12 November 2017

Legolas at Night -- C.S. Lewis and the Dreams of the Elves

The other day I was listening to one of Malcolm Guite's marvelous talks -- I say marvelous, as if, absurdly, there were talks of his that were not marvelous -- this one was on C. S. Lewis and part of a series on The Inklings. Right near the end, he read aloud Lewis' poem, The Adam at Night, to convey Lewis' sense of what the consciousness of an unfallen human being might be like. In this poem, first published in Punch in 1949, Lewis imagines Adam not sleeping, says Guite, but, 'as it were, entering into the consciousness of the world itself without losing his consciousness as a person':
Except at the making of Eve Adam slept
Not at all (as men now sleep) before the Fall;
Sin yet unborn, he was free from that dominion
04  Of the blind brother of death who occults the mind. 
Instead, when stars and twilight had him to bed
And the dutiful owl, whirring over Eden, had hooted
A warning to the other beasts to be hushed till morning
08  And curbed their plays that the Man should be undisturbed,

He would lie, relaxed, enormous, under a sky
Starry as never since; he would set ajar
The door of his mind. Into him thoughts would pour
12  Other than day's. He rejoined Earth, his mother.
He melted into her nature. Gradually he felt
As though through his own flesh the elusive growth,
The hardening and spreading of roots in the deep garden;
16  In his veins, the wells filling with silver rains, 
And, thrusting down far under his rock-crust,
Finger-like, rays from the heavens that probed, bringing
To bloom the gold and diamond in his dark womb.
20  The seething, central fires moved with his breathing. 
He guided his globe smoothly in the heaven, riding
At one with his planetary peers around the Sun;
Courteously he saluted the hard virtue of Mars
24  And Venus' liquid glory as he spun between them. 
Over Man and his mate the Hours like waters ran
Till darkness thinned in the east. The treble lark,
Carolling, awoke the common people of Paradise
28  To yawn and scratch, to bleat and whinny, in the dawn. 
Collected now in themselves, human and erect,
Lord and Lady walked on the dabbled sward,
As if two trees should arise dreadfully gifted
32  With speech and motion. The Earth's strength was in each.

The first three quatrains (lines 1-12) called at once to my mind Tolkien's characterization of the dreams of Elves:
With that [Aragorn] fell asleep. Legolas already lay motionless, his fair hands folded upon his breast, his eyes unclosed, blending living night and deep dream, as is the way with Elves.
(TT 3.ii.442)
Legolas can do the same thing, or something very like it, by day as well:
and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.  
(TT 3.ii.429)
While quatrains 4 through 7 (12-28) do not bear the same close resemblance to what we find in Tolkien, the essential closeness of Adam to the world and the creatures in it is reminiscent of how closely to Arda the Elves are bound. Even at death they do not leave it -- as do Men whose proper home is not in Arda, but somewhere beyond it -- but after a time live again. And this will be so for as long as Arda lasts. In keeping with this is their way with nature, ranging from Legolas' ability to hear the stones of Hollin and communicate with Arod, the horse loaned him by Éomer, to the Elves' power to enchant and to 'wake up' creatures and teach them to talk, as they did with the Ents. 

Even so, the reference to the 'common people of Paradise' in lines 27-28 seems far more Narnian, and it is hard not to think of Tor and Tinidril of Perelandra when Lewis calls Adam and Eve 'Lord and Lady' in line 30. Yet this also turns us back to Tolkien, since the names Tor and Tinidril are modelled on Tuor and Idril from The Silmarillion, and his Ents are very much trees 'dreadfully gifted with speech and motion'. But so, too, in a sense, are Ask and Embla, the first two humans of Norse Mythology, whom Odin, Vili, and Vé fashioned from tree-trunks they found on the seashore: '[o]ne of Bor's sons gives [them] spirit and life; the second, mind and movement; the third, appearance, speech, hearing, and vision' (Lindow, 62). Both Lewis and Tolkien of course knew this myth perfectly well.

Finally in this lovely web of influences we should not forget that Tolkien modeled the way Treebeard spoke 'on the booming voice of C. S. Lewis' (Carpenter, 1977, 194), just as Lewis drew on Tolkien to shape his hero, Ransom, the philologist and hero of his Space Trilogy.




  1. I've been reading about contemplative prayer and "unitive consciousness," and it seems uncannily similar (but not half as beautifully described) as Tolkien's description of Legolas "blending living night and deep dream" or walking "open-eyed in the light of this world." Owen Barfield, anyone? ;)

  2. Thanks, Connie. Guite does mention Barfield at this point in his talk, too, but without getting specific. I haven't had the chance to track this idea down in his works yet.