Tolkien

I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.

Symbolist Art

Jean Delville, Portrait of Madame Stuart Merill (1892)

I’ve always loved good fantasy & SF cover art (frequently buying a book for its cover and considering that to be money well spent, even if the book itself proves disappointing), and I’ve always liked poring over books of fantasy art, be it the 1970s Ballantine Frazetta collections, Froud & Lee’s Faeries, or almost any of Paper Tiger’s albums. I never looked for the sort of thing I liked in “art-world” art, because the two seemed so far apart. Fantasy art was illustrative, even if it was frequently more inventive and expressive than the books it illustrated. It sought to create a convincing (either realistic or stylistic) representation of a fantastic world, while the more serious, non-commercial sort of art was more interested in stretching the boundaries of the medium, or in saying something. (Not that fantasy art wasn’t saying something. But usually it said something like: “Look at this awesome dragon!”)

So, I was surprised when I found that, for one brief period at the end of the 19th century, serious, mainstream art was actually producing the sort of images the fantasy art lover in me liked. The movement — though perhaps it was more a moment than a unified movement — was known as Symbolism, though it initially called itself “Ideist” or “Idealist” art. I first heard about it thanks to J G Ballard’s essay “The Coming of the Unconscious” in his 1966 short story collection The Overloaded Man, though this was mostly about Ballard’s artistic obsession, Surrealism. (Symbolism and Surrealism have a lot of territory in common, most obviously their shared distrust of reality. But where Symbolism sought to provide an alternative to reality by depicting strange inner worlds, Surrealism sought to undermine reality with a head-on assault. Surrealism grew out of the absurdism of Dada and had a sense of humour; Symbolism would have hated Dada, and doesn’t seem to have had any sense of humour at all.)

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Silence (1895)

I immediately looked out for books on Symbolism, my first being Edward Lucie-Smith’s Symbolist art from Thames and Hudson (sadly, mostly black and white, and small, while Symbolist art wants to be gorgeously-coloured and immersive), and my second being the far more expensive Symbolism, from Taschen, which was at least large and in full colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated in the space of a few brief decades.”). Gibson’s seemed to be the general attitude of the academic, English-speaking world at the time (the 1990s), but more sympathetic were non-English writers (particularly Philippe Jullian, the first to write at length on Symbolist — or Decadent, as he had it — art, who mocked their excesses and revelled in them to an equal degree), and writers of books published in the 1970s (after Symbolism had a brief, psychedelically-tinged revival).

Having found this new source of fantasy art, I set about reading as much as I could about it. Not just to find more art, but also to understand, first of all, how a mainstream form of serious art had come to embrace such brazen fantastic imagery; and secondly, why it had gone away.

The short answer to the first: a reaction against the 19th century’s growing faith in realism, rationalism, and materialism. The short answer to the second: Freud, Marx, and two World Wars.

John Duncan, Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb (1909), a subject that seems to have been invented by Duncan himself

Symbolism (which flourished in the last decade of the 19th century, at the same time as the archetypal texts of modern horror were being written) was, at first, driven by the same forces that produced Impressionism. Photography meant there was no longer any call to merely depict reality; and where Impressionism found its new endeavour in depicting the experience of seeing something rather than its literal depiction, Symbolism burrowed into the inner realm of dreams, visions, and the belief in actual other worlds, to find something that could not be photographed. Though, ironically, it was perhaps the first art movement to really benefit from photography, as this allowed its ideas to spread internationally. As Jullian says:

“While the Impressionists had nothing to gain from a process which could not render colour, the literary painters to whom line was more important, benefited enormously from photography.”

Symbolism, though it was often stylistically inventive, wasn’t about style. It was, as Gibson says, “Less an artistic movement than a state of mind.” It sought to say something new, something that could not be said by depicting the same old mythic or historical subjects. Nor was it using symbols in the allegorical manner of medieval artists. The symbols in Symbolist art didn’t have specific literal meanings, but pointed to an evanescent aesthetic mood or an entire inner reality, and had to be grasped in one go or not at all. As Maurice Denis, an artist of the time, put it:

“…the symbol reaches the soul without having to go through the rational mind.”

Or, from Norbert Wolf (in Symbolism, 2009):

“…a Symbolist picture, a Symbolist sculpture remains deliberately enigmatic; in place of intellectual understanding, the work demands an empathetic response and wishes the viewer to experience its mysterious profundity in the manner of an inner vision.”

All this meant Symbolism acquired more than a touch of the occult, and many was the Symbolist artist who attempted to start his own Hermetic brotherhood. (And it would have been a brotherhood. Not many Symbolist sisters, sadly.) And this was just one more thing that made it ripe for a fall. Freud seemed to undermine the sense that dreams and visions pointed to a higher reality, by saying they were all about sex, really; and even before the two World Wars, there was, Edward Lucie-Smith says:

“…a growing impatience with what was considered to be Symbolist preciosity and over-refinement. Artists began to long for a harsh Primitivism, just as some of their contemporaries longed for war itself.”

