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The Elf Lays Down His Harp to Kill an Orc

A few notes on the Inklings, Iain McGilchrist, and Poetic Language

Photo by Madalyn Cox / Unsplash
Owen Barfield wrote about the importance of pre-rational thought and language. It heavily influenced Tolkien’s work. Iain McGilchrist has written about the same thing in The Master and His Emissary and the importance of the brain’s right hemisphere.

Poetry Wanes Before Logical Thought

“Language,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is fossil poetry.”

Owen Barfield used that quote in the conclusion of his classic Poetic Diction. He said the pithy phrase “covers practically” everything in his book.

But what does it mean?

It means that poetry came prior to language, which means it came prior to logical thought (language is “the prime material of logical construction” (Poetic Diction (1984), p 62). By the time language progressed through millennia, it lost its poetic beginnings and, though it retains things like metaphor, it is a fossilized remnant of itself.

It became that fossilized remnant because, even though language came prior to logical thought, logic in turn employed language for its own purposes. As western civilization progressed, logic became stronger and stronger. The stronger it became, the more poetry receded. “As civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines.” Macauley (PD, 68).

Yet, poetry clearly required some sort of thought. It isn’t just rational or logical thought. It is, to frame it in a Taoist way, “non-thought.” And because it was prior to logical thought, poetry is higher than prose (the tool of logical thought).

But if poetry isn’t “logical thought,” what is it?

It is “poetic knowledge” (which is the title of a minor classic work by James Taylor . . . no, not the 1970s singer/songwriter).

Owen Barfield Anticipated Iain McGilchrist

All this was prompted when I attended a lecture by Professor Brad Birzer about the Inklings last Sunday. Birzer has a book coming out about the Inklings (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and many others). Birzer said Owen Barfield’s classic "exerted a profound influence" on the Inklings (go to minute 31:35 at "a lecture" immediately above), especially Tolkien (34:04), who had already reached many of Barfield's conclusion (and had started creating Middle Earth over a decade before Barfield published Poetic Diction).

It’s thought-provoking stuff, but those conclusions in Poetic Diction were reached 100 years ago. Archeology and contemporary science have taught us a lot in the past 100 years that Barfield wouldn’t have had access to (though he lived long, until 1997).

Does that whole concept (language started poetic in a pre-logic mode then degenerated/advanced into logic-bound prose) hold up?

Apparently, yes.

When Professor Birzer provided a nutshell summary of Poetic Diction, I perked up. It was like he was paraphrasing McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary.

Birzer on Poetic Diction: The book describes how rationalism and logic have crippled the pre-rational poetic nature of our language.

McGilchrist: The left hemisphere and its tools of logic, manipulation, and division have usurped the primacy of the right hemisphere’s “tools” of music, empathy, and wholeness.

When I got home from the lecture, I immediately combed through McGilchrist’s chapter “Language, Truth and Music,” looking for corroboration. It didn’t take me long.

Barfield, citing the nineteenth century’s Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Macaulay, said the earliest language was poetic.

McGilchrist, citing various sources including Benedetto Croce and British Classicist K.J. Dover (died in 2010), writes about “the otherwise baffling historical fact that poetry evolved before prose.” (105).

McGilchrist denigrates prose, noting that it was first known as pezos logos, meaning “pedestrian logos,” as opposed to the dancing logos of poetry. He points out that early poetry was sung:

[T]he evolution of literary skill progresses, if that is the correct word, from right-hemisphere music (words that are sung), to right-hemisphere language (the metaphorical language of poetry), to left-hemisphere language (the referential language of prose).

That was just the warm-up. The rest of the chapter is a paean to poetic knowledge and a condemnation of our left hemisphere’s obsession with rationality, control, and their tools: prose.

He emphasizes, citing numerous examples and proofs, that language is not necessary for thought at all. Indeed, McGilchrist points out that language can impede thought. Most thinking, he points out, occurs without prose (language as we know/use it today). Imagination, innovation, intuitive problem-solving, and artistic creativity all require us to transcend prose.

McGilchrist notes that the right hemisphere’s exclusive ability to relate to the outside world gives it the exclusive ability to understand metaphor. He points out the non-purposive and social nature of music, when contrasted to the manipulative and controlling nature of prose. He sees that the wu-wei, non-action, of Taoism is closely related to one of the right hemisphere’s main tools: intuition (as opposed to rationality, which is the left hemisphere’s main weapon).

Tolkien’s Elves, No Doubt Informed by Barfield’s Poetic Diction, Embody McGilchrist’s Ideal Brain

When I got done with McGilchrist’s chapter on language, I suddenly realized that he was describing an earlier age, one that predated the grasping, exploitative, manipulative rationality of modernity.

I then realized that Tolkien scholars consistently say that’s exactly what Tolkien was doing when he created Middle Earth, which isn’t surprising, since he worked within the proto-McGilchrist Barfield’s understanding of poetic language and knowledge.

Part of me wanted to conclude that Tolkien’s description of the Shire is proto-McGilchrist. But upon reflection, I don’t think so. I think the Shire is more like a world where the right hemisphere, and its love of music and poetry and friendship, was still master, but where the left hemisphere, and its love of writing and commerce, was already exercising a measure of independence from its master. The Shire was a world divided, so to speak, or a culture undergoing evolution, but still one where the right hemisphere was mostly in control.

I think Tolkien’s perfect proto-McGilchrist form is found in Rivendell and Lorien, the last kingdoms of the elves. The elves, I believe, display the proper relationship between the hemispheres, almost to perfection: the musical and poetic and playful nature of the right hemisphere served by the more mundane functions of the left hemisphere.

The elf could mesmerize by singing with a harp, then put it down to kill an orc with a sword.

It is, I believe, a perfect illustration of the master right hemisphere dispatching his emissarial left hemisphere. After the task is done, the harp is picked back up and the left hemisphere (with its tools of practical skills and control) relaxes at his master’s feet until called upon again.