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.

Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair

This 2006 book from Wordsworth Editions reprints May Sinclair’s 1923 collection of the same name, plus one other long story, “The Intercessor” (from The English Review, July 1911), the first ghost story Sinclair wrote, and certainly the best included here.

Sinclair (1863–1946) was already an established novelist when she brought out Uncanny Stories, having been writing since 1891. She combined an interest in psychology (being a founding supporter of the first medical institute in Britain to offer psychoanalysis as a treatment) with parapsychology (joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1914), as well as being a suffragist and an early proponent of Modernism (she was the first to use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the literary technique). Her grisly murder story “The Victim” (included in Uncanny Stories) was published by T S Eliot in the first edition of his magazine, The Criterion (in October 1922), alongside “The Waste Land”.

“The Intercessor” is a powerful story of a household in rural Yorkshire haunted by the death of a child. The narrator, Garvin, is in the area writing a county history, and his one stipulation is lodgings without children. Directed to the Falshaw farmhouse, he’s annoyed on the first night to hear a child’s sobs:

“…it was hardly a crying, a sobbing, a whimpering rather, muffled by closed doors. The wonder was how it could have waked him; the sound was so distant, so smothered, so inarticulate.”

The Falshaws — a stoic farmer, his pregnant wife, and their grown-up niece — are a grim, closemouthed bunch, with Mrs Falshaw in particular treating their paying guest as though it’s predetermined he’ll soon want to leave. Garvin at first assumes the cries are from a child who has been locked into the small room opposite his own in an effort to comply with his not wanting any children about. It cries every night at the same time:

“There was no petulance in it and no anger; it had all the qualities of a young child’s cry, except the carnal dissonances and violences. The grief it uttered was too profound and too persistent, and, as it were, too pure; it knew none of the hot-blooded throes, the strangulated pauses, the lacerating resurgences of passion. At times it was shrill, unbroken, irremediable; at times it was no more than a sad sobbing and whimpering, stifled…”

In contrast to the Falshaws’ dour uncommunicativeness, this crying feels like a desperate expression of all the sad coldness at the heart of this tragic but inarticulate household. Soon, Garvin sees the “child”, and even feels it climbing into his bed to sleep at night.

In contrast to, say, M R James’s ghost stories, which are all about the horror of the spook, and revel in its weird and demonic nature, Sinclair’s ghosts are human things, giving voice as much to the anguish of the living as the tragedy of their own demise. They return not for revenge, or to punish the living, but often simply to be acknowledged, even listened to (at least one of Sinclair’s ghosts delivers a lecture on how the afterlife works, but the more powerful, like the Falshaw child, are pure emotion). Sinclair takes her ghost stories beyond the point where James would end them (the moment the thing is revealed), into having her characters understand and resolve the ghost’s torment (and, usually, their own).

In a very un-Jamesian way, that torment is mostly about love. Sinclair’s fiction, though, isn’t generally sentimental. Love, in these tales, is tangled with guilt (over the transference of love from a dead wife to her successor, for instance, in “The Nature of the Evidence”), or control (a mother’s smothering influence in “If the Dead Knew”), or is stifled, unrequited or poorly expressed (as in “The Token”, where a young wife lingers after death for a sign that her stoic husband truly loved her). And sex, in Sinclair’s stories, just complicates things (as in “Where their Fire is not Quenched”, a bleak vision of an afterlife in which a woman whose one consummated affair was with a man she soon found boring, but she has to live and relive that affair forever after death).

The longest tale here, “The Flaw in the Crystal” (originally published as a separate novella in 1912), is not a ghost story, but a tale of psychic powers. Agatha Verrall has moved to a house in the remote countryside so she can receive weekend visits from her lover, the married Rodney Lanyon. She has an inner link to a “Power”, a gift that allows her, somehow, to extend a circle of psychic protection around people, and to heal them, or at least keep them free of illness (mental illness, anyway) while she holds them in this way. She knows, though, that this gift works best with a very light touch, and an assumed indifference, even though it’s the people she loves that she uses it on — at first, anyway. But when the Powells, a couple she’s acquainted with, move near because of the husband Harding Powell’s bouts of paranoia, Agatha extends her gift to include him. At first it works, and she makes the mistake of telling the wife, Milly, what she’s done. Milly tells Harding, and he, though a staunch non-believer, comes to expect Agatha’s protection. When Agatha realises that the protection she’s so far been giving her lover, Rodney, is waning because of this, she finds herself having to fight for control of her gift from the strong-willed Harding.