Carlos Schwabe, Spleen and Ideal (1909)

Symbolist artists saw themselves as delicate “souls”, as apolitical as they were unworldly, and there was no room for them in a world about to be torn apart by several million tons of shrapnel. After the war, alienation went hand in hand with cynicism, not a belief in the marvellous and mysterious, and even Symbolism’s occult strain had to give way to the desperation of postwar Spiritualism.

Symbolism did, though, leave its mark. Its artists didn’t all die out as the century turned; some pursued similar ideals to greater extremes and came up with abstraction (Gibson: “Indeed, the major pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Malevich, Kupka and Mondrian all began their careers as Symbolist painters”), and, of course, Surrealism.

Symbolism came back, along with its stylistic offshoot Art Nouveau, in the psychedelic sixties, and flourished in the fantasy-loving seventies, with its Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks and lusciously immersive, otherworldly prog-rock albums. (And the kind of marriage of art, music and spectacle found in Yes’s collaborations with Roger Dean or a Hawkwind light-show harks back to Symbolism’s love of the “total artwork” of Wagner, or Scriabin’s experimentation with a colour organ as part of his decidedly Symbolist/occultist musical works such as “Prometheus” or “The Poem of Ecstasy”.) And I can’t help but see Jean Delville’s “Parsifal” in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” video — particularly Roger Taylor:

Later, meanwhile, Frantisek Kupka’s brooding monument “The Black Idol” seems to have found a home in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

“The revenge of imagination over reality” is how Rodolphe Rapetti sums up the aims of Symbolist art (Symbolism, 2004), while Guillermo del Toro, a definite fan, says “To them… mystery was the supreme goal of art.”

Not all Symbolist art can be described as fantasy art, but it has certainly turned up some new favourites for fantasy-art-loving me, while at the same time being perhaps the last mainstream art movement to so unapologetically embrace (often quite overly-luscious) beauty — another thing two World Wars put an end to. I’ve peppered some of my favourite examples of Symbolist art throughout this article, but I’ll leave you with a few more:

Fernand Khnopff, The Caress, or The Sphinx (1896)

Witold Pruszkowski, Eloe (1892)

Franz Stuck (or Franz von Stuck as he later called himself), Fighting Fauns (1889)

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Sphere PB, art by Terry Oakes

The title alone is enough to earn Hodgson’s 1908 novel a place at the heart of any weird fiction canon. And the book’s first quarter, with its nameless narrator (known as “the Recluse” to this found-manuscript’s editor) holing himself up in a remote country house and fending off nightly attacks from noxious swine-things like a classic Doctor Who base-under-siege story, feels like the perfect set up for a weird adventure story. But then things take a ninety-degree swerve into the cosmic, visionary, and psychedelic, with a long trip through accelerated time. We see the death of our Earth and the Sun, then follow a slow, abstract path to the heart of the universe, to glimpse the truth behind “the scheme of material creation”: a pair of massive central suns, one a giant, weird green (“the abode of some vast Intelligence?”), the other utterly dark. Then back to the present and the house under siege, though not, now, by a host of fleshy-white swine-things, but one giant green glowing one, whose touch leaves a fungous infection that recalls, to my mind, the bleak and inexplicable creeping death in Lovecraft’s most coldly cosmic tale, “The Colour Out of Space”.

Ian Miller art for Panther PB

To be wrenched out of what seems like such a brilliant set up for a weird adventure novel into that rather abstract, visionary journey to the heart of the cosmos always leaves me wondering if The House on the Borderland has a single, unifying idea behind its various, brilliantly weird episodes, or is just a collection of Hodgson’s wilder imaginings. As well as the swine-things and the time journey, there’s a curtailed afterlife love story, as the Recluse has a perhaps visionary, perhaps extra-dimensional, meeting with his lost, dead love — and this is another jarring moment, because at this point it’s revealed that most of this section of the manuscript is missing. It’s almost modernistic in effect, as we experience the Recluse’s feelings of loss through having the relevant portion of the story itself missing, apart from hints and echoes.

Lovecraft loved the book (though he couldn’t help squirming at its “few touches of commonplace sentimentality”), but came to it too late for it to really be an influence. And I feel that Hodgson is far more of a gut writer than one like Lovecraft, who had a definite outlook and philosophy. (I almost wonder if the book didn’t kick off after a fevered reading of Wells’s The Time Machine, which has the same mix of beast-men (the Morlocks) and a trip to the end of time. Only, Hodgson takes things to far weirder extremes.) Still, it seems, from his author’s note at the start, that The House on the Borderland has some unifying meaning:

“The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as now I see, the shadowed picture and conception of that to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell; yet can I promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story.”

