19 December 2015

Guest Post -- Luke Baugher on Tulkas and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

Tulkas, a question of the influence of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

     On Tuesday of this week, I began a read-through of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. My text is that found in Medieval English Literature edited by Thomas Garbáty. This is an enchanting read and all the more enjoyable in its original language. I was working my way through the description of Arthur's Christmas feast when I came across the word tulkes in line 41:
Þer tournayed tulkes bi-tymez ful mony,
Justed ful iolilé þise gentyle kniȝtes,
Syþen kayred to þe court, caroles to make.[1]
Tulkas © Steamey
     In this edition, the definition ascribed to tulkes is "knights." As I have always been an avid Tolkien fan, this immediately struck me as very phonetically similar to Tolkien's character Tulkas. So I decided to do a little digging. What follows is some of the interesting information that I have found, with the helpful suggestions of several much respected Tolkien scholars.

    Initially, an etymological approach might shed some light on the association as, most Tolkien fan know, this field is intimately connected with The Professor's creativity.  The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that tulkes is "Generally identified with Old Norse túlkr interpreter, spokesman,"[2] which is related to the rarely attested Old Norse túlk, a verb meaning "to utter sound, to sound."[3] Although it also notes that "nothing has been found to connect the Middle English sense, common in alliterative verse, with these."[4] In order for us to find a connection, let's follow the advice of Carl F. Hostetter and look at how Tolkien himself has defined tulkes. Hostetter notes that:
In the Middle English glossaries prepared by Tolkien that bear on this matter (that for SGGK and that for Sisam's Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose), he glosses tulk(e) (tolke) as 'man, knight' (SGGK), or just 'man' (Sisam), and refers it to the Old Norse cognate túlk-r 'spokesman'. [5]
     So, to follow Hostetter's logic, the sense in which Middle English tulke means "man" "is a secondary development." He goes on to elaborate "its further sense "knight" being then a tertiary development."[6] So the sense in which tulke means "man" is more prevalent, while the sense in which it means "knight" is a derivative thereof, perhaps caused by context. While this etymological trace is very interesting, it does not actually solve whether or not this word could have inspired Tolkien.
     Perhaps looking more in-depth at Tolkien's name Tulkas will help illuminate a connection. Tulkas’s characterization certainly conforms to many of the traits laid out by tulke in that he is a male, and he does partake in youthful shows of strength and competition like one would expect of knights. Tolkien's descriptions of Tulkas certainly highlight these attributes:
Greatest in strength and deeds of prowess is Tulkas, who is surnamed Astaldo, the Valiant. He came last to Arda, to aid the Valar in the first battles with Melkor. He delights in wrestling and in contests of strength; and he rides no steed, for he can outrun all things that go on feet, and he is tireless. His hair and beard are golden, and his flesh ruddy; his weapons are his hands. He has little heed for either the past or the future, and is of no avail as a counsellor, but is a hardy friend.[7]
     For an even closer connection, Tolkien defined tulkas. In his reflection on the subject, Jason Fisher also notes the connection between tulkes and tulkr, but extends his observation by noting that "within the legendarium, Tulkas is Quenya meaning 'strong, steadfast.'"[8] In the Appendix to The Book of Lost Tales 1, the context of Tolkien’s name is given contest:
QL gives the name under root TULUK, with tulunka ‘steady, firm’, tulka- ‘fix, set up, establish’. The Gnomish form is Tulcus (-os), with related words tulug ‘steady, firm’, tulga- ‘make firm, settle, steady, comfort’.[9]
     So now we are starting to form a bridge between two disparate words and finding a common ground. Fisher contends an additional definition of tulkr as "fighting man."[10] This background leads Patrick Wynne to observe:
There seems to be a clear logical connection between 'fighting man' and 'strong' (the former habitually having the latter attribute). The sort of game that Tolkien played with such allusions...would suggest that in later days, dim memories of the vala Tulkas 'Strong' as a skilled fighter resulted in the Quenya name influencing (or being the direct source of) words such as ON tulkr and ME tulkes.[11]
     So we have finally arrived at a tentative link etymologically, to compound with the phonetic similarity that started these observations. Although these links are possible, I cannot overstate the caution that we should use when ascribing motivation to Tolkien's creative process.
     When directly talking about whether or not this word could have served as an inspiration for Tolkien, caveats abound. Nelson Goering cautions that "It certainly seems possible, though obviously it's hard to know for sure."[12] He observes that
"If Tolkien traced the etymology of the word back, as is not unlikely, he would have arrived at Lithuanian tul̃kas... As an old Baltic word that found its way into various Germanic languages... it's the sort of thing that might have lodged somewhere in the back of his mind (maybe)."[13]
     So the jury is out on whether or not this word could be the inspiration behind Tolkien's creation of the grappling Vala, but the similarities are tantalizing regardless. Who knows, "he may well have found the sound/sense correspondence suggested by ME tulk(e) pleasing, regardless of ultimate etymology."[14]


