The books that last

Early one morning, around a week ago, I opened the front door to take a draught of clean morning air when I detected something in the breeze that awoke a cheer in the heart. There was in the wind an unmistakeable autumn quality – a new chill, the smell of damp earth – that had not been there even the morning before, and that meant two things. Firstly, and most obviously, it meant that autumn was here, and autumn has always been my favourite season. Second, it reminded me of an event that always happens at this time of year. There is in my memory a certain someone who famously waited for the autumn before setting off on a perilous quest: someone who felt, surely correctly, that summer was the time for relaxing and making the most of the comforts of home; autumn for journeying and adventure. That someone went by the name of Frodo Baggins. This year, as in so many of the years since I first attempted it, and despite the terrifying perils that await any who do, I decided once again to join Frodo on his quest.

I am talking, of course, about JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. It may seem odd that a (relatively) grown-up and (sometimes) serious person should spend so much time, year after year, reviewing yet again a tale concerned mostly with furry-footed creatures that first made their appearance in a children’s story. Of course, many people get obsessed with silly and trivial things and build a life around them – we have learnt to tolerate this or even admire it as part of “geek” culture. But a decision to reread Lord of the Rings regularly is not that, or not in all cases at any rate. It goes deeper.

In my life I have read many books that deeply moved and affected me in various ways, and I have not forgotten them. I am grateful for the lessons they taught and the pleasures they gave. But I never go back to them now. They were books of the moment, and the moment has passed. Enid Blyton enchanted my childhood. But there’s no going back now. Kurt Vonnegut and Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx fomented a rebellion. Revolutions can’t last for ever.

Other books are not books of the moment: they are for ever. They do not just satisfy passing needs and fancies but have depths unguessed of when one first reads them. They are like a deep well – you go to them and draw as much water as can satisfy the needs of the moment; you carry away with you according to your capacity. But when you go back, you’re surprised to find that more can be drawn – ever more, to satisfy the soul-thirst of a lifetime.

Again, that The Lord of the Rings is such a book may surprise some. Perhaps they tried it in the past or know it by reputation and just can’t get on with fairy tales or take seriously hobbits and elves and goblins. Perhaps they enjoyed it on the level of the story as a child, and never went back. Perhaps they have learned to despise the book, as have several miserabilist and materialist critics, finding that the book appears to their intellect as too simple-minded, too reactionary, a glamorisation of war or apology for class division or backward-looking, petit-bourgeois romanticism – even fascism.

The latter cannot have read the book at all, or not very closely – they certainly cannot have read in it deeply.

The Lord of the Rings is very much like the Bhagavad Gita. On the level of the material events of the story, it is indeed a tale of a war. On the intellectual level, it is full of aphorisms that provide much food for thought and stories providing entertainment and amusement. Whether these appeal to you in the manner presented may well be a matter of taste. But the real force, the real meaning, of the book is deeper and more spiritual. The Gita and The Lord of the Rings both are really about the inner war for the individual soul.

The Ring of the title is a magical object that gives its bearer and all who use it great worldly powers. (It’s something like a mind fixed on worldly goals then.) All who hear of it greatly desire this power – they want to get their hands on this magical and precious object, have it for their own, use it for their own ends – and, from the first, perhaps they genuinely desire such power that they may do good with it. But desire and the lust for power have their own logic, their own demands, and these all too easily overpower one’s more noble intentions. You seize the Ring intending only good; but only the smallest missteps lead one away from the path and into the dark forest, where the undergrowth of tangled wants will ensnare you for incarnations. The path to evil is paved with good intentions.

The corrupting influence of such desires on all the heroes of the book at every step in their quest and battles gives the lie to the notion that this is a simplistic and simple-minded tale of a battle between good people and evil ones. The evil are not inherently evil, not even Sauron, but are fallen angels – they started out just as we all do, as the heroes in the book do – as ordinary beings with contradictory desires and impulses. They choose the wrong path and go over to evil, ever more irrevocably as they progress down the wrong path. The good are not inherently so, and again and again must struggle with their own inclinations and lack of courage to do the right thing. Even as you progress in this righteous quest, your strength may fail you in the end – as it fails Frodo. In the battle over your soul, you turn again and again to the places where you might find comfort and strength – to your friends and comrades and loved ones, to your hearth and home, to guidance from the wise, but always in the end to the hero inside yourself, your own resources and courage and faith that choosing good will always in the end be its own reward, just as much as evil will in the end be its own punishment.

Such deep moral issues belong to no one age of man nor to any particular historic period. That is why books that deal with them seriously are not books of the moment, but of eternity. The road goes ever on and on – and as long as it does, a map and a guide will be helpful, particularly in dark and treacherous spots, in heavy weather, when you are lost or despair of ever reaching your goal. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that The Lord of the Rings is such a book. Keep it by your heart always.

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New Year Resolution: don’t just do something – sit there!

