Tolkien and Lewis

JRR Tolkein (1891-1973) and CS Lewis (1898-1963) were colleagues and friends before and during their careers as writers. Both men wrote fantasy – the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, respectively – and were both serious Christians. They differed, however, in the role their faith played in their works, one of many points of friction which shaped the ups and downs of a twenty-year friendship.

Tolkien and Lewis were members of the ‘Lost’ generation born in the late 1800s. Both fought at the Battle of the Somme and studied at Oxford. Lewis, though raised a Northern Irish protestant, was an atheist, while Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic.

On meeting Tolkein in 1926, Lewis described him as a ‘a smooth, pale, fluent little chap,’ adding ‘no harm in him: only needs a smack or two’. Nonetheless, they shared a fondness for Norse mythology, loose tweed trousers and beer. By 1927 they were close friends. Tolkien modelled the character Treebeard’s speech patterns off Lewis. For years, Lewis was the only person Tolkien shared his works, and he offered steady encouragement.

Tolkien helped convert Lewis to Christianity. They enjoyed rigorous intellectual discussions, and religion was a common subject. After a talk lasting until 3 am in 1931 with Tolkien and professor Hugo Dyson, Lewis converted; though, to Tolkein’s dismay, not to Catholicism but the Church of England.

In the 30s and 40s, Tolkien and Lewis were members of the ‘Inklings’, a writing group who met weekly at the Eagle and Child pub. Lewis, at the time, wrote mainly science fiction and Christian works. Once Tolkien was sharing the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), their friendship had begun to cool.

Tolkien ignored most of Lewis’s suggestions – that he remove LOTR’s frequent songs and poems, for example. Furthermore, by the time Tolkien finally published it in 1954, Lewis had already written a popular fantasy series of his own.

Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter:

‘Undoubtedly he felt that Lewis had in some ways drawn on Tolkien’s ideas and stories in the books; and just as he resented Lewis’s progress from convert to popular theologian he was perhaps irritated by the fact that the friend and critic who had listened to the tales of Middle-earth had as it were got up from his armchair, gone to the desk, picked up a pen, and ‘had a go’ himself. Moreover, the sheer number of Lewis’s books for children and the almost indecent haste which they were produced undoubtedly annoyed him.’

Tolkien never liked the Chronicles of Narnia. To him, they cherry-picked aspects of different mythologies and folk traditions without building a ground-up coherence. Narnia’s worldbuilding was too shallow. While both LOTR and Narnia were deeply Christian works, Tolkien disliked the latter’s use of allegory which he felt was too on the nose.

While the two had drifted apart by the time Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, CS Lewis did write a glowing review describing it as ‘like lightning from a clear sky’.

When CS Lewis died in 1963, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla:

 ‘So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age-like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots’.

Sources: Humphrey Carpenter – JRR Tolkien: A Biography (1976)

The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King (1958) is a historical fantasy epic by TH White. The titular king is Arthur. A collection of five books, it traces Arthur’s childhood as the orphan Wart to his old age and death. Beginning as a whimsical children’s fantasy, Once and Future King gets progressively darker and more dramatic while maintaining steady humour and anachronisms. 

The Once and Future King includes five books individually published between 1938 and 1941:

  1. The Sword in the Stone (made into a 1963 Disney film)
  2. The Witch in the Wood
  3. The Ill-made Knight
  4. The Candle in the Wind
  5. The Book of Merlyn

The last book reads more like a philosophical treatise where, through Merlyn, White explores the morality of violence and war. Publishers originally rejected this book which is why parts of it are in the Sword in the Stone. The Book of Merlyn did not reach shelves until 1977, 13 years after White’s death. 

White’s primary source was Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory. Once and Future King follows the same plot – the Round Table, Guinevere’s adultery and the final battle with Mordred – but gives greater insight into the minds and motivations of its principal characters. The Grail Quest is brushed over.

Arthur is a well-meaning and thoughtful but naive figure. He knows his wife is sleeping with his best friend but turns a blind eye because publically knowing would compel him to execute them both. He intends on bringing lasting peace to Britain by stifling the violent instincts of its lords and believes in following his own laws.