[1] “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Medieval English Literature. Ed. Thomas Garbáty. Long Grove: Waveland, 1997. 255-332. Print. (257, emphasis mine).

[2] "† tulk | tolk, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 16 December 2015.

[3] "† tulk, v." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 16 December 2015.

[4] "† tulk | tolk, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 16 December 2015.

[5] Hostetter, Carl F. " In the Middle English glossaries prepared by Tolkien that bear on this matter (that for SGGK and that for Sisam's Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose), he glosses _tulk(e)_(_tolke_) as 'man, knight' (SGGK), or just 'man' (Sisam), and refers it to the Old Norse cognate _túlk-r_ 'spokesman'." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015 < https://www.facebook.com/groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/>]

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Print. (28).

[8] Fisher, Jason. " Yes, probably. The Old Norse form of the same word is tulkr "fighting man", which is even closer to the form Tolkien used. Though within the legendarium, Tulkas is Quenya meaning "strong, steadfast"." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/comment_id=10153189216071283&notif_t=group_comment>]

[9] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Book of Lost Tales 1. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Ballantine, 1983. Print. (313).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Wynne, Patrick. " Yeah, there seems to be a clear logical connection between 'fighting man' and 'strong' (the former habitually having the latter attribute). The sort of game that Tolkien played with such allusions (as Carl F. Hostetter and I used to discuss in our column "Words and Devices" in VT) would suggest that in later days, dim memories of the vala Tulkas 'Strong' as a skilled fighter resulted in the Quenya name influencing (or being the direct source of) words such as ON _tulkr_ and ME _tulkes_." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015. < https://www. facebook.com/groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/?comment_id=10153189216071283&notif_t=group_comment>]

[12] Goering, Nelson. "It certainly seems possible, though obviously it's hard to know for sure. If Tolkien traced the etymology of the word back, as is not unlikely, he would have arrived at Lithuanian tul̃kas (yes, the circumflex is meant to be above the 'l' - that's Lithuanian for you...). As an old Baltic word that found its way into various Germanic languages (northern German into Norse into English), it's the sort of thing that might have lodged somewhere in the back of his mind (maybe)." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/ groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/?comment_id=10153189216071283&notif_t=group_comment>]

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hostetter, Carl F. "Which is NOT to say that ME _tulk(e)_ 'man, knight' DIDN'T inspire Tolkien's "Tulkas" — he may well have found the sound/sense correspondence suggested by ME _tulk(e)_ pleasing, regardless of ultimate etymology. Because after all, etymology is NOT determinative of meaning (if it were, then languages would never change, and we would almost all be speaking Proto-Indo-European...). It's just to say that the meaning of _tulk(e)_ as exhibited in SGGK isn't in fact primary." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/ groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/>]


Thanks so much, Luke, for an interesting note on another possible connection between Tolkien's scholarly and mythological worlds. While we must be cautious, as Nelson Goering rightly emphasizes, so little in Tolkien seems to have happened by chance. As I read your note I was struck by the 'tulkes' jousting 'ful iolilé' and the 'delight' which Tulkas took 'in wrestling and contests of strength.' And of course Tulkas also 'laughs ever, in sport or in war, and even in the face of Melkor he laughed in battles before the Elves were born' (Silmarillion, 29).  Nicely done. 

