28 September 2020

Questions on The Ring, the Ring-verse, and Elision at FR 2.ii.254

 1) If the Ring is sentient, as some suppose it to be, why doesn't it react at all when Gandalf recites the Ring incantation in the Black Speech at the Council of Elrond?

'Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, 
ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.'

The change in the wizard's voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears.

Everything and everyone else has some reaction. Not the Ring.

2) If the Ring actually changes size, instead of just seeming to do so, might that not have something to do with Sauron's nature as a Maia who could change his size and appearance until his death in Númenor? Since Sauron put much of his power into the Ring, and since his ability to change his size appearance became severely limited thereafter, the Ring could well have an innate ability to adapt to the size of its possessor, which carried over from Sauron. This could also explain why the Ring does not change size when Bombadil handles it -- because he does not possess it.

3) In the words burzum-ishi in the Ring-verse, what is the hyphen telling us? None of the other words have this feature. Why is this different? These words, moreover, disturb the rhythm of the line. For this see the excellent discussion by Corey Olsen in Exploring the Lord of the Rings, session 151.* The question of an elision to smooth the line was raised, but quickly dropped since Corey Olsen rightly found the idea of eliding the final -i- of ishi impossible, given the -k- which follows. 

What if the hyphen is directing the reader to elide the final syllable of burzum with the first syllable of ishi? In Latin verse, which Tolkien read and wrote, a final -m- may be dropped if the following word begins with a vowel. The words are still written out fully. The pronunciation and the rhythm change. Whether it would end up up being said burzishi or burzushi, I cannot say.** The latter would suit the assonance of all those syllables with -u-, and the sound is harsher than that of the former would be. The Black Speech was meant to sound harsh. On the other hand, if Latin prosody still applies, burzishi is what we should expect. 

The hyphen remains unexplained otherwise, and the rhythm remains disturbed.


*I composed this post before listening to session 152 of Exploring the Lord of the Rings.

**Alas, the famous treatise of Khamûl the Ringwraith on the Prosody of the Black Speech is lost. 

24 August 2020

Σοφιστής and 'Saruman', part two

Recently I suggested that 'Saruman' is Tolkien's rendering into Old English of the Ancient Greek σοφιστής. Last night I discovered another interesting piece of evidence to support that suggestion. While looking at the entry for σοφιστής in the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon, I found the following quotation from Demosthenes used to illustrate the pejorative sense of the word (II.2):

'γόητα καὶ σοφιστὴν ὀναμάζων' (Dem. 18.276).

We may easily render this straightforward phrase 'naming [me] a cheat and a sophist', but that would obscure a very interesting connection for us. The word γόητα, here translated 'cheat', is the accusative singular of γόης, the first meaning of which is 'sorcerer, wizard'. We find γόης and σοφιστής similarly paired at Plato Smp. 203d, with the addition of φαρμακεύς, another word for 'sorcerer'. Γοής is of course related to γοητεία, a word Tolkien knew well, as his discussion of it in a 1956 letter to Naomi Mitchison attests (Letters # 155). Note that the qualities Tolkien attributes to goeteia -- namely, 'to terrify and subjugate' and to 'deceive or bewilder unaware Men' -- are not at all unlike the qualities of Saruman's voice, by which he can persuade or daunt others.
But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia. Galadriel speaks of the 'deceits of the Enemy'. Well enough, but magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives. The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other 'free' wills. The Enemy's operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but 'magic' that produces real effects in the physical world. But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. Their magia the Elves and Gandalf use (sparingly): a magia, producing real results (like fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men) since the difference is to them as clear as the difference to us between fiction, painting, and sculpture, and 'life'.

Goeteia -- and goety, its obsolete English descendant -- operate by invocation, that is to say, by being spoken or cried aloud. The Ancient Greek verb at the root of γοητεία is γοάω, to wail or bewail, especially the dead. That last sentence in the letter is of particular interest since it allows us to see a link between the power of Saruman's voice and Faërian Drama as a product of the power of Elvish minstrelsy. That, however, is an essay for another time. For today it will suffice to note the connections between γοητεία, σοφιστής, and Saruman, which make seeing Saruman as a translation of σοφιστής even more plausible. It draws Saruman even closer to those venal amoralists who used the power of their voices to make the morally worse argument defeat the morally better argument. 

08 August 2020

Σοφιστής and 'Saruman', or, Tolkien at play in the fields of philology

Every now and then I see a connection that has been staring me in the face for a long time, one of those connections that seems unbelievably obvious in retrospect. By a long time I mean well more than half of my life, since I have been reading Tolkien for nearly 50 years and Greek for more than 40. Recently I have been read Dennis Wilson Wise's perceptive article, 'Between Rage and Eloquence in Saruman and Thrasymachus', in The Journal of Tolkien Research 3 (2016), and currently I am reading Simon Critchley's book, Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us (2019).

Thrasymachus, to whom Wise compares Saruman, was a Sophist, one of those allegedly unscrupulous moral relativist teachers for hire who appeared across the Greek world in the Fifth Century B.C. and taught the art of persuasion. Wise argues that it is no accident that Thrasymachus and Saruman have so much in common. Rather, he argues, Tolkien constructed his portrait of Saruman with the Sophists in mind.