Sinclair herself was an atheist, but there’s an evident belief in some sort of afterlife in these stories, as well as, in “The Flaw in the Crystal”, a “Power” behind it all. In this novella, Harding Powell’s utterly unbelieving worldview starts to seep into Agatha’s own:

“Harding’s abominable vision of the world, that vision from which the resplendent divinity had perished…”

It’s quite a heavy going story at times, being tangled so much in the abstractions of Agatha’s inner world, and the mental battles she has with Harding for control of her “gift”. Sinclair’s writing is at its best, perhaps, in “The Victim”, whose protagonist (a thick-accented chauffeur with an uncontrollable temper) is mostly seen from the outside rather than (as with Agatha Verrell) so intensely from within. Some of her stories rely on someone coming forward to explain the reason for the haunting and so resolve it (“The Token”, “If the Dead Knew”, “The Victim”), but the more powerful ones dramatise the emotion behind it rather than the reason (“Where their Fire is not Quenched”, for instance), while “The Intercessor” attains the best balance between these approaches, to deliver an emotional wallop of an ending, which feels, oddly, at once redemptive and bleak.

For someone writing supernatural fiction at a time when Freud’s ideas were beginning to be known (which, as Julia Briggs suggested in Night Visitors, marked the beginning of the end for the popularity the ghost story had been enjoying since Dickens’s day), there’s a real feeling of psychological depth to Sinclair’s tales, and although they may have been influenced to some degree by Freud (the title of Uncanny Stories, for instance), I feel, reading them, that her understanding is definitely her own, and far more nuanced than a merely derivative take on Freud’s ideas could have served up. The most successful tales, dealing with the inequality of love in relationships, or of the very human horrors of emotional neglect, certainly transcend any merely psychological reading to become powerful dramas.

“The Intercessor” is the must-read story here. It was adapted (very faithfully) by Alan Plater (who I mostly know for his quirky comedy The Beiderbecke Affair from 1985) for the ITV Shades of Darkness anthology series (in 1983). (Which is how I first heard about May Sinclair, via a post on the Wyrd Britain blog, which has a link to the Shades of Darkness episode on YouTube.)

You can read “The Flaw in the Crystal” at Gutenberg, and I have “The Intercessor” as an ebook on my free ebooks page. You can learn more about May Sinclair herself at the May Sinclair Society’s site.

Demian by Hermann Hesse

Although Hermann Hesse had been a published author since 1902, Demian (written in 1917, published in 1919) marked a new beginning for him as a writer. He had volunteered at the start of World War I and, found unfit for duty, was put to use taking care of prisoners of war. But he didn’t buy into the relentless patriotism of the times, and wrote against it, earning himself a tirade of hate from the press and through the mail. In the midst of this, his father died, his son became seriously ill, and his then-wife Maria Bernoulli (of the mathematical Bernoullis) was suffering from schizophrenia. Hesse had a breakdown, and began receiving psychoanalytic therapy from J B Lang, a doctor on Jung’s staff. Although later he was not uncritical of psychoanalysis (particularly when it was applied to literature), Hesse remained a friend of Lang’s, who treated him again whilst Hesse was writing Steppenwolf, and Hesse even returned the favour, seeing Lang through a crisis of his own. Hesse also became friends with Jung, and Jung’s ideas are an obvious influence on Hesse’s novels from this point on, though most markedly in Demian, which Colin Wilson, in The Outsider, identifies as the first of Hesse’s “major novels”. When it first came out, Demian was presented as the memoir of its protagonist, Emil Sinclair. It was only when it was in its ninth edition, the following year, having become a hit with young men coming back from the front wondering what the fighting had all been for, that the book was published under Hesse’s own name. (I can’t help wondering if any of its earlier readers might have felt a little betrayed on learning it was fiction, not autobiography.)

The story follows the development of its narrator, Emil Sinclair, from the age of ten to eighteen. At the start of the novel, although he lives in a comfortable, well-off and loving family, he’s aware that outside the warmth and light of his home there’s a world of darkness, chaos, crime, “servant girls and workmen, ghost stories and scandalous rumours, a gay tide of monstrous, intriguing, frightful, mysterious things”. He has his first brush with this world when an older boy blackmails him into stealing money from his parents. Sinclair is saved by another older boy, Max Demian, who seems much more mature than any of the other boys in the school, and more knowledgeable than many of the teachers.

Walking home together after a lesson on the story of Cain and Abel, Demian introduces Sinclair to an alternative interpretation: Cain was feared before he did anything wicked, and the story of his murdering his brother may be a later addition, provided as a justification for the fear people felt of this man who bore a special “mark” on his face, that set him apart from his fellows. Sharing this with his father, Sinclair is warned against such heretical thinking. For a while, Sinclair avoids Demian, and retreats once more into the familial “world of light”, though it feels, more and more, a lie.