The start of the novel, with its nightly assaults by semi-human swine-things, is chock full of classic Gothic imagery of the dark subconscious: a bottomless Pit, an unexplored cellar, a trapdoor opening onto unimaginable depths, an overpowering rush of water, the swine-things themselves, and the fact that they don’t seem to be seen by the Recluse’s sister, the one person with whom he lives. Plus there’s the lure of the shadow-self, and that need to stare into one’s personal Nietzschean Abyss:

“Sometimes, I have an inexplicable desire to go down to the great cellar, open the trap, and gaze into the impenetrable, spray-damp darkness. At times, the desire becomes almost overpowering, in its intensity.”

The novel feels like a wholesale reaction to all the nineteenth century’s upendings of religious certainties: Darwin’s linking of man to the animals (the swine-things), the realisation that the sun must one day die, even the germ theory of disease (in the way the dog’s eerily glowing wound infects a cut on the Recluse’s arm), plus the gradual replacement of a Christian Heaven by an astronomical cosmos of suns, planets, and nebulae.

Ace Books (1962) edition, art by Ed Emshwiller

But I think the thing that unifies Hodgson’s novel is clear in its title. This house stands on a borderland, and so it is the house, by being where it is, that unites the various weird realities it touches. Living in it, the Recluse is living between the bestial (attacks by the swine-things) and the spiritual (his visions of his dead love in her seashore afterlife); also between life and death (the gods that surround the house’s visionary twin in the Arena seem to represent “a state of life-in-death”); and between Heaven and Hell (the house has “Little curved towers and pinnacles, with outlines suggestive of leaping flames”), or hope and despair, in the way the narrator’s connection with his lost love at the Sea of Sleep, and his apprehension of the Green Sun as some sort of ultimate intelligence, are set against the swine-things, the beast-headed gods of the Plain of Silence, the Dark Sun that twins the Green Sun, and the Dark Nebula (“a very hell-fog”), which seems to contain souls trapped in agony (“A face, human in its outline; but so tortured with woe, that I stared, aghast. I had not thought there was such sorrow, as I saw there.”)

These extremes of Heaven and Hell, hope and despair, are part of a package. You can’t have one without at least risking the other. Or so the Recluse’s dead love tells him, at one point:

“Strangely, she warned me; warned me passionately against this house; begged me to leave it; but admitted, when I questioned her, that she could not have come to me, had I been elsewhere.”

William Hope Hodgson

And if it’s the house that unifies the various elements in Hodgson’s weird novel, then it’s not much of a leap to taking that house as a metaphor for the human condition. Its cellars are the outermost regions of the unconscious, whose key the narrator keeps with him at all times (though he only, at first, goes down there to store and retrieve wine, inebriation being one way into the realms of the unconscious). Below these are far vaster, perhaps limitless depths. The Recluse spends most of his time, though, in his study, a room which symbolises the intellect. It’s this room that has the weakest external door, and where the swine-things get closest to breaking in. As a final indicator that the house and the man who lives in it are one, it’s only when the Recluse’s body is invaded by the giant green swine-beast’s infection that the swine-thing(s) manage to get inside the house.

It seems to me that, though The House on the Borderland’s depiction of humankind as standing on the edge of all sorts of weird realms is undoubtedly cosmic, it’s not as despairing as Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Hodgson isn’t saying, as Lovecraft did, that humankind is utterly insignificant compared to the vastness of the cosmos, but he is saying that it’s possible, in such enormous and strange spaces, to be infinitely lonely:

“…I realised, despairingly, that the world might wander forever, through that enormous night. For a while, the unwholesome idea filled me, with a sensation of overbearing desolation; so that I could have cried like a child.”

But this could just be a depiction of the Recluse’s own particular type of Hell. He seems to have become locked in loss since the death of his loved one. He still, for instance, lives with a woman (his sister), but appears to have absolutely no emotional or intellectual connection with her (“I have made a rule never to speak to her about the strange things that happen in this great, old house”). Similarly, after his dog dies, he acquires another one, but can’t bring himself to take it into the house, even when it’s being attacked at night by the massive green swine-thing. His one physical contact with it results in his own infection.

The House on the Borderland is undoubtedly a classic of weird fiction. I still find the central time-travel section too slow-moving and abstract, and the Doctor Who fan in me would love to read a version that was only about the swine-things assailing the house at night, but perhaps it’s the unforgiving strangeness of the book’s jarring shifts in narrative direction that really encapsulate its meaning and power: we’re all of us living in houses on many strange and disquieting borderlands, and had better watch out.

The House on the Borderland is available at Project Gutenberg. The William Hope Hodgson blog contains a lot of information about the writer and his works.