Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Inklings Were (Qualifiedly) Anti-Natal

It is fair to say that almost all Christian conservatives, regardless of where they stand on birth control, are pro-natal. That is, they like big families and they think big families are an important part of being Christian. Moreover big families are seen as having an important role in making the world Christian.

It is also fair to say that almost all Christian conservatives, regardless of where they stand on other literature, love the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the most famous of the inter-war "Inklings" at Oxford.

Given that fact it is curious that no Christian conservative that I know of has noticed that both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were (qualifiedly) anti-natal, that is they saw small families as the ideal, and viewed unchecked reproduction as in fact a sign of at best coarseness and crudity and sometimes even evil. Now, they certainly both regarded birth control as evil ("the usages of Sulva", refering to the perverted inhabitants of the moon, C.S. Lewis called it, in That Hideous Strength). Rather like the earliest Quakers, they believed that a kind of "mild sexlessness" within marriage would by reducing the sexual drive, also reduce the number of children. Tolkien himself had four, and since I find it hard to believe this was limited by birth control, it seems most likely that he and Edith had a largely chaste marriage (in Christmas Humphreys's biography, he notes that they slept in separate rooms, as J.R.R. preferred to work at night).

C.S. Lewis in his Out of the Silent Planet, has Ransom (based on Tolkien himself) question Hyoi, one of the Hrossa, a race of unfallen rational creatures on Mars, about conflict. He is trying to understand if they have war, and then tries to get to the idea of scarcity:

"Hyoi, if you had more and more young, would Maleldil broaden the handramit [the inhabitable "canals" on Mars] and make enough plants for them all?"

Hyoi replies by asking why should they want to have more young.

Ransom replies:

"Is the begetting of young not a pleasure among the hrossa?"

"A very great one, Hman [=man]. This is what we call love."

"If a thing is a pleasure, a hman wants it again. He might want the pleasure more often than the number of young that could be fed."

It took Hyoi a long time to get the point.

"You mean," he said slowly, "that he might do it not only in one or two years of his life but again?"


"But why? Would he want his dinner all day or want to sleep after he had slept? I do not understand."

"But a dinner comes every day. This love, you say, comes only once while the hrossa lives?"

"But it takes his whole life. When he is young he has to look for his mate; and then he has to court her; then he begets young; then he rears them; then he remembers all this, and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom" (p. 73-74).

The conversation then turns to the issue of pleasure and its potentially excessive repetition, which for the hrossa seems an idea as much absurd as it is "bent". "Ransom" concludes that:

Among the hrossa, anyway, it was obvious that unlimited breeding and promiscuity were as rare as the rarest perversion. At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle. That the hrossa should have such instincts was mildly surprising; but how came it that the instincts of the hrossa so closely resembled the unattainable ideal of that far-divided species Man whose instincts were so deplorably different? What was the history of Man? (p. 75).

The implication is unescapable, that not only promiscuity and polygamy, but unlimited breeding are a part of Man's fallenness. (A very different -- although equally speculative -- perspective on pre-fall fertility is touched on here.)

With this key, it is interesting to return to Middle Earth and note that the nobility of any given race seems inversely proportional to its fertility. Elves seem to be always declining, and their once populous lands empty. Among men, Numenoreans were few and getting fewer, the Rohirrim and other semi-good "men of the twilight" somewhat flourishing, and the evil Haradrim and Easterlings constantly overflowing in numbers. The Ents of course have no Entlings because they have lost the Entwives (which like the tale of Aldarion and Erendis reflects the quarrels that marred the Tolkiens' own loving but difficult marriage). About the only demographically healthy population of more or less good people are the Hobbits, who are explicitly said to have large families. This is an important qualification, although one must also notice that Tolkien is rather more ambivalent about hobbits and their ways than most of his admirers (Peter Jackson not least) are willing to admit.

Overall, however, Tolkien and Lewis both present an image of family life that is quite different from that of modern Christian conservativism. It is perhaps not unconnected (as in the passage cited from Lewis) to their economic ideal, one which is anti-growth, and oriented toward stasis and maintenance. As a livable ideal, it would seem that this would necessitates small families and static populations, which given the rejection of contraception, would in turn necessitate a much less "earthy" (i.e. eroticized) vision of ideal marriage.

So much-discussed low growth rates in the industrialized world would not bother the Inklings -- except of course for the small matter of the "usages of Sulva" (and worse!) by which they are being achieved.

UPDATE: Eric Phillips has pointed out the line said by Faramir in his description to Frodo and Sam of the ills of Gondor: "Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars." To this we could add Beregond's statement that "There were always too few children in the city." Point well taken: actual decline in population was not seen as a good thing by Tolkien and voluntary childlessness among, for example, the Numenoreans, he saw as symptomatic of a spiritual illness. But opposing childlessness, does not mean advocating large families, even when the Edain were healthy and vigorous, as, for example, in the First Age. I still maintain that the marketing of Tolkien as a proponent of large families and "earthy" Christianity (see here and here) is simply mistaking that author's viewpoint. (I would add that only in the movie are the hobbits "the only ones who can resist the Ring’s seduction" -- in their own ways Gandalf, Galadriel, Faramir, and others all resist it. Nor is Frodo a particularly hobbit-like hobbit. But don't get me started on the movie . . . )

UPDATE II: As Friedrich Foresight pointed out, Tolkien had four children, not three. (I've corrected that). This brings up the point of Jaska's about how many children make a "big family." I was really thinking over four, but as Dave Armstrong pointed out, today any over two is usually seen as big.