“News that shook […] a dozen capitals brought deep peace to one English heart. Now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.”

I was interested to read today that Yeats wrote his poem on ‘The Second Coming’ in January 1919, just after Blessed Charles of Austria announced that he was relinquishing his involvement in public affairs.

Nietzsche, as every one knows, preached a doctrine which he and his followers regard apparently as very revolutionary; he held that ordinary altruistic morality had been the invention of a slave class to prevent the emergence of superior types to fight and rule them.  Now, modern people, whether they agree with this or not, always talk of it as a new and unheard-of idea.  It is calmly and persistently supposed that the great writers of the past, say Shakespeare for instance, did not hold this view, because they had never imagined it; because it had never come into their heads.  Turn up the last act of Shakespeare’s Richard III and you will find not only all that Nietzsche had to say put into two lines, but you will find it put in the very words of Nietzsche.  Richard Crookback says to his nobles:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

As I have said, the fact is plain.  Shakespeare had thought of Nietzsche and the Master Morality; but he weighed it at its proper value and put it in its proper place.  Its proper place is the mouth of a half-insane hunchback on the eve of defeat.  This rage against the weak is only possible in a man morbidly brave but fundamentally sick; a man like Richard, a man like Nietzsche.  This case alone ought to destroy the absurd fancy that these modern philosophies are modern in the sense that the great men of the past did not think of them.  They thought of them; only they did not think much of them.  It was not that Shakespeare did not see the Nietzsche idea; he saw it, and he saw through it.

I listened to a reading of Sigrid Undset’s novel ‘Jenny’ recently.  It is one of her early novels, from before she became a Catholic and while she was still a Norwegian atheist.  I’d heard people praise her for ages, but until now I’d never made her acquaintance.

What a book!  I won’t give away the plot, but it perfectly fulfils the classic ideal of a tragedy, a noble character’s being ruined by a single flaw whose consequences unfold themselves in the course of the action (by the way, why is it that women excel in writing novels?  I would take any of Jane Austen’s books over any of Dickens’s, and Wuthering Heights may well be the greatest novel in the English language ever written.)

All that put me in mind of the Greek chap who said that tragedy was a matter of purifying or affording release to pity and fear and similar emotions.  There were certainly buckets of pity and fear to go round at the end of Jenny.  But what exactly does the phrase from the Poetics mean?

I imagine there is a long and rich commnentatorial tradition to draw on here, but I am entirely ignorant of it.  Nor, I’m afraid, did I ever study the Poetics.  But I shall still comment on it, and without compunction, since C. S. Lewis says somewhere that no one has ever been able to decide what Aristotle meant by the phrase.

The case seems to me this.  All the fundamental emotions – eleven, according to St Thomas, though with innumerable sub-species – have an organic basis in the human body, and so we will experience all of them from time to time.  Yet some of the basic emotions, though natural to fallen man, are also intrinsically harmful, not morally, but physically.  Here is St Thomas; and though the physiology is obviously primitive in the extreme, it sounds plausible:

Man’s life consists in a certain movement, which flows from the heart to the other parts of the body: and this movement is befitting to human nature according to a certain fixed measure. Consequently if this movement goes beyond the right measure, it will be repugnant to man’s life in respect of the measure of quantity; but not in respect of its specific character: whereas if this movement be hindered in its progress, it will be repugnant to life in respect of its species.

Now it must be noted that, in all the passions of the soul, the bodily transmutation which is their material element, is in conformity with and in proportion to the appetitive movement, which is the formal element: just as in everything matter is proportionate to form.

Consequently those passions that imply a movement of the appetite in pursuit of something, are not repugnant to the vital movement as regards its species, but they may be repugnant thereto as regards its measure: such are love, joy, desire and the like; wherefore these passions conduce to the well-being of the body; though, if they be excessive, they may be harmful to it.

On the other hand, those passions which denote in the appetite a movement of flight or contraction, are repugnant to the vital movement, not only as regards its measure, but also as regards its species; wherefore they are simply harmful: such are fear and despair, and above all sorrow which depresses the soul by reason of a present evil, which makes a stronger impression than future evil (Summa Theologiae, 1a 2ae 37, 4).