Merlyn is Arthur’s tutor. In this version of the Arthur story, Merlyn is an absent-minded, quirky magician who lives backwards. Merlyn knows the future – and references it often – but cannot understand where people come from. He tutors Arthur by transforming him into a series of animals to impart valuable lessons. His familiar is a talking owl called Archimedes. 

Guinevere is Arthur’s queen. She does not love Arthur but yearns for his knight Lancelot with whom she shares a tempestuous relationship. Guinevere has a touchy pride and is formidable when crossed. 

Lancelot, in this version of the story, is brilliant but ugly. He battles his insecurities and self-loathing by becoming the greatest knight alive. He loves both Arthur and Guinevere, but cannot stop himself from betraying his king. The strongest character in the book, Lancelot, is delightfully self-destructive. 

White places the Arthurian Myth in the 13th century. Arthur is a Norman King – his father Uther being analogous to William the Conqueror. The real historical kings of England are referred to in this world as legends and myths.

TH White was a troubled soul who lived alone. He was a closet homosexual and a self-admitted sadist who repressed violent urges his whole life. Rather than fight, he spent WW2 in a cabin in Ireland, where he wrote this book. White channels himself into the tortured figure of Lancelot and his futile attempts at doing the right thing.

To this day, critics hail Once and Future King as the greatest adaptation of the Arthur myth. Contrary to fantasies of the time, character supersedes worldbuilding, making it read more like a drama than an adventure novel. 

The blurb of my version reads:

This is the tale of King Arthur and his shining Camelot; of Merlyn and Owl and Guinevere; of beasts who talk and men who fly; of knights, wizardry and war.

It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad; the masterpiece of fantasy by which all others are judged.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Adam Curtis

Can’t Get You out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World (2021) is a six-part documentary series by British filmmaker Adam Curtis. It explores the challenges and adaptions of power structures from 1945 to the present day with a focus on Britain, the USA, Russia and China. Through extensive archival footage and a haunting soundtrack, Curtis explores how corruption, finance, conspiracy theories and behavioural psychology twist and defy individualism to uphold the interests of the powerful. 

There are six episodes:

  1. Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain – covers growing frustration with the old power structures in the 1950s.
  2. Shooting and Fucking are the Same Thing – examines the failure of 1960s revolutionary movements like the Black Panthers and the Red Army Faction.
  3. Money Changes Everything – the effects of dropping the gold standard, and how money replaced the idealism of the 60s.
  4. But What if People Are Stupid – the alliance between business and politics in the West, China’s abandonment of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  5. The Lordly Ones – how Britain made mythologies to obfuscate their bloody past.
  6. Are We Pigeon or Are We Dancer? – computers, technocracy and the creation of the world today.
Can't Get You Out Of My Head TV review: Adam Curtis's ...

Curtis presents a gloomy worldview. Idealists might seek to change the world, but power always wins in the end. Eerie sound production – reminiscent of 1980s science fiction and often bizarre or juxtaposed music conjures an unsettling atmosphere – the modern world is a dystopia where our leaders have no ideals or vision of the future and the masses shuffle about in a dull and meaningless existence.

Putin’s nationalism is a façade to shroud the corruption that defines post-Soviet Russia. What the CIA attempted in the West through MK Ultra is realised through the social programming of the internet. China abandoned Marxism in the 1980s and built a totalitarian state based on money, control and little else. As they instil helplessness and suspicion, conspiracy theories ultimately serve the interests of the powerful.

Can’t Get You out of My Head presents its ‘emotional history’ through intertwining narratives of individuals who tried, and often failed, to challenge the status quo. These include both politicians like Jiang Qing – wife to Mao Zedong, and lesser-known, but no less significant figures such as Michael X, Afeni Shakur, Abu Zubayda and Eduard Limonov. A key theme is the struggle of individualism against collective authority and how, in the end, the latter always wins.

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It’s a lot to take in. But, despite everything, Curtis ends on an optimistic note. If we can get ourselves into this mess, we can get ourselves out. What we need is new ideas. The documentary’s strength lies in explaining the way the world is, through an untold narrative that is both unique and compelling. It is not, however, an easy viewing.


