Thursday, September 27, 2007

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

My response to comments raised a couple of thread ago became too long and boring so I've put them here. I shouldn't bother with them if I were you.

Gareth McCaughan said...
I think it's accepted on all sides that Dawkins knows very little theology in the what-theologians-study sense; I'm not sure it's so widely accepted, or so clearly true, that he doesn't know what real religious people (more specifically: real Christians) think. As you rightly observe, there's a difference.

Can I suggest that there are actually three categories here?

1: The Man in the Pew who thinks that Jesus was born of a Virgin because that's the story he's always heard.

2: The Clever Believer who thinks that the story of the Virgin Birth points to the uniqueness of Christ (and the obedience of Mary) but accepts that it might be a legend.

3: The Academic who can tell you exactly when and by what stages the doctrine of the Virgin Birth became a credal statement, who dissents from it and on what grounds and will scoff if you think it's the same as "immaculate conception".

I haven't read Cornwell's book, but the particular point at issue is one you asy is also "the substance of Terry Eagleton's critique". Well, Eagleton's review complains, up front and very explicitly, about Dawkins's lack of expertise in what-theologians-study: Eriugena, Duns Scotus, and all that. And his account of the sort of thinking that Dawkins doesn't engage with seems to me (1) to consist mostly of fog and (2) not particularly akin to what most actual Christians think about God . I don't think the ideas Dawkins criticizes are so desperately distant from those of actual theists as to make his book irrelevant to them.

Well, Dawkins supporters certainly do use phrases like "the flying Jewish zombie and the invisible sky Daddy" and "the sky fairy" which makes Dawkins protests that he knows that the Christians don't think that God is an old man in the sky with a beard a bit hard to swallow. Is the claim that The Man in the Pew thinks of God as a spatially located anthropomorphic super-being, and that the more sophisticated claims of theologians haven't trickled down to him yet? And that Dawkins is directing his firepower only at The Man In the Pew while reserving judgement on the ideas of more sophisticated believers"?

I agree that Eagleton lapsed into jargon. He always does. His Literary Theory was very much the Bible of the Sussex English Literature department. One of the cleverest people I know told me he found it impenetrable.

You gave a couple of examples -- Dawkins, apparently, is confused about the Trinity (unlike Christians, of course, whose ideas on that point are perfectly clear and lucid)

Yes: I think that The Man In the Pew would give you a clear and lucid account of the Holy Trinity. I think that he would either give you:

a: A formula, say "It means that Jesus, God the Father, and the Spirit are all God, but that Jesus isn't the Father and the Father isn't the Spirit."

b: An analogy "If you were a flatlander, you might think that a cube consisted of six separate squares and not see what people meant when they said it was a single object."

c: A spiritual statement "We think that Jesus is really, really God; and we think that God is really, really with us in Church when we pray; but obviously, in different ways – God did leave heaven empty when when he was living on earth as Jesus."

What he wouldn't necessarily be able to do is give you a history of the development of the doctrine, or talk about some of the philosophical questions people have asked about it. (Divine impassibility, filoque, movement between persons, and what-not.)

Dawkins asserts that there was no substantive difference between Arius and the rest of the church on the question of the Trinity because the term "consubstantial" has no meaning. (QUOTE: "Arius of Alexander, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubstantial (that is, of one substance or essence) with God. What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking?..."Very little" seems the only possible reply.) This is a stage in his chain of reasoning: it is "sophisitical" for Hindus to say that the different gods are incarnations or avatars of Rama; it is equally sophistical (also "hair splitting" and "big endism") for Christians to say that God is three-in-one. Therefore there is no real difference between monotheism and polytheism...

If you asked The Man in the Pew to define "consubstantial" he wouldn't be able to: but if you said "Some people – Jehovah's Witnesses for example – say that Jesus is not the same as God, but simply the first and best thing He created: is that the same as you believe, different from what you believe, or doesn't it make a difference" they would immediately understand that Arianism is not Christianity as they understand it. Dawkins could easily have found out what substantive issue lay behind the homoousios/homoiousios question. He chose not to: this makes his point about Christian sophistry and everything which follows from it invalid.

and absurdly takes Jesus's description of gentiles as "dogs" as indicating some sort of racial bias on his part.

Dawkins doesn't refer to the incident of the Cyro-Phoencian woman: he simply reproduces the claims made by someone called Hartung that Jesus thought that only Jews could be saved, Paul invented the idea of universal gentile Church, and that Jesus "would have" been shocked by this. (I think we can give up and go home when someone starts talking about what some historical person "would have" said.) This is another problem with writing about a field you are ignorant of: you have no way of knowing whether a given writer is mainstream, controversial, or a crackpot.

There are a large number of passages in the Bible where Jesus preaches love for Samaritans; talks about God having other sheep in other sheep folds; tells his followers to preach to the whole world; talks about God judging "the nations" on the basis of their charitable work; praising Romans for having more faith than Israelites; is worshiped by astrologer priests from the East etc etc. There are also a couple of passages -- two, off the top of my head -- in which he appears to favour Jews. The claim must therefore be: "All the universalistic passages are later interpolations; the pro-Jewish passages were said by the Historical Jesus." That's a big claim. Dawkins offers no evidence for it. At all.

And it wouldn't make any difference if he could. He claims to be showing that "the Bible" -- not some hypothetical lost source for the Bible, the Bible itself -- is a bad guide to morality, and claims in support of this case "to be calling attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its ethic teaching." ("Its ethical teaching" not the ethical teaching of a lost underlying source, or the ethical teaching of a hypothetical "historical Jesus" extrapolated from the canonical accounts.) Even if it is true that the Jesus who told the story of the good Samaritan and said "go and preach the gospel to all nations" is a fictitious character, based on a nasty racist about whom we know next to nothing ,that doesn't tell us one single thing about the "ethical teaching" of the actual book which I actually have on my actual shelf.

Well, fair enough; but are those confusions particularly relevant to the question of whether there is, in fact, any being much like the ones believed in by Christians, Jews and Muslims, or to the question of whether in practice religions like Christianity do more good or harm?

But...but...but...but... Dawkins was the one who raised them. Dawkins said that the fact that Christians argue about non-issues is a point against the existent of God; Dawkins said that the fact that Jesus "would have" thought that that gentiles were pigs was a point against God. Not me, not C.S Lewis, not Rowan Williams, Rabbi Blue. Dawkins, Dawkins, Dawkins.

This seems to be how this discussion goes.

Atheist Man says "One reasons for believing that there is no God is that the the Bible is horrible book, because...."

Christian Man says "No, the Bible is lovely book, because..."

And Atheist man says "How is the question of whether the Bible is nice or horrid relevant to the existence of God is quite beyond me. "

Is what is happening that atheist man's supporters are saying "Er...yes. Atheist man did write a shit book, and we a terribly embarrassed about it. We'd rather just talk about whether or not God exists than be reminded of the contents of the shit book."

(We've all done this: how many times have I said "Yes, C.S Lewis sometimes goes off on one about technology, or the welfare state, or homosexuality; but I still think his explanations of why Christians believe in the trinity, the atonement, miracles, or come to that God are as lucid as any you will read.")