In other words, we need to flush out the sorrow and fear from our system, since they are physically bad for us.  Since emotion, having an organic basis, cannot remain at an intense level for a long time without a reaction setting it, one way to do this is to induce an unusually high degree of sorrow and fear. We don’t want to do this by using something in the real world (since this would involve bringing a real evil upon ourselves), and therefore we use something in the imaginary world.

There is a problem, however.  Our emotional life has not only physical consequences but also moral ones.  Virtue lies in being glad and sad about the right things.  If therefore I induce a pity and terror directed toward unworthy objects, I become worse. If I read sentimental novels, I grow sentimental; if I read brutal horror stories, I grow callous.

Tragedy, therefore, requires a noble hero or heroine.  To feel pity or fear for the woes of such a person is a noble outlet for these emotions.  Yet why must the person have one flaw?  Is it not nobler still to pity the sufferings of a sinless man or woman?  In itself, certainly.  Yet either because we perceive that such a person, however much they suffer, cannot be called wretched, or else because we are ourselves flawed, it appears that, by nature if not by grace, we pity the flawed hero or heroine more keenly.


Nay, I cannot give you that key. I cannot unlock for you the way that leads to Lantern Wood; nor lead you up to Cair Paravel of the four thrones, and bring you into its court, so grave and gay; nor show you the ship that rides at anchor, soon to depart for the uttermost East. I cannot do these things…

The key I offer is a humble key of knowledge, opening the secret meaning of the books. The seven books evoke the seven spheres: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Jupiter; The Horse and His Boy, Mercury; The Magician’s Nephew, Venus; Prince Caspian, Mars; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Sun; The Silver Chair, the Moon; The Last Battle, Saturn. Lewis himself said there was a meaning behind the series, and wondered whether anyone would find it. Now they have – some years ago, in fact, but it is perhaps still not well enough known.  Read the book, and discover the proofs.

