Tolkien and the Silmarillion, by Clyde S. Kilby (Harold Shaw, 1976)
Unless you’re familiar with the excellent Wade Center, the chances are good you’ve never heard of Clyde S. Kilby (1902-1986), a professor of English at Wheaton College from 1935 until his retirement in 1981. Yet, every reader of The Imaginative Conservative should know this man well. Indeed, we should possess nothing short of piety for Kilby. While he did not make C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien household names, he was, arguably, the first American scholar to recognize the literary merit of both men when popular culture had claimed them exclusively as its own. Kilby read and analyzed their works, taught courses on them, and visited them rather frequently in England. A decade younger than Tolkien but only three years younger than Lewis, he was, for all intents and purposes, of their generation. He was also a practicing Christian and a conservative, rare in academia even in the 50s and 60s.
Equally of note, Kilby was rather openly a Christian humanist. While this might not seem strange to those of us reading The Imaginative Conservative in 2015, it was very strange for a man teaching at Wheaton in the 1950s and 1960s. Why? Because almost every prominent Christian humanist—from Jacques Maritain to T.S. Eliot—was very high church and almost always some form of Catholic. Kilby was an evangelical Protestant.
Last night, I had the chance to reread Kilby’s short 1976 book, Tolkien and The Silmarillion. This was probably my sixth or seventh time to read it, and, as it always has, it hit me with a sense of awe and wonder. I first read it in the late summer of 1988, preparing for my first ever academic writing on Tolkien. I was twenty, a junior at Notre Dame, and just beginning one of the best classes I ever took, “Science Fiction and Philosophy.” It was taught by a rather famous Platonist, who just also happened to love Lewis and Tolkien. Though I read anything and everything like a fiend as a young boy and young man (and still do), literary criticism was foreign to me in 1988. From an autobiographical standpoint, Kilby’s book hit me, in part, because it was my first encounter with any form of real criticism. But, it also hit me, because I realized that Kilby truly understood Tolkien. He knew him. And, when he didn’t understand some aspect of Tolkien, he admitted it. I loved Kilby for these qualities: his humility, his honesty, and his enthusiasm.
After re-reading Kilby’s Tolkien and the Silmarillion, I looked up a few reviews of the book. As I feared, if it hadn’t been almost entirely forgotten, it has been dismissed as dated. True, hundreds of books and thousands of articles about Tolkien have come out since Kilby published the book in 1976. Only a year after the release of Tolkien and the Silmarillion, The Silmarillion (the actual one) appeared for the first time in print. Since, Unfinished Tales, twelve volumes of the History of Middle-earth have been published, as well as a number of Tolkien’s longer pieces on Beowulf, the Volsunga, and King Arthur.
In other words, in 2015, there is so much literary archeology to dig through, that Tolkien lovers are simply overwhelmed.
Yet, Kilby understood Tolkien, and, just as importantly, he appreciated him.
In the early 1960s, after having gotten to know Tolkien and Lewis, Kilby offered his services as a fan and as a literary critic to help Tolkien get The Silmarillion in publishable shape.
But for the encouragement of C.S. Lewis I do not think that I should ever have completed or offered for publication The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion is quite different, and if good at all, good in quite another way, and I do not really know what to make of it. It began I hospital and sick-leave (1916-1917) and has been with me ever since, and is now in a confused state, having been altered, enlarged, and worked out, at intervals between then and now. If I had the assistance of a scholar at once sympathetic and yet critical, such as yourself, I feel I might make some of it publishable. It needs the actual presence of a friend and advisor at one’s side, which is just what you offer. (Tolkien to Clyde Kilby, dated December 1965, and reprinted/transcribed in Tolkien and the Silmarillion, 17.)
When Tolkien gladly accepted Kilby’s offer, the Wheaton professor departed for Oxford, spending the summer of 1966 reading through the mass of stories that make up the first and second ages of Middle-earth. Kilby stayed just a few blocks away from the Tolkien home, walking there daily for the entire summer and working on the manuscripts. Often, he would talk with Tolkien and his wife, but he more often dug through the mass of manuscripts. Outside of Tolkien’s closest friends and family, Kilby was the first person to see any part of The Silmarillion, a work that Tolkien had begun as early 1916-1917 and possibly earlier (this for a future The Imaginative Conservative post). It serves as the entire basis and background for the better-known The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien and the Silmarillion is a memoir of Kilby’s work in 1966. Far from outdated, the book offers an incredible insight into Tolkien the man and Tolkien the myth-maker. Kilby realizes immediately that Tolkien is not only utterly brilliant, but that he is also equally and utterly disorganized. Tolkien’s life, the life of an academic, is good and happy one, but his scholarship and fiction is in complete disarray.
Manuscripts abound, all in various stages of completion or not. Rather than edit his original manuscripts, thus marking and editing a single document, Tolkien began every creative work anew, taking the best of what he’d already written but beginning again scratch. Often, manuscripts would conflict, and some parts from manuscript A would appear in C, but not in B.
Additionally—and I think this a critical point about Tolkien—he mixed all of his work together. Academic articles and research, fictional manuscripts from Middle-earth, poetry (original and otherwise), bestiaries, illustrations, maps, and translations of great works written by ancient authors, freely mixed with one another. When Kilby offered to archive the material in a proper and organized fashion, Tolkien balked! Never would he find anything again should Kilby do such a thing.