It seems pretty clear to me that the answer to the first question is no. The answer to the second is less clear, and I think "Dawkins doesn't understand real religious people, other than crazed extremists, well enough; so we shouldn't take much notice of what he says about the benefits and harms of religion" is a reasonable argument. (I'm not sure I agree with it, but it's worth taking seriously.)

It feels to me as if the gourmets are saying: "Please, don't attack restaurants. We hate McDonalds just as much as you do – in fact, probably me, because our palettes are more finely attuned so we can detect flaws that you probably can't. You're criticisms about McDonalds are partly valid; but we eat at the Savoy." Does the critic respond. "Yes, of course when I say "restaurants food is high fat and low quality and wrapped in paper", I obviously don't include the Savoy: but sadly, there are a lot more fast food joints than upscale restaurants, so those are the one I spend my time attacking" or "No; the very fact that you eat at the Savoy gives spurious credibility to McDonalds. The only solution is to close down all restaurants" or even ""The food in the Savoy is high fat, low quality and wrapped in paper, and if you say it isn't, that's just because all you "eating out" people are part of the same conspiracy. Obfuscation! Obfuscation!"

But I'd be more impressed with the latter argument if the people making it didn't consistently treat Dawkins just as uncharitably as he treats religious people. "Librarians are no better than child molesters", forsooth!

I agree that the analogy between Dawkins and my imaginary anti-book campaigner is inexact. If I had wanted it to be exact, I would have written: "I know that librarians in this borough have been sexually molesting children but, horrible as that no doubt is, it arguably causes less damage than bringing the child up to read books in the first place." (God Delusion, p 317)

Fair point, nevertheless.

Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Dawkins But Have Been Forced To Find Out

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

4: B.Y.W.M

During an alleged review of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great (which, surprisingly enough, he likes) Richard Dawkins makes the theological point that the story of Jesus' birth is not unique in literature. Readers of the Times Literary Supplement were doubtless astonished to learn for the first time that other legendary and mythological characters apart from Jesus have been said to have had no human father.

Dawkins rants that:

Jesus' case was abetted by a simple mistranslation of the Hebrew for 'young woman' into the Greek for 'virgin'.

This phrase comes up a lot. One might almost say that it was 'stock criticism'. In a whimsical essay about possible examples of 'virgin births' in nature, Dawkins ranted unequivocally that:

The entire legend of the Virgin Birth stems, in the first place, from a mistranslation of a Hebrew word meaning 'young woman' into a Greek word meaning 'virgin'.

It is worth examining this theological claim in some detail. I think it tells us a great deal about why relations between the religious and the non-religious are on the point of breaking down.

First, some dull facts.

Two out of the four canonical Gospels contain a story about the birth of Jesus. The stories are quite similar in structure: Jesus' birth is announced by an angel; it is initially disbelieved but then supernatural proofs are offered; his special nature is recognized by various unlikely people. However, the details are entirely different.

All scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, but that they were independent of each other, apart from the ones who don't.The relevant part of Luke's narrative runs as follows:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the name of the virgin was Mary.

And the angel came in unto her, and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus"...

Then said Mary unto the angel, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"

And the angel answered and said unto her, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren."

The English word 'virgin' stands for the Greek word parthenos. So far as I know, no-one questions that parthenos means 'a woman who has not had sexual intercourse'. 'To know someone' is, of course, a Biblical euphemism for 'to have sex with them'. So when Mary asks "How is this possible, since I know not a man?", she is unambiguously asking "How can I possibly be pregnant since I haven't had sex yet?"

Here is Matthew's version:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."

....Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.

Again, the text is quite un-ambiguous. It doesn't state in so many words that Mary was a virgin; but it does say that Jesus had no human father and that Joseph had not had sexual intercourse with Mary when Jesus was born.

If you try really, really hard, you can imagine a Hebrew text underlying Luke's Greek in which the word 'virgin' had meant 'young woman'. In this imaginary text, the angel would have been sent to a young woman in Nazareth; and the name of the young woman would have been Mary. It is even possible to imagine a text in which "How is this possible, since I know not a man?" had been "How is this possible since I am a young woman." ("I am far too young to have a child, in the same way that my relative Elizabeth is far too old to have a child.") Such a change would not have been a mistranslation, but a conscious amendment of the text.

In Matthew's narrative, the 'simple mistranslation' theory is even harder to uphold. You would have to imagine an ur-text in which "before they came together" had been "while she was still a young woman" and "knew her not until she had been brought forth of her first born" had read "continued to have rapacious nooky even though she was only a young woman."

So, everything turns on the following comment by Matthew:

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name "Emmanuel" ' which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew is quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah, or, if you are the sort of person who worries about this kind of thing, the prophecy of dutero-Isaiah. The full passage runs as follows:

"Hear ye now, O house of David: is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings."

Isaiah wrote in Hebrew; but Matthew would have been looking at the standard Greek translation, called, for reasons I probably once knew, the Septuagint. This Greek translation certainly said that the person who would have a child and name it Immanuel would be a parthenos.

Now it gets very boring indeed. Where the English says virgin and the Greek says parthenos, the original Hebrew had said almah. The word almah occurs seven times in the Old Testament, and Good King James translates it variously as 'virgin', 'damsel' and 'maiden'.

Gen 24: 23: ' shall come to pass that when the virgin cometh forth...

Ex 2:8 '...and the maid went and called the child's mother.

Psalm 68: 25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the
playing with timbrels.

Proverbs 30:18 There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

Song of Songs 6:8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.

In each case, the woman being described probably was a virgin; explicitly so in the Genesis passage. However, Hebrew has another word, bethuwlah which can be used when the writer wants to make it clear that the the lady in question is a virgin in the Anne Widdecombe sense, as: "The damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her...'" Since Isaiah doesn't use this word to describe the woman in the prophecy, it is fair to say that he didn't think that her virgin-ness was the most important thing about her. The passage probably comes out as "You'll know that God is going to save you when a young woman names her child 'Emmanuel' " as opposed to "You'll know that God is going to save you when a virgin has a child, and by the way, she'll name him Emmanuel." (Since Isaiah was in the habit of giving his children names like A-Few-Will-Come-Back and Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder it's even possible that little God-Is-With-Us is another of the prophet's own kids. Hosea's children were named Unloved and Not-My-People. Registration must have been a bundle of laughs in Jewish schools.)

So: it is a perfectly good fact that when the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek in around 180 BCE the word almah in the Isaiah passage was translated as parthenos. To say that this came down to a 'simple mistranslation' says more than we know. Certainly, an ambiguity was removed -- a passage which could possibly be read as referring to a virgin was changed into one which had to be read in this way. Was it 'simply' a mistake? Or were the translators deliberately revising the text? Or were they making a traditional translation, writing parthenos because that reflected the opinion of the wisest commentators of their day?