13 December 2015

Morþorhete and the Spirit of Mordor

The day after Sam rescues Frodo from the tower of Cirith Ungol, two orcs, an Uruk and a smaller tracker, nearly catch them, but a fight breaks out between them:
The big orc, spear in hand, leapt after him. But the tracker, springing behind a stone, put an arrow in his eye as he ran up, and he fell with a crash. The other ran off across the valley and disappeared.  
For a while the hobbits sat in silence. At length Sam stirred. 'Well I call that neat as neat,' he said. 'If this nice friendliness would spread about in Mordor, half our trouble would be over.' 
'Quietly, Sam,' Frodo whispered. 'There may be others about. We have evidently had a very narrow escape, and the hunt was hotter on our tracks than we guessed. But that is the spirit of Mordor, Sam; and it has spread to every corner of it. Orcs have always behaved like that, or so all tales say, when they are on their own. But you can't get much hope out of it. They hate us far more, altogether and all the time. If those two had seen us, they would have dropped all their quarrel until we were dead.'  
(RK 6.ii.927)
As is often the case with Tolkien a glance at Beowulf can prove interesting. For in line 1105 we encounter a word that suits the orcs and Frodo's description of them perfectly.  It is morþorhete, a compound of morþor, whose primary meaning is 'murder' and from which of course derives 'Mordor', and hete, 'hate.' Morþorhete, occurring only here in extant Old English, denotes a murderous or deadly hatred. Keep in mind, moreover, that every time we see orcs interacting with each other, whether they are of different kinds, as here, of different loyalties (TT 3.iii.444-60), or of different commands (TT 4.x.734-42; RK 6.i.899-910, they always come to blows. So the word is generally applicable to orcs. 

In Beowulf the word appears in the account of the oath that was meant to restore peace after the attack on Finnsburgh:

  Ða hie getruwedon    on twa healfa                        1095
  fæste frioðuwære.    Fin Hengeste         
    elne unflitme    aðum benemde
    þæt he þa wealafe    weotena dome
    arum heolde,    þæt ðær ænig mon
    wordum ne worcum    wære ne bræce,                   1100
    (ne) þurh inwitsearo    æfre gemænden,
    ðeah hie hira beaggyfan    banan folgedon,
    ðeodenlease,    þa him swa geþearfod wæs.
    Gyf þonne Frysna hwylc    frecnen spræce
    ðæs morþorhetes    myndgiend wære,                    1105
    þonne hit sweordes ecg    syððan scede.*

Then they concluded strong terms
Of peace for both sides. Finn declared
On oath to Hengest, nobly, with no dispute,
That he, by the authority of his council,
And with acts of kindness, would rule
The sad remnant, that neither by word
Nor by deed would any man break the accord,
Nor through malice would they ever complain --
Though, kingless now, they followed the killer
Of their generous lord: it had been
Necessary for them. Then if any of the Frisians
With reckless speech called to mind
Their murderous hate, a sword would settle it.*

The connection here is not to be found in the details of the story of Finn and Hengest, but in the morþorhete that remains alive just below the surface, so ready to break forth that only the threat of violence can suppress it even temporarily.  In the end the terms do not prove strong enough, any more for Finn and Hengest than for the orcs Frodo and Sam see in Mordor.  A passion so strong can unite or divide.

© Tim Kirk

*The translation offered above is mine, based on the text and notes in Klaeber's Beowulf (Toronto, 2014). It may not be elegant, but I believe that it is at least not inaccurate. There are, however, points in the Old English that are not entirely clear, but these do not touch the issue of morþorhete directly.

09 December 2015

The Dream of Manwë in 'Of Aulë and Yavanna'

After Ilúvatar has sanctioned Aulë's making of the Dwarves because of his humility, Yavanna turns to Manwë, fearful of what the coming dominion of the Children of Ilúvatar will mean for the other life of Arda.
'If thou hadst thy will what wouldst thou reserve?' said Manwë. 'Of all thy realm what dost thou hold dearest?'  
'All have their worth,' said Yavanna, 'and each contributes to the worth of the others. But the kelvar can flee or defend themselves, whereas the olvar that grow cannot. And among these I hold trees dear. Long in the growing, swift shall they be in the felling, and unless they pay toll with fruit upon bough little mourned in their passing. So I see in my thought. Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!'  
'This is a strange thought,' said Manwë.  
'Yet it was in the Song,' said Yavanna. 'For while thou wert in the heavens and with Ulmo built the clouds and poured out the rains, I lifted up the branches of great trees to receive them, and some sang to Ilúvatar amid the wind and the rain.'  
Then Manwë sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded; and it was beheld by Ilúvatar. Then it seemed to Manwë that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before. And at last the Vision was renewed, but it was not now remote, for he was himself within it, and yet he saw that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him in the hearts of the Ainur.  
Then Manwë awoke, and he went down to Yavanna upon Ezellohar, and he sat beside her beneath the Two Trees. And Manwë said: 'O Kementári, Eru hath spoken, saying: "Do then any of the Valar suppose that I did not hear all the Song, even the least sound of the least voice? Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared. For a time: while the Firstborn are in their power, and while the Secondborn are young." But dost thou not now remember, Kementári, that thy thought sang not always alone? Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds? That also shall come to be by the heed of Ilúvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.'
(Silmarillion, 45-46)

