book cover imageTheodore Dalrymple, Farewell Fear (New English Review Press, 2012, 238 pp.)

In his most recent book, English essayist Theodore Dalrymple covers a wide range of cultural topics, from good-natured folks who love hedgehogs to personal ads that prompt unrealistic romantic expectations to the revealing imprudence of an intellectual who places Margaret Thatcher in the same “category” as Napoleon and Hitler. Dalrymple summarizes this candid collection in his first essay, in which he claims that the one thing the hedgehog knows is “that there is not only one big thing to know.” What follows is an engaging assortment of social and cultural commentary that showcases the author’s curiosity in an array of areas. Despite offering a biting analysis of nihilistic decadence in the West, the skeptical tone of the collection is also accompanied by a wry sense of humor and an almost childlike sense of wonder.

This notion of wonder is a common theme throughout, as Dalrymple claims a capacity for enchantment and gratitude are the very qualities Western man is increasingly lacking, which makes him more like a stunted teenager than a precocious toddler. In an essay on the Irish economic crisis he says, “It is in fact a crisis of Western man who cannot control his appetites, who wants today what only the labour of the future can supply, or supply honestly. Western man is, in effect, a child.” Dalrymple also relates his own abhorrence of waste to the pervasive dissatisfaction encouraged by consumerist societies: “For unthinking waste … implies a failure to appreciate: not so much disenchantment with the world as a failure to be enchanted in the first place.”

In the style for which he is known, the author describes this world in which we live with clear prose and accessible examples. Dalrymple’s collection suggests that perhaps the main reason we must say “farewell to fear” is because evil no longer has much need of deception. Dishonesty and greed can parade about with little consequence, which is why, Dalrymple claims, politicians who embody both vices continue to be re-elected by millions: “They not only rule us, they represent us and what we ourselves have become.”

book cover imageJ. R. R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur (edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 233 pp.)

For serious Tolkien fans, the 2013 release of the unfinished and previously unknown poem, The Fall of Arthur, was a long awaited occasion. This particular piece is one of several narrative poems that Tolkien abandoned for other writing pursuits, though it should be noted that only forty pages or so of the text is the actual Arthurian poem by Tolkien. The remainder of the book is made up of notes compiled by Tolkien’s last surviving son, Christopher.

These notes, however, are worth reading since they provide helpful insights for those unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature, highlighting how Tolkien’s poem fits within the larger Arthurian tradition, as well as how it relates to Tolkien’s mythopoeic masterpiece, The Simarillion. Just as Tolkien’s 1936 lecture and essay Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics became a landmark in Beowulf studies, The Fall of Arthur reveals the depth and breadth of Tolkien’s abilities as a scholar in addition to his inexhaustible imagination.

book cover imageCharles Stewart, Dreaming and Historical Consciousness in Island Greece (Harvard University Press, 2012, 259 pp.)

The historian John Lukacs has long contended that the best definition of history is “the remembered past.” How and what we remember constitutes a community and helps define the character of those living in it. Charles Stewart, a Reader in Anthropology at University College London, provides a fascinating analysis of the relationship between historicism and alternative paradigms of historical consciousness, raising the important question: What experiences of the past “count” as history?

Stewart looks specifically at the experiences of Greek villagers on the island of Naxos, many of whom believe they communicate with dead saints through dreams. He explores the notion that dreams “consistently violate the dictates of historicism,” which additionally “violates the historicist separation of past and present.” That dreams are central to the establishment of historical conscious and “collective memory” in a community like Naxos challenges the notion that people in the West are as “modern” or secular as we often claim. The role of dream-myths in some cultures reflects a belief of the past, present, and future all existing in the present moment. This non-rationalist view of time challenges Enlightenment ideas of causation as well as a narrow, chronological view of historical consciousness.

Dreaming and Historical Consciousness in Island Greece suggests that the modern conception of history may only be part of the story. Other understandings of historical time still hold sway. These understandings place individuals in a richer, “thicker,” historical context of memory and community that is poorly addressed by a straitened, rationalistic account.

book cover imageStratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (Angelico Press, 2012, 168 pp.)

A companion to Beauty for Truth’s Sake—Stratford Caldecott’s first book on the liberal arts—this sequel takes a closer look at the Trivium. These three traditional “arts of language” (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) challenge progressive models of education that tend to lead to the fracturing of subjects—and subsequently of persons—by locating the ultimate purpose of education not in achieving, but in the restoration of being: “of knowing, that is to say giving; of being known, that is to say receiving; and of the loving gift.”

Caldecott explains the integrative role of the Trivium in education through several triune examples and creative analogies. The “three ways” of the Trivium reflect the human ability to Imagine, Think, and Speak, which also correspond to the three transcendental qualities of Being—Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—as well as the classical “ways of knowing”—Mythos, Logos, and Ethos. The intention of such an education is to form children into free, responsible, fully alive people who reflect the Imago Dei. Caldecott claims that we humans desire truth because it is beautiful, and the Word (imagining, thinking, speaking) is where this search for wisdom, and ultimately for love, takes place. An excellent resource for educators and parents alike!  

Brief reviews of recent books from Theodore Dalrymple and J. R. R. Tolkien plus books on historical consciousness and the trivium.