"The idea that there was a prophecy which said that the mother of Jesus would be a Virgin is the result of a mistranslation" is an unexceptionable statement. Insert a couple of probablies and a perhaps or two and no-one but a megaphone carrying fundamentalist would have any quarrel with you. But it's always cited as "The story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is the result of a mistranslation." Not even "A mistranslation of the prophecy of Isaiah" – simply "a mistranslation." And this is a much more complicated claim, involving suppositions and conjectures and speculation and things we just don't know. In order to believe it, you'd have to believe the following:

1: The very earliest Christians -- the ones who who must have had first hand contact with Jesus' family and his disciples -- had no story of the birth of Jesus, or if they did it has been lost without trace.

2: At some time toward the end of the first century Matthew formed the opinion that Isaiah 7 was a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. He therefore invented out of his head the doctrine that Jesus' mother was a 'virgin', even though no such thing had previously been taught by Christians.

3: Oh, and by the way, he didn't check with any Hebrew speaking Jew.

4: In order to support the new doctrine that he had made up out of his head he invented out of his head the story of Joseph and the Angel.

5: Luke read Matthew and instantly accepted the new doctrine of the Virgin Birth. So he invented, out of his head, a completely different story, which owed nothing to Matthew, about Mary and the Angel, padded it out with some material about John the Baptist , and sent it off to the scribes without bothering to quote the Old Testament prophecy which had caused all the trouble to begin with. (1)

None of this is intrinsically impossible. Some scholars, I guess, believe it, or something a lot like it. The game of inventing imaginary histories for famous books keeps academics out of mischief for hours on end. The non-existent drafts of Hamlet are much more interesting than the actual play. But this kind of thing can only ever be a conjecture: based on the single fact that Matthew quotes Isaiah.

Isn't it equally possible that the very, very early Christians did indeed believe that Jesus had a supernatural conception – either because Mary had told them so, or because it expressed a prior theological belief that he was the Son of God? If this were the case, then Matthew, scouring the Old Testament for passages which seemed to back up Jesus' claim to be Messiah, would have taken it for granted that Isaiah really meant 'virgin' because that's what he already believed. This would take into account the fact that the fit between Matthew and Isaiah isn't actually all that good: if Matthew had been making the whole thing up, couldn't he have worked some honey and butter in somewhere?

Of course any critique of Christianity will involve a critique of the historicity of the Gospels; of course one of the things that would occur to any sensible critic is that some of the stories about Jesus were 'reverse engineered' to make it look as if they fulfilled prophecies. But to say "The story" – sorry, "the entire legend" -- was "the result of a mistranslation" when what you mean is "A plausible case can be made out of saying that the story was a fictional creation that was retrofitted to a prophecy – and by the way, the prophecy itself contained a questionable piece of translation" is misleading. Wouldn't an intelligent but ignorant person, hearing the claim for the first time, assume that "the story is the result of a mistranslation" meant "someone mistranslated Matthew and Luke so it looked as if Mary was a Virgin; but Matthew and Luke never said anything of the sort; it was all a silly mistake like Cinderella's fur slipper becoming a glass slipper because 'vair' and 'verre' sound similar. Har har aren't Christians silly." Do those who pass on the 'mistranslation' story do anything to correct this impression? Is it in fact just what they want people to think?

"Perhaps Matthew retrofitted his text to a prophecy from Isaiah and perhaps that prophecy had been contentiously translated; and perhaps Luke based his story on Matthew; and perhaps everyone accepted their stories, and perhaps that's where the story of the Virgin Birth came from" is complicated, vague and dull. "The story of the virgin birth is the result of a mistranslation" is simple, exciting, and easy to remember. There a lots of simple, exciting, easy to remember and massively misleading slogans about the Bible in circulation: "They've discovered a new Gospel which gives Judas' side of the story" "There were at one time of 70 different Gospels"; "Constantine made up the idea that that Jesus was the Son of God", "The council of Nicea decided on the content of the Bible", "Judas was a zealot".

It isn't easy to respond to slogans: by the time you have said "Well, it depends what you mean by...." and "That's very misleading because...." your victims eyes have glazed over. "You don't seriously expect me to compare and contrast different texts and look things up in a concordance, do you? The simple phrase is much easier to grasp than your long, boring essay, with all those nasty liberal 'perhapses' and 'maybes' in it. You must be splitting hairs. Or trying to confuse me. Obfuscation! Obfuscation!"

Is it possible that Dawkins is deliberately infecting people with the 'simple mistranslation' meme in the hope that it will inoculate them against what he sees as the much more dangerous virus of Christianity? If he is right that Christianity is dangerous, would it even matter if the factual content of the anti-meme was incorrect? Are Christians making a silly mistake when we treat phrases and essays and indeed entire books which are intended only as slogans and rallying cries as if they were actual arguments? Indeed, should we give up the whole concept of "good or bad argument" and "true or false claim" and replace it with "successful or unsuccessful meme"? If you believe in memes, does the concept of 'truth' retain any validity at all? Is the logical conclusion of Dawkinsism to raise "whatever I say three times is true" to the level of a scientific axiom?

(1) Incidentally: when referring to this in a footnote to a book on evolution – go figure – Dawkins rants that Matthew 'was not, of course, the Apostle and contemporary of Jesus, but the gospel-maker writing long afterwards'

There are no 'of courses' in the study of the Gospels, but a lot of sensible scholars have said that Matthew must have been written after 70CE, because he refers to fall of Jerusalem, but before 100CE, because he's quoted by Ignatius. Whether 70-100CE amounts to 'long afterwards' depends on your point of view. If Matthew had been an up and coming tax inspector of 22 at the time of Jesus, then he could have been a nonogenarian sitting down to compose his memoirs at the turn of the century. 'Long afterwards' raises the suspicion that the speaker believes Brownite fantasies of the Gospels being fourth or fifth century and should be stomped on whenever they turn up.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Dawkins But Have Been Forced To Find Out

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

2: Reviewers, accuracy of

"Some good, literate, entertaining anti-Dawkins stuff by Andrew Rilstone (RC I think)"

"As far as I can determine, the reviewer is a Roman Catholic, and holds to the brand of theistic evolutionism espoused by the Vatican."

"Please tell me this guy is a satricial take on religious bloggers written by Craig Brown?"

"You present yourself as a liberal Christian who tries to be reasonable and who believes most of what scientific research claims to have discovered, and accordingly are probably, in many ways closer to Dawkins philosophically than you are to many other religious persons, which may be partly why Dawkins annoys you so much."

3: Dawkins' y-fronts, combustibility of

During a '60 second interview' in Metro Richard Dawkins denied that the Bible is a peaceful book. ' "Thou shalt not kill" really means "Thou shalt not kill another Jew" ' he ranted.

That little word 'really' is doing a lot of work. As we have seen, in The God Delusion Dawkins makes the theological claim that the Talmud says that the killing of gentiles by Jews is not murder. (It has been suggested to me that the passage he quotes is actually talking about 'friendly fire' incidents in time of war: is there a Rabbi in the house?)

But in the newspaper interview, "was held by the most learned commentators of the 2nd century CE to mean " has undergone a random mutation and become "really means". This is misleading almost to the point of dishonesty.