As the postponed 'Then Manwë awoke' clearly indicates, Manwë has just been experiencing a dream of some kind.  He recognizes the Song and the Vision at once, but something new is at hand. His perspective is simultaneously wider, in that he sees for the first time the fundamental and ongoing role of the hand of Eru, and more intimate because, having entered into Arda, he is now an active participant in a present reality and not simply a witness to a vision of what may yet be, as he was when Ilúvatar showed the Ainur what they had sung (Silmarillion17). 

What Manwë sees here I find interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the revelation that there is more going on than meets the eye reminds me strongly of a passage in the second book of Vergil's Aeneid, where Venus, seeking to persuade her son, Aeneas, not to kill or even blame Helen but to save himself from the ruin of Troy while he still has a chance, grants him a wider perspective on reality than he normally possesses:

“‘Think: it’s not that beauty, Helen, you should hate,

not even Paris, the man that you should blame, no,

it’s the gods, the ruthless gods who are tearing down

the wealth of Troy, her toppling crown of towers.

Look around. I’ll sweep it all away, the mist

so murky, dark, and swirling around you now,

it clouds your vision, dulls your mortal sight. 
You are my son. Never fear my orders.

Never refuse to bow to my commands.


yes, where you see the massive ramparts shattered, 

blocks wrenched from blocks, the billowing smoke and ash

— it’s Neptune himself, prising loose with his giant trident

the foundation-stones of Troy, he’s making the walls quake,

ripping up the entire city by her roots.

 “‘There’s Juno, 

cruelest in fury, first to commandeer the Scaean Gates, 

sword at her hip and mustering comrades, shock troops

streaming out of the ships.

“‘Already up on the heights
— turn around and look—there’s Pallas holding the fortress,

flaming out of the clouds, her savage Gorgon glaring. 

Even Father himself, he’s filling the Greek hearts

with courage, stamina—Jove in person spurring the gods

to fight the Trojan armies! 

“‘Run for your life, my son.

Put an end to your labors. I will never leave you,

I will set you safe at your father’s door.’

“Parting words. She vanished into the dense night. 

And now they all come looming up before me,

terrible shapes, the deadly foes of Troy,
the gods gigantic in power. 

“Then at last

I saw it all, all Ilium settling into her embers, 

Neptune’s Troy, toppling over now from her roots 

like a proud, veteran ash on its mountain summit,

chopped by stroke after stroke of the iron axe as 

woodsmen fight to bring it down, and

over and over it threatens to fall, its boughs shudder,

its leafy crown quakes and back and forth it sways 

till overwhelmed by its wounds, with a long last groan 

it goes—torn up from its heights it crashes down
in ruins from its ridge . . . 

Venus leading, down from the roof I climb 

and win my way through fires and massing foes. 

The spears recede, the flames roll back before me."

(transl. Fagles)

Now clearly the perspectives of Manwë and Aeneas differ greatly. Aeneas's vision is of a single moment in time and space; Manwë's appears far more cosmic in scope. Yet the difference between them is not as great as we might expect, which is in a way precisely my point here. Aeneas is a mortal; his vision of reality is necessarily and unsurprisingly limited.  In its limitation Aeneas' vision is like the one Ulmo grants Tuor when he says that his 'heart yearneth rather to the Sea' (Unfinished Tales30). Ulmo allows him to see all the breadth and depth of the sea 'with the swift sight of the Valar,' but no more. The vision ends as Tuor catches the merest glimpse of Valinor.

