Wednesday, December 7, 2016

'And I'll bear no weapon, fair or foul' (RK 6.iii.937-38)

'There, I'll be an orc no more,' he cried, 'and I'll bear no weapon, fair or foul. Let them take me, if they will!' 
Sam did likewise, and put aside his orc-gear; and he took out all the things in his pack. Somehow each of them had become dear to him, if only because he had borne them so far with so much toil. Hardest of all it was to part with his cooking-gear. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought of casting it away.
With that he carried all the gear away to one of the many gaping fissures that scored the land and threw them in. The clatter of his precious pans as they fell down into the dark was like a death-knell to his heart.
(RK 6.iii.937-38)

Three quick remarks:

1) As Frodo utters these words, the most powerful weapon in the history of Middle-earth is hanging around his neck. He's heard it described as such by Boromir (FR 2.ii.267) and also, though unwittingly, by Faramir (TT 4.v.671). He has already used it himself to daunt and threaten Gollum (TT 4.i.618; iii.640; vi.687).

2) The words I have omitted contain Frodo's famous 'no taste of food, no feel of water' remarks in which he states that all else but the Ring is fading away for him. So he is keenly and painfully aware of it at all times.

3) Sam is the only one who can throw his precious into the pit, just as he was the only one who could give up the Ring with little or no hesitation (RK 6.i.911-12).

No irony in Tolkien?

Friday, December 2, 2016

In the Realm of Useless Footnotes, Part Two

'I have had v. little time for general reading. I began Moby Dick [footnote] on the weekend when term ended, and thought, despite its obvious defects of rhetoric & un-dramatic dialogue, that I liked it: but somehow I feel no inclination to go on.'

C S Lewis

Letter of 3 April 1930

And yes, the footnote informs us that Moby Dick is indeed Moby Dick, and that its author is Herman Melville.

Is it conceivable that a reader inclined to read Lewis's correspondence would not know that Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick?

But wait. I live in the United States and we have just had a presidential election. The concept of the conceivable has been re-conceived.

Sudden Gleams of Fugitive Association

“No pupils on Monday morning. Spent the whole time till lunch answering letters and setting examination papers. A dull job, rewarded by those sudden gleams of fugitive association that have the habit of starting up only when the intellect is fully engaged on something else.”

C. S. Lewis

Letter of 17 October 1929

He would have a term for it. And it is the perfect term.

This happens to me a lot in the car. An idea comes, which I can only repeat over and over to myself until I get to a traffic light, where I can scrawl it hastily down in my notebook.

In the Realm of Useless Footnotes

On 10 October 1929 C. S. Lewis wrote in a letter to his brother:

"I also glanced through A. E. Houseman's 'Shropshire Lad' [footnote] for the hundredth time. What a terrible little book it is -- perfect and deadly, the beauty of the gorgon."

The footnote in his published letters reads: “A. E. Houseman, ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (1896).”

Oh, that A.E. Houseman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad.’

But isn’t Lewis’s characterization of the book brilliant? 'Perfect and deadly, the beauty of the gorgon.'

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Fairy King's Honor and the Elven King's Shame

Corot, 'Orpheus leidt Eurydice de Onderwereld uit', 1861

The Middle English Romance Sir Orfeo presents us with a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which, as Kenneth Sisam says in his Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose, 'the Greek myth is almost lost in a tale of fairyland' (13).  Tolkien, of course, knew both versions of the story quite well. Not only did he call his tale of Beren and Lúthien, 'a kind of Orpheus-legend in reverse' (Letters, no. 153), but he translated Sir Orfeo into modern English as well as producing his own edition of the original text (Hostetter 2004).

Among the many points of contact between the fairies of Sir Orfeo and the Elves of Tolkien, some of which I discuss here, is a connection between the behavior of the Fairy King and Thingol in The Silmarillion.  Once Orfeo has performed before the Fairy King, the King promises to grant him any favor he wishes. Orfeo asks for Heroudis (Eurydice). Here is the scene as Tolkien rendered it:
At last when he his harping stayed,
this speech the king to him then made:
'Minstrel, thy music pleaseth me.
Come, ask of me whate'er it be,
and rich reward I will thee pay.
Come, speak, and prove now what I say!'
'Good sir,' he said, 'I beg of thee
that this thing thou wouldst give to me,
that very lady fair to see
who sleeps beneath the grafted tree.'
'Nay,' said the king, 'that would not do!'
A sorry pair ye'd make, ye two;
for thou are black, and rough, and lean,
and she is faultless, fair, and clean.
A monstrous thing then would it be
to see her in thy company.' 
'O sir,' he said, 'O gracious king,
but it would be a fouler thing
from mouth of thine to hear a lie.
Thy vow, sir, thou canst not deny.
Whate'er I asked, that should I gain,
and thou must needs thy word maintain.'
The king then said: 'Since that is so,
now take her hand in thine, and go;
I wish thee joy of her, my friend!'
In The Tale of Beren and Lúthien the contrast between the two lovers is also extreme. Lúthien is the 'the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar' (Silm 165), while Beren, after years of living rough in the forest, has come 'stumbling into Doriath grey and bowed as with many years of woe, so great had been the torment of the road' (165). And Thingol also finds the idea of Beren (or any man) with his daughter monstrous: 'Unhappy Men, children of little lords and brief kings, shall such as these lay hands on you, and yet live?' (167). The price for Lúthien's hand, he tells him, is one of the Silmarils: '[a]nd those that heard these words perceived that Thingol would save his oath, and yet send Beren to his death' (167). Now setting suitors impossible tasks is at least as old as The Odyssey, and the cleverness of the challenge, here as there, often has unexpected consequences. What is noteworthy in the context of Sir Orfeo is what follows:
Then at last Melian spoke, and she said to Thingol: 'O King, you have devised cunning counsel. But if my eyes have not lost their sight, it is ill for you, whether Beren fail in his errand, or achieve it. For you have doomed either your daughter, or yourself. And now is Doriath drawn within the fate of a mightier realm.' But Thingol answered: 'I sell not to Elves or Men those whom I love and cherish above all treasure. And if there were hope or fear that Beren should come ever back alive to Menegroth, he should not have looked again upon the light of heaven, though I had sworn it.' 
But Lúthien was silent, and from that hour she sang not again in Doriath. A brooding silence fell upon the woods, and the shadows lengthened in the kingdom of Thingol.
Unlike the Fairy King, who accepts Orfeo's reproof without demur and calls him 'friend' as he sets Heroudis free, Thingol disregards the warnings of his farseeing wife, and scorns the obligations imposed upon him by his own oath. Instead, he openly avows oath-breaking and murder. Moreover, there's a progression from 'Melian spoke' through 'Thingol answered' to '[b]ut Lúthien was silent', which tightly binds Thingol's 'cunning counsel' and his appalling willingness to break his oath to Lúthien's songless silence and the shadows grown long in Doriath. 

Thus both the taking of the oath by a fairy king and his willingness to be forsworn have consequences far beyond anything we moderns might at first suspect in Sir Orfeo, where it seems 'only' the Fairy King's honor is at stake. Yet the honor of the King of Faërie in a medieval Romance, or something modelled on one like The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, must be a serious matter. The Fairy King in Sir Orfeo certainly seems to think so, since his reluctance to keep his promise is overcome by a mere reminder of how 'foul' it would be for him to fail to do so. There is no question that he would shame himself if he denied his vow, and so he fulfills it. In Thingol, however, we see a character of greater moral complexity, but less intergrity, than the character on whom he is based. Of course, having children will do that to you.