A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Trying to love Modernism

Sørina Higgins’s plenary talk at Mythmoot IV, and the reaction it got from the high-octane scholars in the room, convinced me I should try to engage idiosophically with Modernism instead of treating all the Inklings’ works separately from it. But here’s the first hurdle: Modernism doesn’t appeal to me. What do I gain by putting my favorite book in a set with a lot of books I don’t like? How do I get over my distaste for most early-Twentieth-Century literature?

Maybe by skipping media. If I zoom ‘way out, I can find another modernist work I love. It’s a musical composition, not a book. “The Planets” by Gustav Holst might be the only “popular” piece in all of Modernist music. It’s older than all but the earliest things JRRT put on paper.

“The Planets” is a suite of seven movements, one for each planet except Earth. Holst doesn’t give the planets their Greco-Roman mythological significance; the subtitles are Theosophical instead. Though I don’t have any written evidence about JRRT ‘s opinion of Theosophy [1], I feel confident that it rose no higher than slight regard. Therefore, I’m not going to look for any congruence in the meanings of the pieces. I’d rather look at environmental effects. The parallels will more likely appear in the emotional responses the artists invoke, not their content.

“Mars, the Bringer of War” was written before World War I, so its depiction of the horrors of mechanized slaughter isn’t a mirror so much as a prophecy. This is an instantly-recognizable piece all over the world. David Bratman talks about it being echoed by Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld™, and also tosses in an allusion to the early drafts of the Quenta Silmarillion in which the dragons are described as mechanical, like tanks. To which I’d add the blaring trumpets that we hear when the Black Gate opens:

They came within cry of the Morannon, and unfurled the banner, and blew upon their trumpets; and the heralds stood out and sent their voices up over the battlement of Mordor. … even as the Captains were about to turn away, the silence was broken suddenly. There came a long rolling of great drums like thunder in the mountains, and then a braying of horns that shook the very stones and stunned men’s ears. And thereupon the door of the Black Gate was thrown open with a great clang, and out of it there came an embassy from the Dark Tower.

LotR V, x

“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” matches up well with the tone of JRRT’s prose that I hear in elvish lands, once I get past the things that my baroque ears still hear as weird dissonances. Here in Legolas’s speech about mallorn trees in LotR II,vi, the constantly-shifting rhythms match this piece well: “Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers, and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.” Actually, now that I think of it, elvish music probably has all kinds of weird dissonances in it, by Western standards. After a thousand years or so, a single mode of composition might sound dull to even the most conservative audiences.

“Mercury, the Messenger” doesn’t have a good match in LotR. Its anti-gravity and velocity have a lot in common with Bilbo’s poem “Errantry”, but that mood is rare in the book proper.

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”, is the most fun, and it has hobbitry all over it. Bratman (op cit.) points out that Holst makes good use of English folk tunes in several of his compositions. [2] The Prancing Pony must have sounded like this in the years after the return of the King.

“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was supposedly Holst’s favorite movement of the seven. That opinion points toward the reason I generally don’t like Modernism — slow, ponderous works of art are far less interesting to me than the liveliness of Jupiter or even the heavy-metal brutality of Mars. I was taught in English class that the morbid obsessions of the Modernists were a consequence of WWI, but this piece is evidence that they were already intensely focused on mortality before the war. It makes me wonder if we have the causality relationship backwards. I hear the passage through the Dead Marshes in this one.

“Uranus, the Magician” brings us into the full-scale theosophical rewriting of myth. “Magician” is quite a demotion from Uranus’s old job! This is a fun piece to listen to. I don’t quite get the processional feel to the music — what does that have to do with magicians? Perhaps Holst didn’t want me to be able to decide whether he meant a stage magician or Aleister Crowley. In any case, this works. Saruman might have told the musicians to play a piece like this as his army marched out of Isengard to make war on Rohan. He was probably conducting the band himself, using a wand as a baton.

“Neptune, the Mystic” is another Theosophical demotion. Amazing how a bunch of mystics set out to discover the nature of planetary intelligences, and one of the seven just happened to be a mystic. [3] It was almost half a century ago, but I remember the liner notes from my father’s recording saying this was “the pure, disembodied essence of sound.” Why that’s a good thing, the liner-noter didn’t say. They couldn’t have gotten further from my understanding of music if they’d tried. I suspect JRRT might have shared my opinion. His poetry begins with rhythm, and this piece has almost none. So even though it’s not so complimentary to the two artists, there’s a parallel here, too. Confession time: “Ainulindalë” bores me to the edge of coma. That’s not how the universe began; the universe began with a C-Major chord. (Some people say E-flat, but that sort is notoriously unreliable.) Tolkien and Holst made the same conceptual mistake (as I so humbly see it): because matter as we know it didn’t exist in their context, they went for slow, rhythmless modulations to represent something that’s as placid and introspective as the interior of a blast furnace. This is worse than wrong. It is French.


The parallels between Holst and Tolkien are there, and easy to see. Tolkien is a Modernist; Sørina isn’t crazy. [4] They have similar (6/7 cases) things in mind that they want their audiences to think about. Time to admit it; my favorite author is right smack in the middle of a bunch of artists I don’t like very much. Perhaps we should define a kind of “pop-modernism”, to go with all the other hyphenations of modernism that critics have created, to encompass those participants in the first half of the twentieth century who don’t owe future generations an apology.

[1] Theosophists have plenty of things to say about JRRT. I do not recommend searching “tolkien theosophy” until they make a search engine that filters out pages predominantly composed of deceased intestinal flora.

[2] Holst even wrote a suite of music for Morris dances. (!) They’re kind of tame. I don’t think they would protect against Elf invasions.

[3] Maybe they were using a reflecting telescope and installed the mirror backwards.

[4] Well, not in this case anyway. Trying to teach Idiosophers to dance weighs rather heavily against this conclusion.


Hail, Caesura


Graphing the Inklings


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, not least because Holst has long been one of my favourite composers. There is so much that I like about him, not least his love for English folk music, his life long association with the Church of England and its music, the fact that he loved teaching people with very little education and thought it worth doing and his love of walking.
    The connection between Lewis and the cosmology of the pre-moderns has been well established in The Narnia Code by Michael Ward. I had never really thought about it in relation to Tolkien’s work. I think that you make your case very well and I will enjoy thinking about it. The relationship between the pre-modern world and 20th century modernity is very important. The critics tried to pass the Inklings off as mere sentimentalists but their work could not have had its impact if it just been an antiquarian exercise.
    And Holst is not “just” a modernist either. His work is often an intense conversation between ancient and modern. I am pretty sure that Lewis liked The Planets and thought that Holst demonstrated a good understanding of his material.

    • Joe

      Lots of Modernist works seem to be a one-sided conversation with ancient mythology. (The first example that comes to mind is “Ulysses”.) I hadn’t thought this was one of them — I’ll have to push harder on that and see what pops out.

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