All through the late-19th century up through the mid-1960s one felt the cultural pull of it: a celebration of techno-managerial progress, always with the promise of more to come. The heroes were the architect, the in-charge social-scientist, the business, military, or government man applying scientific methods, and most of all the natural scientist himself. There is still plenty of such techno-managerial optimism percolating in our society, but it has never quite felt as intense as it did in those pre-1965 times. Any viewer of 50s movies, for example, and especially any reader of Walker Percy’s Moviegoer (1960), cannot but notice it.
The high-tide of this confident expectation of Tomorrow-Land wonders coming from science was probably reached in the early 60s, and found an echo and expression in architecture’s international style. All was to be angular, sleek, and silvery-grey—as orderly, if perhaps as jarring, as a physicist’s formula. When the style was seriously executed it could have, as its most effective cinematic satirist Jacques Tati admitted and displayed, a certain undeniable beauty.
The second of those images is of the famous 1958 Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe, and the first is a still from Tati’s ingenious, architecture-concerned, and I’d say quite postmodern-conservative film, Playtime, released in 1967, but conceptualized in the early 60s.
What sort of men belonged to such a world? Well, let’s go along with the notions popularized by the more critical 50s sociologists like David Riesman and William Whyte for a bit. It belonged to “organization men,” men who would wear super-shiny black shoes like those Tom Wolfe so obsessively described when (The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test) he portrayed the FBI agents, men who would part their slicked hair like Robert McNamara’s as straight as any direct line plotted on a chart from point A to point B. That is, men like this guy:
He’s an easy one to poke fun at, sure, but I can’t help but noting that there was a hipster-youth version of this same stylistic bent during those times, best expressed in the British rock cult of the Mod. The now-happening future was apparently to be place of angular fast-paced living, broken up now and then by abstract curvature and other amusements.
As you surely know, there were various growing undercurrents of dissatisfaction. States-side, there’s places in Moviegoer where Percy hints at the growing popularity of bohemian patterns and affectations, a popularity that would explode once folks like Dylan and The Merry Pranksters found the really winning formulas. And in Britain, from the mid-50s a set of three books with weird runes on them had been passing from hand to hand, and spotted here and there in the subway graffiti one saw the announcement concerning them: Frodo Lives!
You see, religiously and poetically speaking, the later 60s wasn’t just the era of the pantheist guru and the tribal shaman, but was also the time when J.R.R. Tolkien’s poetic achievement became fully felt. India beckoned to the imagination, as did the wild places the world over where one might find the ghosts and remnants of indigenous tribes, but the lure of Middle-Earth was felt just as strongly.
Rock-wise, you’ve probably picked up on the Tolkien references in various Led Zeppelin songs, but as far as I can tell, the first such rock-song reference comes in “The Gnome,” a whimsical piece from Pink Floyd’s first album, the 1967 landmark of psychedelic rock, Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
He had a Big Adventure,
amidst the grass, fresh air at last.
There’s one or two allusions to the main character in The Hobbit in this, and it also delivers the most at-peace moment of the whole album, the chorus which sings Look at the sky, look at the river…isn’t, it, good? Listening to that, we are miles away from any sky-scrapered world.
“Matilda Mother” is on the same album. Its reference to Tolkien is broader and more indirect, as it refers to the entire theory of Faërie-literature associated with him, C.S. Lewis, and some others. It is a theory best expounded by Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” The scenario of the song is a reliving of what it was like as a child to hear your mother read storybooks about the mythical and fantastic—the verses deftly convey the typical elements of such tales, and then there’s this break of complaint:
Why’d'ya have to leave me there,
hanging in my infant air,
You only have to read the lines,
they’re scribbly black and everything shines.
Oh, it’s just a single song, with an “orientalist”-like break that borders on the overdone, but I’d say it shines indeed, suffused with a yearning for the half-remembered belief in fairylands.
It ends with this:
And fairy stories held me high, on
clouds of sunlight floating by.