Cambridge Analytica

cambridge analytica

Cambridge Analytica was a ‘data analysis firm’ who interfered in 200 elections from 2013 – 2018, including Trump and Brexit. Whistleblowers spoke in 2018 and engulfed Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in a scandal that revealed the hold big tech now has over the democratic process.

The internet data industry is worth over $1 trillion dollars a year. In 2018 it surpassed oil as the world’s most lucrative market. ‘Data’ includes one’s internet search history, GPS movements, photos, social media likes and private communication. While platforms like Facebook and Google sell users’ data to companies for targeted advertising, Cambridge Analytica used it for politics.

Parent company Strategic Communications Laboratoriesformed in 2004. First, a private defence contractor employed to win hearts and minds for clients, it since expanded into elections. In 2013, SCL’s Alexander Nix (right) founded Cambridge Analytica with conservative lobbyist Robert Mercer and Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to support the populist right in upcoming elections.

Cambridge Analytica uses data mining and behavioural psychology to profile voters. From personal data, it records one’s hopes and dreams, fears and privately held beliefs then exploits that profile with propaganda; targeted adverts, youtube videos, posters, memes and suggested articles to, over time, have them abstain or vote– whatever suits the client.

From 2014, Cambridge Analytica harvested information on US citizens. ‘This is Your Digital Life’, a Facebook personality quiz, collected information on users and their Facebook friends then sold it to Cambridge Analytica. By 2016 they had profiles on over 87 million US voters. While quiz takers agreed to turn over their data through terms and conditions, Cambridge Analytica broke the law by harvesting their friends’.

do so.jpg

Trinidad and Tobago, 2010: SCL’s mission is Cambridge Analytica’s blueprint. Trinidad and Tobago has two, roughly even, populations – Indians and Afro-Caribbeans, each represented by a political party. The Indian UNC contracts SCL. Through social media, they engineer the  ‘Do So!’ movement to encourage young Trinidadians to opt-out of politics as an act of defiance. Even celebrities get involved.

Alexander Nix:

“And the reason why this was such a good strategy is because we knew, and we really really knew, that when it came to voting, all the Afro-Caribbean kids wouldn’t vote, because they ‘Do So’. But all the Indian kids would do what their parents told them to do, which is go out and vote. And so all the Indians went out and voted, and the difference on the 18-35-year-old turnout is like 40%, and that swung the election by about 6% – which is all we needed!”

Britain, 2016: The Brexit Campaign hires Cambridge Analytica to ‘map the British electorate’. They steal data from Facebook and funnel donations from foreign donors.

USA, 2016: Cambridge Analytica takes Ted Cruz from last place in opinion polls to number two Republican nominee. Trump’s team then hires them. ‘Project Alamo’ gathers 5,000 ‘data point on every US voter and spends over $1 million a day on  5.9 million advertisements. Cambridge Analytica identifies and isolates ‘persuadables’ in swing states then firehoses them with pro-Trump propaganda. They popularise ‘Crooked Hillary’ and stoke fears on immigration and other hot button issues. As in Brexit they channel foreign donations.

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower says more Facebook users ...In 2018, whistleblowers Chris Wylie and Brittany Kaiser revealed the extent of Cambridge Analytica’s operations. Kaiser, a high up executive, testified with Nix’s private memos and communications.

A tribunal charged Alexander Nix with illegally harvesting personal information and keeping data he told Facebook he’d destroyed. 35,000 articles a day covered the scandal and Facebook’s shares fell by $100 billion. Mark Zuckerberg testified but avoided implication. Cambridge Analytica has dissolved, but successor firms Auspex International, Data Propria and Emerdata Limited continue their work.

Sources: The Guardian, Netflix – the Great Hack, OpenDemocracy, 

Deeyah Khan

AND THE NOMINEES FOR THE 15th ASIAN ACHIEVERS AWARDS ARE ...Deeyah Khan (1977-) is a Norwegian- born Emmy-award winning filmmaker, musician and human rights activist based in the UK. Her documentaries seek to understand people on the political extremes and explore the issues of feminism, toxic masculinity, racism, islamaphobia and Islamist extremism.

