A barrel-organ in the street suddenly sprang with a jerk into a jovial tune. Syme stood up taut, as if it had been a bugle before the battle. He found himself filled with a supernatural courage that came from nowhere. The jingling music seemed full of the vivacity, the vulgarity, and the irrational valour of the poor, who in all those unclean streets were all clinging to the decencies and the charities of Christendom. —G.K. Chesterton (The Man Who was Thursday)
Chesterton is seldom wrong. In fact, he is so seldom wrong that it is normally the height of folly to even contemplate contradicting him. And yet his ceaseless championing of the healthy “vulgarity” of the poor is sometimes hard to swallow. Although such praise of the “vulgar” was due in part to a healthy Dickensian (and Christian) love for the common man, it was also due to a less than healthy attachment to the cause of the French Revolution. This naïveté found expression in another Chestertonian aphorism in which he tells us that evolution is what happens when everyone is asleep but revolution is what happens when everyone is awake. One wonders in what way the mindless mobs of Paris or Moscow can be said to have been “awake,” unless wakefulness is seen as being synonymous with madness.
Pace Chesterton, it is clearly necessary to draw a distinction between the healthy “popular culture” of the rooted common man, and the inane “pop culture” of the rootless masses. Those with roots evolve; those without roots revolve or revolt. Chesterton understood this, of course, though he sometimes seems to have forgotten it in his haste to champion the poor against the rich. It was, after all, Chesterton who warned that the “coming peril” was not “bolshevism” but was “standardization by a low standard,” or, to use our ugly modern vernacular, the coming peril is the “dumbing down” of culture. And let’s not forget that the “vulgarity” of which Chesterton (or Syme) was speaking in The Man Who was Thursday was “clinging to the decencies and the charities of Christendom.”
It can be seen, therefore, that healthy popular culture is rooted, it clings. It is rooted in the decencies and charities of Christendom. This fundamental truth was grasped with refreshing gusto in the song, “Roots,” by the Devonshire folk group, Show of Hands:
A minister said his vision of hell
Was three folk singers in a pub near Wells;
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl,
It’s pubs where no-one ever sings at all,
And everyone stares at a great big screen,
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens,
Australian soaps, American rap,
Estuary English, baseball caps …
Without our stories or our songs,
How will we know where we’ve come from?
I’ve lost St George in the Union Jack,
It’s my flag too and I want it back.
Seed, bud, flower, fruit,
Never gonna grow without their roots,
Branch, stem, shoot – We need roots.
This is true popular culture at its best. It is reminiscent of the rootedness of Tolkien’s Treebeard, a courageous and indomitable rootedness which curses the vulgarity of the rootless orcs and the evil powers that they serve. It is the folk culture of the Shire, not the “pop culture” of Isengard or Mordor.
It is appropriate that this short perambulation on the subject of faith and popular culture should have wended its way to Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is the apotheosis of literary folk culture. It unites high and popular culture, fusing the loftiest heights of literary achievement with the lowly accessibility of the popular novel. Furthermore, and if the aforementioned were not enough, the fusion of high and popular culture is achieved through the infusion of faith. The Lord of the Rings is the very incarnation of faith and popular culture!
Let’s conclude, therefore, by judging popular culture from the loftily low vantage point of the Shire. If it fits in the Shire it passes the culture test; if it doesn’t fit in the Shire it fails the test and is consequently consigned to the anti-cultural wastelands of pop vulgarity.
Folk music fits in the Shire, as does folk dancing. Morris dancers are honorary hobbits, break dancers are not! Some country music fits comfortably in the Shire, offering its homegrown morality expressed with Chestertonian wordplay and paradox, whereas other modern manifestations of country music are fit only for Isengard! Craft ale, brewed by micro-breweries, is fit for hobbits to imbibe to their heart’s content; Bud Lite and other mass-produced examples of chemical fizz posing as beer are fit for nothing but orc-swill. And, needless to say, there is no room in the Shire for MTV, so-called “reality” TV, pornography, gadget-worship and other products of the maggot-folk of Mordor.
And as for the place of faith in the Shire, Tolkien knew that those with roots will cling to the faith of their fathers. Orcs, on the other hand, are faithless because they are fatherless. Branch, stem, shoot – we need roots!