“Oo those awful Orkneys”: Bridging the continuum of time and space

Of all the eminent critics of Tolkien’s masterpiece at the time of its first appearance, it is the Scottish poet and man of letters, Edwin Muir (1887-1959), who most surprises us with his obtuseness and the equivocal burden of his observations.

Muir has long been a writer who has held a deep fascination for me. He mines many of the same themes as Tolkien and sounds many of the same plangent notes in the register of human experience.

In his preface to Muir’s Collected Poems in 1965, no less a figure than T.S. Eliot proffered the opinion that, “Muir will remain among the poets who have added glory to the English language.” Critics have likened the exquisite sensibilities of Muir’s body of verse to that of traditional poets like Vaughan, Blake, and Wordsworth.

Elizabeth Huberman remarks in her study, The Poetry of Edwin Muir: The Field of Good and Ill, that Muir’s themes “are the traditional themes of the great poets, from Homer’s time to the present: the struggle between good and evil in the individual, in society, in the universe; the loss of innocence and the quest for its recovery; the nature of human destiny; the destructiveness of time; the enduring joy and power of love.”

Take, for example, Muir’s sonnet, “Merlin,” where he grapples with the primal malaise of the human condition, making pointed reference to Adam and Eve and the Fall:

“O Merlin in your crystal cave
Deep in the diamond of the day,
Will there ever be a singer
Whose music will smooth away
The furrow drawn by Adam’s finger
Across the memory and the wave?
Or a runner who’ll outrun
Man’s long shadow driving on,
Break through the gate of memory
And hang the apple on the tree?
Will your magic ever show
The sleeping bride shut in her bower,
The day wreathed in its mound of snow
and Time locked in his tower?”

Note that the first line is echoed in the title of the first book of Mary Stewart’s richly conceived Arthurian cycle.

For all that, with a curious want of sympathy, Muir complained about the lack of “human discrimination and depth” in Tolkien’s characters. “Yet for myself,” he says, “I could not resist feeling a certain disappointment. Perhaps this was partly due to the style, which is quite unequal to the theme, alternating between the popular novel and the boy’s adventure story.”

Elsewhere, Muir complains of the lack of “human discrimination and depth “ in Tolkien’s characters.

Meanwhile, the highbrow contempt of a critic like Edmund Wilson in the review that appeared in 1956 in The Nation, sarcastically entitled, “Oo, Those Awful Orcs,” is somehow more understandable and less disturbing, the product of a withered, jaded sophistication.

Muir’s criticisms seem all the more unlikely and remarkable, once we come to know the details of his quite extraordinary life story, itself a long meditation grappling with the mysteries of time and space.

Born on a smallholding in the remote Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland, “awful” in their unspoiled beauty, he moved with his family to Glasgow at age 14, when his father lost his farm. For Muir this was like an expulsion from Eden, and the experience marked him for life. Here is how he describes it in a diary entry from the late 1930s, using an arrestingly vivid metaphor to express his sense of dislocation:

“I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day’s journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time.”

Not only was Muir’s path one that involved grappling with the challenges of space and time, but it also required him to bridge the gap between the pre-industrial primitivism of Orkney life and the sophistication of high urban culture. Muir himself was one of English literature’s most remarkable autodidacts. His formal education truncated by his family’s poverty in his early teen years, he schooled himself and went on to become one of the most cultured and erudite men of his generation. In fact, towards the end of his life, in 1955, he spent the year at Harvard as Norton Professor of English.

Muir describes his conspicuously unique life journey at length in his autobiography. It’s one of the most luminous and astonishing literary productions of the twentieth century. I remember myself being deeply moved when I first read it.  In essence, Muir spent his life trying to resolve the tension between his acquired cultural sophistication and the simple pre-industrial rhythms that had been imprinted on his soul from growing up in the Orkneys.

In many ways, Muir epitomized for me all the ambiguities of my own psycho-spiritual journey as a child of immigrant parents both of whom had grown up deep in the rural hinterland of old interbellum Europe following an agrarian rhythm of life that more closely resembled the culture of the Middle Ages than it does today’s society. For me, it must have been an inherited, atavistic sense of disconnection that stirred up this commonality of feeling with Muir, as I myself grew up in the urban setting of Toronto, albeit in the 1960s, in the days before urban sprawl, when there were still—unthinkable today—farms and orchards within the confines of the city or within a stone’s throw.

It is this same nostalgic sense of loss and separation that has always drawn me to Tolkien. The Edenic primitivism of Tolkien, his evocation of heroic virtues in an old, quasi-Atlantean Europe is part of the same world as Muir’s pre-industrial Orkney, an artistic vehicle that Tolkien uses to touch on those eternal issues that are a leitmotiv of the human condition. Tolkien’s legendarium is the response of sub-creative genius to a world grown hoary and spent, a world in which, to quote W.B. Yeats, a “rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

There is another quite stunningly beautiful poem by Muir that shows the kinship of his outlook with a key aspect of Tolkien’s worldview and ethos. This poem, “The Incarnate One,” does so with an exquisite concision that only poetry can achieve. Here are the first three stanzas:

“The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.”

Vested with the transcendent logic of poetry, this seems to me the perfect answer to those who wonder what it is that impelled Tolkien as a devout Christian to construct a world bereft of formal religion or worship. That a writer and poet as gifted and perceptive as Muir remained blind to the magnitude of Tolkien’s achievement can only be attributed to what Samuel Johnson, in a richly sonorous turn of phrase, called “the anfractuosities of human nature.”


1 Comment »

  • Ted Nasmith

    Beautifully written and articulated. It is no surprise that Muir would be so thoroughly primed for a lifelong obsession with his two conflicting identities, given his dislocation at such an impressionable age. But why not recognize the vast literary achievement of his fellow writer and scholar JRR Tolkien in a similarly rich vein? I suspect that when faced with a children’s author whose chosen form; the literary faerie tale expressed in a popular novel, Mr. Muir assumed prematurely that this ‘young(er) upstart’ was stealing his fire.

    I know from my own career that it is possible to hold a fellow illustrator in awe while also feeling quite threatened, certainly. I also see the trap in offering too unguarded an opinion of my fellow artists, lest they (or their defenders) decide to accuse me of throwing stones from a glass house!

    April 17, 2014 >> 10:27 am

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