Never Such Innocence Again

Tolkien has been much on my mind in several of the last posts, on account I not only felt a hankering to rewatch the Peter Jackson films — which I did, on DVD, over a couple of weeks of late evenings — but interspersed this with a Downton Abbey marathon provoked by my Cute Engineer, who has a surprising fondness for good schlock. As soap-operas go, I thought it did rather well by the Great War, and that got me thinking about Tolkien’s term of service. (You read in his own commentaries, starkly: “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”) What did the war he had been in bequeath to the war he invented?  Interested in the particulars, I surfed up this book, described in various reviews as one of the best ever written about the man.

I am about half way through the gently used copy I received almost overnight. Were people ever this naive and earnest?  Young Oxonians with fusion-powered minds, arguing passionately over philology and poetry while Europe sleepwalked toward a colossal slaughter: rugby football competing for attention with goblins and fairies, and quiet moments in the trenches occupied with deriving the rules of an invented language.

It was a solitary and shy pleasure, but in fact he discovered he was not the only member of Kitchener’s army engaged in the “secret vice.” One day, sitting through a military lecture “in a dirty wet marquee filled with trestle tables smelling of stale mutton fat, crowded with (mostly) depressed and wet creatures” (as he recalled in a talk on inventing languages), he was exploring the further reaches of boredom  when a man nearby muttered, as if in reverie, “Yes, I think I shall express the accusative case by a prefix!” Tolkien tried to prise from the soldier more about this private grammar, but he proved “as close as an oyster.”

I wonder what became of him.


13 thoughts on “Never Such Innocence Again

  1. Young Oxonians with fusion-powered minds, arguing passionately over philology and poetry while Europe sleepwalked toward a colossal slaughter.

    Love that.

    • War and sleepwalking seem to go together, I’m afraid. Ouspensky said something about that — seeing a truckload of artificial limbs destined to replace legs that hadn’t been blown off yet, and wondering, what in hell are people thinking when they tick off that supply chit? Why don’t they yell Stop?

  2. I love the whole post. Great. Don’t we disappear into philosophy and poetry (or prefixes and cases, or arcane humor) precisely because of the colossal slaughter all around? I think I do.

    Now we need to talk about Mr. Bates. I’m very worried about him.

    • Now you’ve made me think of Philip K. Dick’s story “The Preserving Machine.” A mad-science invention allows you to feed a musical score in and an animal comes out, capable of defending itself and reproducing so that the glorious music will never be lost no matter what musicians die or what libraries are burned. The inventor turns loose the animals in his south forty. Months later, ecology is finding equilibrium — the Wagner animal is big and mean and has killed one of the Schubert beasts — and everything seems to have evolved oddly; the colorful beetles that emerged from the Bach Preludes and Fugues go back through the machine, and the score emerges as crazy cacophony.

      It’s hard to know what is schizoid detachment and what is sane self-preservation.

      Mr. Bates is a fictional trope, the Ideal Husband. Any minute now he’s going to start healing by the laying on of hands.

  3. Reading Tolkien, my son taught himself Elfic, later on it helped him teach himself Finnish before going to Finland to defend his Ph.D. thesis.

    • Yes! Grant’s book explains that the tongue of the Elves is based on Tolkien’s fascination with Finnish and that the Ring epic owes something to the Kalevala and the story of Kullervo. Tolkien wanted to reach back into England’s pre-Norman past and preserve or revivify the kind of story that thrived then, as the Finns had done.

      I am curious about the subject of the thesis.

      • Same here. To be honest, I’m clueless about the question. Is he referring to putting the noun before the verb as in, “The coffee I drank.” But then the direct object becomes the subject. Or is he talking about a word which if you add a prefix becomes a direct object? I have no idea how I would bear up in a war zone, but I think this question would be the last thing on my mind.

          • My first thought was “Cave Canem.” When I first saw that phrase as a child I knew there was a dog constellation called Canis Major (I was an astronomy nut fora brief time and transferred an entire night sky map to my bedroom ceiling in luminous paint), and I somehow worked out that the Romans were weird (as it seemed to me then) and changed words because of their position in a phrase, so that if you bewared (bewore?) of the dog it was a Canem. I think the prefix would be sort of a clumsy way of doing it, but what can you hope to think up in the middle of shelling?

          • Tom, that’s funny. 🙂

            It’s not such a strange idea. Russian, like Latin and a bunch of other languages, changes the end of the word to indicate part of speech. Why not add something to the beginning of the word?

            At first I thought it was clumsy that Burmese puts the preposition “in” at the end of the noun, but now I’m lovein with it.

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