Tuesday, September 3, 2019

VII. Tolkien and the Great Rood Screen

I shared this story briefly in my previous post, but as I continue my meditations on a Language of Beauty I thought it would be worth considering further here, since, with a few well-chosen words, Tolkien perfectly encapsulates a complex idea which I have been wrestling with. 

The setting is a conversation, early on in their friendship, between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Like most good friends they had their ins and outs, their ups and downs, and like most men they came to certain boundaries within their relationship--certain rivers over which lay deeper intimacy, but beyond which one or the other were not able to cross. 

Both men were Christians, of course. Lewis was Church of England, neither as Anglo-Catholic as Anglo-Catholics would like to claim, nor nearly as Evangelical as Evangelicals would like to claim.* For Lewis, the Middle Ages held a great deal of beauty and attraction, but there seem to have been certain medieval ideas and practices with which he was willing to intellectually engage, but into which he was never able to fully enter. 

The veneration of the saints seems to have been the biggest of these objections, especially in the early years after his conversion (or rather, reversion) to Christianity. Tolkien, on the other hand, was a fairly traditional Roman Catholic in every sense. For him, the faith of the Middle Ages seems to have been still a vibrant, living thing, and therefore not something which could be dissected piecemeal without killing it. This was the subject of one of Tolkien's earliest conflicts with Lewis, the first one of those "rivers" which could not be crossed. I will here quote a rather lengthy passage from Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings, since some context is important lest I seem to paint too bleak a picture of their friendship:
‘We were coming down the steps from Magdalen hall,’ Tolkien recalled, ‘long ago in the days of our unclouded association, before there was anything, as it seemed, that must be withheld or passed over in silence. I said that I had a special devotion to St John. Lewis stiffened, his head went back, and he said in the brusque harsh tones which I was later to hear him use again when dismissing something he disapproved of: “I can’t imagine any two persons more dissimilar.” We stumped along the cloisters, and I followed feeling like a shabby little Catholic caught by the eye of an “Evangelical clergyman of good family”1 taking holy water at the door of a church. A door had slammed. Never now should I be able to say in his presence:
Bot Crystes mersy and Mary and Jon,
Thise am the grounde of alle my blysse
– The Pearl, 383-4;
and suppose that I was sharing anything of my vision of a great rood-screen through which one could see the Holy of Holies.’
Tolkien wrote this thirty years later, when other events had soured his recollections. In the early days of the friendship such moments were rare, and for the most part he was profoundly grateful for Lewis’s conversion. In October 1933 he wrote in his diary that friendship with Lewis, ‘besides giving constant pleasure and comfort, has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher – and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord’.
Embedded within this somewhat painful recollection of Tolkien's is what I believe to be one of his most profound ideas, too often overlooked: the idea of the Pearl poem (which, according to Carpenter, Lewis especially disliked) and by extension the whole world of medieval language and literature to which it belonged as a kind of "rood-screen" through which one could glimpse a vision of holiness. 

15th-century rood screen from the chapel of St Fiacre at Le Faouet Morbihan. Note the saints beneath the cross.


In mulling over this metaphor of Tolkien's, I've conceived a sort of three-way (i.e. triangular) relationship between the rood-screen, the veneration of the saints, and medieval literature.**

Medieval art and literature*** seems to assume a world paradoxically characterized by what Lewis called the 'thick' and the 'clear':
We may [reverently] divide religions, as we do soups, into ‘thick’ and ‘clear’. By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are Clear religions. Now if there is a true religion it must be both Thick and Clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the belly. ...Christianity really breaks down the middle wall of the partition. It takes a convert from central Africa and tells him to obey an enlightened universalist ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a Mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock)
Medieval Christianity is full of both, in a way which truly must be experienced in order to be understood fully. It is why a theological titan like St Ambrose or St Augustine could compose hymns to jubilantly celebrate the miraculous finding of a martyr's relics, something I suspect most modern "theologians" would be too sober to do. It is why it was precisely the people who lived the 'clearest' existence--the hermits, stylites, and monks--who defended the 'thick' uses of incense, liturgical arts, and the veneration of the holy icons. It was a world that had rejected the extremes both of paganism and Platonism not because either was too much of something but because both were not enough of anything

In the nave of even the smallest medieval church, the altar--where the holy oblation was offered up day-in and day-out through the brightest days and darkest nights of the world--was the focal point of the whole building just as the elevation and sacring was the focal point of the Mass. But at the same time, the nave of even the smallest medieval church was full of beads and images, candles and whispered prayers--a whole world of personal and para-liturgical devotion, all oriented toward the altar and yet organic and growing, like the undergrowth of a great forest, in a way which the Reformation and Enlightenment would find unsanitary and chaotic. 