As of May 2019 she has five films:

  • Banaz A Love Story (2012): about a British Kurdish woman, who was a victim of an ‘honour killing’ ordained by her own family.
  • Jihad: A Story of Others (2015): about Jihadi radicalisation in the UK
  • Islam’s Non-Believers (2016): about ex-Muslim atheists
  • White Right: Meeting the Enemy (2017): about white supremacists in the USA

Deeyah Khan was born in Oslo to an Afghan mother and Pakistani father. She grew up in a secular household where talks of art, politics and philosophy were common.  As a girl, her father lectured her that sport and the arts were the only fields someone like her could transcend prejudice. He consequently enrolled Deeyah in keyboard and singing lessons with a world class Pakistani musician. By seven she was performing on Norwegian TV.

As a teen pop star and ‘mascot for multicultural Norway’, Deeyah Khan was targeted by both racist Norwegians and conservative Muslims who deemed music ‘an immoral and dishonorable profession’ for women.  At 17 she fled to London after being attacked on stage. Khan released her last album in 2007 and began teaching herself filmography.

In Jihad, Khan speaks to former and current Islamist extremists in Britain. According to Abu Muntasir, the ‘godfather’ of British Jihad and a veteran of Afghanistan, Kashmir and Burma, recruiters specifically target vulnerable young men to radicalise. For young western Muslims caught between two worlds and struggling with self-confidence, loneliness and identity, the brotherhood and purpose offered by Jihad, not to mention the promise of eternity in paradise, is an alluring prospect.  ‘My gun’ a former Jihadi states, ‘is more or less just a penis extension’.

When Deeyah Khan asks Abu Muntasir if he has forgiven himself for his violent past he breaks down into tears and eventually responds, ‘how do you answer that?’

White Right covers white nationalists in the modern USA. In 2017 Deeyah Khan shadowed Jeff Schoeb, leader of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), America’s largest neo-Nazi group, and accompanied him on a nine-hour car journey from Detroit to Charlottesvile. The men Deeyah meets, a startling proportion of whom are veterans, exhibit a combination of ‘big egos and low self-esteem’ like those in Jihad.

Deeyah does not berate the hateful men she feared all her life but catches them off guard with questions about their upbringing, hopes and dreams and finds common ground on topics beyond politics. Alt-right leaders Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer, however, who are wealthier, better spoken and more remorseless than their working class counterparts, seem immune to Deeyah’s empathetic approach.

Many of the subjects admit they had never met a Muslim before Deeyah and come to consider her a friend. She still corresponds with both Jeff Schoep and Abu Muntasir.

“All the work I do is about recognising ourselves in each other… to locate the humanity in someone else … As a woman of colour, as the long laundry list of things I consider myself to be, I know it feels like to be stereotyped, I know what it’s like to be dehumanised and because of that I refuse to do that to someone else, even if that means a Nazi.”

In January 2019, Schoep passed the NSM’s leadership to James Hart Stern, a black activist who is dismantling the group.

Sources: Associated Press, the Guardian, the Gentlewomen, Making Sense with Sam Harris Episode 144, Under the Skin with Russell Brand Episode 52.

See Also:

The Historical Context of Cheddar Man

Cheddar Man | Know Your MemeThe Cheddar Man is the oldest complete human skeleton found in Britain.  He died a violent death around 7150 BC in Gough’s Cave in Chedder Gorge, Somerset, where his remains were uncovered in 1903. Cheddar Man made headlines when the latest forensic reconstruction from London’s Natural History Museum depicted him as dark skinned, a surprising revelation some criticised as politically motivated.

What we know:

  • Cheddar Man was not the first Briton: human fossils have been found in Gough’s cave predating Cheddar Man by 5,000 years. However, these early inhabitants did not survive the ice age and bear no relation to either Cheddar Man or modern Britons.
  • He was young, most likely in his mid-20s.
  • Cheddar Man belonged to mitochondrial haplogroup U5 (from the female line), a genome found mainly in Finns and Laplanders today.
  • His Y chromosomal haplogroup was I2A2.
  • He was 5’4 tall.
  • He was lactose intolerant.
  • According to the latest genome sequencing, Cheddar Man had blue eyes, ‘dark to black’ skin and curly, black hair.

