17 December 2020

Eucatastrophae non sunt multiplicandae praeter necessitatem.

‘The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy’
(OFS ¶ 104)
These days I hear so many of the events in The Lord of the Rings described as eucatstrophes that I think we have lost sight of how very miraculous and weighty a thing Tolkien held a eucatastrophe to be. The eucatastrophes at the end of myths or fairy-stories are echoes of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, not the other way around. For a man as devout as Tolkien, who could write the sentence quoted above, it was no cheap parlor trick or deus ex machina which through overuse trivializes the events it brings about. It could not be so.

14 December 2020

A thought on the 'sentience' of the Ring

To say definitively if the One Ring is or is not sentient may not in the end be possible. To do so would surely require an attentive and thorough examination of the question. I tend to believe that it is not, but I also think that the ambiguity is both intentional and important. I am not pursuing that overall question here today, only a portion of it that has only recently become clear to me.

It struck me that Of Aulë and Yavanna supplies important testimony against the sentience of the Ring. Here's the passage in question (emphases mine):

Now Ilúvatar knew what was done, and in the very hour that Aulë's work was complete, and he was pleased, and began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them, Ilúvatar spoke to him; and Aulë heard his voice and was silent. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to him: 'Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?'

Then Aulë answered: 'I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt. But should I not rather destroy the work of my presumption?'

Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and were afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: 'Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will.' Then Aulë cast down his hammer and was glad, and he gave thanks to Ilúvatar, saying: 'May Eru bless my work and amend it!'

(S 43-44) 

Without the direct intervention of Ilúvatar, all of Aulë's power and craft and love cannot give sentience or consciousness to the Dwarves. Now Of Aulë and Yayanna dates from 1958, so we must naturally take care when using it to support a point about The Lord of the Rings. Yet the notion of making something in mockery recalls the remarks of Treebeard at TT 3.iv.486 and of Frodo at TT 6.i.914: 'The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them....' So, it seems clear enough that, when writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien already had in mind some version of the principle we see several years later in Of Aulë and Yayanna. 

The story that Aulë made the Dwarves arose first in the 1930s, but Ilúvatar plays no role in it and the Dwarves have 'no spirit indwelling, as have the Children of Ilúvatar' (Lost Road, 129), though here this does not deprive them of sentience. This strongly suggests that Tolkien's thought was already moving along the lines we see later, even if he had not yet decided that only Ilúvatar could create autonomous beings which have 'a life of their own, and speak with their own voices'. In letter 153, moreover, written only weeks after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954Tolkien points out that while Melkor could have made the flesh and blood of the orcs by the power that was in him, he could not have given them souls or spirits, because that is not a power Ilúvatar 'delegated'. In the same letter he also remarks: 'when you make Trolls speak you are giving them a power, which in our world (probably) connotes the possession of a 'soul'. (Compare also the implicit link between consciousness and speech in Treebeard's remark that the old Elves woke the trees up and taught them to speak [TT 3.iv.468]). What Melkor could not do, Aulë and Sauron could not have done either. 

Note, too, that Gandalf says Sauron 'let a great part of his former power pass into [the Ring], so that he could rule all the others' (FR 1.ii.51), and that, if the Ring is destroyed, Sauron 'will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in the beginning', which would reduce him to 'a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot grow again or take shape' (RK 5.ix.878). Here we see a clear distinction drawn between Sauron's spirit and his power or strength. The Ring contained his power, but not his spirit. Nor could he give it one. So whatever sentience or consciousness the Ring may possess, if it should possess any at all, seems little likely to have arisen from Sauron's having endowed it with his power (which he did) or with his spirit (which he did not do). It was, however, 'fraught with his malice' according to Elrond (FR 2.ii.254), that is, 'furnished with' or 'filled with', 'carrying with it as an attribute', 'destined to produce' (OED). Which is not to say that it feels malice.

What we have seen here argues against the sentience of the Ring. There are other passages that bear on this question in different ways, and other objects that may or may not be sentient, but they are not my concern here. I shall return to them in time. 

05 December 2020

The Shortsightedness of Denethor

Compare the following passages, the first Denethor's words, the second Faramir's. 

'I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed.' 

