Lecture 4: Northernness
C.S. Lewis described this as a longing or Sehnsucht (Surprised by Joy, p. 7) – as he develops it, it should be understood as a creaturely longing for eternity. Considered from another angle it is autumn as an idea (p. 16). A third term for it is northernness, and this may take some explaining. Lewis was reading Longfellow, and:
“When I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read
I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead –
I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it” (p. 17).
Although Tolkien was a differently personality type than Lewis, this description of northernness fits the work of Tolkien very well, and indicates that much the same thing was going on in his affections. Consider the words “cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote” as descriptive of the world in The Lord of the Rings. It covers just about everything except the Shire – which is necessary for dramatic purposes – something to give us “traction.”
Lewis put it this way in his response to The Lord of the Rings: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart” (“On Stories”). Whatever else we may say about northernness and Tolkien, we can say that Tolkien’s work evoked the response of northernness in Lewis.
Tolkien and the North:
But Tolkien had more than a little to say about himself directly.
Priscilla “has been wading through The Ballad of the White Horse for the last many nights; and my efforts to explain the obscurer parts to her convince me that it is not as good as I thought. The ending is absurd. The brilliant smash and glitter of the words and phrases (when they come off, and are not mere loud colors) cannot disguise the fact that G.K.C. knew nothing whatever about the ‘North’, heathen or Christian” (Letters, p. 92).
Tolkien’s affinity for the North was fundamentally linguistic. He was a gifted philologist, and his love of language was what made his motor run. He commented on the impact this had on the The Hobbit. “The magic and mythology and assumed ‘history’ and most of the names . . . I believe they give the narrative an air of ‘reality’ and have a northern atmosphere” (Letters, p. 21).
Tolkien wanted to write a mythology which he could “dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desire, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry” (Letters, pp. 144-5).
In developing his world, Tolkien attributed it to: linguistics, his passionate love for growing things, and “the deep response to legends (for lack of a better word) that have what I would call the North-western temper and temperature” (Letters, p. 212). This includes far more than lots of snow – it includes a vast ocean to the West, and enemies from the East.
Lewis (again) pinpointed the problem when he has Dr. Dimble (?) going on and on about Logres. But every nation has its own Logres. No jingoism here. Tolkien dealt with it this way. “Auden has asserted that for me ‘the North is a sacred direction’. That is not true. The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man’s home should. I love its atmosphere. . . but it is not sacred” (Letters, p. 376). But there is still an idea here.
The potency of that idea is seen in Tolkien’s reactions to the Aryan counterfeit, what he called Furor Teutonicus. He said, “Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge – which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized . . .” (Letters, pp. 55-56).
Nobility and the North:
In his great essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien said this. “The high tone, the sense of dignity, alone is evidence in Beowulf of the presence of a mind lofty and thoughtful” (p. 13).
A bit later, he says, “One of the most potent elements in that fusion is the Northern courage: the theory of courage, which is the great contribution of early Northern literature . . . I refer rather to the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North” (Monster, p. 20-21).
In this ancient view, defeat is no refutation. This view was picked up and transformed by the Christian vision, but not reversed. Heaven awaits, but earthly history is still grim. We have an early, noble “amillennialism.”
“Now the heroic figures, the men of old, haeleth under heofenum, remained and still fought on until defeat. For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world . . . The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important” (Monster and the Critics, p. 22).
A Few Remaining Odds and Ends:
In working through these themes, just a few more things remain.
Elves: “Elves and Men are represented as biologically akin in this ‘history’, because Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires, incarnated in my little world . . .” (Letters, p. 189.). In short, they are the incarnation of nobility – beauty, sorrow, wisdom, authority. They represent “beauty and grace of life and artifact” (Letters, p. 85). They are a representation of a part of human nature (p. 149). If “I were pressed to rationalize, I should say that they represent really Men with greatly enhanced aesthetic and creative faculties, greater beauty and longer life, and nobility” (Letters, p. 176). Emphasis here is mine.
Art and Machinery: An interesting contrast is found here in Tolkien. Magic for him was not a matter of wizards who “chirp and mutter,” to use Isaiah’s taunt. Remember that Gandalf was an angelic being, not a wizard in our sense. For Tolkien, machinery that clanks and smokes was always wicked. Frictionless technology, magic, was not magic, not science, but art. Authority in the world through art was noble, and domination through machinery was ignoble.
A Concluding Definition:
For Tolkien, the north embodied certain human virtues in a similar way as the elves did. He was not so foolish to believe that character altered with the latitude. Northernness is a metaphor (and a very effective one) to describe a certain frame of heart and mind.
And that frame was: courageous against all odds, gracious, aesthetically sensitive, kind, bold, in love with the good, loyal, and shrewd, adept and creative in artisanship – in short, noble.