Sunday, June 28, 2020

William F. Buckley's "Nearer My God": Book Review

Nearer, My God
I chose this on a whim as it was so far out of my usual orbit. No recollections of the old sod or stickball, and barely any for altar boys and fearsome clergy. Instead, a patrician account and series of reflections and reactions to the course of Catholicism from the venerable era in which Buckley was elegantly raised and the postconciliar malaise which has affected so many in the less certain Church.

His noblesse oblige permeates. There's a couple mentions of devout black butlers, but that's about it for class consciousness. It's rather astounding to follow this chronicle, so removed from the reality most of us share when it comes to education, privilege, or sailing at every opportunity at a summer home. This elevated lifestyle unfolds, and Buckley surely as he's accustomed to the manor/ manner born comports himself as he's been raised. It makes for a very curious spiritual autobiography/ FAQ.

For Buckley turns this midway into a novel experiment. He interviews a few of his friends, mostly converts, and all conservative fellow-travelers, often at the National Review, naturally. They also feature priests who've transferred to Catholic clergy from Protestant denominations. Buckley surveys their takes on many questions he raises about dogma, belief, and practice. Although as a cradle Catholic I must confess none of the statements he compiles would have convinced me to join "Rome," it's instructive to learn the mindset of those coming to "the faith" without being raised in it.
I could follow the theological details, but for many who admire Buckley, this granular examination may bore or bewilder. There's far less of his famed politics, and not much of his wit or rhetoric either.

It does all make for an oddly paced book. It's more a series of explorations and reflections, although the central theme of examining what persists post-Vatican II as the liberals often left the clergy and left the administration to overworked and understaffed priests and laypeople is important. For it demonstrates the rebound, if by default given the numerical advantage of the diminished remnant in control, of the traditionally minded episcopate and papacy, of what's a dwindling number of cradle-born congregants in America and Europe. This does all tilt in Buckley's view, as expected, to slant away from a global awareness of how the Church will fare as its center slides towards the "South."

As a result, this work will appeal to the small coterie of like-minded sympathizers with both Buckley's worldview and likely his class and background. The name-dropping may come without hesitation to this author, but it does remind the hoi polloi of our place among the pews and practically as peons. Few of the rest of us may be able to enter this intimately connected and convinced realm even via print, but it's a document to this reaction to what was meant as a reform to appeal to millions presumably reluctant to accept a pre-modern Church, even though the results in sweeping that aside enchanted far fewer than anticipated, at least among Buckley's entitled cabal. (Amazon US 12/12/17)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

John Garth's "The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien": Book Review

 Image of The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth
Atlases of Middle-Earth, guides and art, tributes and monographs, films and “cosplay” proliferate. What John Garth adds to the ever-proliferating pile of Tolkien-related media is a careful eye and steady step. He explores the intersections between this world and that of Tolkien’s “legendarium.” He traces inspirations from what the author saw, and how they may likely have evolved into what can be gleaned from his tales, letters, drafts, and sketches.

While not all made it into the published product, the effort Garth demonstrates attests to Tolkien’s visionary projection, his uncanny talent at what this scholar compares to a paint-box, in which the author dipped, daubed, and mixed layers of color, depth, hue, form, and drama into his vast legacy of narratives.

To begin, Garth logically starts with the hobbits’ Shire. Tracking parallels to childhood scenes in the village of Sarehole near Birmingham, Garth shows how Tolkien grew up amidst an almost-vanished rural setting. He then broadens the scope, viewing the “people, languages and cosmology” of Tolkien’s panorama, already emerging in his youthful imagination. It soon encompasses England itself, transformed into LĂșthien, a name with lasting resonance, for it graces Tolkien’s tombstone. Topography expands abroad, with chapters devoted to features such as shores and seas, inland waters, mountains, forests, battlefields, and industrial wastelands. All are “places built or shaped by people,” Garth notes, and by Tolkien’s incessant cultivation of fussy details as a “natural niggler” whose seeding as a medievalist and linguist bore abundant fruit.

Garth reminds readers that what Tolkien began over a century ago described races and places as seen by medieval poets and chroniclers, not necessarily as they actually were. This astute caution defends the author’s works against detractors who, looking back and projecting contemporary critical theory upon Middle-Earth, distort its perspective.

What opens up to the viewer dazzles. Drowned lands, moving islands, and sea-caves first appear as Garth follows Tolkien’s explorations of the real and the fictional, and their blur and blend. Mountains loom, for Tolkien’s 1911 walking tour of the Swiss valley of Lauterbrunnen offered a “superfluity of inspiration,” in Garth’s estimation.

Peaks of fire, ice, and mist echo, as do Tolkien’s analysis incorporating volcanoes, geology, subterranean architecture, and craggy formations. Again, the 1911 travels had taken him two days down the Rhine towards the Alps. Germanic lore of dragon lairs and Wagner’s Ring-cycle leave imprints in his works. Rivers, pools, marshes and floods connect one section of this book to the next on “tree-woven lands.” Clumps, clusters, and circles of woods Garth compares to Tolkien’s wonderfully drawn maps, varied vistas, and even medieval cathedrals which have enriched his subject’s imagination.

Philology, archeology, cartography entered too, for the castles surviving, burial mounds, barrows, chalk-figures, and the ruins excavated across England turned into the citadels, fortresses, halls, and towers which endure or topple as ancient attestations to bloodshed. They populated Tolkien’s landscapes. As Garth’s previous book documented Tolkien’s experiences in, and reactions to, the “Great War,” this scholar’s scrutiny of artifacts of stone and iron, conflagration into ash, diaries, letters, and jottings comprise a significant portion of this superbly illustrated new volume.

While other writers schooled in the Edwardian age focused on the phantasmagorical, Tolkien’s balance with the grim realities of combat tempered his treatment. Panoramic desolation sears his pages, as does telling detail, that for instance of dead faces after a slaughter, submerged in miasmas as glimpsed from above by weary, parched marchers.
Tolkien’s sensitivity toward the eradication of the environment that nurtured his soul permeates his creations. This mirrored the hidden damage within those who survived the global carnage. As Tolkien recovered in 1916 from “louse-borne trench fever,” in and out of hospitals, he strengthened the scaffolding of his narrative constructions.

Returning to England, Garth corrects Tolkien’s pioneering biographer Humphrey Carpenter’s assertion that Birmingham equated to the dark and despotic Mordor. Garth examines that city’s toy industry, and its buildings preserving the Gothic Revival and William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement of Victorian times. Yet Garth somberly acknowledges the “swallowing of Sarehole,” as Tolkien’s beloved hamlet succumbs to a suburban “sea of new red-brick,” in his phrase.

John Garth concludes by evoking Tolkien’s ideals of “community, peace, freedom, craft and intimacy with nature.” These virtues enriched both his fictional and factual domains where he passed his long life, and its results endure to “reflect what he most loved and detested in his own world.”

Whether new to Middle-Earth or a veteran pilgrim, anyone will learn much in this book.
(New York Journal of Books, June 18, 2020.)

Saturday, June 13, 2020