            RK 5.iv.825

'... we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.' 

            TT  4.v.676 

Denethor's vision does not see past Númenor that was. That is what he means by 'The West.' There is no more. Little wonder then that he and Faramir have such vastly different desires for what they would see present day Gondor be:

'For myself,' said Faramir, 'I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.'

            TT 4.v.671-72

'I would have things as they were in all the days of my life answered Denethor, 'and in the days my longfathers before me: to the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me who would be his own master and no wizard's pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.'

            RK 5.vii.853

One might almost say that there's a feeling Faramir gets when he looks to The West, but Denethor does not.

It is worth noting in this connection that Faramir had also spoken slightingly of 'tombs more splendid than the houses of the living' (4.v.677), and his calling Minas Tirith by its old name, Minas Anor, echoes Aragorn's words on seeing the Argonath (3.ix.393). Faramir's truer vision is in keeping with his experience of the dream about 'the Sword that was broken' and his encounter with the boat bearing his brother, the exact nature of which -- dream, reality, vision -- is never quite clear.

30 November 2020

Predestination as Algorithm -- Boethius, Consolation, 5 pr. ii

In replying to Boethius' question about Free Will and Fate, Lady Philosophy states:

   'There is freedom,' said she; 'nor, indeed, can any creature be rational, unless he be endowed with free will. For that which hath the natural use of reason has the faculty of discriminative judgment, and of itself distinguishes what is to be shunned or desired. Now, everyone seeks what he judges desirable, and avoids what he thinks should be shunned. Wherefore, beings endowed with reason possess also the faculty of free choice and refusal. But I suppose this faculty not equal alike in all. The higher Divine essences possess a clear-sighted judgment, an uncorrupt will, and an effective power of accomplishing their wishes. Human souls must needs be comparatively free while they abide in the contemplation of the Divine mind, less free when they pass into bodily form, and still less, again, when they are enwrapped in earthly members. But when they are given over to vices, and fall from the possession of their proper reason, then indeed their condition is utter slavery. For when they let their gaze fall from the light of highest truth to the lower world where darkness reigns, soon ignorance blinds their vision; they are disturbed by baneful affections, by yielding and assenting to which they help to promote the slavery in which they are involved, and are in a manner led captive by reason of their very liberty. Yet He who seeth all things from eternity beholdeth these things with the eyes of His providence, and assigneth to each what is predestined for it by its merits.'

         (Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, 5 pr. ii., trans. M. R. James)

That last sentence sounds like God has an algorithm. Does that come with Prime?

'Der mentsh* trakht un got lakht': Divine Irony and the Ring Verse.

 Just this morning I was reflecting on the incantatory lines at the heart of the Ring verse:

One Ring to rule them all, one ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them

The emphatically repeated 'them' refers as much to the bearers of the other Rings of Power as it does to the Rings themselves. The intent to enslave the bearers was imperfectly realized of course, except in the case of Men. It occurs to me, however, that these verses also reflect the relations of the three agents of the eucatastrophe at Mt Doom, Frodo, Gollum, and Sam, all of whom of course are Ringbearers. The Ring brought them all together and bound them in the literal darkness of Mordor. Frodo 'wouldn't have got far without Sam' (TT 4.viii.712) and 'but for [Gollum]' Frodo 'could not have destroyed the Ring' (RK 6.iii.947). Frodo, however, 'was meant to have the Ring' as much as Bilbo had been (FR 1.ii.55), but it was not the maker of the Ring who intended this.

'[T]here was something else at work', as Gandalf tells Frodo. That 'something' read the Ring verse ironically, in a sense no one else grasped, much like the words that in truth prophesied the Witch-king's death rather than his invulnerability. Just as Éowyn, Merry, and the barrow-blade were brought together as if by chance to belie the obvious meaning of 'not by the hand of man shall he fall' (RK 5.vi.840; App. A 1051), so too, the coming together of Frodo, Gollum, and Sam at Mt Doom reveals new meaning in the Ring verse. 

It is a new meaning such as Eru prophesied to Melkor before the world was made (Silm. 17) :

'.... And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.'


*The use of this word here should not be taken to imply that Sauron was ever a mentsh to anyone, anywhere, at any time.