“What is Numinor?”
“The true West,” said Ransom
C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945)
You have no doubt heard that the American newspaperman Horace Greeley gave the advice, “Go west, young man! Go west!” Greeley actually borrowed the phrase from an obscure newspaperman at the Terre Haute Express, where it appeared in 1851, but he certainly did not need an obscure Terre Haute newspaperman to tell him that opportunity was waiting somewhere beyond the Mississippi. Americans appear to be born with a belief in the magic of westward migration.
But the west to which they migrate is not the “true West.”
Before men of the west began to dream of American, much less to dream of California, they dreamed of what C. S. Lewis called the “true West.” The Greeks called it Hesperia, or the Fortunate Isle of the Blest, and they said it lay somewhere in the west, beneath the evening star, where the sun went down in the evening. Hesperia was their heaven and they said it lay in the west because going to heaven is like going home to a happy hearth at the end of a long, hard day. On that Fortunate Isle in the evening lands, good lives are rewarded with rest, reward, and reunion with everything they have loved, but was scattered by the day.
Thus Tennyson addressed the evening star by its mythic name Hesper, and says:
“Hesper, whom the poet call’d the Bringer
Home of all good things.”[i]
Hesper brings good men and women home to the true West, and there brings home to them everything that is good. The poet to whom Tennyson alludes is Sapho, who twenty-five hundred years earlier had written:
“Hesperus, thou that bringest all that bright morning scattered; thou bringest the sheep, the goat, the child back to her mother.”
The long day of our life begins with a “bright morning” when we must “scatter” to work. But when the long day wanes, those of us whose work is done will sail away into the sunset, embarked for the “true West.” They will go home to rest, reward and reunion in the evening lands.
In the primitive myth the evening lands were reserved for the half-breed offspring of comely mortals and lusty gods, but Plato corrected this obscenity and placed three judges on the way to the “true West.” The god of the underworld, Pluto, explains:
“I have made my sons judges; two from Asia, Minos and Rhadamanthus, and one from Europe, Aeachus. And these, when they are dead, shall give judgement in the meadow at the parting of the ways whence the two roads lead, one to the Islands of the Blessed, and the other to Tartarus . . .”[ii]
It seems that all set out into the sunset, but that the dead are divided before they reach Hesperia and the evening land. Some are allowed to continue on what Tolkien called the “straight way” to the “true West,” whereas others are directed down into the rigors and regrets of the gloomy underworld.
* * * * *
When the ancient Greeks sailed west to Sicily and Calabria, they found an actual but not a true West. Virgil tells us that they even called this newfoundland Hesperia, but they soon found that life in Sicily and Calabria was not the life of the Blest beneath the evening star. Instead of rest, reward and reunion, they found in this actual west more work, more pain, and more strife.
They repeated this disenchantment when they passed on to a second Hesperia in Spain. And then again in America. They found the actual west of Mexico, of California, even of Peru, but they never found Hesperia, the “true West” where all good men and women go when the long day wanes. In time they of course circled the globe and returned to the disenchantment of an actual homecoming. It may not have had all the rigors and regrets of Tartarus, but they were no closer to that blessed evening-land of rest, reward and reunion. They had not found the “true West.”
This is because they had not taken what Tolkien in the Silmarillion called the “straight way.” The seafarers had instead followed the curved way because they were bound to the earth, and not only by gravity. They were fatally bound to the earth by their desire for empire and gold, and this bound them to the way that the curved around the globe to the actual west, and back to that actual and far from heavenly homecoming.
Thus, for Tolkien, the popular story of “how the west was won” is, in truth, a pathetic story of how the “true West” was lost. Young men might follow the advice of Horace Greeley, or that unsung editor from Terra Haute, but they could not “go West” to the peace of the evening-lands.
As Tolkien puts it:
“Men may sail now west, if they will, as far as they may, and come no nearer to Valinor or the Blessed Realm, but return only to the east and so back again; for the world is round, and finite, and a circle inescapable—save by death. Only the ‘immortals’, the lingering Elves, may still if they will, wearying of the circle of the world, take ship and find the ‘straight way,’ and come to the ancient or True West, and be at peace.”[iii]
* * * * *
It was Thoreau who wrote, “it is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar,” and to this Tolkien agrees with the enjoinder that “it is not worth the while to go round the world at all.” I believe Thoreau would have agreed with Tolkien because he had his own conception of the “straight way” to the “true West.”
“Start now on that farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific . . . but leads on direct a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sundown, moon down, and at last earth down too.”[iv]
To take a tangent to the sphere of the earth is to leave the curved way for the straight, and this tangent of the straight way rises by degrees from the vicissitudes of actual seasons, actual days, and actual wests. Indeed it leaves the actual surface of the planet behind and ascends to the true West, where the home fires await beneath that mythic star.
* * * * *
There is something terrible about a spherical earth because, as Tolkien says, a sphere is finite and offers no way out. Simpleton’s laugh at the image of a flat earth without considering the joyous freedom we should feel if we lived on plain and could not reach the ends of the earth. C.S. Lewis’s character Ransom attempts to convey the horror of this crowded spherical prison, from which there is no escape, and in which even the hope and memory of escape by the “straight way” has all but died.
Speaking to the wizard Merlin, revived like Rip van Winkle from long sleep, Ransom says:
“You do not understand . . . . You might go East so far that East became West and you would return to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all Tellus.”
The shadow of that “one dark wing” is not the grateful twilight of the evening-lands. That “dark wing” blocks our view of Hesper, the homecoming star, and stumbling through its gloomy shadow we at first lose, and then very shortly forget, that there is a “straight way” or a “true West.” We are content to feel the way curving below our feet, for we are at first earth-bound, and then hell-bound. And when we arrive at last at the ghastly gate of Tartarus, we shrug our shoulders and think, there was never anywhere else to go.
Note: the painting is Evening Landscape with Two Men, by Caspar David Frederich (c. 1830)
[i]) Tennyson, Locksley Hall Sixty Years After (1886)
[ii]) Plato, Gorgias (c. 380 B.C.)
[iii]) J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (1977)
[iv] ) Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)