Archetype and Signature: Tolkien and the Vedic Poets

The Lake Poets, The Bloomsbury Group, The American Expatriates. There is a glamour to literary circles that holds sway even over those who have never read a word inspired by these associations. Perhaps, the lure is in the image of friendships based on passion and ideas, friendships that live on in paper and ink even if friends quarrel, grow apart and eventually pass on. J.R.R. Tolkien was, himself, part of an informal circle of literary friends who called themselves The Inklings. The group included C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, who joined in whenever work and family obligations gave him the freedom to do so. In 1977, Barfield published an essay called, “The Harp and the Camera,” in which he referred his readers to the ideas of his fellow Inklings long after the little group had ceased to gather. “The Harp and the Camera” is among Barfield’s briefest and most accessible pieces. It is an excellent way to get a taste of his ideas before diving into the longer and more daunting Saving the Appearances, Poetic Diction or A History in English Words.

In theory, to read one work written by Barfield is to have sampled them all. Barfield referred to himself as a hedgehog. He said that a fox knows many things while a hedgehog knows only one. The truth is that Barfield’s one idea—that human consciousness evolves through participation in the coming-into-being of the sensual world—is so revolutionary and complex that it deserves to be examined again and again in its every incarnation. In “The Harp and the Camera,” Barfield tackles the idea by speculating about myth and its relationship to the history of consciousness. Expanding on the work of another thinker, he writes that myth has two aspects—archetype and signature. The signature of a myth is what we think of as the literary. It is the part of the experience of a story that can be attributed to the specific personality and artistry of the teller. The archetype represents that part of the experience that Lewis called “extra-literary.” It does not depend on skillful rendition to capture the imagination of the audience. It is the part of the story that will tell itself again and again through many voices and many hands.

Barfield did not consider the archetype to be a product of human consciousness, either individual or collective. What Tolkien said of his experience writing The Lord of the Rings, that he seemed to have been writing something down that was already there, somewhere, applies perfectly to Barfield’s understanding of the archetype. For Barfield, humanity does not make myth; myth makes humanity.

In The Artful Universe, William K. Mahony’s exploration of the Vedic religious imagination, Mahony observes that the poets who produced the ancient Indian scriptures knows as the Vedas

seemed to have regarded their work as being more synthetic than strictly creative in nature. They thought of themselves as skilled, first, at penetrating into the mystery of being; second, at forming in their minds and hearts verbal images of those mysteries; third, at whittling and trimming those images, playing with them, shifting them from one context to another, separating them and rejoining them in ways that had not previously been done. This being the case, their songs were newly fashioned works of art; but the mysteries to which they gave expression were timeless and thus uncreated truths.

Elsewhere, he attributes to at least one poet the idea that “a hymn is not only a construction but an adornment.” The poet illuminates but does not create the beauty of nature just as well-placed jewels illuminate but do not create the beauty of the human form.

What Mahony seems to be describing is the relationship, perhaps the ideal relationship, between archetype and signature. Barfield wrote that the inauguration of this relationship represents the introduction of poetry into myth. Tolkien’s word for the relationship was subcreation. The Cosmos are created by the One Maker but, as subcreators, “we make still by the law in which we’re made.” The Vedic poets referred to the law which gives us the world as Rta, “identified as the eternal Word, personified as the goddess Vãc; and all the various objects and events of the divine and physical world are thus different embodiments—articulations if you will—of the single divine Voice herself.”

Tolkien confessed to several different motives in writing The Lord of the Rings. One was simply the desire to try his hand at writing a very long story. Another was an aspiration to fill a perceived vacuum by creating a mythology for England. His expressed reverence for mythology, “truth breathed through silver,” suggests that he did not take its creation lightly enough to think that it could ever come into being as the product of a single personality or even of many personalities in concert. He knew that the heart of his work beat somewhere else, in “a realm or a state” that he called Faerie.

“Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.” Faerie can be portrayed but it can never be explained. It is in Faerie, as it expresses itself in story, that the law that makes all things, Tolkien’s Rta, can be seen most clearly. We see how, in the hands of the subcreator, the law that makes the world can be demonstrated to be so flexible that it gives us, not just dogs, but dragons; not just stones, but gems of such unpredictable beauty that wars are fought for possession of them. When we see that dogs and dragons, stones and legendary gems are made of the same substance, we begin to see the substance itself. We see how wonderful it is in whatever garb it chooses to clothe itself. In this way, we see that there never was anything ordinary about dogs or stones or any other phenomenon that might pass before our eyes. This is how we become inheritors of an ancient poetic vision, as old and as new as anything in human history.

4 thoughts on “Archetype and Signature: Tolkien and the Vedic Poets

  1. Wow! This is a great post…well worth reading! I like the archetypal parallels you draw between what the Vedic poets and Tolkien have written…

  2. I love both the sure-footed clarity of this essay and the weaving of ideas from different traditions into something that is both coherent and beautifully written. With each new posting by Badgaladriel, I look forward to learning more about Tolkien and his circle of dreamers, and I know that our circle of dreamers has somehow found its way into some wonderful and unexpected journeys. For chaotic humankind everywhere, as it turns out, the cosmos is totally epic!

  3. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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