In between his descriptions of what was then unpublished in Tolkien’s mythology, Kilby reveals much about Tolkien’s personality. He was hilarious, fast talking, fastidious in dress, emotional, devoted to his wife, children, and grandchildren, animated, and passionate. He was also opinionated, mocking poor scholarship and those who pretended to know him and his work. Yet, he did even these uncharitable things with a twinkle in his eye and in a mischievous manner. In no particular order, he loved gardening, found trees to have distinct personalities, and devoured everything he could in the field of science fiction and mysteries. At times during conservation, he would break into Elvish song. He despised modern technology and the swarms of bureaucrats who never diminished in size but who sought to conform all things to their own image—especially in education. He despised no field of academics more than psychology, and he blamed its rise in the 1920s for the current destruction of Western civilization.
Tolkien and the Silmarillion is far from outdated, and it should never have been forgotten. Unfortunately, the published version (the only published version) in 1976 is only eighty-nine pages long. Happily, however, the Wade Center at Wheaton and the archives at Marquette University have the unpublished chapters from the book. These chapters are every bit as good as those actually published—one chapter describes Tolkien and Lewis as the last true men of the West.
Here’s one representative and fascinating passage not published:
Worst of all briar patches was what he persistently regarded as the spiritual decay of our times and particularly of his own Roman Catholic church, of which he was a longtime and devout member. The Church, he said, ‘which once felt like a refuge now feels like a trap.’ He was appalled that even the sacred Eucharist might be attended by ‘dirty youths, women in trousers and often with their hair unkempt and uncovered’ and, what was worse, the grievous suffering given by ‘stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests.’ An anecdote I have heard involved his attendance at mass not long after Vatican II. An expert in Latin, he had reluctantly composed himself to its abolishment in favor of English. But when he arrived next time at services and seated himself in the middle of a bench, he began to notice other changes than the language, one a diminution of genuflection. His disappointment was such that he rose up and made his way awkwardly to the aisle and there made three very low bows, then stomped out of the church. (From unpublished parts of Tolkien and the Silmarillion, Wade Center, Wheaton College)
At the request of Tolkien’s son and literary heir, Christopher, Kilby also omitted his chapter that summed up the story of The Silmarillion. Christopher’s request is understandable given that Tolkien’s reputation had not yet emerged in proper academic circles, and no one quite knew how a book as dense as The Silmarillion might do. It was also only a year away from publication in its full and official form. It seems ridiculous to imagine in 2015, but there was a long time when Tolkien’s reputation remained in doubt.
Yet, Kilby’s summation of the story, far from being outdated, offers some fascinating insights into Tolkien’s world. In particular, Kilby focused on a discussion between an Elf and a human wise woman. The conversation deals with the possible Incarnation of Eru (God the Father) in the world. How could an author enter into his book without exploding it? How could God enter into His creation without destroying it? Tolkien had written a note on the manuscript of the conversation stating that—in no uncertain terms—this must serve as a central part of the final, published version of The Silmarillion. I can state without exaggeration that this conversation explains and describes the Incarnation more expertly and with more beauty than anything I’ve ever read with the important exception of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.”
And, yet, pick up your copy of The Silmarillion, thumb through it, and you’ll see no such conversation. As literary heir, Christopher chose to exclude all explicit theological and philosophical discussions, focusing instead on the mythological narrative of the story.
This vital conversation that reveals so much about Tolkien and his mythology did not see print until volume 10 of the History of Middle-earth: Morgoth’s Ring.
Most importantly, though, Kilby’s Tolkien and the Silmarillion, reveals the deep Christianity found in Tolkien’s mythology. There are two critical points to be made. First, Tolkien admitted to Kilby in conversation that summer that the “Secret Fire” was, indeed, the Holy Spirit. Thus, when Gandalf confronts the Balrog in Moria, his “I am a servant of the Secret Fire,” is an invocation of the Third Person of the Most Blessed Trinity.
Additionally, Kilby asked Tolkien about the role of Christ in The Lord of the Rings, to which the author admitted that the offices of Christ appear as symbol but not allegory: Frodo is priest; Gandalf is prophet; and Aragorn is king. This, of course, is in great contrast to Lewis’s Aslan.
Kilby must’ve been a rather humorous person, as one finds little treasures in his memoirs from that summer as well. Little treasures that make his visit very real.
As one example, Kilby received letters of encouragement from the States.
A letter received today (July 30) from one of my friends in New York says: ‘We’re all saying prayers and lighting votive candles for the early appearance of the SILMARILLION. Tell JRRT his following is no longer a cult. It is a zeitgeist. He is determining the frame of mind of a whole university generation.’
As many saw it, Kilby’s work would make or break Tolkien’s reputation.
Kilby also saw The Sound of Music in the movie theater during that summer, the ticket stub still stuck in his notes on The Silmarillion.
The question remains: Is Kilby’s book from 1976 dated? Definitely not. It should still be on the shelf every lover of Tolkien, Christian Humanism, or The Imaginative Conservative.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.