Someone will correct me, but so far as I can tell there is no Hebrew word that means "to kill a Jew": Strong's Concordance lists ten words under "kill", with shades of meaning such as "to slaughter an animal", "to sacrifice", "to put to death" and "to dash to pieces".

Dawkins is, of course, on stronger ground when he talks about the bloodthirsty sections of Old Testament: but you can't easily go from "In the book of Joshua, YHWH approves of wars" to "YHWH thinks that it's okay to kill gentiles whenever you feel like it." Since YHWH is neither a pacifist nor a vegetarian, most people who have bothered to read any theology think that "Thou shalt not kill" 'really' means "Thou shalt not kill human beings, except in the case of war, self-defense or possibly capital punishment", or as most modern Protestant translations render it , "Thou shalt not murder."

Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Dawkins But Have Been Forced To Find Out

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

1: Leprechauns

--What is Bernard Manning famous for?

--"That is the question."

--Correct. Who is the present Archbishop of Canterbury?

--He's a fat man who tells blue jokes.

--Correct. What do people kneel on in church?

--The Right Reverend Robert Runcie.

The Two Ronnies

It is always thrilling to watch skilled conjurer at work. You know you are being hoodwinked, but the sensation of having the wool pulled over your eyes is strangely exhilarating. Richard Dawkins' letter to the Independent on September 17th included an Houdini-like maneuver of quite breath-taking chutzpah.

Dawkins was responding to Peter Stanford's response to John Cornwell's response to The God Delusion. Stanford says that one of Cornwell's stronger points is that Dawkins' book has a very limited bibliography: he appears only to have read works which support his side of the argument, and is quite ignorant of Christian theology.

But the core is his dismantling of Dawkins's answers and sources. Perhaps the most telling point is just how small and self-serving was the reading list for The God Delusion.

This is, of course, also the substance of Terry Eagleton's critique of The God Delusion:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds..."

and also of Alister McGrath's:

...a worrying absence of knowledge of Christian thought...Dawkins'; more polemical writing are perhaps directed toward an audience which lacks familiarity with the Christian intellectual tradition and hence prepared to accept his assertions without question.

Dawkins' response to Stanford's comment is devastatingly brilliant:

This is a stock criticism. It assumes there is a serious subject called theology, which one must study in depth before one can disbelieve in God. My own stock reply (Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?) is superseded by P Z Myers brilliant satire on the Emperor's New Clothes.

Everything pivots around the word 'disbelieve'. We are supposed to be considering Dawkins' right to disbelieve in leprechauns. Not 'write a book about'; 'argue the case for'; 'critique the validity of supposed sightings of ': simply disbelieve in them.

Dawkins seems to intend us to infer that Stanford thinks that Cornwell thinks that his lack of knowledge of Christianity disqualifies him from disbelieving in it; that only people with certain academic qualifications are permitted to be atheists; that Cornwell is calling into question his moral and intellectual right to think that there is no God.

This would, of course, be absurd. It would mean that Stanford thinks that Cornwell thinks that the default setting of the human brain is 'Belief in God' and that only a small cadre of experts were qualified to change that setting; that everyone ought to believe in the existence of everything which they have not specifically disproved; that an intelligent but ignorant person believes in both Marxism and Keynesianism because he hasn't studied either of them; that I agree with David Icke on all points because I have no idea what he thinks.

This is certainly the inference that some of Dawkins' acolytes drew from the letter. Several of them came to their guru's defense, saying that of course he had a right to think that there isn't a God even though he hadn't studied theology. A follow-up letter to the Indy asked:

If a background in theology is essential for someone to question the existence of God then why is it unnecessary for those who do believe?

Note the slippage: a background in 'theology' (we will come back to this word in a second) is now 'essential' to even 'question' whether or not God exists.

A more ranty fanboy on Dawkins on-line fan-site makes the same point less coherently:

I wonder if Stanford and Cornwell are as critical of Christians who believe despite not having read books by the major theologians, ie 99.99% of them. (1)

Again, an analogy is being drawn between complaining about people who 'believe' -- not 'write books about' or 'argue the case for' or 'accuse atheists of being no better than child molesters', simply 'believe' -- despite having not read learned books about belief and complaining about people who don't believe without having read those same books. And this would be a perfectly valid analogy, if such a complaint had in fact been made.

But of course, Mr. Stanford hasn't said anything nearly so silly. Dawkins has elected to treat a criticism of his book as if it had been an ad hominem attack on himself. What Stanford has called into question is the credibility of the arguments which Dawkins puts forward in support of his opinion. Dawkins has responded by defending his right to hold such opinions in the first place.

It's an astonishing maneuver. It's rather as if you had said "I'm not going to give much credence to your critique of the Iraq War, since you appear to think Iraq is in South America" and you had responded "Oh, I suppose you have to have A Level Geography in order to be a pacifist nowadays, do you? " Or if I had said "I'm not sure how much attention we should pay to this debunking of cryptozoology since the author appears to think that Loch Ness is a salt-water lake" and you had said "I don't need to read learned books on marine biology in order to know that there's no such thing as sea-serpents."

A stock response to Dawkins' stock response to what he claims is a stock criticism would be "No: but if you are going to charge people twenty quid for 150,000 word demolition-job on leprechology, you probably ought to get your facts straight first."

Now we get onto the term 'theology'. Theology originally meant something like 'talking about God', in the same way that 'pornography' meant 'writing about prostitutes'. A lot of people seem to want it to mean "Arcane, erudite knowledge; pedantic, hair-splitting; doctrinal points which could be of no possible interest either to a believer or a skeptic" or else "The pretense by some academics that the nature of God can be studied in quasi-scientific terms." In fact, it doesn't necessarily mean very much more than "Ideas about God; the systematic formulation of those ideas; What Christians Think."

What do we mean by "English literature"? Do we mean "Books which have been written in English; especially well-regarded ones"; or do we mean "The academic discipline which studies those books." If someone said "All books written before 1950 were racist; Oliver Twist is Jane Austen's most racist work. Librarians are no better than child molesters. Close down the libraries!" I might very well respond "You are obviously very ignorant about English Literature." Would you take me to mean "You obviously haven't read very many books" or "Unless you get an M.A and learn how to distinguish between Leavis and New Criticism, you aren't allowed to have an opinion"?

If someone – a Muslim perhaps -- said "You claim that Jesus was the Son of God, don't you? But that logically implies that there must have been a Mrs. God -- unless you are saying that Jesus was a bastard. Har-har, caught you out, Christians are silly" I might very well reply "You obviously don't understand Christian theology very well." I wouldn't mean "Go away and study for B.Div. or I won't talk to you." I would mean "Spend 20 minutes in the library, find out what Christians actually mean by the term 'Son of God' and then we'll talk". If he continued to say that Christianity was absurd because the existence of Mrs. God was absurd, he would either be a twit or a fibber and I would tell everyone not to read his book.