This knowledge of the darkness in the world — and within himself — continues to work on Sinclair throughout his education, leading him to, at one point, become nothing but a drinking wastrel among the worst of his fellow students. But the influence of Max Demian continues to be felt, even when the boy himself is not there, and Sinclair pulls himself through, becoming, after that low point, a much more serious-minded solitary student, pursuing his own path to self-knowledge through dreams and painting, through which he tries to realise certain symbolic images that keep recurring to him — first the face of a young woman he idolises from a distance, then an image of a bird emerging from an egg which Max Demian pointed out on a faded, worn-down coat of arms above the doorway to Sinclair’s family home. When this bird image is finished, Sinclair sends it to Demian, even though he’s not sure Demian is still at his old address. He receives, by way of an answer, a slip of paper in his school book, reading:

“The bird is struggling out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wants to be born must first destroy a world. The bird is flying to God. The name of the God is called Abraxas.”

Abraxas is a name tied to Gnosticism, and may be related to the word “Abracadabra”. (It may also be a mis-transcription of the far less impressive-sounding “Abrasax”.) Hesse, though, may have encountered it in a privately printed little volume called Seven Sermons to the Dead, which was the only portion of what is now known as The Red Book: Liber Novus that Jung published during his lifetime. (A translation of Seven Sermons, by Stephan A Hoeller, can be read online, at Gnosis.org.)

In these “sermons”, which condense Jung’s explorations of the deepest aspects of the unconscious, Abraxas is presented as a forgotten deity who combines and transcends good and evil, and seems a presiding deity of the unconscious:

“He is the unlikely likely one, who is powerful in the realm of unreality… he is undefinable life itself, which is the mother of good and evil alike… Abraxas, however, speaks the venerable and also accursed word, which is life and death at once… Abraxas generates truth and falsehood, good and evil, light and darkness with the same word in the same deed. Therefore Abraxas is truly the terrible one.”

As Sinclair is trying to find a way to contain both the light and darkness within himself, he wants to know more about this mysterious god. He meets a musician, Pistorius, who seems to want to be a priest of a new religion bringing Abraxas back into worship. At first, I thought Pistorius might have been Hesse’s characterisation of Jung, but several sources I’ve read say it’s a portrait of Hesse’s analyst, Lang. This part must have been written when Hesse was coming to the end of (or after) his analysis and was getting impatient with what he perceived as its limitations. Of Pistorius, he says:

“He had wanted to be a priest, to announce the new religion… But it was beyond his power to do so… He lingered too much in the past, his knowledge of ancient days was too precise; he knew far too much about Egypt, India, Mithras and Abraxas… the New must be really new and different and must spring up from new soil and not be created from museums and libraries.”

Hesse’s novel is all about finding “the New”, and how to be a human being in a world where many people:

“…are all conscious of the fact that the laws of life they have inherited are no longer valid, that they are living according to archaic tablets of the law, that neither their religion nor customs are adapted to our present-day needs.”

This is not the nineteenth-century world in which each person’s destiny is clear — for the young Sinclair, for instance, “my destiny in life was to become like my father and mother; pure, righteous and disciplined” — but a new world, with no established guide as to how to live. Hesse, through Sinclair, puts forward the idea that each human being “is a valuable, unique experiment”, “each one… an attempt on the part of nature to create a human being.”

As Sinclair says:

“I was… a ‘throw’ into the unknown, perhaps for some new purpose, perhaps for nothing, and my only vocation was to allow this ‘throw’ to work itself out in my innermost being, feel its will within me and make it wholly mine. That or nothing!”

And doing so, uniting in himself the dark and light worlds into one, whole, new world, may mean destroying the old one, but Hesse, in 1917, already knew such a destruction was on the cards, and the novel ends with Sinclair taking part in the First World War.

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

Throughout this latest read of Demian, I found myself at times reminded of another writer I hadn’t previously associated with Hesse, Gustav Meyrink (whose Angel of the West Window I reviewed last year). Demian treads the line between a psychologically-minded Bildungsroman and a novel of occult initiation full of strange, perhaps-visionary incidents. Max Demian, for instance, proves to have mental powers that enable him to make teachers ignore him when he doesn’t want to take part in a class, and even to will people to do certain things, if he thinks strongly enough. But the most Meyrink-ian aspects are where Sinclair’s involvement with his visionary inner world spills into the outer world: is Max Demian a person at all, or is he an aspect of Sinclair, an exteriorisation of his Jungian, realised Self?

Demian’s ending has always disappointed me, because its resolution is almost entirely visionary, or symbolic. (Colin Wilson says it “ends with a whirl of Shelleyan airy-fairy…”) It seems to me that novels based on beliefs such as Hesse was presenting, about the ultimate path of human destiny rather than being based on actual experience, run a real risk of ending in unconvincing wish-fulfilment, or petering out trying to avoid it. Demian does the latter, but not before presenting a very compelling picture of the dilemma of how to live in a world where there’s no clear, God-made plan for each and every man and woman. Hesse does provide something of an answer (“There was but one duty for a grown man; it was to seek the way to himself…”); it’s just finding a way to depict the culmination of that “way to himself” (which is surely never-ending). Still, Demian is my second-favourite Hesse novel (after Steppenwolf), and worth reading.