I am always on the lookout for great resources that helps me get into the critical moments behind the Inklings–the close of the Victorian era, the birth of fantasy and SF, the death of Tennysonian poetry in WWI, the emergence of literary modernism, and the heartbreaking indignity of those two great wars that broke the world. When one of Signum University’s students, Trevor Brierly, stumbled upon such a resource, I asked him to write a review for A Pilgrim in Narnia. This is certainly now a book in my “to read” column.
I gulped down an interesting book today called When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II (by Molly Guptill Manning). She documents the history of the “Armed Services Editions”. These were reduced-size versions of books published by a consortium of publishers during WW2 and were distributed to Army and Navy troops throughout the world, to the tune of some 123 million given away by the end of the War. They were designed to fit into uniform pockets and they were massively popular, providing much needed entertainment to those who got them–soldiers who were often enduring terrible and unimaginable conditions. They were read and re-read, swapped and swapped again until they were barely readable and still treasured. Hundreds of individual titles were published, and they varied all over the map in content and genre. They included things like Dickens, Shakespeare, Plato and Melville, but also included westerns (Zane Grey), sports stories, humor, adventure (Tarzan, Haggard, Sabatini), nonfiction (I happen to have a beat-up a copy of “Esquire’s Jazz Book, 1944” myself), a few racy things like Forever Amber, controversial things like Strange Fruit and few strange things like Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror and Other Weird Tales and Stoker’s Dracula.
Manning’s book was probably exactly what I needed to read today. I’m taking the “Introduction to Theory, Research and Writing” course from Signum University (go Eagles!) and we have been reading the “Defense of Poetry” essays by Sidney and Shelley. They were addressing concerns at the time about whether “poetry” – all of Art really – is worthwhile. What is the point of Art and Literature? Do Art, Literature matter? To the men and women who received the ASE books, they absolutely mattered. They made the terrible conditions they were in a bit more bearable. Sidney talks about the role of Art to “delight and teach”, which is exactly what the ASE books did for many people during a very difficult time.
I am reminded of a long complicated quote by Tolkien at the end of an essay he wrote to go with “Smith of Wootton Major”, which was written in the last decade of his life. The essay is hard to find because it is only found in the version of “Smith” edited by Verlyn Flieger, but it has one of the most cogent statements on the importance of Faery, by which I think Tolkien more broadly means “enchantment”. I think there is also a connection here between “enchantment” and “Art”. The quote is complex, but I think it is beautiful as it seems to me at least to sum up what he was trying to accomplish in his life:
“More strongly [Faery] represents love: that is, a love and respect for all things, ‘inanimate’; and ‘animate’, an unpossessive love of them as ‘other’. This ‘love’ will produce both ruth and delight. Things seen in its light will be respected, and they will also appear delightful, beautiful, wonderful even glorious. Faery might be said indeed to represent Imagination (without definition because taking in all the definitions of this word): esthetic: exploratory and receptive; and artistic; inventive, dynamic, (sub)creative. This compound–of awareness of a limitless world outside our domestic parish; a love (in ruth and admiration) for the things in it; and a desire for wonder, marvel, both perceived and conceived–this ‘Faery’ is as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is the sunlight for physical life: sunlight as distinguished from the soil, say, though it in fact permeates and modifies even that.” (J.R.R. Tolkien – Smith of Wootton Major (essay) 1967)
So this is Tolkien vastly expanding the meaning of “Faery”, perhaps beyond what we usually think of Faery or even enchantment. Enchantment is a way of looking at life, a way of seeing (recovering) reality which emphasizes love and respect and wonder. When you look at life and reality this way, then a long list of benefits accrues: ruth (compassion), beauty, delight, admiration, glory.
It is a vastly healthy way of seeing. Enchantment changes us, just as Faery changes those who enter its borders. As Tolkien puts it, Enchantment is “necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human”. The Poet, the Artist is not optional, irrelevant or a parasite on society, but rather one of those who have been given the gift and sacred task of “channeling” enchantment to Humanity in every corner of the Earth, perhaps especially to those places where chaos, terror and destruction (temporarily) reign.
N. Trevor Brierly is a software engineer, but has wide-ranging interests in literature (especially Tolkien and the Inklings), religion, history, science, technology, and art. He has a BA in English from George Mason University and an MLIS from University of Texas-Austin and is working on a degree from Signum University. He is currently working on a book of meditations for people who are recovering from spiritual abuse and a monograph on Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright. He lives in Northern Virginia with 3 miniature cheetahs, 3,000 books and an extremely patient spouse.