Tolkien and Christian sexual morality

Albert Mohler recently posted a short piece on Tolkien’s letters to his sons regarding sexual morality and marriage. It was an interesting little glimpse into Tolkien’s thinking.

Briseis and force

When I first read The Iliad, I was struck by Briseis’ mourning of Patroclus (Book 19, starting with line 300 in Lombardo’s translation for Hackett). Briseis was captured after Achilles killed her husband and laid waste to her home city. Her three brothers also died in the battle. Yet Briseis praises Patroclus for assuring her that she would become Achilles’ wife. Not a very well-developed character, I thought; she’s just there to fall for the action hero even after he killed her husband.

Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” had a much more interesting reading of this scene. Weil begins her essay by saying that “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away” (3). For Weil, force “is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3). Thus, Briseis is turned into a thing when she is enslaved by Achilles.

And what does it take to make the slave weep? The misfortune of his master, his oppressor, despoiler, pillager, of the man who laid waste his town and killed his dear ones under his very eyes. This man suffers or dies; then the slave’s tears come. And really why not? This is for him the only occasion on which tears are permitted, are, indeed, required. A slave will always cry whenever he can do so with impunity — his situation keeps tears on tap for him.

She spoke, weeping, and the women groaned,

Using the pretext of Patroclus to bewail their own torments.*

Since the slave has no license to express anything except what is pleasing to his master, it follows that the only emotion that can touch or enliven him a little, that can reach him in the desolation of his life, is the emotion of love for his master. There is no place else to send the gift of love; all other outlets are barred, just as, with the horse in harness, bit, shafts, reins bar every way but one. And if, by some miracle, in the slave’s breast a hope is born, the hope of becoming, some day, through somebody’s influence, someone once again, how far won’t these captives go to show love and thankfulness, even though these emotions are addressed to the very men who should, considering the very recent past, still reek with horror for them: [she then quotes the passage that I summarized above in which Briseis mourns Patroclus]…

To lose more than the slave does is impossible, for her loses his whole inner life. A fragment of it he may get back if he sees the possibility of changing his fate, but this is his only hope. Such is the empire of force, as extensive as the empire of nature. (9-10)

I think I would say that slaves tend to find ways to preserve their inner lives in creative ways, though not on entirely their own terms, of course. So while there may be some oversimplification by Weil, I appreciated her interpretation.

* Lombardo’s rendering of the Iliad passage in Weil’s essay is “Thus Briseis, and the women mourned with her,/ For Patroclus, yes, but each woman also/ For her own private sorrows” (Book 19, lines 320-322).

Comparing translations of the Iliad

Several years ago, Daniel Mendelsohn looked at how four different translators rendered lines 795-800 of Book 13. After giving a phonetic rendering of the original Greek poetry, he writes:

Note, first of all, how the last words of the first, third, fifth, and sixth lines of this passage all end with the same sound combination, loaded with liquid “l”s (aellêi, “maelstrom”; polla, “many”: ep’ alla, “others hard behind,” ep’alloi, “others hard behind”): these liquid “l” sounds (with some explosive “p”s thrown in in the third, fifth, and sixth lines) beautifully evoke the sounds of the roiling waters, even as the insistent repetition of the “p-ll” sound cluster from line to line gives a sense of whitecaps breaking on the beach, one after another. (In other words, the near-rhyming words do what the waves do.) And, as if to make the analogy concrete, the sixth line—which reconnects the imagined world of the sea to the narrated world of the Trojans at war—repeats the “some before … others hard behind” language of the fifth: the waves are all’ … ep alla; the Trojans are alloi … ep’ alloi. So the sixth line is packed behind the fifth, imitating its sound cluster precisely the way in which the Trojan ranks, packed together in battle formation, are massed one behind the other.

Also of note is the way that the two adjectives in the fourth line—paphladzonta, the “roiling” waves, and polyphloisboio, the “greatly-roaring” sea—replicate each other’s consonants: the “p”s, the “ph”s, the “l”s, the soft “s”s and “z” sounds. If you repeat those languidly unspooling words, you’re making the noises of the surf.

