Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The oldest road -- 6

Tolkien, that master of enchantment, does not denigrate science. Rather he insists that all good fantasy starts with reasoned, reliable knowledge of the world -- "a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it." Fantasy is founded "upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun," says Tolkien. The Secondary World of fantasy is made out of the Primary World, no less so than science.

It is the task of art to exalt the particular -- call it "enchantment" -- just as science explores the universal. A world of science without art is a disenchanted world -- the modern equivalent of Mordor. Fantasy that is not grounded in reason is equally to be abjured, says Tolkien, and, indeed, we read in the newspapers every day of the evil that flows from fantasy that has lost its bearings in the Primary World.

And so, back to the Ridgeway. Along the highest part of the Marlborough Downs we came to Wayland's Smithy. I quote from a guidebook:
This is an extraordinary site, a Neolithic chambered long barrow of immense proportions, created in two stages nearly 5000 years ago. It was begun around 2800 BC as a mound over 52 feet (16 meters) long, covering a mortuary chamber with wooden walls and a stone floor, which contained 14 bodies. This was then enclosed by boulders and chalk. Then around 50 years later, the much larger mound was built on top of it, with a sarsen kerb all around the outside and flanking ditches. Immense sarsens stand at the entrance, and four of the original stones have survived in situ. A passage then leads to a cruciform burial chamber, where bodies were placed, but for some inexplicable reason no thigh bones were ever found.
Today the barrow sits in a copse of ancient trees. It is an enchanting place, I would even say enchanted. Enchanted by its present woody bower. Enchanted by its origin in deep time. Enchanted by its name: Wayland is a corruption of Volund, a Scandinavian god who appears in various guises in many northern European prehistoric cultures.

Wayland was a smith. It was said that if a traveler needed a horse shod, he could leave the horse and a coin outside the "smithy" overnight, and the horse would be shod by morning. All of this, of course, lifts Wayland's Smithy out of the commonplace. An otherwise typical barrow gathers an aura of mystery. Our own sense of enchantment as we visited Wayland's Smithy may have had its roots in scientific knowledge of the barrows, but we felt it through the seat of our pants as we sat on the ancient stones -- something esthetic, spiritual even.

For us, the stories of the ancient gods are just that, stories. Enchanting fancies. For the builders of the barrows, the stories might have had less felicitous implications. Who was buried here, and why were hundreds of people corralled into the backbreaking work of moving so many tons of earth and stone? Why the missing thigh bones? What awful sacrifices did the gods require -- those gods who were thought to be part of the Primary World of lived experience? Here, possibly, we catch a glimpse of the darker uses -- abuses! -- of enchantment.

Tolkien writes: "Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess...It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came...Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors' own evil." Tolkien embraced a god of his own, the Christian god, and worshipped him. His faith was innocuous enough, but sometimes the gods lead men and women into terrible excesses of oppression and violence. Which is why the communally-contrived and empirically reliable Secondary World of science is so important -- a brake on excess. Abusus non tollit usum.

And so we try to balance art and science, the particular and the universal, the sacred and the profane, enchantment and disenchantment. We know in our bones that a spiritually nourishing and sustainable environmental future depends on knowing and employing commonplace truths of the Earth -- and endowing every tree and leaf with a sense of the sacred.