She asked what I thought that was about. I said I had been brought up with the very clear message that arts are fine for a hobby, but that making a living as a writer or actor was absolutely unthinkable. It was irrational to take the arts seriously.
I stopped, right there on the sidewalk, shocked out of my self-pity. She turned and egged me on; we continued walking. “What did you do after surgery?” she asked.
“You watched movies. When you were a little better but couldn’t go back to work yet, what else did you do?”
“You read. Writers and actors and producers and other artists got you through that time. They got you through the last year, with the awful work and the layoff. Survival is not trivial. It’s significant. The arts matter.”
Hard to argue with that. I’d be dead, miserably dead, without the work of visionaries — especially the really funny ones.
This came up again in the context of my own more recent absorption in the value of mythology as a ticket to survival in the face of horrible odds — a pressingly modern issue in these impossible times. Then today, I learned that it was Professor Tolkien who created the word “Mythopoeia” — wrote a poem on it, in fact, to his increasingly rigid friend Reverend Lewis.
While both men were theists, C. S. Lewis was much more interested in the structure and received wisdom of religion; J. R. R. Tolkien was a spiritual seeker more in the experiential, visionary, nature-loving, nearly shamanic mode of poets like Coleridge and Keats.
Here it is, with my annotations [in square brackets and italicized.]
Take your time and enjoy:
To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.
Philomythus to Misomythus
[“Loves Myths” to “Opposes Myths”]
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
[I love this comment on the dry limits of literalism!]
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
[he’s making the point that there’s more to all this than we can comprehend in our poorly-constructed, limited and ignorant theories of time, space, matter, and life.
He goes on to describe fiction, which at least doesn’t pretend to hold all facts:]
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
[he used “queer” in the sense of “odd”, but as far as I’m concerned it’s all good]
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
[by pairing these luscious words with the plain ones, he just destroyed the dry concept that “trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'” — making the point that there’s more to language and life than the rules we know.]
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.
[he’s pointing out (with beautiful imagery) that our brains are so rich and complex, and that life and experience are so rich and complex, that each rich experience makes unique patterns in a complex brain…]
Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
[…and that even to come up with dry little words to describe them, is a feat of imagination in the first place]
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
[remove the line-breaks and read that again: “but neither record nor a photograph, being divination, judgement, and a laugh response of those that felt astir within by deep monition movements that were kin to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars: free captives undermining shadowy bars, digging the foreknown from experience and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.”
In short, taking pictures and otherwise recording things is often a nervous tick, used by those who aren’t enough in touch with their feelings and experiences to find some richer way to convey them meaningfully — but convey them we do, however we can, in an effort to rescue our deeper selves…]
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.
[…and from that effort we grow, and brilliant works come in time.]
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
[in short, to see something, we must first be able to imagine it. This idea of his has since been borne out by modern science: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080703145849.htm]
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him.
[Tolkien’s religious background was Roman Catholic, which believes in God as the ultimate source of wisdom …]
Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
[…and teaches the story of the Garden of Eden as the fall of man and expulsion from paradise.]
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
[Our minds may be separated from God’s (his belief, not mine) but they are still derived from it, and all our rich variety of unique perceptions create endless possibilities.]
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
[A triumphant assertion of the right to exercise creative will. Go Tolkien!]
Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
[yeah, so we make stuff up — and it makes us stronger. It’s holy.]
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.
[now that’s pretty clear!]
Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.
[you don’t have to be a soldier to strive against evil. To make stories, or art of any kind, as a refuge and defense against evil, is to make room for a better future…]
Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.
[… and the future itself starts out as something imaginary, a “rumor.. guessed by faith.”]
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
[it’s been said that this sounds a bit like our own times]
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.
[artists and writers and musicians keep us going, reminding us of brighter times and a future worth having, even in the face of defeat]
I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
[“I would” means “I wish” — it’s an older form, so an antiquarian like the Prof can use it with a straight face]
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.
[he doesn’t care how silly or crazy or poor he seems, he will keep his courage and share his vision whatever anyone says. Man after my own heart]
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient.
[in his day, “progressive” meant “making more machines, funding more science without conscience,” “making bad things happen faster”; what was called “progress” in his day, we would call “unsustainable development,” “pollution,” “health crises,” “rising poverty,” “environmental destruction,” and all those associated events. This word’s meaning has swivelled about 180 degrees]
Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
[another line that makes me rise and wave my fist in triumph. He will keep his little sovereignty over his own poor life and trivial work, rather than give himself up to the unfeeling machine of so-called “success” that’s based on anaesthetic values like logic without art, money without value, creation without creativity.]
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
[when we are true to our best selves, we are heavenly and whole. Simple as that]
Evil it will not see, for evil lies not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
[evil is due to distorted perspective, vile actions and unfeeling motives — it’s not available to those who are sincere]
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
[creativity is not a lie]
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
[when we’re dead, those of us with the nerve and integrity to create will be valued, have endless possibilities to choose from — and work directly with God!]