Academic journal article Mythlore

The Face of the Materialist Magician: Lewis, Tolkien, and the Art of Crossing Perilous Streets

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Face of the Materialist Magician: Lewis, Tolkien, and the Art of Crossing Perilous Streets

Article excerpt

Before I knew anything, back in the early months of 1967 when I was a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, two seemingly unrelated things occurred there that changed my life. They both happened on George Street, which runs parallel with the Raritan River, heading, if you are facing south, up towards the bluff where on December 1, 1776, Alexander Hamilton and his troops fired some cannon shots towards the British during the Revolutionary War. A friend from high school, Bill Spencer, who is a year older than I am and was then a sophomore at Rutgers, screeched to a halt in his old Plymouth Barracuda, and registered his delight that we were now back in contact. It was he who, shortly thereafter, first introduced me to the writings of C.S. Lewis. The second event, a few weeks later, was this: I was walking along the same portion of the same street but on its other side, and I happened to look up and spotted a sign in the window of a dormitory that read "Frodo Lives!" (2) I of course had to find out who that Frodo was and why I should be excited that he was still alive, and so I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, not knowing that Lewis and Tolkien had been friends.

George Street has, in other words, been for me a road that goes ever on, a perilous place, a liminal portal like the wardrobe in Professor Kirke's spare room. Or, better yet, it is for me the Wood between the Worlds from Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, presenting possibilities that could change my life--some to be rejected, some accepted. It was, in fact, at the same spot in that same liminal year of 1967 that a member of the Rutgers Crew stopped me to see if I wanted to try out for his team; I was, after all, the right height and weight and seemingly in good shape. I reluctantly said no, feeling that athletics would steal time from the books I love so much. But to this day I often wonder who I might have been if I had jumped into that particular pool. A Texan now, my last visit to my alma mater was in 2007, on the way home from a trip to England, to see my other longtime friend, Kevin Mulcahy, who is a librarian there. I carefully chose then to walk along College Avenue instead, which roughly parallels George Street, one block away. It was too dangerous on that other side.

The word "liminal," usually encountered in Modern English as the last part of the word "subliminal," is an adjective derived from the Latin word "limin," which means "threshold." Thresholds are usually considered everyday things, little bumps of wood over which doors close, things that function merely to keep out the cold and deter the bugs and spiders. But I would argue that they are far more than that. Thresholds are transitional events where we face both ways--sometimes literally, always metaphorically. As Bilbo would remind us, the road that is outside our front door can sweep us away if we are not careful. After all, he first met Gandalf on the threshold of his home on Bag End, and when they faced each other for the first time, it was a moment of monumental change for both of them. I do not know if a literal threshold figured into another first face-to-face meeting, one that occurred in the late 1920s in Oxford, but certainly the lives of both Lewis and Tolkien were changed by it. (3)

In this article I would like to piece together some ideas having to do with liminal spaces, faces, and facing things. I intend this to illuminate how Lewis and Tolkien co-created a motif that Lewis first named "the Materialist Magician" and to argue for its importance in our attempt to understand their artistic agendas--particularly how those agendas relate to their war experiences (4) and also to the Arthurian narratives. Here is a first draft of a definition of the Materialist Magician: he is part wizard, part scientist. As such, he faces both ways in time: wizards are associated with the past, particularly with the Middle Ages, while scientists, at least in popular imagination, are the ones whose theories and inventions shape the future. …

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