Dawkins spends considerable amount of space in his book talking about such subjects as the character of YHWH in the Old Testament; the doctrine of the atonement; the composition of the Bible. He asserts that there is no difference between Arianism and trinitarianism and claims, (absurdly) that Jesus and John were pro-semitic racialists. But these are theological questions: questions about What Christians Think.

If you limit yourself to saying "I refuse to consider any question about What Christians Think because there is no God" then theological ignorance may be quite forgivable. Once you start to say "One of the reasons for thinking that there is no God is that What Christians Think is absurd / contradictory / hairsplitty / immoral / child-molesty" you need to have quite a good grasp of What Christians Do In Fact Think. Not a degree in the academic study of the History of What Christians Do In Fact Think: not specialist knowledge of every writer who has ever written a technical tome on What Christians Think, but some general grasp of how St. Paul thinks that Old Testament is related to the New; or some appreciation that, even among evangelicals, Penal Substitution is not the only game in town.

Again: Dawkins central argument is as follows: "The theory of evolution by natural selection fully explains why the natural world appears to be orderly and designed. There is therefore no reason to believe that it was designed by a God. And therefore the is no reason to believe in any kind of God or any other form of religion, either." The first part of the argument is a scientific one, and I understand that Dawkins makes it very well – though not in The God Delusion. But the second part has strayed into theological territory: it's a question about What Christians (And Other Theists) Think. And Dawkins ignorance robs those sections of his book of any credibility whatsoever.

And anyway... I've met three different people who believe in leprechauns.

At any rate, I've met three people who claim to have encountered fairies, or probably "faeries". They weren't mad; and they weren't actively taking the piss.

I wouldn't quite describe myself as an afaeryist. I don't have a strong disbelief in faeries any more than I have a strong non-interest in what is going to happen on Emmerdale Farm this week. I don't feel that it is my mission in life to persuade my friends to clap their hands and make little Tinkerbell drop down dead. I don't entirely rule out the idea that some of the people who say they have seen a faery have been in contact with something real. I don't think they have, but I don't think they definitely haven't either. Agnosticism of this kind makes Dawkins foam at the mouth: that's part of the beauty of it.

As long as I am happy to blunder along through life with a complete absence of a belief in faeries, then I don't see much need to interrogate my friends about their faery encounters. (You ask me how you know he lives? He lives within my heart. Well, that's cool. You ask me how I know he doesn't live? He doesn't live within my heart. End of conversation. Pass the fairy cakes.) But if I decided that it was my duty to convince my friends that faeries positively don't exist -- that they didn't see what they think they saw, or that what they thought they saw doesn't prove what they think it does – then I'd want to make jolly sure that I knew what they thought they had seen and what they thought it proved before I started. I doubt that they are all talking about the same thing. When Serious Neo-Pagan Guy talks about "The Good Folk", I guess he means something different from the guy who just kind of experienced something in the woods that he couldn't explain. I am pretty sure that neither of them have in mind the kind of creatures that those little girls convinced Sherlock Holmes that they had seen in their garden. There would be very little point in my explaining that such small, dainty little wings couldn't possibly support such a big body if the creature my friend thinks he saw in the woods didn't have wings, and if, in fact, all the spotters guides are quite clear that the 'gossamer wings' idea of faeries was invented by a Victorian painter who'd never seen a real one.

My three friends would have a right to be quite irritated if I said. "You are being evasive! Body to wing ratio PROVES that there no faeries. Everybody KNOWS that faeries have wings! Look on top of any Christmas tree! Read Jade The Disco-Fairy! Obfuscation! Obsfuscation!"

It wouldn't prove that faeries exist: but it would prove that I was a bit of an arse.

(1) A good-sized church has a congregation of about 100, so if the 1 in 10,000 figure were correct, you'd have to attend about 100 different churches to find someone with a working knowledge of theology. I can only say that I must have been exceptionally lucky in the half-dozen or so I have attended. In the 2001 census, 37 million people claimed to be Christians, giving us about 4,000 who have read a work of theology. There are about 13,000 parishes in England, so the other 9,000 must be pretty dissatisfied with their vicars.

Most Christians seem to be pretty well versed in the content of their faith: if you ask them "What do we mean by 'atonement'; why do we believe in it; and where do we differ from the Catholics?" they can often give you a coherent reply, although I assume that their knowledge comes from popularizing works rather than primary texts.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

It's International Talk Like a Pirate Day

In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour. In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst is only a sour look or two at choking? No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.
Captain Roberts

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I wish I was dead....

(or, if you are rather more clear-headed, that the Vogon had never been born.)

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Friday, September 07, 2007

News of momentous importance

This blog is now also available on Facebook.

I will shortly start using "gay" as a term of abuse and ending sentences with "innit".

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

News Values


















Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tolkien Blues

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.

I think it was Punch that said it first. Shortly after the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion, reconstructed from Tolkien's notes by his son Christopher, the humorous magazine ran a short skit entitled 'The Tolkien Shopping Lists'. The implication was clear: Christopher Tolkien was engaged in a barrel-scraping exercise; cashing in on his father's reputation by selling insignificant scraps of paper; or diminishing that reputation by publishing works which Tolkien had long-ago consigned to the waste-paper basket.

It's a joke that some people have never stopped finding funny. It is, of course, entirely unfair. Tolkien had worked on The Silmarillion for his whole life. He wrote the very first versions during World War I; in his eighties he was declining to answer fan-mail because it would take time that could better be spent finishing his life's work. And he certainly wanted it to be published, arguing that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were an inseparable whole, and threatening to take the trilogy to Collins instead of Allen and Unwin because the former showed some interest in printing both books together.

The problem is that no such book as The Silmarillion actually existed. When Tolkien died, he left a shed-full of writings about the First Age of Middle-earth, including at least five different versions of the story of Hurin and his children. The-Book-Now-Called-the-Silmarillion is Christopher Tolkien's synthesis of these various works into something which, in a certain light, looks like a coherent whole. It's only gradually become clear just how much work Christopher had to do to create this illusion of completion.

The Children of Hurin is the first new posthumous work by Tolkien to be released since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. In this context, "first" means "seventeenth" (*) and "new" means "repackaging of a work first published in 1980".

Christopher Tolkien is quite up-front about his reason for re-publishing The Children of Hurin as a separate book. He says that he hopes that it might provide a "way in" to The Silmarillion for people who know and love Lord of the Rings but have never tackled Tolkien's primary work.

The Silmarillion is a very dense book: it is often compared with the Old Testament, especially by people who haven't read either. One of the reasons for this density is that the main section – the "Quenta", the history of the Elves
was intended by Tolkien to be a synopsis of his mythos, not the final word on it. Some of the stories were summaries of much longer works which he'd actually written; some were outlines of works he eventually intended to write.

Tolkien had written an almost complete version of the story of Hurin in a semi-novelistic form, under the title of "Narn I Hin Hurin". But he had only partly written it in the shorter, summarized style of The Silmarillion. It turns out that the chapter "Of Turin Turanbur" in the-book-now-called-the-Silmarillion is Christopher Tolkien's attempt to summarize the Narn in the style of the Quenta. He now thinks that it was wrong of him to have engaged in this kind of jiggery-pokery with his father's work.

