15 January 2017

Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath! (FR 1.iii.79)

Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
(FR 1.iii.79)

Frodo first hears these words sung in the woods of the Shire, translated in his mind by the enchantment of Elvish minstrelsy.  There's one word, though, that had puzzled me since I first read it as a boy: breath. What on earth does it mean to say Elbereth's breath is bright? I finally decided to think it through a little the other day. When I could find no meaning of 'bright' in Old, Middle, or Modern English to describe someone's breath suitably, I turned to consider 'breath.'

It came together right then. My mistake had been to think of 'breath' as her physical breath, which is why the phrase made no sense. The praise of Elbereth's eyes earlier in the same line allowed me to mislead myself, especially since we rarely use 'breath' to mean 'spirit.'  It is the splendor of her spirit the hymn praises. The irony, of course, is that in the very next line we see a clue that Tolkien is not using every word in the sense we most readily understand it: snow-white.


Works Consulted ... 


08 January 2017

No Laughing Matter: the Ring and the Quality of the Dúnedain

'We know the Ring is no laughing-matter; but we are going to do our best to help you against the Enemy,' says Merry to Frodo at Crickhollow  (FR 1.v.104), revealing for the first time the stout heart and shrewd mind he shows throughout the tale. There are, however, a couple of moments involving the Ring and humor that are themselves quite telling about the characters involved.

In The Prancing Pony, Strider several times indulges in humor at his own expense as he tries to convince the hobbits that he is not only a friend, but also the genuine Strider.  He banters with Frodo about his 'rascally look', 'with a curl of his lip and a queer gleam in his eye' (FR 1.x.164). He takes up Pippin's glib comments about 'lying for days in ... ditches' making them all look like Strider and responds that they would die in those ditches years before they looked like him, 'unless you are made of sterner stuff than you look to be' (FR 1.x.170-71).  Later he jokes with Frodo about how he looks: '"I see," laughed Strider. "I look foul and feel fair. Is that it?"' (FR 1.x.171). (Note also how Tolkien uses the easily spotted allusions to Shakespeare in these last two statements to draw our attention.)

But even before this last jest Strider's grim and self-effacing humor has already culminated in his pretending to threaten them to kill them and take the Ring, all in the effort to make a point to them about who he is, and is not:
Pippin subsided; but Sam was not daunted, and he still eyed Strider dubiously. 'How do we know you are the Strider that Gandalf speaks about?' he demanded. 'You never mentioned Gandalf, till this letter came out. You might be a play-acting spy, for all I can see, trying to get us to go with you. You might have done in the real Strider and took his clothes. What have you to say to that?' 
'That you are a stout fellow,' answered Strider; 'but I am afraid my only answer to you, Sam Gamgee, is this. If I had killed the real Strider, I could kill you. And I should have killed you already without so much talk. If I was after the Ring, I could have it – NOW!' 
He stood up, and seemed suddenly to grow taller. In his eyes gleamed a light, keen and commanding. Throwing back his cloak, he laid his hand on the hilt of a sword that had hung concealed by his side. They did not dare to move.  Sam sat wide-mouthed staring at him dumbly. 
'But I am the real Strider, fortunately,' he said, looking down at them with his face softened by a sudden smile. 'I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.' 
(FR 1.x.171)
Turning from one Captain of the Rangers to another, we find a similar moment with Sam and Faramir in Ithilien.  In his righteous eagerness to defend Frodo from what he feels are the unjust insinuations of Faramir, Sam gives away the secrets his master has tried so hard to conceal, that it is the One Ring which Frodo is carrying, and that Boromir tried to take it from him.

'Now look here, sir!' He turned, facing up to Faramir with all the courage that he could muster. 'Don't you go taking advantage of my master because his servant's no better than a fool. You've spoken very handsome all along, put me off my guard, talking of Elves and all. But handsome is as handsome does we say. Now's a chance to show your quality.' 
'So it seems,' said Faramir, slowly and very softly, with a strange smile. 'So that is the answer to all the riddles! The One Ring that was thought to have perished from the world. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way – to me! And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality! Ha!' He stood up, very tall and stern, his grey eyes glinting.
Frodo and Sam sprang from their stools and set themselves side by side with their backs to the wall, fumbling for their sword-hilts. There was a silence. All the men in the cave stopped talking and looked towards them in wonder. But Faramir sat down again in his chair and began to laugh quietly, and then suddenly became grave again. 
'Alas for Boromir! It was too sore a trial!' he said. 
(TT 4.v.680-81)
Aside from the simple physical parallelism of Sam Undaunted standing up to a Man literally twice his size, we have him challenging Faramir to prove his quality, just as he had challenged Strider to prove his (though not in so many words). But the parallel works both ways, Faramir responds with humor and a feigned threat, just as Aragorn had done. He stands tall. There is a light in his eyes, and his stern manner frightens them. His 'Ha!' nicely punctuates his statement, just as Strider's 'NOW!' does his.  And as Aragorn had suddenly smiled at them to reveal his jest, Faramir does the same with laughter. But their humor offers no simple release. There's too much pain and irony in it for that.  Aragorn is the heir of Isildur, who did not destroy the Ring, and he lays his hand on the hilt of the broken sword with which Isildur cut it from Sauron's. Faramir realizes he had guessed the meaning of his and Boromir's dream aright after all -- 'So that is the answer to all the riddles' (emphasis mine) -- and that he was now presented with the same 'trial' as his brother had been, and with a far greater advantage of strength over Frodo than Boromir had boasted of. In the words 'Alas for Boromir!' his own situation confronts him.

