Thursday, August 15, 2013

fantasy: the view from 1942

Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff has already posted this intriguing little discovery on his blog, but I want to expand on the point.

When C.S. Lewis discovered E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros at the end of 1942, he was so enthusiastic that he wrote Eddison a fan letter - not the only time he'd write such a letter before even finishing reading the book, nor the only time he'd do so in a pastiche of the author's own prose. Eddison wrote the Worm in a style containing elements of a resurrected 16th century English, and Lewis went whole hog on that in his letter. (He had reason to: he'd already begun systematically reading through the entire 16th-century English literary corpus for his eventual volume on it for the Oxford History of English Literature.) The two of them conducted almost their entire correspondence in this style, and one wonders how they talked when they finally met.

Anyway, in the letter Lewis describes how he found out about Eddison's novel. He had found it mentioned in
a foolish book (on the novello) that came late to my hands, made by som poore seely wench that seeketh a B.Litt or a D.Phil, when God knows shad a better bestowed her tyme makynge sport for some goodman in his bed and bearing children for the stablishment of this reaulme or else to be at her beads in a religious house.
To which one can only say, wow, how misogynistic can you get? It's possible that Lewis was merely trying to ape the 16th-century attitude (really, cloistered nuns? though such still existed, and Lewis had just dedicated his novel Perelandra to some whom he'd been in correspondence with), but the fact that he turned to such language and found it appropriate speaks unfortunate volumes.

Actually, Lewis's intent was to criticize this particular book and not to disparage all women in scholarship, though, as when he belittled Jane Studdock's thesis work in That Hideous Strength, he fails to make the distinction clear - and, especially in this case, emphasizing the author's being a woman (he'd hardly criticize a man in the same terms) is what makes it so noxious.

Why I say that Lewis's beef was with the book will have to wait until we find out what book it was. Eddison on replying asked who the scholar was, and Lewis had to reply that "the name, with the book, is goon from me," but he emphasized that she had not been critical of The Worm - as Eddison, reading Lewis's vehement comments, had thought - but that it was just a case of a praise so incompetent that it was a case of "with friends like this, who needs enemies?" (a phrase Lewis gives in the original Latin).

And there the matter rested. For years, though we had Lewis's letters, we had no idea what the book was. All we had was Lewis's opinion that it wouldn't do for a university English thesis, and that he was particularly incensed that the author had compared Eddison to Swinburne without noting his deep indebtednesses to William Morris, Sir Thomas Browne, Homer, and the Norse Eddas. At least, though, Lewis was grateful that it had brought Eddison's work to his attention, however poorly its attractions to him were conveyed.

It was Paul Edmund Thomas, the Tolkien and Eddison scholar responsible for the new editions of Eddison's works that have come out over the last couple decades, who found it. It's called What's in a Novel by Helen E. Haines (Columbia University Press, 1942), a book which went through several printings over at least two decades, and which, as a then up-to-date and wide-ranging survey of recent novels, was a standard library selection guide for fiction for some time. Haines was determined and gutsy in her work: she got in trouble with the anti-Commie mania of the 1950s for refusing to support censorship in library collections.

Now we can say where Lewis, besides being misogynistic, was off-base in his criticism. First, Haines was no pitiable wench. She was, at this time, a redoubtable 70 years old. Secondly, she wasn't English ("for the stablishment of this reaulme," said Lewis) but American, not that this would have raised her any favors in Lewis's eyes. Thirdly, she was not seeking a B.Litt. or Ph.D., and never had been. She was an experienced library collection development specialist (she taught at library schools, but never actually worked as a librarian) who'd been writing on the topic of book selection for some years. Her goal in this book was not the kind of penetrating literary analysis Lewis would have sought in a thesis, but a light overview to guide librarians in their choices.

