Literature


Aelianus once suggested to me that the principal difference between the elves and the men in Tolkien is not their nature but their end: the elves are directed by God to a merely natural end, whereas the men are directed to a supernatural end. This is why the elves are destined to remain in Arda, that is, on earth, since they can find there all that is necessary for them to achieve their goal, whereas men by ‘the gift of Iluvatar’, that is, by death, go elsewhere, the elves know not whither.

Savonarola suggested – though Bellarmine didn’t like it – that the inhabitants of Limbo would after the resurrection have dealings with the saints, sharing at least some of the same space and speaking to them.

Since those in Limbo have the same nature as the saints, but only attain a natural end, they would be after the resurrection rather similar to Tolkien’s elves. It is true that those in Limbo had a supernatural end insofar as they are members of the human race, but they were never personally proportioned to the beatific vision by receiving any actual grace, and so they would not experience any longing for it, or have any sense that their natural fulfilment was insufficient for them.

(Garrigou-Lagrange claims in various places that those in Limbo have a will that is averted from God as their supernatural end, and that by this fact that their will is also averted from God as their natural end. If this were true then their lot would seem to be very unpleasant, but I don’t know why he says it. Original sin implies an absence of charity in the will, but not a state of ‘having turned away from God’ in it.)

We can be tempted to imagine the inhabitants of Limbo after the resurrection as being like over-grown children, or like the adults on earth who have Down’s syndrome. But this would be quite wrong. Their intellects would function excellently, and their wills would love God with a natural love, and each other with noble friendship, and their emotions would be in complete harmony with reason. God might even give them certain natural gifts that the saints would not possess, such as the gift of writing beautiful poetry or singing beautiful songs in honour of creation. Or even if the saints could do the same, their would surely be a style of speech and song unique to those who live by nature alone, in a natural purity of heart, yet without desire of friendship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; just as the saints  have no desire, for example, to be higher in glory than they are, or to have been the redeemer of the world.

If we put, then, Aelianus’s and Savonarola’s suggestion together, we come up with the question of this post: shall we see elves?

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening–any evening–would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

(Sancrucensis will like this one)

The Chaldicotes set, as Lady Lufton called them, were in every way opposed to what a set should be according to her ideas. She liked cheerful, quiet, well-to-do people, who loved their Church, their country, and their queen, and who were not too anxious to make a noise in the world. She desired that all the farmers round her should be able to pay their rents without trouble, that all the old women should have warm flannel petticoats, that the working-men should be saved from rheumatism by healthy food and dry houses; that they should all be obedient to their pastors and masters—temporal as well as spiritual. That was her idea of loving her country. She desired also that the copses should be full of pheasants, the stubble-field of partridges, and the gorse covers of foxes; in that way, also, she loved her country. She had ardently longed, during that Crimean war, that the Russians might be beaten—but not by the French, to the exclusion of the English, as had seemed to her to be too much the case; and hardly by the English under the dictatorship of Lord Palmerston (‘Framley Parsonage’, chapter two).

AN AGREEMENT

 (Mr. William Clissold regards Birth-Control as the test of liberality: those against it are reactionary; those in favour are for the progressive revolution.)

Where you have laid it, let the sword divide;
And your unmotherly Medea be
Here sundered from our human trinity,
The Mother and the Virgin and the Bride.

Why should we falter? Ours shall be the mirth
And yours the amaze when you have thinned away
Your starving serfs to fit their starveling pay
And seen the meek inheriting the earth.

That Christ from this creative purity
Came forth your sterile appetites to scorn
Lo; in her house Life without Lust was born,
So in your house Lust without Life shall die.

(This is from Chesterton’s lateish collection of poems, ‘The Queen of the Seven Sword’. Wiliam Clissold was a character which H.G. Wells used to expound his own opinions about life.)
Happy feast of St Joachim – and of St Anna too, if you are observing hers today. St John Damascene rather charmingly calls them a chaste pair of rational turtle doves.

What are they on about?

“Philosophy is knowledge of things which are in so far as they are, that is, a knowledge of the nature of things which have being. And again, philosophy is knowledge of both divine and human things, that is to say, of things both visible and invisible. Philosophy, again, is a study of death, whether this be voluntary or natural. For life is of two kinds, there being the natural life by which we live and the voluntary one by which we cling lovingly to this present life. Death, also, is of two kinds: the one being natural, which is the separation of soul from body, whereas the other is the voluntary one by which we disdain this present life and aspire to that which is to come. Still again, philosophy is the making of one’s self like God. Now, we become like God in wisdom, which is to say, in the true knowledge of good; and in justice, which is a fairness in judgment without respect to persons; and in holiness, which is to say, in good- ness, which is superior to justice, being that by which we do good to them that wrong us. Philosophy is the art of arts and the science of sciences. This is because philosophy is the principle of every art, since through it every art and science has been invented. Now, according to some, art is what errs in some people and science what errs in no one, whereas philosophy alone does not err. According to others, art is that which is done with the hands, whereas science is any art that is practiced by the reason, such as grammar, rhetoric, and the like. Philosophy, again, is a love of wisdom. But, true wisdom is God, Therefore, the love of God, this is the true philosophy.”

– St John Damascene, The Fount of Knowledge, Chapter 3

“‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’ We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father: for let the world take note,
You are the most immediate to our throne;
And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son,
Do I impart toward you. For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.”

– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2

Is it a lost art, buried under the avalanche of texts and phone calls and skypings and e-mails? It has certainly become rare. Perhaps it will never again be common. But I think that the wise will not wholly abandon it.

A pleasant letter I hold to be the pleasantest thing that this world has to give. It should be good-humoured; witty it may be, but with a gentle diluted wit. Concocted brilliancy will spoil it altogether. Not long, so that it be tedious in the reading; nor brief, so that the delight suffice not to make itself felt. It should be written specially for the reader, and should apply altogether to him, and not altogether to any other. It should never flatter. Flattery is always odious. But underneath the visible stream of pungent water there may be the slightest under-current of eulogy, so that it be not seen, but only understood. Censure it may contain freely, but censure which in arraigning the conduct implies no doubt as to the intellect. It should be legibly written, so that it may be read with comfort; but no more than that. Calligraphy betokens caution, and if it be not light in hand it is nothing. That it be fairly grammatical and not ill spelt the writer owes to his schoolmaster; but this should come of habit, not of care. Then let its page be soiled by no business; one touch of utility will destroy it all.

If you ask for examples, let it be as unlike Walpole as may be. If you can so write it that Lord Byron might have written it, you will not be very far from high excellence.

But, above all things, see that it be good-humoured (Anthony Trollope, ‘The Bertrams’, chapter 18).

‘These are the times that – what is it Jeeves?’

‘”Try men’s souls”, sir.’

‘They certainly do. In spades.”

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