” The final track of disk one, “The Crowning of Greed,” is a poem, at once reflective in theme, and progressive in tone.

Disk two is much shorter than disk one, and I have no idea if it’s meant to be a “bonus disk” or a continuation of the album. That track one of disk two is a reprise of track one of disk one does nothing to answer my confusion about all of this. Track two, “Spirals,” is a feast of electronica and reminds us once again of the theme of the album: “Call on miracles—For America.” “Steampunk,” the third track of disk two, seems to take us back into the world of adventures. If “Black Flag” followed the voyages of Ulysses, “Steampunk” has us follow Aeneas. The final full track of the album, “We Were Always Here,” is a rather beautiful rock song, reminding us of life and its unending beauties. “It’s so simple in its purities/All that genius—life energies/like forgotten springs of melody.” Disk two ends with the 52-second long bluesy circus piece, “Busking at Brobank.”

Overall, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a joy.  It’s not just a joy as a Flower Kings album, it’s a joy as a rock album. Anyone serious about his or her rock music should add this to the collection. One final note—while I’m not wild about the cover art (too political for my tastes), I absolutely love the interior art, making a physical purchase of WAITING a must.

P.S. I proudly bought my copy from my favorite store, Burning Shed.

Critical Moments: Tolkien’s Mythology, 1914-1937

As some of you might now, I’m in the middle of completing a book manuscript on the history of the Inklings for ISI Books. Here’s my partial list of critical moments in the creation of Tolkien’s larger mythology, from its earliest hints to the publication of The Hobbit.

“Bidding of the Minstrel” (poem)             Winter 1914[1]

“Tinfang Warble” (Poem)                          1914[2]

On Francis Thompson (paper)                 1914[3]

“Earendil” (poem)                                       September 1914[4]

“Kalevala; or Land of Heroes” (paper)     November 22, 1914[5]

“The Story of Kullervo,” (story)                late 1914

“Qenya Lexicon” (dictionary)                    1915[6]

On the Kalevala (paper)                              February 1915[7]

“Man in the Moon” (poem)                        March 1915[8]

“Sea Chant of an Elder Day” (poem)       March 1915[9]

“Cottage of Lost Play” (Poem)                   April 27-28, 1915[10]

“Shores of Faery” (poem)                          July 1915[11]

“The Happy Mariners” (poem)                  July 1915[12]

“A Song of Aryador” (poem)                     September 12, 1915


“Kortirion Among the Trees” (Poem)      November 21-28, 1915[13]

“Over Old Hills and Far Away” (Poem) December 1915-February 1916[14]

“Habbanan Beneath the Stars” (Poem)   December 1915 or June 1916[15]

Prelude, Inward, Sorrowful (poems)       March 16-18, 1916[16]

“The Fall of Gondolin” (story)                  1916-1917[17]

“Tale of Tinuviel” (story)                            1917[18]

“Cottage of Lost Play” (story)                    February 12, 1917[19]

The Music of the Ainur (story)                  Between November 1918 and Spring 1920[20]

“Turin Turambar & the Dragon” (story) 1919[21]

“The Fall of Gondolin” (story aloud)       Spring 1920[22]

“Lay of the Children of H” (poem)           1920-1925[23]

“The City of the Gods” (poem)                 1923[24]

Question if Beren a man or elf                 1925-1926[25]

“Lay of Leithian (poem)                             1925-September 1931[26]

“The Silmarillion” (story)                           1926[27]

“Silmarillion/Sketch” (story)                     1926[28]

“Intro to Elder Edda” (paper)                   November 17, 1926[29]

“Mythopoeia” (poem)                                  September 1931-November 1935[30]

The Hobbit (novel)                                      Late 1928-1936[31]

“The Quenta” (story)                                   1930[32]

“Earliest Annals of Valinor”                      1930[33]

“Annals of Beleriand”                                 1930[34]

Second version of Silmarillion                 1930-1937[35]

“New Lay of Volunga” (poem)                   early 1930s[36]

“New Lay of Gudrún” (poem)                   early 1930s[37]

“A Secret Vice” (paper)                              1931[38]

“Fall of Arthur” (poem)                              1931-1934[39]

“Beowulf: Monsters and Critics” (paper) November 25, 1936[40]

“The Lost Road” (story)                             1936-37[41]

“The Fall of Númenor” (story)                  1936-37[42]

Draft of Silmarillion to Allen/Unwin      November 1937[43]

“On Fairy Stories” (paper)                         March 8, 1939[44]


Sources

[1] CJRT, HOME 2, 269.