The long version of the story of Hurin was published as part of the Unfinished Tales in 1980. The new book, The Children of Hurin is a fresh presentation of that text. In Unfinished Tales Christopher Tolkien skipped a couple of passages which are more or less word for word the same as passages in The Silmarillion; and for some reason Tolkien himself missed out a passage which would have described what happened to Turin while he was hiding out in the home of the Wagnerianly named Mim the Dwarf. Christopher has restored the missing passages and filled in the dwarf material from other versions of the story. I certainly couldn't see the join.

The story benefits from this new presentation. You read Unfinished Tales with one finger in the back, flipping between the text, the footnotes and the commentary – and, if you are a particularly devout student, diving into The Silmarillion to fill out the missing passages. I am sure that I should care very much that in an early version of the text Saeros is Daeron's brother, but in latter versions he is only his kinsman, but having your attention drawn to this kind of thing tends to make you treat the text as a work in progress. Having it between shiny covers in a nice clear typeface complete with (rather lacklustre, I thought) Alan Lee illustrations definitely encourages you to treat it as a story.

In The Silmarillion the story runs to about 12,000 words: this new volume runs to about 40,000. If we put two passages side by side, we can easily see the difference:

"Then Turin was filled with fear for his mother and sister and in grimness of heart he went before the King and asked for mail and sword; and he put on the Dragon-helm of Dor-lomin and went out to battle on the marches of Doriath, and became the companion in arms of Beleg Cuthalion."
The Silmarillion

"Now Turin grew heavy-hearted, not knowing what new evil was afoot, and fearing that an ill fate had befallen Morwen and Nienor; and for many days he sat silent, brooding on the downfall of the house of Hador and the men of the North. Then he rose up and went to seek Thingol, and he found him sitting with Melian under Hirlorn, the great beech of Menegroth.

Thingol looked on Turin in wonder, seeing suddenly before him in the place of his fosterling a Man and a stranger, tall, dark-haired, looking at him with deep eyes, in a white face, stern and proud; but he did not speak.

"What do you desire, foster-son?" said Thingol, and guessed that he would ask for nothing small.

"Mail, sword and a shield of my stature, lord," answer Turin. "Also, by your leave I will now reclaim the Dragon-helm of my sires."

"These you shall have, " said Thingol. "But what need have you yet of such arms?"....

The Children of Hurin

Although it is much longer, The Children of Hurin is a much easier read. The Silmarillion is a chronicle: this happened, and then this happened; and then this happened. It expects the reader to do a lot of the work for himself. We are told that Turin asked the king for weapons, but left to imagine where and when this happened, and what they said to each other. (In this respect, it is indeed a little like the book of Genesis.) The Children of Hurin is a story: we see, through the authors eyes, what actually happened. Because the characters are "on stage" for longer periods of time, it is much easier to keep track of who is who. When Thingol is surprised at how much Turin has changed, it reminds us readers that we've skipped over a few years, that the boy Turin of the last chapter is now a youth. The style is relatively formal and archaic ("then he rose up") although no more obscure than, say, the Rohan passages in Lord of the Rings.

Incidentally: Tolkien's first version of the story, "Turanbar and the Foaloke", took this "archaism" a lot further:

"To ease his sorrow and the rage of his heart, that remembered always how Urin and his folk had gone down in battle against Melko, Turin was for ever ranging with the most warlike of the folk of Tinwelint far abroad, and long ere he was grown to first manhood he slew and took turns in frays with the Orcs that prowled unceasingly upon the confines of the realm and were a menace to the Elves."

As a piece of writing, I might cast my vote for the (unfinished, of course) poetic version of the story:

"To assuage his sorrow and to sate his rage
and hate of his heart for the hurts of his folk
then Hurin's son took the helm of his sire
and weapons weighty for the wielding of men
and went to the woods with warlike elves."

The Turin material has never been my favourite section of The Silmarillion: it has always seemed a little anomalous, even un-Tolkienesque. It's as if we've paused after the High Tragedy of Beren and Luthien and focussed down on the life of one single mortal. A heroic mortal, certainly, but killing a dragon – even the Father of All Dragons – is fairly small potatoes compared with stealing a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. Hurin, top human hero, is captured by Morgoth the Dark Lord after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Morgoth decides to keep Hurin alive, but forces him to witness the lives of his children, Turin and Nienor. Turin is fostered by the elves and therefore never meets his infant sister. He spends some time as an outlaw, leads the elves of Nargothrond against Morgoth, and slays Glaurung the Dragon. Eventually, Nienor comes looking for Turin, but she gets separated from her mother, and then loses her memory as a result of dragon magic. Turin spends most of his time living under various aliases. So when brother and sister finally meet, they don't know each other. With hilarious consequences.

As a tragedy, I have never found this completely satisfactory. The tragedies of Oedipus, or even, say, Michael Henchard, feel powerful because they feel inevitable: once Oedipus is separated from his birth parents, you feel that the chain of events which is going to result in him marrying his mother has been irrevocably set in motion. In order to maneuver Turin into a situation where he will sleep with his sister, Tolkien has to resort to Glaurung casting a spell of forgetfulness on her. The agency of his fall is not blind fate but malicious trickery by Morgoth and his minions – although Turin has an absolute knack for blundering blindly into whatever trap the powers of darkness set for him.

In sagas, it matters who is related to who, and nearly every minor character has a significant back story. This means that you are going to have to look at maps and family trees whether you want to or not, and navigate sentences which go:

"Lord we were of Angrod's people, and we have wandered far since the Nirnaeth, but of late we have dwelt among Cirdan's following by the Mouths of Sirion. And on a day he called us, and bid us go to you for Ulmo himself, the Lord of Waters, appeared to him..."

People who are intimidated by this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing that they are intimidated by. But on the whole, the book showcases the best features of Tolkien as a writer. He's the master of the understated snippet of dialogue, the telling remark left hanging in mid-air:

"Then I think that my father is dead," said Turin, and before his mother he restrained his tears "For no-one could keep him from coming back to help us, if he were alive."

"I do not think that either of those things are true, my son," said Morwen.

And of course, the story has lots of scope for soaring rhetoric. Turin's nickname, Turanbar, means "master of doom", in the sense of "master of my own fate" – which, of course, is the one thing he isn't. When Nienor realises that she has inadvertently married her own brother she cries "Farewell! Oh twice beloved! A turin turambar turun ambartanen: master of doom by doom mastered! Oh happy to be dead!" and throws herself in the sea.