Lastly, her reference to Swinburne was hardly fairly conveyed by Lewis's description: "Now this wench, Sir, made mentioun of yr honours historie and heroicall romans entituled Oroboros, wherein fondlie comparing of youre eloquent stile to Swinburne she made plain discoverie of her own follie and her ignorance of such good and allow'd auctours in whom I perceive you to be verie well versed …"

What Haines actually says - and here she's not talking about The Worm at all, but has gone on to Mistress of Mistresses, a fact Lewis evidently missed (and a book rather different in style which he had not at that time read) - is "There is throughout a sweeping, changing luxuriance of language, sometimes of Swinburnian rhythm, sometimes vigorous Elizabethan, lordly or plebian, sometimes Romanesque, sometimes echoing the cadences of Greece." Which suggests to me that she was casting around, trying to find some comparison that would convey the flavor of this unique work, and while that wouldn't do for a thesis, it does remind me of some of the early reviews of The Lord of the Rings a few years later, which had the same problem. And what she found in Mistress (and not in The Worm, of which it would be less appropriate a comparison) was a stylistic echo of Swinburne, not a straight comparison of Eddison's style to that poet's. I think Lewis was reading quickly and sloppily, and tossed the book aside without another thought.

It's a pity, because What's in a Novel is actually a very interesting book. It mentions the big name modernists, Joyce and Lawrence and Woolf and Hemingway, though it doesn't discuss their work in detail. Haines is more interested in popular than literary fiction, and in a section on "proletarian fiction" she discourses effusively and at length on The Grapes of Wrath, along with Richard Wright's Native Son and some less-remembered books. There's a chapter on historical fiction (yes, Gone with the Wind gets a wave), separate ones on European and Latin American fiction, a chapter on mysteries (whose popularity she traces to Woodrow Wilson's fondness for one by somebody named J.S. Fletcher), which discusses the form more than recommending particular books, and refers the reader to another more specialized volume for advice; and, most interestingly to us, a chapter on fantasy, which is where Eddison comes in.

Her fantasy topics are
1) James Branch Cabell ("His theme of woman centers on sex.")
2) Eddison ("an atmosphere of magical enchantment, like a shining, iridescent bubble, is beautifully sustained")
3) Robert Nathan ("delicate fantasies, with their charm of humor and grace" - omitting, oddly, Portrait of Jennie, though it mentions another even newer book)
followed in less detail by Sylvia Townsend Warner, David Garnett, James Hilton's Lost Horizon, Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, and John Erskine's The Private Life of Helen of Troy, intermingled with some books I've never heard of, most enthusiastically The Far-Away Bride by Stella Benson. Then she turns to "utopia," by which she actually means science fiction, because some of the books she mentions are no utopias. There's Bellamy, of course; Wells, Huxley, Stapledon, Fowler Wright, and others. (Essentially nothing from the Campbellian SF revolution had yet appeared in book form.) Then she throws in a brief reference to a pack of dog-viewpoint novels, including Dunsany's My Talks with Dean Spanley, and concludes the chapter with some highly complimentary remarks on T.H. White's early Arthurian books (in retrospect effectively drafts for the yet-uncompiled Once and Future King) and one more author. Of White's books she concludes,
To many readers they may seem books for children; but in reality they are full-fledged fantasy at play for old as well as young. So is The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again, that adventure into the land of Faerie, where dragons, elves, goblins, dwarves, and creatures of magic still challenge the dominion of men. Written by J.R.R. Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, for his own children, it fuses legend, tradition, and the dim beginnings of history into a robust imaginative creation that mingles homely simplicity, humor, drama, pictorial beauty, and a truly epic quality.
How about that? As John Rateliff points out, this is one of the first, if not the first, published comments on Tolkien's fiction outside of book reviews.

The sad thing I have to report is that Haines's tastes, admirable as they look from today's postmodern viewpoint, didn't win her any favors at the time. Though the book got mostly good reviews, the author was criticized for her "aesthetic unconcern" and "somewhat undiscriminating appetite," and, worst of all, for being "middle-brow." Which I guess means that she recommended books that she thought were both good and that public library patrons would enjoy. and not those that other people thought they ought to read.

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