For obvious reasons, C. S. Lewis’s book That Hideous Strength has never received the praise it deserves.  I cannot agree with A. N. Wilson’s assertion, in his entertaining but tendentious biography of Lewis, that the novel is too long.  For me, in fact, it ends too soon: its principal flaws are that the descent of the Oyeresu is described too briefly, and that the reconciliation of Mark and Jane Studdock is left to the imagination.
Most of all, I should like to have heard more from Merlinus Ambrosius, that is, Merlin, who irrupts into the book half-way through. The enemy planned to use him as a tool for evil, but he turns out to be a Roman Christian gentleman who puts himself at the service of Ransom, the Director of St Anne’s and true Pendragon in the line of Arthur. For my money, the best parts in the story are those in which Merlinus is commenting on the mid-twentieth century world into which he has been revived, after his long sleep beneath the turf of Edgestow.
Sometimes his observations pertain only to the stranger manners of the latter days:
“Sir,” said Merlin, in answer to the question which the Director had just asked him, “I give you great thanks. I cannot, indeed, understand the way you live, and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it: a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone, with no more honour than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh, but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there is warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit. Sir, I tell you these things because you have asked me. They are of no importance.”
Morals, however, he recognises as infinitely more important than manners:
She did not understand the words: but Dimble did, and heard Merlin saying in what seemed to him a rather strange kind of Latin: “Sir, you have in your house the falsest lady of any at this time alive.” 
And Dimble heard the Director answer in the same language. Sir, you are mistaken. She is doubtless like all of us a sinner: but the woman is chaste.” 
“Sir,” said Merlin, “know well that she has done in Logres a thing of which no less sorrow shall come than came of the stroke that Balinus struck. For, sir, it was the purpose of God that she and her lord should between them have begotten a child by whom the enemies should have been put out of Logres for a thousand years.”
“She is but lately married,” said Ransom. “The child may yet be born.” 
“Sir,” said Merlin, “be assured that the child will never be born, for the hour of its begetting is passed. Of their own will they are barren: I did not know till now that the usages of Sulva [the moon] were so common among you. For a hundred generations in two lines the begetting of this child was prepared; and unless God should rip up the work of time, such seed, and such an hour, in such a land, shall never be again.” 
“Enough said,” answered Ransom. “The woman perceives that we are speaking of her.” 
“It would be great charity,” said Merlin, “if you gave order that her head should be cut from her shoulders; for it is a weariness to look at her.”
Merlinus is surprised, too, that the little company at St Anne’s do not  see the justice of treating self-sterilization as a capital offence:
“The Pendragon tells me,” he said in his unmoved voice, “that you accuse me for a fierce and cruel man. It is a charge I never heard before. A third part of my substance I gave to widows and poor men. I never sought the death of any but felons and heathen Saxons. As for the woman, she may live for me. I am not master in this house. But would it be such a great matter if her head were struck off? Do not queens and ladies who would disdain her as their tire-woman* go to the fire for less? Even that gallows bird (cruciarius) beside you – I mean you, fellow, though you speak nothing but your own barbarous tongue; you with the face like sour milk and the voice like a saw in a hard log and the legs like a crane’s – even that cutpurse (sector zonarius), though I would have him to the gatehouse, yet the rope should be used on his back, not his throat.”
He finds the changes in geo-politics, too, hard to grasp:
“Mehercule!” he cried. “Are we not going too fast? If you are the Pendragon, I am the High Council of Logres, and I will council you. If the Powers must tear me in pieces to break our enemies, God’s will be done. But is it yet come to that? This Saxon king of yours who sits at Windsor, now—is there no help in him?”
“He has no power in this matter.”
“Then is he not weak enough to be overthrown?”
“I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain I am the King’s man.”
“Is it, then, his great men – the counts and legates and bishops – who do the evil and he does not know of it?”
“It is – though they are not exactly the sort of great men you have in mind.”
“And are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?”
“We are four men, some women, and a bear.”
“I saw the time when Logres was only myself and one man and two boys, and one of those was a churl. Yet we conquered.”
“It could not be done now. They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived. We should die without even being heard of.”
“But what of the true clerks? Is there no help in them? It cannot be that all your priests and bishops are corrupted.”
“The Faith itself is torn in pieces since your day and speaks with a divided voice. Even if it were made whole, the Christians are but a tenth part of the people. There is no help there.”
“Then let us seek help from over sea. Is there no Christian prince in Neustria or Ireland or Benwick who would come in and cleanse Britain if he were called?”
“There is no Christian prince left. These other countries are even as Britain, or else sunk deeper still in the disease.”
“Then we must go higher. We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms. We must call on the Emperor.”
“There is no Emperor.”
“No Emperor . . .” began Merlin, and then his voice died away. He sat still for some minutes wrestling with a world which he had never envisaged.
Here, as I think Christopher Derrick pointed out, the story suffers from Lewis’s own lack of Catholic faith.  The real Merlinus Ambrosius would doubtless have also asked about the Pope of Old Rome. And he would have wanted to know more about the ‘pieces’ into which the Faith had supposedly been torn, to discover whether he was sitting with Catholics or heretics (Warren Carroll pointed out in an unforgettable passage in his History of Christendom that in the later 5th century, all the kings in Europe were either pagans, heretics or schismatics, with the single exception of Arthur, who alone stood with the pope.)
This flaw apart, the conversation is excellently well done:
Presently he said, “A thought comes into my mind and I do not know whether it is good or evil. But because I am the High Council of Logres I will not hide it from you. This is a cold age in which I have awaked. If all this west part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look further . . . beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith but who worshipped God as they could and  acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there – beyond Byzantium. It was rumoured also that there was knowledge in those lands – an Eastern circle and wisdom that came West from Numinor. I know not where – Babylon, Arabia, or Cathay. You said your ships had sailed all round the earth, above and beneath.”
Ransom shook his head. “You do not understand,” he said. “The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all Tellus.”
In other words: just as it is a good discpline for the mind to translate one’s words into a foreign language, especially if it be very foreign, such as Latin or (I suppose) Chinese, since that forces one to think more clearly about what one really means, so it is a good discipline for the soul to explain one’s own times to someone from ages past, and so begin to see them as they really are.
* I had to look up tire-woman.  It means lady’s maid, tire being short for attire.

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).


 (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.

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