Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pearce on Belloc and Tolkien (and Chesterton?)

From The National Catholic Register:

Although Belloc and Tolkien had much in common, not least of which was their shared and impassioned Catholicism, it is intriguing that they should differ so profoundly on the importance of the Anglo-Saxons.

Belloc’s view of history, for the most part astute and penetrative, was always skewed by a less-than-balanced Francophilia and an almost shrill Germanophobia. This was evident in his dismissive disregard of the contribution to Christian culture of the Germanic tribes of England prior to the Norman Conquest and his lauding of the Conquest itself as having brought England into the fullness of Christendom which was always, for Belloc, synonymous with the influence of France.

In contrast, Tolkien considered Anglo-Saxon England to have been idyllically Christian. Had he had his “whole case very carefully prepared” to counter Belloc’s attack on the Anglo-Saxons, he might have shown that Anglo-Saxon England was profoundly Catholic, to such a degree that the saintly Englishman, Boniface, had helped to evangelize Pagan Europe, while his contemporary, the truly venerable Bede, had exhibited the high culture that Saxon England enjoyed in abundance.

Whilst the former converted the Germans to Christ, the latter excelled in Latin and Greek, and classical and patristic literature, as well as Hebrew, medicine and astronomy. Bede also wrote homilies, lives of saints, hymns, epigrams, works on chronology and grammar, commentaries on the Old and New Testament, and, most famously, his seminal Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum which was translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred the Great. At the time of his death in 735 Bede had just finished translating the Gospel of St. John into Anglo-Saxon. Almost six hundred years later, Dante expressed his own admiration for Bede’s achievement by placing him in the Paradiso of his Divina Commedia.

Pearce doesn't mention it, but Chesterton must have been influenced by Belloc, in spite of his admiration for Alfred the Great. As Chesterton writes in his A Short History of England (from Chapter 5. "St. Edward and the Norman Kings") he presents a mixed view of the Anglo-Saxons, although he does praise them for "christening" England:

As I have indicated, there is some unreality in talking about the Anglo-Saxon at all. The Anglo-Saxon is a mythical and straddling giant, who has presumably left one footprint in England and the other in Saxony. But there was a community, or rather group of communities, living in Britain before the Conquest under what we call Saxon names, and of a blood probably more Germanic and certainly less French than the same communities after the Conquest. And they have a modern reputation which is exactly the reverse of their real one. The value of the Anglo-Saxon is exaggerated, and yet his virtues are ignored. Our Anglo-Saxon blood is supposed to be the practical part of us; but as a fact the Anglo-Saxons were more hopelessly unpractical than any Celt. Their racial influence is supposed to be healthy, or, what many think the same thing, heathen. But as a fact these "Teutons" were the mystics. The Anglo-Saxons did one thing, and one thing only, thoroughly well, as they were fitted to do it thoroughly well. They christened England. Indeed, they christened it before it was born. The one thing the Angles obviously and certainly could not manage to do was to become English. But they did become Christians, and indeed showed a particular disposition to become monks. Moderns who talk vaguely of them as our hardy ancestors never do justice to the real good they did us, by thus opening our history, as it were, with the fable of an age of innocence, and beginning all our chronicles, as so many chronicles began, with the golden initial of a saint. By becoming monks they served us in many very valuable and special capacities, but not notably, perhaps, in the capacity of ancestors.

Chesterton does admire Alfred the Great, of course, having written his great poem The Ballad of the White Horse about this Anglo-Saxon hero (from Chapter 4. "The Defeat of the Barbarians"):

There is, from the first, something humble and even accidental about Alfred. He was a great understudy. The interest of his early life lies in this: that he combined an almost commonplace coolness, and readiness for the ceaseless small bargains and shifting combinations of all that period, with the flaming patience of saints in times of persecution. While he would dare anything for the faith, he would bargain in anything except the faith. He was a conqueror, with no ambition; an author only too glad to be a translator; a simple, concentrated, wary man, watching the fortunes of one thing, which he piloted both boldly and cautiously, and which he saved at last.
He had disappeared after what appeared to be the final heathen triumph and settlement, and is supposed to have lurked like an outlaw in a lonely islet in the impenetrable marshlands of the Parret; towards those wild western lands to which aboriginal races are held to have been driven by fate itself. But Alfred, as he himself wrote in words that are his challenge to the period, held that a Christian man was unconcerned with fate. He began once more to draw to him the bows and spears of the broken levies of the western shires, especially the men of Somerset; and in the spring of 878 he flung them at the lines before the fenced camp of the victorious Danes at Ethandune. His sudden assault was as successful as that at Ashdown, and it was followed by a siege which was successful in a different and very definite sense. Guthrum, the conqueror of England, and all his important supports, were here penned behind their palisades, and when at last they surrendered the Danish conquest had come to an end. Guthrum was baptized, and the Treaty of Wedmore secured the clearance of Wessex. The modern reader will smile at the baptism, and turn with greater interest to the terms of the treaty. In this acute attitude the modern reader will be vitally and hopelessly wrong. He must support the tedium of frequent references to the religious element in this part of English history, for without it there would never have been any English history at all. And nothing could clinch this truth more than the case of the Danes. In all the facts that followed, the baptism of Guthrum is really much more important than the Treaty of Wedmore. The treaty itself was a compromise, and even as such did not endure; a century afterwards a Danish king like Canute was really ruling in England. But though the Dane got the crown, he did not get rid of the cross. It was precisely Alfred's religious exaction that remained unalterable. 

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