“To digress for a moment: lecturers at Oxford, and doubtless elsewhere, could be divided into the hard and the soft, like cops. The hard men gave you information, usually about language. Old and Middle English, strong verbs, vowel shifts and fearful old poems like The Dream of the Rood and The Owl and the Nightingale, and what they gave you was likely to reappear in the relevant parts of the final examination. The hardest lecturer I ever heard, and the worst technically, in delivery and so on, was J.R.R. Tolkien, but you sat through him because his explanation of the anomalous form of ‘hraergtrafum’ was likely to be called for as the answer to a ‘gobbet’ on the paper. The soft men offered you civilised discourse with perhaps some critical interpretation and ideas about the past. The only reputable hard-soft merchant was C.S. Lewis, also the best lecturer I ever heard…”


  1. m.,
    A reference to Tolkien following quick upon one alluding to Sinatra? What unlikely yet just convenience! Tolkien heard the echo of creation's youthful, unblemished song, while Sinatra (at 50) heard the aching discord, more lately, lamentably introduced.

  2. Matthew Lickona says

    Did you just get your Optimist Pills prescription refilled? I mean, Tolkien gives us unblemished creation in the elves, but isn't there a smudgy darkness over everything else, a heritage largely abandoned, a lessening of the bright lights that guide us, a departure of the Old Beauties, a victory over evil that is only ever temporary, and a tranquility that is always tenuous and fraught? I dunno, maybe I'm just cranky.

  3. m.,
    In the course of the tales, not even the elves escape your description of blemish turned to smudgy darkness. I was alluding, no doubt too obliquely, to the opening pages of the Silmarillion, "The Music of the Ainur", pages which are among the most beautiful I have seen in literature on the birth of creation.

  4. Matthew Lickona says

    My bad. I haven't dabbled in the Silmarillion since I was very young. I will revisit.

  5. Matthew Lickona says

    And by "dabbled in," I may mean, "had on my bookshelf and heard someone talk about." Time to get crackin'.

  6. m.,
    I used to have a t-shirt that I picked up at a bookstore with the saying "So many books, So little time". I think lots of people had one of those. I miss that t-shirt, despite its popularity. I probably lost it along the way, during the bumpy twists and turns of the "so little time" part. But those opening pages of the Silmarillion on the music of creation are worth taking into chapel,… and of those kind of writings, there are not near so many.

  7. Matthew,

    At the risk of an oversimplified interpretation of Kingsley's critque(s).

    On the one hand, you have Tolkein, so enmeshed in the "stuff" of creation, i.e., words and their making, that for him it was all. This is the poet looking at his material; Keats had done the same for autumn and emotion; Pound had done the same for history and usury; Faulkner had done the same for the South and mystery.

    On the other hand you have Lewis, who is looking – if his academic texts are any indication ("The Allegory of Love," etc.). – at the twinned fabric of the poetic "stuff" and their various intepretations. (Thus "hard" and "soft".) What saves Lewis is the same thing that saves Bunyan and Spenser – not the allegorical as such but the freshness of approach (at least at the time their works had come along) to the allegorical. (i.e. Vanity Fair became the effective trope for both a novel and a magazine, bot critical of culture, while the Spenserian stanza gained its fame and became common currency among the poets through the Fairie Queene – I argue that written any other way, the FQ would not be nearly as popular (or at least as accepted a part of English Lit's canon) as it is today.

    Is it any wonder that Tolkien would have the more profound take on creation and good and evil and all that goes into being? (Thus, "hard"). Not to take away from Lewis (who writes grandly about the surfaces of things reflecting that same being- via Narnia, Wormwood, etc.)?

    I am not at all surprised that Lewis comes off as the better teacher – in the sense that his mind was probably more habituated to jumping between words and their meaning – which is after all a skill perfectly suited to teaching. Tolkien I imagine ran riot in his mind; not so much in the classroom….

    But Tolkien's ballywick was his ability to make so thrilling the heart of things. The world of Tolkien is not so easly punctured and yet not so accessible; whereas that of Lewis is just the opposite.


  8. lissla lissar says

    On Tolkien and Lewis- my husband wants to get t-shirts made that say,

    "I am metanoi-ed by your eucatastrophe"

    The Silmarillion is exquisitely beautiful, especially the creation story. I get bogged down in the story of that guy who changes his names every page (Turin? Something like that).

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