Monday 30 May 2011

Norman Keeps and Horrible Histories


From The Notion Club Papers, by JRR Tolkien, page 231:

"Oh, Norman Keeps is our barber,' said Frankley. At least that's what Arry and I call him: no idea what his real name is.

"Quite a nice and moderately intelligent little man: but to him everything beyond a certain vague distance back is a vast dark barren but utterly fixed and determined land and time called The Dark Ages.

"There are only four features in it: Norman Keeps (by which he means baronial castles, and possibly the house of any man markedly richer than himself); Them Jameses (meaning roughly I suppose the kings One and Two); The Squires (a curious kind of bogey-folk); and The People.

"Nothing ever happened in that land but Them Jameses shutting up The People in the Keeps (with the help of The Squires) and there torturing them and robbing them, though they don't appear ever to have possessed anything to be robbed of.

"Rather a gloomy legend. But it's a great deal more fixed in a lot more heads than is the Battle of Camlan!'

"'I know, I know,' said Lowdham loudly and angrily. 'It's a shame! Norman Keeps is a very decent chap, and would rather learn truth than lies. But [Sauron] pays special attention to the type. (...)'


In his notes Christopher Tolkien points out that 'Normal Keeps' was Tolkien's nickname for a real person, who worked in a barber's shop in Turl Street, Oxford.

In the UK, the perspective of Norman Keeps has become mainstream and dominant with the success of a series of very popular and enjoyable cartoon history books for pre-adolescent children called Horrible Histories, by Terry Deary (we must have thirty or forty of them on our shelves at home).

The books have been successful in CD audio form, made into animated cartoons, and are currently the basis for a brilliantly clever and funny show of parodic sketches and songs.


The view adopted is that History is Horrible; and the Horrible is the only aspect of History which is covered.

The books (which are very well written and illustrated, and very funny) are full of disgusting and horrific facts - especially torture, suffering, and the unhygienic.

Implicit is that only history is really Horrible, and that 'we' - the readers and writer of the book, have said 'goodbye to all that', moved beyond it, and now recognize that previous generations were both stupid and cruel.


Terry Deary (who lives near me, although I haven't met him) is explicit that his books have a subversive and Leftist purpose; and they have clearly succeeded in this purpose.

The preceding perspective which Horrible Histories have subverted was the vestige of Whiggish history, the idea of history as progressive, with each step an advance on what went before. Whiggish history entailed the assumption that some of the past was admirable - because it was leading up to better things - while other aspects of the past were retrograde, destructive of progress.

But there were certainly 'good things' about the past in a Whiggish history of England -  Alfred the Great, The Magna Carta, The Elizabethan Age and so on.

This progressive view of history was the Leftism of its era - the Old Left. 


But for Norman Keeps and Horrible Histories, the past is all bad, because the essence of history is oppression compounded by ignorance.

There was indeed progress, but it was qualitative and instant: essentially progress began only when the reader entered history; the reader is a higher form of human consciousness than ever existed in history; the reader for the first time sees-through the shabbiness, greediness and idiocy of history.

We have nothing to learn from History except that it was bad; and history was bad because (compared wit the modern day reader) historical people were bad.

So Horrible Histories is highly flattering to the modern reader: he surveys all of human history and finds himself and his opinions to be better than anything which went before. Morally better, as well as technically better.  


Any actual basic approach to history (past times) is always simple (like most theoretically-overwhelmingly-complex things: in practice they are necessarily absolutely simple).

History is either positive or negative - and boils down to the primary assumption that either the past was better or worse than now.


Traditionally history has a positive valence, and it was assumed that the past (obviously!) contained more good things and people than the present (not least because there was a lot more of the past). Consequently people looked to the past for knowledge and wisdom.

And this was certainly the view of Tolkien.

A corollary of this (not necessary, but perhaps inevitable) is that the pattern of history has been a decline not a progress: the greatest people and achievements of the past are greater than the greatest people and achievements in the present.


Nowadays history has a negative valence, and it is assumed that the present is better and wiser than the past - indeed the point at which bad history begins has been brought up to about 1965 - that is the New Left, student revolutions, the beginning of 'isms' and of political correctness.