St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, Washington DC


It is a world in some sense crowded, just as medieval frescoes or illuminations are too busy for modern eyes or the interlaced plot of your average Arthurian legend has too many changes of character and story for the modern attention span to track. But its inhabitants did not find it crowded--they found it full. Full--but with plenty of corners which still needed filling in. They saw very little difficulty in telling and retelling their favorite stories (be it Arthurian legends, hagiographies, or the Romance of Alexander) with an attitude towards authorship which would curl the toes of a modern Intellectual Property lawyer. Whole worlds of the old pagan undergrowth could be repurposed as in Beowulf or the Prose Edda, just as the high philosophy of the Classical world could be reinterpreted for the local idiom as in the Anglo-Saxon Boethius. So too The Divine Comedy is likely to offend the modern reader by its 'thickness' and its 'clarity' all at once.

Lower screen detail from St Michael's Church, Barton Turf


This world might seem chaotic the way a great forest seems chaotic. And yet there is a logic--a grammar, a syntax, a musical leit motif--that underlies it all. Like the procession around the walls of the parish at the Paschal vigil, there is a clear order and goal to it all--and yet also a kind of organic pulse as sleepy children move about and people press and throng and try to keep up with the crowd. In short, this is what it looks like when something is alive.



This sense of a heaven--of a world--which was full, and always becoming more full, undergirds Dante's Paradisio, which manages to have both endless space and upward dimension in the blessedness of the saints, but which at the same time is radically centered around the Beatific Vision of the Holy Trinity, of Christ. These two things are not opposites; indeed, it is difficult to imagine a version of Paradisio which merely skips to the final canto, as various modern egalitarian theologies might suggest.

I have already made some stumbling attempts to discuss how the iconography--and particularly the iconostasis--of the Eastern Orthodox temple conveys this sense of fullness. In the medieval west--and, it seems, for Tolkien--the rood screen served a similar role. Historian Eamon Duffy describes it this way:
The screens were first and foremost Christological images, proclaiming the centrality of Christ's atoning death. The early sixteenth-century Rood-screen rail at Compsal near Doncaster had an inscription along it which hammered the point home:
Let fal down thyn ne & lift up thy hart
Behold thy maker on yon
Remembir his woundis that for the did smart
Gotyn without syn and on a virgin bor.
Al his hed percid with a crowne of thorn
Alas man thy hart ought to brast in two
Bewar of the dwyl whan he blawis his horn
And pray thy gode aungel convey thee fro.
These familiar facts are worth insisting upon when considering the saints painted on the dados or loft-fronts of Rood-screens, for they represent a powerful iconic and liturgical gloss on the perception of the role of the saints... The saints stood, in the most literal sense, under the cross, and their presence on the screen spoke of their dependence on and mediation of the benefits of Christ's Passion, and their role as intercessors for their clients not merely here and and now but at the last day. The whole screen was therefore a complex icon of the heavenly hierarchy, and many screens where clearly designed to underline this symbolism... representing... a sense of being surrounded and assisted by the "whole company of heaven."
Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 158
For Tolkien, medieval art and literature seems to have served this purpose--to place the heart, the imagination, in a world that was full to overflowing with wonders and glories, the ultimate purpose of which was to reveal the Source of wonder and glory--to veil and therefore reveal as holy that which takes place beyond the rood-screen or iconostasis, where the Singer enters the tale--where the great Story unfolds.

Rood-screen of Croyland Abbey




*There is strong evidence to suggest that Lewis became more of a high churchman after his encounter with Fr Walter Adams, an Anglo-Catholic priest who served as Lewis's father-confessor and spiritual director from 1940-1952.  Adams convinced Lewis of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and discipled Lewis in a love of liturgy, the Daily Office, and the monthly recitation of the Psalter. Lewis also subscribed to a certain understanding of the doctrine of Purgatory, though there are some nuances regarding that issue regarding which I'm not really qualified to speak.

**We should not forget that far and away the most popular genre of literature in the Middle Ages was hagiography, though these saints lives (some of which immensely fantastic, evocative, and entertaining; others of which are downright gory) now rarely catch the notice of modern readers.

***As though one could speak in any kind of an accurate, general way about a thousand-year period of human history.

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