But I wonder whether the tale of Turin and Hurin loses a lot of its point when taken out of context and asked to stand as a story in its own right. Tolkien started – but inevitably, didn't finish – a follow up work called "The Wanderings of Hurin", which would have followed the aging Hurin's life after Morgoth set him free. At the beginning of The Children of Hurin, Hurin spends some time in the utterly secret elvish city of Gondolin. During his wanderings, he would have tried to find the city again, and thereby revealed its location to Morgoth. In the present book, we see how Glaurung the Dragon sacks and destroys the elvish city of Nargothrond, and ends up living in the caves on piles of elvish treasure. We also see how Mim the dwarf betrayed Turin. But we don't see Hurin returning to Nargothrond after the dragon is dead and discovering that Mim has retired there in order to spend more time with the treasure. So there is a sense that we have read the beginning of the story of Hurin, but not it's end. Christopher Tolkien's introduction isn't, I thought, especially clear, getting bogged down in questions about what "to see with the eye of Morgoth" philosophically means, when what newbies presumably needed was a bluffers guides which said:

Morgoth – Dark Lord. Former god. Has a servant called Sauron.
Menegroth – Place where the Elves live. Lots of caves, hidden in a forest.
Thingol – Elf. King of Menegroth. (Father of Luthien, but that doesn't matter right now.)
Melian – Goddess. Wife of Thingol.

That said, I am pleased to have one of the Great Tales on my shelf in a format that says "This is a story in its own right" rather than "This is part of an enormously complicated textual puzzle". One wonders whether some more of the Good Bits of the History of Middle-earth could be published in an accessible format? Imagine a handsome illustrated edition of "The Ley of Lethian" with a short paragraph on page 268 that said "Tolkien went no further with the poem, but he subsequently completed the story of Beren and Luthien in prose..." Tolkien worked for years and years on some of this material, and "the epic fragment" is a venerable literary form.

The secular press gave quite a bit of coverage to Hurin in the mistaken belief that it was a new book by the author of Lord of the Rings. John Rateliff's monumental – indeed, if we are honest, rather too monumental – History of The Hobbit was largely ignored. Which is a shame because, in the esoteric world of posthumous Tolkien writings, this is a rather more exciting book.

The Hobbit turns out to be almost as much of a textual muddle as The Silmarillion itself. As everyone knows, the 1951 second edition (the one you have on your shelf) was substantially different from the original 1937 version (the one that sells on Ebay for tens of thousands of dollars.) In the original, Gollum had been more or less willing to give the Ring to Bilbo. In the revised version, Gollum never offered his precious as the stake in a riddle-game. He only offers to show Bilbo the way out of the goblin caves if he lost the bet; Bilbo found the the Ring where Gollum had dropped it. (Tolkien, of course, provided a story-internal explanation for this inconsistency: the first version of the story was a fib made up by Bilbo in order to make his claim to the Ring more secure.)

There are other more minor, but interesting changes between the two published versions, as:

"...What is a Hobbit? They are (or were) small people, smaller than dwarves, (and they have no beards) but very much larger than Lilliputians"


"....What is a Hobbit? They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves. Hobbits have no beards."

The '37 version is still very much in the realm of a children's literary fairy tale; the '54 version is much more like Lord of the Rings. We can see why the '54 author suppressed the reference to "Lilliput". The Hobbit is effective because it pretends to be a work of history: that illusion is exploded by comparing Bilbo with characters from a work of fiction like Gulliver's Travels. The anachronistic references to steam-trains and post-offices don't blow the illusion to the same degree: they may even enhance it.

It turns out that there is an extant copy of Tolkien's first draft of the first edition, which is substantially different from the published version.

"....What is a hobbit? I meant you to find out, but if you must have everything explained at the beginning, I can only say that hobbits are a small people, smaller than dwarves (and they have no beards) but on the whole larger than Lilliputians"

Rateliff has edited this first draft, and associated outlines, with a Christopherian attention to detail; lovingly drawing attention to every crossing-out and smudge. If you think that looking over a writer's shoulder while he is creating a much-loved classic is going to take away the magic then you probably ought to avoid this book. If you find it fascinating that Tolkien wrote that Thorin said that Bilbo possessed "Wisdom in good and blended measure" and that struck it out and wrote "valour and wisdom and little greed" than this book will provide hours of amusement. I'm certainly interested to know that Gandalf was originally going to be called "Bladorthin" (which Rateliff tries, not very convincingly, to gloss as "Grey Pilgrim") and that Thorin was going to be called, enormously confusingly, "Gandalf."

But the real fun is in seeing the different directions that the story might have veered off in. Tolkien had originally intended that Bilbo would stab Smaug with Sting while he slept – an obvious and rather vulgar ending compared with the elegant one he eventually came up with. And I am glad that he dropped the idea that Bilbo would lose all his gold on the way home and be left only with experience to show for his adventure: those kind of sardonic fairy-tale endings used to irritate me no end as a child.

I'd always assumed that Tolkien had initially intended The Hobbit to be a stand-alone work, and only gradually came up with the idea that The Silmarillion should provide an ancient history backdrop to Bilbo's world. In the published version, it is mentioned in passing that The Necromancer (who is not very nice) lives in a Dark Tower in Mirkwood. Thorin suggests that they should challenge him, and Gandalf responds:

"Don't be absurd. He is an enemy far beyond the powers of all the dwarves put together."

But the first draft contains the jaw-dropping variant reading:

"Don't be absurd. That is a job quite beyond the powers of all of the dwarves, if they could be gathered together again from the four corners of the world. And anyway, his castle stands no more and he is fled to a darker place: Beren and Tinuviel broke his power."

So Tolkien knew from Day 1 that "the Necromancer" of The Hobbit and the "Sauron" of The Silmarillion were the same person. If this reading had stayed in the final text, Bilbo would have been more or less contemporary with Beren, and the whole idea of the Third Age would never have come about. On the other hand, where the published text has Bilbo saying:

"Tell me what you want to have done and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East",

the draft had him saying:

"Tell me what you want me to do and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the great desert of Gobi".

This is consistent with the "fairy tale" idea that Hobbits are creatures who live in our world, here and now, but have a Womble-like capacity not to be seen; but not very consistent with the idea that Hobbiton can be located on a map of "Middle-earth" on which the Gobi desert is notable by its absence.

Rateliff is very good at pointing up thematic links between The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. The King of the Wood Elves is awfully reminiscent of King Thingol: both of them live in caves in forests which it is almost impossible to find your way through; and both of them play a villain-like role even though they are really on the side of the goodies. It fits in well with the history of the elves in The Silmarillion that those we meet in The Hobbit particularly dislike spiders. The Arkenstone behaves, and makes other people behave, a lot like one of the Silmarils. And while Tollers hardly came up with the idea of dragons who sleep on piles of gold, the story of Smaug, Erebor and Thorin has notable points of similarity with the story of Glaurung, Nargothrond and Mim.

As well as editing the early draft, Rateliff provides a general commentary on The Hobbit, which will almost certainly tell you more than you wanted to know. Did we really need the complete text of the passages from which Tolkien stole the dwarf names (both the Prose Edda and the Elder Edda version)? Did one passing reference to Radagast merit a 12 page discussion of the development of the idea of wizards in Middle-earth, the character of Radagast in Lord of The Rings, and where Tolkien may have got the name? But some of his literary archeology is fascinating: the story about Tolkien having been stung by a tarantula when he was a toddler in South Africa can't be true because tarantulas don't sting and anyway there aren't any in South Africa. Probably he was thinking of some kind of scorpion. And there is a fascinating appendix on the origin of the word Hobbit, including the full, maddening text of an 1848 article which lists "hobbit" as one of the 198 kinds of fairy....