Yet both Faramir and Aragorn turn from their sad humor to matters more serious.  Aragorn pledges his life to Frodo and the hobbits. Faramir briefly mourns his brother's 'too sore a trial,' and then tells the hobbits that he would not pick up the Ring if he found it in the road, converting a boast he had made in ignorance into a vow he would die to keep.  Since both Aragorn and Faramir have the hobbits at their mercy, and the Ring within their grasp, we should not be surprised to recall here another Captain of the Dúnedain, Boromir.  For during the scene in Ithilien with Faramir, only the reader is aware, poignantly so, that Boromir did not fall entirely, but after Frodo's escape recognized what he had done, repented of it, and in dying to protect Merry and Pippin redeemed himself.  'Few have gained such a victory,' Aragorn tells him before he dies (TT 3.i.414).

Yet back at the Council of Elrond, when Boromir first saw the Ring and he was pondering the 'riddle' of the dream he shared with his brother, his 'eyes glinted as he gazed at the golden thing’ (FR 2.ii.247). Unlike Faramir and Aragorn, however, he finds nothing to laugh at in the situation or in himself. Boromir came to Imladris to seek 'the meaning of a riddle' (FR 2.ii.247), but the answers he receives offer him nothing but doubt and perplexity. It is only in his 'too sore a trial' that he will find the crucible of his quality.



06 January 2017

Guest Post -- Dreams Come True, by Longish (Hannah Long)

Dreams Come True

Image result for carrie fisher

When I went to visit my grandmother the other day, she said, out of the blue: "Leah died."

"Huh?" I mentally ran down a list of people we both know.

"Princess Leah," she explained. And then I understood. Carrie Fisher.

Public mourning is a weird thing, especially for actors. In the last weeks of 2016, a spate of celebrity deaths caused many fans to engage in something...not quite like grief, more like nostalgia. Carrie Fisher was not Princess Leia, but it can't be denied that what most people are missing about her is the white-clad space rebel she portrayed.

And that's even more strange, because Princess Leia is not dead.

It’s true that art and artist aren’t entirely separate things. The image we have of Princess Leia is inextricably connected to the image of Carrie Fisher the actress. But the temptation to blur the line between fantasy and reality is strong.

That's the reason everyone oohed and ahhed over Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant—“he really did those things!” and Tom Cruise’s airplane stunt in Mission: Impossible. It's the reason for Galaxy Quest—a film in which actors from a Star Trek-esque TV show must fight real aliens and become their on-screen selves. It’s the fantasy fulfillment of a deep desire: we want heroes and look for them on TV screens. We transfer that hope to real-life celebrities.

At heart, we want to believe the stories are true. We want to believe in heroes.

Image result for galaxy quest

Understandably, this temptation to mix up story and reality has worried Christians over the years. We care deeply about truth, and acting legitimizes a type of lying—actors pretend to be what they’re not. Even more than theater, cinema fragments reality, a process exacerbated by a celebrity culture that scrutinizes the private lives of famous actors. Where does one end and the other begin?

Recently, an article in Catholic World Report cautioned Christians against mistaking Carrie Fisher for her on-screen alter ego.

We should be able to appreciate actors for the entertainment they provide, without confusing that entertainment with heroic virtue or even ordinary human greatness. I can appreciate the plumber’s skill in fixing my plumbing without canonizing him.

It’s an important warning, and one we should remember in this era of celebrity-worship. But we can glean more from this phenomenon than just a warning. Escapism can be dangerous, yet it’s also evidence of longing for real goodness in a world that increasingly denies goodness exists. These heroes and their stories are the modern day equivalent of legends. And it's not the Wild West anymore - we don't believe, as they did in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that "when legend becomes fact, print the legend."