Oh-oh mother, tell me more.
Tell me more.
Now the adult fascination with fairy stories, always with us to some degree, seems to have reached an apex of articulation and achievement in the 20th-century work of Lewis and Tolkien. “Matilda Mother’s” and “The Gnome’s” songwriter Syd Barrett may not have read their theoretical essays about such, but he seems to have had a solid notion of what they were up to.
Tolkien’s essay, available in various collections, displays his familiarity with early British literature and Norse saga, but also with children’s literature generally. It contains some of his most direct attacks against modern technology, and most open defenses of so-called literary “escapism” from its ugliness. I haven’t read all of it, but I have read a work that conveys some of its teaching, From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy, a curious but worthwhile book, written by Tolkien expert Matthew Dickerson and my friend and philosophy scholar David O’ Hara. They provide a learned and heavily Tolkien/Lewis-influenced account of how one properly distinguishes myth, Biblical myth, fairy story, allegory, etc. We’ll use their quotations and interpretations of Tolkien, to get the gist of how he and Lewis felt fairy stories could hold us higher:
“He who would enter the Kingdom of Faërie,” Tolkien writes, “should have the heart of a little child.” In choosing this language Tolkien is making a clear connection to… Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven[Luke 18:17]. He continues, “For that possession is necessary to all high adventure, into kingdoms both less and far greater than Faërie.”
Though Tolkien was rightly hesitant to give any single-sentence definition of fairy story, he did write that fantasy was not something to be embarrassed about in literature, but rather was one of the four most important values of fairy story (along with recovery, escape, and consolation): “Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie.”
Here’s a final bit that’s all from Tolkien:
“Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”
One senses that for him, Faërie is a literary-imagistic realm that is inevitably called forth by an age-old desire. It is. He suggests that our desire for it rightly intensifies in modern times, to in some way resist modernity’s “disenchantment of the world.” Lewis is even more emphatic on that last point. The strongest sense of this comes from the first two Narnia books, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian, particularly the second of these.
In it we are told the story of Caspian as a little boy. He is growing up in Narnia, which the reader knows to be the magical place described in the first book, but in a later time when his race of men, the Telmarines, occupy the land, having centuries ago conquered it and driven out its previous occupants. They now deny that these predecessors ever existed. But some humans, such as Caspian’s nurse, keep knowledge of the old things alive in tales. Caspian loves these forbidden tales, but innocently lets it out that the nurse is telling them by saying he wishes he lived in the “old days,” when “all the animals could talk” and there were “naiads and dryads…, lovely little fauns,” a “White Witch,” and a lion of awesome power named “Aslan.” The original inhabitants of Narnia, whose hidden descendants Caspian will soon meet, are essentially a menagerie of classical and medieval mythology: centaurs, dwarves, satyrs, Maenads, giants, walking-trees, etc. These, along with some human allies like Caspian, reconquer Narnia, but only ultimately with the help of Aslan.
Since Aslan is Lewis’s representation of Christ in the Narnia books, what the plot of Prince Caspian in essence does is to pit the mythology-denying Telmarines, the men who have long ruled the land, against all the creatures of pagan mythology and the Christian God also. Not a fair fight! But think of it in terms of Lewis’s literary effort in our world: instead of the Renaissance-through-Enlightenment pattern of moderns employing certain attractions of pagan history, philosophy, and poetry against Christian belief the better to establish their own rule, here’s a 20th-century Christian using the attractions of the pagan, particularly those of the mythology, to rebel against the moderns’ well-established dominion.
Like so many in the 60s, Syd Barrett wanted to re-employ the pagan, and in his case the things of Faërie especially, against the sterile and modern, but without this issuing in a rededication to the Christian. But such “Tolkien-ism”-sans-Christ leads one where? Perhaps back to a new kind of art-as-religion, perhaps to an effort to revive Celtic or some other European paganism, or perhaps, to the Occult.