Up to 1965 stupid bad people; after 1965 clever good people.

Before 1965 all bad: after 1965 some good.

The New Left has subverted the Old Left.


A corollary of this is that history is seen as progress - but nowadays not a steady progress but as pretty-much a flat line of human misery and corruption until c. 1965; and then a very recent and very rapid take-off to the current state of enlightenment.

Making the present perspective unique to human history, uniquely virtuous - that is: qualitatively superior to anything that went before. 

Consequently people nowadays look to the past not for knowledge and wisdom, but

1. to be appalled at its wickedness and ignorance (Norman Keeps)

and/ or

2. to laugh at its wickedness and ignorance (Horrible Histories). 


(I am not arguing here for a 'balanced' view of history - I am suggesting there is no such thing as a balanced view of history. There is no neutrality: we must choose. I am therefore arguing for a positive view of history; and against the negative view of history embodied by NK and HH.)


In his comments of Norman Keeps, Tolkien perceived that while the Horrible History perspective can creep-up on decent people, it is wide-open to evil.

Sauron pays special attention to the type


The historical perspective of Norman Keeps and Horrible Histories - while certainly fun when taken in a recreational spirit, or as a 'Lord of Misrule' break in routine - in the end promotes and sustains invincible pride in people and in culture.

(Imagine! To feel qualitatively superior to all those 'horrible' people lived in the past! To sit in judgment, and to condemn all previous generations as fundamentally immoral and foolish! Very pleasant...)


By rejecting all the wisdom of the past, Horrible History leaves modern society trapped in the Now.

Trapped, that is, in the gilded iron cage of pervasive bureaucracies and mass media; but with nowhere to to escape: no alternatives.



Wurmbrand said...

Note that popular culture often acknowledges and even celebrates the grimness of modern life. It's as if the agenda is, not so much the idea of our Wonderful Time as opposed to all earlier (and miserable) times, but rather that the very expectation of, even the desire for, happiness should be foregone. May it not be part of the Evil One's strategy to make suspect the very idea that we should be happy? The very words that express innocent, trusting happiness are made dubious. There was a loss not merely to poetry but to consciousness when "gay" was stolen by advocates of homosexuality. And how often do people speak or write of being "merry" or "mirthful"? The very words sound suspect. I have taught Milton's "L'Allegro" to college students, and -- never mind the difficulties of the allusions, I have to wonder how much the experiences have been available to them. I don't want to overstate my point, but it does seem that much in popular culture (and no doubt in education) seems as if it were intended to kill the ability to experience uncomplicated happiness. Chesterton somewhere suggests that God may be likened to a child who experiences something delightful and says "Do it again!" -- as if He makes the sun to rise every morning with an analogous delight. Perhaps the devil is (in his own mind) much more "grown up."

As I like to point out, you almost never hear people whistling tunes any more. Popular music, as Roger Scruton pointed out, is largely rhythmic, not melodic. Melody naturally associates itself with natural emotions, whether of joy or of longing. I'm not very knowledgeable about music but I'm not so sure that highly rhythmic music is the natural expression of such states of the soul.

Bruce Charlton said...

Re: Whistling - Many years ago I supervised a delightful, quiet female student from southern Africa who told me that she had been used to singing as she walked and worked, but had to stop in Britain because she attracted too much attention - maybe she was too obviously happy?

Wittgenstein was a very keen whistler, but (of course) took it terribly seriously - he would whistle classical music duets with friends who played instruments.

Another great whistler was the great 18th century Newcastle wood engraver and artist Thomas Bewick. In his memoir (which I recommend) he advocates whistling becoming a public phenomenon, and having competitions.

Wurmbrand said...

I'm delighted by the three points in your comment above!

dearieme said...

I still whistle. And I hum. Alas, my wife says that she can recognise the tunes solely by the rhythm, so feeble is my melodic accuracy. Yet I can hear melody perfectly well. It's so unfair!!!!

Hugo said...

Is there a source for Deary being "explicit that his books have a subversive and Leftist purpose"?

Bruce Charlton said...

Source for Deary - this edition of the Radio Times - the biggest selling weekly magazine in the UK. But it's no secret - look at any interview.