Monday, September 28, 2015

Churchill & Tolkien Daily Express) The Guardian)

And odd pairing at first glance but with striking similarities in their views of history and human action:

From Winston Churchill's eulogy for Neville Chamberlain, November 1940
It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour. 

From The Return Of The King by JRR Tolkien; the final debate at Gondor, remarks of Gandalf:
Other evils there are that may come . . . Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.  What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

Both convey the idea of uncertainty, the inability of humans to control events and of there being no endpoint to human history in which we permanently reside in the "broad, sunlit uplands" Churchill refers to in his Finest Hour speech of June 1940.  There is a slight difference in emphasis between the two.  Even in the short run, Churchill admits one can make the wrong choice and fail to identify evil, while Tolkien seems to say one can, or should, identify evil though the consequences of dealing with that immediate evil are unknowable in the long-run.

In another sense there is a great similarity between Churchill and Tolkien which, while representative of their age, would be viewed differently by many, particularly academics and literary critics, today.   Take a look at this sentence from Churchill:
The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.
Post-modernists would reject what they see as Churchill's fixed, non-contextual value-laden meaning of conscience and respond "Well, Hitler was sincere in his actions and acted according to his conscience so (to paraphrase a former American Secretary of State) what difference does it make?".  In Churchill's world conscience represents absolute values of honor, righteousness and humanity and by definition a Hitler-type character could not have a conscience.  Tolkien's writings make clear he held the same view as Churchill.

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