The most interesting section of the book comes at the end, where Rateliff reveals that Tolkien had started to work on a third revision of the text, with a view to further harmonizing The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings. Rateliff reproduces Tolkien's draft re-write of Chapter 1 ("A Well-Planned Party") which skilfully removes all the charm and humour from the familiar book:

"How astonishing this was will be better understood by those who know something about Hobbits, and some account of them is really needed nowadays for they are becoming rare, and they avoid the Big People, as they call us. They were a small people, about half our height or less, often smaller than the Dwarves of those days, to whom they were quite unrelated: hobbits never have beards."

What was Tolkien thinking? In a fannish way, it is amusing to know that before the encounter with the Trolls, Bilbo's party "spent their last comfortable night for many a day to come, in the great inn of Bree, the Prancing Pony" and we can look forward to hours of fruitful arguments about whether the detail that Gandalf had a horse called Rohald should be regarded as "canon". But this ill-conceived re-write seems to have broken down over the question of chronology: Tolkien found that there was simply no way that the various dates and traveling-times given in The Hobbit could be made consistent with the map of Middle-earth as it developed for Lord of the Rings, and that the phases of the moon (which are relatively important to the story) don't add up either. (Oh, and he became worried about the fact that the dates given in The Hobbit are in the Gregorian calender, as opposed to the rather complicated Hobbit calendar in the appendix to Lord of the Rings!) As Rateliff says, The Hobbit is really written in a "once upon a time" world, where a journey takes precisely the amount of time which is dramatically appropriate, and the moon is full on those days when it would be dramatically appropriate to have a full moon. The Lord of the Rings, which tells us which way the lane went behind Farmer Maggot's house and the rough dates when Hobbits migrated from the Shire to Bree, is simply a different kind of thing from The Hobbit. During the re-write, Tolkien becomes worried about where the Dwarves got their musical instruments from, and what happened to them when they set off on their journey: has any reader ever noticed or worried about that kind of detail?

Did The Hobbit lose some of it's Hobbitness when it was retrospectively pasted into the saga of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings? Look at the progressive neutering of the remark about Bilbo's ancestry:

Draft: "It had always been said that long ago some or other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (goblin family said severer critics); certainly there was something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

First edition: "It had always been said that long ago one of other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (the less friendly said a goblin family), certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

Second edition: "It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. This was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

Proposed revision: "It was often said (in other families) that the Tooks must have some elvish blood in them: which was of course absurd, but there was undoubtedly something queer about them..."

The first version places us in a world which is delicately balanced between the mundane and the supernatural. There are fantastic, magical creatures like fairies and goblins; but they are a subject for local gossip. Marrying a fairy or a goblin is talked about in the same tone of voice that country folk might discuss any other marriage to an outlander or furriner. If we are thinking of the terrible servants of the Enemy in Lord of the Rings then "goblin family" is almost a contradiction in terms; but because we are seeing the world through Hobbit eyes, both the Eldar and the Orcs have become domesticated.

In the second version, the whimsical "married into a fairy family" has become the more high-romantic "taken a fairy wife". We might possibly say that Beren took a fairy wife; we certainly would not say that he married into a fairy family. In the proposed revision, this has become even more vague – instead of an individual liaison, we are merely asked to imagine "some elvish blood".

Or again, in the draft version, Bilbo accused Gandalf of encouraging young Hobbits to "stow away aboard ships that sail to the Other Side". In one sense, this is precisely what Bilbo and Frodo do at the end of Lord of the Rings; but the language seems to call up images of naughty little hairy-footed Edwardian children hiding away on fairy ships. This is a very different world from that of the Grey Havens, but not too far removed from The Book of Lost Tales, where children who have been unfairly punished may travel along "the path of dreams" and find themselves in the "cottage of lost play" on the edge of the Undying Lands. In the published edition, this idea is suppressed: Gandalf has merely encouraged Hobbits to "sail in ships to other shores". But disconcertingly, in the proposed revision the older idea pops up again:

"They used to send many quiet lads and lasses, off on adventures, it is said: any mad thing from climbing tall trees to visiting elves, and even trying to sail in ships." Bilbo's voice fell almost to a whisper "To sail, sail away to the Other Shore. Dear me!"

This romantic sehnsucht feels very different from "stowing away" on elf ships; but it's interesting that Tolkien wanted to re-insert the idea of Hobbits somehow getting to the Undying Lands. In one sense, Tolkien is trying to "set up" the end of Lord of the Rings on the very first page of The Hobbit. Are we being asked to think that, before he's even set off on his Adventure, that Bilbo already had the sea-longing? And does that suggest that the idea that the Tooks had elvish blood in them is not quite so absurd after all?

I don't think that one version is necessarily better than the other; or that we should regret the coming into being of the final Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings. But it's worth being aware that there were different and contradictory versions running around Tolkien's head; and that in order to create the heart-breaking, bitter world in which Galadriel could say "All shall love me and despair!" he had to partly suppress an earlier world where elves still said "tra-la-la-lally, come back to the valley". (NOTE: Never, ever, mention Tinfang Warble.)

It was impossible for Tolkien to finish The Silmarillion: if he had lived another ten years, he might have finished "The Wanderings of Hurin" or written a narrative version of the Voyage of Earendal; but you can bet that he would have then spotted some new inconsistency with the "Quenta" and decided that he needed to start all over again. I think that we can now see that The Hobbit was also doomed to be a process, rather than a finished work.

Bilbo and Frodo are torn between the Tookish and the Baggins side of their personality; Gollum is both Gollum and Smeagal; and Sam, at the end of Lord of the Rings, is "torn in two" between Rosie and Frodo, Hobbits and Elves, the Shire and the Undying Lands. (The rejected epilogue reveals that Sam never completely resolved this.) I think that we can now see that Tolkien also was "torn in two". He was both the hyper-romantic public school boy, drinking tea in a department store with three close friends (two of whom won't live to see their 20th birthdays), producing ecstatic, hallucinatory poetry:

"East of Moon west of the Sun
There stands a lonely hill
Its feet are in the pale green sea
Its towers are white and still
Beyond Taniqueitil
In Valinor..."

But he was also the old scholar, desperately chipping away at a book which is already a bestseller in order to make the phases of the moon fit together. It's as if the young schoolboy and soldier had seen Middle-earth and the old academic was struggling to make it real – even if that meant pulling the whole thing down and building it up again in order to make it consistent with geography, astronomy, catholic theology...oh, and to make sure that the half a dozen made-up languages all interrelated according to established philological rules. He never finished: because he was trying to do the impossible.

My edition of The Silmarillion has a quote from a contemporary review on the back: "How, given little over half a century of work, could one man become the creative equivalent of a people?" The answer, pretty obviously, is that he couldn't.

(*)Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, Letters from Father Christmas, The Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales (2 volumes), The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Lost Road, The History of The Lord of the Rings (4 vols) Morgoth's Ring, The War of the Jewels, and The Peoples of Middle-earth.

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