[2] CJRT, HOME 1, 107.

[3]Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 30.

[4] CJRT, HOME 2, 267; Garth has it on November 27, 1914; see Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 41.

[5] Flieger, ed., The Story of Kullervo, 63, 91.

[6] Parma Eldalamberon 12 (1998).

[7] Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 42.

[8] CJRT, HOME 1, 202.

[9] Garth, Tolkien at Exeter, 42.

[10] CJRT, HOME 1, 27.

[11] CJRT, HOME 2, 271.

[12] CJRT, HOME 2, 273.

[13] CJRT, HOME 1, 25.

[14] CJRT, HOME 1, 108.

[15] CJRT, HOME 1, 91.

[16] CJRT, HOME 2, 295.

[17] CJRT, HOME 2, 146; and CJRT, The Children of Húrin, 9.

[18] CJRT, HOME 2, 3.

[19] Edith writes out story for JRRT, HOME 1, 13.

[20] CJRT, HOME 1, 45

[21] CJRT, The Children of Húrin, 9.

[22] To the Exeter College Essay Club, in CJRT, HOME 2, 199.

[23] CJRT, HOME 3, 1.

[24] CJRT, HOME 1, 136

[25] CJRT, HOME 2, 52.

[26] CJRT, HOME 3, 1.

[27] CJRT, HOME 2, 300.

[28] CJRT, HOME 4, 11.

[29] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 16.

[30] CJRT, Tree and Leaf, 7.

[31] “The Hobbit,” in Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide, Reader’s Guide 1, 509-522.

[32] CJRT, HOME 4, 76.

[33] CJRT, HOME 4, 1.

[34] CJRT, HOME 4, 1.

[35] CJRT, HOME 5, 107.

[36] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 5.

[37] CJRT, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 5.

[38] Given for Johnson Society, Pembroke College.  See Fimi and Higgins, eds, A Secret Vice, xii.

[39] CJRT, Fall of Arthur, 10-11.

[40] CJRT, The Monsters and the Critics, 1; and Drout, ed., Beowulf and the Critics.

[41] CJRT, HOME 5, 8-9.

[42] CJRT, HOME 5, 7-9.

[43] CJRT, HOME 5, 107

[44] CJRT, The Monsters and the Critics, 3.

Forthcoming: Angelico Book on Christian Humanism

I’m very excited to announce that I have a forthcoming book (sometime this fall) from Angelico Press.


BEYOND TENEBRAE: Christian Humanism IN THE TWILIGHT OF THE WEST.


(initial) table of contents if you’re interested:
PrefaceIntroduction: Beyond Tenebrae

Section I: Conserving Christian Humanism• Humanism: A Primer• Humanism: The Corruption of a Word• The Conservative Mind• Burke and Tocqueville• What to Conserve?• Conserving Humanism
Section II: Personalities and Groups• T.E. Hulme: First Conservative of the Twentieth Century• Irving Babbitt’s Longings• Irving Babbitt and the Buddha• The Christian Humanism of Paul Elmer More• The Order Men• Willa Cather• Canon B.I. Bell• The Conversion of Christopher Dawson• Christopher Dawson and the Liberal Arts• The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson• Nicholas Berdyaev’s Unorthodoxy• Theodor Haecker: Man of the West• The Inklings• Two Tolkiens, Not One• Sister Madeleva Wolff• Peacenik Prophet: Russell Kirk• St Russell of Mecosta• Eric Voegelin• Eric Voegelin’s Gnosticism• Eric Voegelin’s Order• Flannery O’Connor• Clyde Kilby• Friedrich Hayek’s Intellectual Lineage• Ray Bradbury at His End• Shirley Jackson’s Haunting• Wendelin E Basgall• Julitta Kuhn Basgall• Ronald Reagan’s Ten Words• The Optimism of Ronald Reagan• Walter Miller’s Augustinian Wasteland• Alexander Solzhenitsyn as Prophet• The Ferocity of Marvin O’Connell• The Good Humor of Ralph McInerny• The Beautiful Mess that is Margaret Atwood; Conclusion: Confusions and Hope