“The Tree, at any rate, was curious. Quite unique in its way. So was Niggle; though he was also a very ordinary and rather silly little man.”
J. R. R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle” (1964)
I am myself a silly little man. Also, very ordinary and yet quite unique in my own way. I daresay the same can be said about you. I will come back to that adjective silly in a minute, but will first explain that I am thinking about what it means to be a silly little man because I am also thinking about what it means to be a serious guy.
Like most silly little men, I have been my whole life plagued by serious guys. I have indeed been so plagued by serious guys that I have tried to escape the plague by becoming a serious guy myself. But my imposture did not work because serious guys subjected me to their wonted scrutiny and rejected me as a silly little man.
The root meaning of serious is heavy, the English word being second cousin to the German word schwer. Serious is one point in a constellation of words that include weighty, grave, honored and important. It is the last of these cognates that take us to the heart of what I mean by a serious guy, because self-importance is the defining trait in his character. This may or may not be tied to genuine importance, but a serious guy always takes himself, and everything about himself, very, very seriously.
And one of the things he seriously believes is that there is a serious need for something to be done about all the silly little men.
When I am plagued by a serious guy, I find that my head fills with the picture of a serious guy working late into the night. I see him sitting bolt upright at his desk in the small hours, his broad brow knit with concentration, his keen eyes glowing with intelligence, his accurate fingers dancing over the clattering keyboard of his computer. I imagine him sinking into an Eames chair after his wife and children have gone to bed, a thick sheaf of important papers on his knee, an efficient ballpoint clicking under his thumb, a powerful reading lamp beaming at his shoulder.
He differs not one wit from “the Efficient Baxter” in a Blandings novel by P.G. Wodehouse, right down to the cold glare of his steel-rimmed spectacles. And whatever the assiduous night owl of my imagination may be typing or correcting, I am sure it will, come morning, make some silly little man stand up and take notice.
For whipping silly little men into shape is what every serious guy cannot help but to do.
He does this, I daresay, in the mistaken belief that silly little men are defective replicas of himself. They are simpletons, sluggards, screw-ups or fools. Now a silly little man may be any one of these things, or all four at the same time, but these things do not make him a silly little man. The word silly means at bottom a childlike unworldliness. Eight hundred years ago, the word meant blessed with happiness and contentment, a state that is unknown to the restless, efficient and serious guy.
Since a man who is happy and contented has no reason to steal your purse or slit your throat, the word silly came to mean harmless. After inquiring into their own hearts, the serious guys decided that a harmless man must be harmless for want of the capacity to be otherwise, and so the meaning of silly changed from harmless to weak. And from weakness it was but a short step to weak in the head, and to the imbecile grin that is often called a silly smile.
* * * * *
“The silly buckets on the deck
That had so long remained,
I dreamed that they were filled with dew
And when I awoke, it rained.”
These lines are from Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and they occur just after the wretched sailor is released from the curse that followed his wanton killing of the albatross. You may recall that he had been drifting alone on a hot and windless sea, and perishing of thirst, when the beauty of some sporting water-snakes drew from his heart a blessing of love. And with those words of long-abandoned prayer,
“The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”
Because the Ancient Mariner loved and blessed those slimy snakes, Mary in heaven loved and blessed the Ancient mariner. She sent him sleep, she sent him rain, she sent him a wind that would carry his ship home to his far country. When she sent the rain, it filled the “silly buckets on the deck,” and and by filling those buckets rendered them the very opposite of silly.
At least the blessed rain rendered those buckets the very opposite of what silly had come to mean in 1798, when Coleridge wrote the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. It rendered those buckets the very symbols of silly in the older sense of supernaturally blessed. It rendered those “silly” buckets silly with grace.
* * * * *
If you have read Tolkien’s “Leaf by Nigel,” you know that it is an allegory of life, death, purgatory and heaven. The main character, Nigel, is a very ordinary man by worldly standards. He is unique insofar as he has an unusual love for beauty and painting, but like so many who love beauty and painting, he is not at all remarkable for his skill. Thus he is a little man, and a silly man because he has a childlike devotion to painting that causes his garden to grow up with weeds. He was blessed with happiness, although in the eyes of the world poor Nigel was as silly as Coleridge’s buckets before the Ancient Mariner learned to pray.
I will pass over much of Tolkien’s story, and much in the character of Nigel, to the story’s closing scene. Nigel has passed through purgatory, and on to Heaven, while back on earth a government agent named Tompkins is disposing of the dead painter’s property. This Tompkins is a serious guy, as can be seen in the fact that he bears the important title of Councilor. Tompkins is, however accompanied by second man named Atkins, a mere schoolmaster of no importance whatever. Here is their dialogue:
“I think he was a silly little man,” said Councilor Tompkins. “Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. “I am not so sure: it depends on what you mean by use.”
“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago.”
“Put him away? You mean you’d have made him start on the journey before his time?” [Atkins means euthanized]
“Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: that’s what I mean.”
* * * * *
I began this post by confessing that I am, myself, a silly little man. Whenever I forget this fact and fancy myself a serious guy, an officious Councilor Tompkins kindly steps in to remind me I am “worthless” and, “no use to Society at all.” As I am likely too old to be of much use as a dishwasher in the communal kitchens, I can only imagine that Councilor Tompkins is nowadays thinking how very sweet it would be to push me through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap. And I can hardly blame him, since I appear to Councilor Tompkins just as those “foolish buckets” appeared to the Ancient Mariner before he learned to pray.
I can hardly blame Councilor Tompkins, but I am not so silly as to agree with him. I mean silly in the new and degraded sense of foolish. I have no wish to be a serious guy. My wish is, rather, to be like the buckets to which the Ancient Mariner awoke after,
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
I wish to be silly in that sense. And so, I suggest, should you. If you are prepared to confess yourself a “silly little man,” you have yet to decide what kind of silly you will be. Will you be a silly bucket” before or after the blessed rain?