But...what if it was true?

What if legend really did become fact? Can you think of a more unexpected and joyous idea?

What if we woke up one day and all the stories had come true?

What if Carrie Fisher really was Princess Leia? What if there were actual intergalactic wars in space and noble knights wielding lightsabers? What if the Force was real? What if every beautiful story - "lies breathed through silver," C.S. Lewis called them - was not a lie?

What if the blind could see and the lost be found and the dead come back to life?

Sounds like a pretty crazy, escapist, wonderful world. But it's the one we live in.

Image result for star wars a new hope

The stories we write don't just spring from nowhere. We look for the truth and beauty of myth where we can find it - sometimes, erroneously, in the form of actors. But that's not completely misguided, because there was a time that a myth really happened.

J.R.R. Tolkien explains it thus:

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories....But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of [fiction] has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.... 
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed....The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
(On Fairy-stories¶ 104-05)

I don't intend to whitewash the harm that can come from misplaced escapism. It's important to develop the ability to discern between fantasy and reality, but our desire for stories to come true is not a bad thing: it's an arrow pointing to Truth. The inexplicable, irrational joy we feel when stories come true, when a character exists in the real world, echoes the moment when the Author of all stories took on flesh and became a character in his own novel.


05 January 2017

Mythmoot IV -- A New Hope

Here it is, folks, the very first, entirely unofficial, totally parodic, commercial for Mythmoot IV. (That may or may not be Harold Bloom's house at the end.)


30 December 2016

Goodbye, David. Goodbye, Carrie.

I first became aware of David Bowie when I was a fourteen year old in high school, in those endless battles we had across lunchroom tables over which band was great and which band, frankly, sucked. We were teenagers. We didn't know from shades of grey. To us, so incandescently young and so very cloistered by years and years of Catholic School, Catholic Nuns, and Catholic Mothers of WWII vintage (God bless them), and only beginning to realize there was something called FM, where they played whole album sides at a time, almost nothing in the Top 40, and talked about Rock and Roll like it was life itself, David Bowie was quite a shock. With his Diamond Dogs look of androgyny cultivated like pearls, he seemed a bit of a freak, and often got called far worse by children like us who scarcely knew the meaning of the insults we hurled at him because he didn't seem to fit in any of the categories we knew.

So a freak he seemed. And yet his blazing talent forced my eyes open, and compelled me to look into the heart of the sun that was his music. Whatever he looked like, whatever he played at, he could not be denied. One stunning, powerful performance after another, one masterful song after another flung into my uncomprehending, awestruck schoolboy face. Songs of beauty, works of art, anthems of raving youth. And they never stopped coming until last January.

So a freak he seemed. So what. He was Bowie. And in the end he was no more a freak than the rest of us. Much less so in fact. 

Everybody knows how they first saw Carrie Fisher. In the first scene she is ensuring that the all important plans to the Death Star escape her doomed ship, in the second she is shooting it out with the bad guys, in the third she stands fearlessly up to someone who could break her body like a twig. So, clever and determined, putting first things first, unflinching and intrepid, not just a pretty face (as pretty as she was). This was no window-dressing damsel in distress. This was no one's Disney Princess. 

Her own life was full of far more upheaval and turmoil than her most famous character's, though given her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder, there were surely days when it felt like someone had blown up her whole planet.  But her performance as Leia evidently drew on strengths she didn't know she had yet, and she fought her way through to the other side of her troubles. For the many in this world -- and of course there were thousands of Star Wars fans among them -- who shared the same troubles, Carrie Fisher was a success and a model. And if we looked at her from far away, paying attention in after years perhaps only because she had been that Princess, still we smiled and nodded and were glad. We took comfort in her winning through. For women she clearly meant far more than I could ever grasp. I wouldn't even dare try to express it. But I don't have to. Their voices are loud and clear enough. If you can't hear them, you're not listening. 

I am not sure if what I've written here explains, even to myself, why I will miss David Bowie and Carrie Fisher more than so many of the others.  He enabled me to see music differently, and see that differences of appearance, whether parts of the act or parts of the person, are essentially meaningless. She did not so much make me see women differently as she made me see that I was right to see them differently. I was already a bit of an oddity on that score: I was a teenage boy who actually wanted to talk to girls and hear what they had to say. 

There's a photo on my dresser of someone from those days. Every day when I sit down on the edge of my bed to take off my shoes, I look at it and sigh and miss her. That's the way I'm thinking of David Bowie and Carrie Fisher as this year goes down into shadow.  

They were heroes.