The flattening of the disciplines 

Carl Trueman notes an important trend in the way that contemporary educational institutions flatten the distinctions between disciplines and relegate the content of classes to insignificance:

As I prepared to return to the classroom this week, I remembered my very first foray into full-time teaching, some twenty-three years ago. I had just been appointed to the faculty at the University of Nottingham, and it was required that I attend a three-day training session on how to teach, and then to do a refresher course of similar duration two years later. On both occasions, my wife went into labor by day two. Felix culpa indeed, for I was then allowed to leave the pointless course prematurely and return to the real world. We had not timed the pregnancies that way, but what can I say? God is good. God is very good.

I remember the sections I did attend for the desolate and desultory nature of their content. Not a single thing I heard was relevant to anything I have ever subsequently done in a classroom. There were plenty of buzzwords: “goldfish bowls”; “shared educational journeys”; “transferable skills”; etc. And there was the usual pious claptrap: “There are no teachers, only learners. Lecturers and students learn together on their mutual journey.” I remember thinking at the time that that was self-evidently false. I was being paid to teach. My students were paying (albeit indirectly, in those days) to be taught. Follow the money, as they say.

What was most striking, however, was the reduction of teaching to the merely technical. What discipline we taught was apparently irrelevant. The room was full of historians, theologians, philosophers, medics, nurses, engineers. But that did not matter, because education was ultimately not about disciplinary content. Rather, we were to use our disciplines to teach “life skills.” Given that most of us in the room had made the disastrous decision to pursue Ph.D. studies and thus dramatically to reduce our usefulness to society as well as our earning potential, the possibility of our helping others with their “life skills” seemed rather remote.

This relegation is not necessarily intentional, but it does reflect the loss of confidence by educational institutions that any knowledge can be declared essential. Teachers may believe that, but humanities and social sciences courses are often offered as interchangeable credit units for the purposes of the institution. If philosophy is literature is history for the purposes of graduation, then what institutional support is there for the content actually mattering? Teachers obviously have issues to think through here as well, because they gain individual freedom when the institution does not care about content. More institutional affirmation that certain content is essential would mean more institutional influence on the classroom.

A thoughtful conservative vision for 21st-century America

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of IndividualismThe Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Levin analyzes 21st-century America from a compelling perspective, seeing the widespread nostalgia for a more unified post-WWII America as one of the major political difficulties that we face. Both liberals and conservatives often have this sense of nostalgia, even if they remember different aspects of the postwar period fondly. Yet he also shows that this was a unique period proceeded by the consolidating trends of progressivism, the Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War, and that economic and cultural centralization has been giving way to individualism to a greater or lesser degree since the 1950s. As a conservative, Levin wants both liberals and especially conservatives to craft their policies in light of these trends so that institutions like family, work, and religious communities can recover their constructive roles after decades of weakening by political centralization and cultural individualism.

Levin’s interpretation of American history from roughly 1900 to the present had much to recommend it (roughly the first 100 pages of the book), and is really worth reading. The solutions that he proposes in the second half of the book are provocative as well. By the end, it seemed that Levin had reiterated his principles more than enough without the additional specific examples justify the repetition, but the principles are important enough to make that stylistic complaint unimportant.

Levin’s fits quite well with Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option“, which Levin references favorably.

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A theological analysis of sin, sexuality, and the Christian life

Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with ChristOpenness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Building on her autobiographical Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield explores the theological issues relating to original sin, sexuality, and identity. She draws on the Bible and the Augustinian-Reformed theological tradition to make her case, and she does it well. She writes lovingly to those who disagree with her and calls for all sinners to come to Christ.

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C.S. Lewis on the purpose of collective action

From C.S. Lewis’ lecture “Membership,” as it appears in The Weight of Glory:

The secular community, since it exists for a natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary. Great sacrifices of this private happiness by those who have it may be necessary in order that it may be more widely distributed. All may have to be a little hungry in order that none may starve. But do not let us mistake necessary evils for good. The mistake is easily made. Fruit has to be tinned if it is to be transported and has to lose thereby some of its good qualities. But one meets people who have learned actually to prefer the tinned fruit to the fresh. A sick society must think much about politics as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind–if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else–then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. (161-162)

One of the key distinctions that Lewis makes in the lecture is that to be a member originally meant being like an organ in a body, not exactly like all of the other members. Modern mass societies and groups operate in a very different way.