The New Year is a time for reflection – on where we’ve been, where we’re at and where we might be going. It’s a time for new beginnings and resolve to do better. There’s nothing wrong with this and we’ve been indulging in it as much as anyone. But it’s wise to reflect too on resolutions past – and why none of them ever came to anything.

We have been through many rebirths, many previous lives – does not yesterday strike us as a previous life, and this very morning, this very New Year, as a rebirth, even before we realise that, just an eye blink ago in evolutionary time, we were but fish? Or star dust? We have been, I say, through many previous lives, many rebirths, and what it is we want changes with the seasons and the ages. But is there some common essence in all the apparent variety of things and states of affairs we lust after? Some common thread that links all our previous lives, makes sense of our earnest seeking? A good contender I would suggest is “freedom”.

As human beings, we want to be free. Or we claim we want to be. But could our very desire for freedom itself be a kind of tyranny? Do we in fact want to be free, or do we actually rather like it in our cosy little cocoon of a cell, muttering to ourselves and running once again through all the treasures we’ve stored up in our minds, like a miser over his gold? Is freedom even possible? What does it look like if so?

When I was a child, I remember wanting, longing, praying to be free to go out and play. Parental authority was a terrible thing. But looking back I can reflect now and see that without parental authority I wouldn’t have survived or grown up to be the person I am. My desire for freedom caused me much suffering, and yet it was at the same time a delusion – just a thought, not possible of realisation. Even in the moments of freedom and play, I soon found myself at the same time a terrible slave of passions and feelings – to anger and jealousy, to shyness and insecurity. I wanted freedom, then resented it when I had it for not quite living up to my great expectations.

As an older child, I realised I could medicate the shyness and insecurity away with alcohol and drugs, making playtime more fun, perhaps, than it had ever been before. But then I became a slave to them – and to the need for constant entertainment. All the things I had previously found meaning in – sporting prowess, learning and academic achievement – fell away in the pursuit of fun in my newfound freedom from parental authority. And thanks to the conditions I found myself in, due in large measure to luck – not least the luck of being born in a rich country – fun was to be found in abundance. I revelled in it – and attached to it aggressively. When, through the process of growing up, society tried to take the toys away, I was like a hungry dog growling over a bone. And yet, just like a pet dog, my living was dependent on the labour of others, my good humour to how often I was petted. Take our bones away and all the aggressiveness of our natures snarls out unbidden. And in any case, humans can not thrive as pets. They must be independent.

So, forced by economic necessity and social pressure to take a job, I then became another kind of slave – to work, yes, although work is intrinsic to life, but particularly to the feeling that this particular form of work was just not for me, that its imposition in ways not in full accord with my will was a tyranny. So began the hankering for freedom once again – this time, freedom from the toad work that squatted on my life. This led in time to my becoming active in various socialist circles – believing that socialism was the only way to true human freedom, to freedom from work. But the pursuit of social freedom just turned me into a slave to ideology and the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual accumulation – later to largely ineffectual activism and evangelising. And the wheel turns, turns, turns.

In short, the pursuit of freedom is itself a form of bondage. We put something in front of ourselves and then run after it. We’re restless if we can’t have what we want, dissatisfied and soon bored if we get it. We live in a state of anxiety and stress, and given how restless we are when not under stress, begin to wonder whether we don’t prefer it that way. Our resolutions to change never come to anything much because we don’t ever change anything fundamental – we just change what we want to run after, we take different shopping trips to acquire what it is we think we want or need. We are furious and angry about all the things in the world that aren’t to our liking, and yet will do precisely nothing to change what it is within our power to change – namely, our minds, our attitudes, our strength of character, our mental reaction to whatever it is that’s going on.

The secret to real freedom was given by my favourite philosopher, Jiddhu Krishnamurti. Do you want to know what my secret is? he once asked, in one of his talks. His acolytes perked up, sat forwards in their seats, eager to learn at last what the real secret behind his enigmatic-sounding teachings really was. “You see,” he said, “I don’t mind what happens.”

This is the kind of freedom that really is possible and you can have it right now (it’s available at no other time). Certain things are conditioned – our feelings, the arising of thoughts and emotions, sensations both pleasant and unpleasant, whatever it is that happens in the world. But remarkably, if we are awake and aware, the reaction of our minds, and hence our actions, are not – freedom, in other words, is not an external state of affairs to be achieved in the future, but is a matter of choiceless awareness of all that is, and of love, of compassionate action. Could we make that attitude of mind our non-goal for the New Year? To not react like a dog to whatever takes place, but instead to accept it totally, find a way to make friends with it, to take care of the situation, and of ourselves, of others? Is such a life of peace actually possible? Don’t take anyone’s word for it – it’s entirely a practical question, a matter of practice not theory. We shall certainly be non-striving to make it so.

Whatever it is you are hankering after this new year, dear reader, we wish you every success and happiness on your journey. But you might be happier still if you can remember that there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.