Cheddar Man belonged to a wave of ‘Mesolithic’ (Middle Stone Age) settlers, blue-eyed hunters-gatherers who crossed to Britain by land as the ice sheets retreated.  Typical of hunter-gatherers, their numbers were small; probably only 12,000 in Cheddar Man’s time. They are not the main ancestors of modern Britain.

Eupedia ForumEurope in Cheddar Man’s time

In the Neolithic Era (New Stone Age), lighter-skinned, brown-eyed farmers of Middle Eastern origin settled across Europe, introducing livestock herding, grains and a milk-based diet. They interbred with and ultimately replaced, the smaller indigenous population. In Britain, they constructed Stonehenge and Skara Brae. Neolithic farmer ancestry is strongest in Sardinians today.

A third wave settled in Britain during the mid-Bronze Age, 5,000 years after Cheddar Man’s time. The demographic transformation is evidenced by the spread of Bell Breaker pottery around the time and the replacement of stone monoliths with humbler burial mounds. The ‘Bell Beakers’ were part of a larger migration of Indo-European speakers across Europe and South Asia. They introduced horses, bronze weaponry and the Y chromosomal haplogroup R1-B, which was not present in Western Europeans before but dominates today. More numerous, they engulfed the earlier populations and left a stronger genetic imprint. They were the progenitors of the ancient Celts.

The Genetic Map Of Europe – Brilliant MapsModern European Y chromosomal haplogroups

Further, better-known migrations of the Anglo Saxons and Norse followed in the Middle Ages. Disproportionate to their cultural influence, the Roman and Norman invasions had little impact on Britain’s genetic makeup.

In a recent article published by the ‘New Scientist’, published on the 21st February 2018, geneticist Susan Walsh, who worked on Cheddar Man project, admitted the data on Cheddar Man’s skin colour is not conclusive.

“It’s not a simple statement of ‘this person was dark-skinned’, it is his most probable profile, based on current research.”

The article further stipulates that recent genetic research on indigenous populations in Southern Africa by Brenna Henn of Stony Brook University demonstrated substantial variations in skin colour among individuals with similar genotypes. Like the colour of dinosaurs, discerning Cheddar Man’s complexion is educated guesswork.

Related imageDespite this, scientists have speculated Mesolithic Europeans were dark-skinned for some time. The genes for blue eyes evolved before the genes which determine light skin and blond hair. The Spanish LaBrana man (pictured right), a contemporary of Cheddar Man, exhibited similar traits.

Britain’s Mesolithic population, of which Cheddar Man belonged, were healthy and ate mainly fish, which is rich in vitamin D. Europeans evolved light skin to extract more vitamin D from the sun, so when excessive sunlight or a high seafood diet makes it abundant, these genes do not develop. This is why the Inuit maintain dark skin despite living in the boreal extremes of North America.

Originating from Anatolia and the steppes of southern Russia respectively, and eating milk products and bread over seafood, the Neolithic farmers and Bell Beaker people were lighter-skinned than Cheddar Man’s ilk. It is normal for dark-skinned people to develop lighter skin after millennia in cold European climates too, as did Ashkenazi Jews.

Today 10% of British DNA traces back to the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers like Cheddar Man, roughly 10% from Neolithic farmers and the rest, perhaps even up to 90%, from the Bell Beakers and later immigrants.

Genetics is a dynamic discipline. New technology, discoveries and research are constantly introducing new evidence and debunking the old. Yes, media coverage of the Cheddar Man was sensationalist, but that is their nature.

It is important to remember these migrations occurred over centuries, with interbreeding always occurring. What information we can discern from a handful of fossilised cavemen remains a murky glimpse to a long lost past.

Note: Studies on prehistoric migrations and genomes is convoluted but fascinating. I’ve linked some resources for further reading. The Eupedia and Nature posts are particularly detailed.

Sources: Nature, National Geographic, New Scientist, Eupedia, BBC, The Guardian, Abroad in the Yard

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