Last night I read the following in Critchley (94): 

The Greek word sophistes originally meant "skilled craftsman" or "wise man", but was used to describe travelling teachers who visited Athens from the mid-fifth century BCE and acquired a negative connotation in the comedies of Aristophanes, like The Clouds, and then in the writings of Plato and, later, Aristotle.

I knew all this, just as I knew that sophistes (σοφιστής) combines σοφία, 'skill', 'craft', 'wisdom', with the agent suffix -στής. I also knew that Saruman is formed in precisely the same way, combining saru, a Mercian dialectal form of Old English searu, 'skill' or 'craft' with the agent suffix -man. Not until I read Wise and Critchley in close proximity did I make the obvious connection. 

Saruman is not attested in extant Old English, but it is more than a significant name invented by Tolkien to suggest to those who know Old English that this particular wizard is cunning and crafty. It is a translation of σοφιστής into Old English, which subtly ties the portrayal of Saruman into the moral concerns of Greek philosophy and politics. 

It is always a pleasure to see Tolkien at play in the fields of philology.


I intend to spend more time researching this and writing it up. To my knowledge no one has observed this connection before me, but I only made the connection last night. I also know of at least one occasion where Tolkien considered the use of names based on Greek.

22 July 2020

Ulmo, the outer Ocean, and Greek Mythology

Reading Megan Fontenot's recent post on Ulmo in her 'Exploring the Peoples of Middle-earth' series at Tor.com reminded me of a connection I'd recently noticed between this Vala and Greek Mythology. 

But mostly Ulmo speaks to those who dwell in Middle-earth with voices that are heard only as the music of water. For all seas, lakes, rivers, fountains and springs are in his government; so that the Elves say that the spirit of Ulmo runs in all the veins of the world. Thus news comes to Ulmo, even in the deeps, of all the needs and griefs of Arda, which otherwise would be hidden from Manwë.  
Silmarillion, p. 27
But Ulmo was alone, and he abode not in Valinor, nor ever came thither unless there were need for a great council; he dwelt from the beginning of Arda in the Outer Ocean, and still he dwells there. Thence he governs the flowing of all waters, and the ebbing, the courses of an rivers and the replenishment of Springs, the distilling of all dews and rain in every land beneath the sky. In the deep places he gives thought to music great and terrible; and the echo of that music runs through all the veins of the world in sorrow and in joy; for it joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth. 
Silmarillion, p. 40

On p. 30 of Dr. Marie-Claire Beaulieu's fine book, The Sea in the Greek Imagination, she writes:

The sea also mediates between the different parts of the world due to its connection with a broader hydrological network. All ground water -- that is, not surface runoff -- radiates from the outer Ocean inward into the rivers and springs and then flows outward in to the sea [Plato, Phaedo 111c-112d]. In fact, according to Hesiod Theogony 337-62, the most important daughter of Oceanus is Styx, the river of the Underworld, and all the other rivers of the world are her sisters. Thus the hydrological network connects all the parts of the world, from the invisible world of the gods and the dead beyond the Ocean, to the Underworld, to the surface of the earth. The sea holds the middle position in this network as it receives the water that flows from the rivers and springs of the earth and brings it back to the outer Ocean.

Tolkien clearly knew the Phaedo from university*, if not before, and it would be strange if he had not read the Theogony at some point in school or out, in translation if not in the original. Dr Beaulieu discusses this aspect of the sea in greater length than I can quote here, but many of those texts, too, would have been familiar to Tolkien. The presence of such a 'hydrological network' in both Tolkien and Greek Myth and the general role of the sea as connecting the different worlds strongly suggests the influence of the myths he had read on the myths he was writing, though of course Tolkien re-imagines it by adding the echo of the music to the waters of the world, as well as Ulmo's ability to gather news by means of them.

 *Scull and Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, vol 1. Chronology, p. 44 (2017).

14 July 2020

Now this a first paragraph

Tragedy shows what is perishable, what is fragile, and what is slow moving about us. In a world defined by relentless speed and the unending acceleration of information flows that cultivate amnesia and an endless thirst for the short-term future allegedly guaranteed through worship of the new prosthetic gods of technology, tragedy is a way of applying the emergency brake.
Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us, p. 3

Here in the first paragraph of his book, Critchley treats us to two sentences of rhetorical delight. The first sentence is balanced, succinct, stately, and tricolonic. Its three dependent clauses ('what...what...what....) move with the deliberateness of the strophe and antistrophe of a Greek Tragic chorus. The first sentence in no way prepares the reader for the second, which is fitting since the second sentence comes in like a tsunami sweeping all before it. It just keeps coming. The thirty-six word prepositional phrase depending on 'In' not only describes 'a world defined' but it portrays that world magnificently. It both shows and tells. Finally arriving at the main clause and finding the last two words of the sentence to be 'emergency brake', I laughed out loud with delight. It's just magnificent. That paragraph alone was worth the price of the book.