Manwë, however, is the Elder King, the chief of the Valar, the peer of Melkor, an immortal who existed before the world was made and played a central role in its imagining and making. Yet even his sight is limited, as is that of Aulë and Yavanna, the two other Valar in this chapter which bears their names and explores the perils and mysteries of sub-creation both before and after the ongoing creation of Arda. Aulë's dwarves were not in the Song, yet the Eagles of Manwë and the Ents of Yavanna evidently were. The hand of Ilúvatar, unseen by Manwë until this moment, continues to produce wonders from what lay 'hidden ... in the hearts of the Ainur.' The things the individual Valar did not know or had not attended to (since, as Manwë admits, there were things in the Song that he heard, but did not heed) are as much a part of the reality of Arda as all they knew and saw 'with the swift sight of the Valar.'  Much 'lies still in the freedom of Ilúvatar' (Silmarillion, 28; cf. 17-18).  The Valar are of course still quite far from the point alluded to in The Ainulindalë, when total mutual comprehension between Ilúvatar and all his children will accompany -- and perhaps even cause -- the realization of the themes as they sing them:
Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased. 
(Silmarillion, 15-16)
One could well quote the New Testament here, and wonder how much specific inspiration Tolkien might have drawn from it in The Ainulindalë: 'For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known' (1Cor. 13:12 KJV). This most famous chapter of First Corinthians speaks powerfully of knowledge and understanding, both perfect and imperfect, of prophecy of what is to come, and of the critical role of love (charity); it states categorically that 'without charity' 'the tongues of men and angels' can produce only cacophony and discord -- just as happens in the Music thanks to Melkor (Silmarillion, 16-17), from whose heart, it is later said, 'all love had departed forever' (Silmarillion66). Given this, it quite easy to suspect that the similarity we see here is no coincidence.

The second interesting connection which Manwë's dream calls to mind is to a passage in On Fairy-Stories:
Now “Faërian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events. You are deluded—whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called. They do not live in it, though they can, perhaps, afford to spend more time at it than human artists can. The Primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same, if differently valued and perceived. 
(OFS para. 74)
What is Manwë experiencing but 'a dream that some other mind is weaving'? Except that he is neither 'deluded' nor forgetful of this 'alarming fact'.  And if it were not already apparent from the description of the dream that Ilúvatar is the weaver of this dream, Manwë's words to Yavanna afterwards -- 'O Kementári, Eru hath spoken....' -- make it absolutely clear. But rather than introduce him to a Faërian Drama or a Secondary World, this dream enlarges his knowledge and understanding of the Primary World and its supernatural underpinnings. Like Aeneas, Manwë sees the hand of God at work. Like Tuor, he sees a deeper, wider world. As elsewhere in Tolkien, we see that dreams are a link to things about the world that are not normally perceived. For men or hobbits this is no surprise. What is unexpected is that the same appears true of the Valar, only on a different scale. 


1) Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2) And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3) And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. 
4) Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5) Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6) Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7) Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. 
8) Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9) For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10) But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11) When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12) For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13) And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. 
(1Cor 13:1-13 KJV)

'For this is what your people would call magic, I believe' (FR 2.vii.362)

In The Mirror of Galadriel we encounter a passage that suggests, but does not define, a difference between 'Elf magic' and the sorcery of the Enemy:
'And you?' she said, turning to Sam. 'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf magic?'  
'I did,' said Sam, trembling a little between fear and curiosity. 'I'll have a peep, Lady, if you're willing.' 
(FR 2.vii.362)
Yet the visions Sam and Frodo see in the mirror do not help to clarify the distinction Galadriel feels exists between the two forms of 'magic.' A section of On Fairy-Stories offers us some help here:
We need a word for this elvish craft, but all the words that have been applied to it have been blurred and confused with other things. Magic is ready to hand, and I have used it above ... but I should not have done so: Magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief. Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practised, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.
(OFS para. 75, emphasis mine)
Turning back to The Lord of the Rings, we may now more easily see the 'deceits of the Enemy' and view Frodo's conversation with Galadriel in a more disturbing light:
'I would ask one thing before we go,' said Frodo, 'a thing which I often meant to ask Gandalf in Rivendell. I am permitted to wear the One Ring: why cannot I see all the others and know the thoughts of those that wear them?'  
'You have not tried,' [Galadriel] said. 'Only thrice have you set the Ring upon your finger since you knew what you possessed. Do not try! It would destroy you. Did not Gandalf tell you that the rings give power according to the measure of each possessor? Before you could use that power you would need to become far stronger, and to train your will to the domination of others. 
(FR 2.vii.366)
I have discussed this conversation at length before, and mean to do so again once I have reflected further on what I have noticed here. Frodo is on a complex spiritual journey, as dappled with light and shadow as a wood in summer.  We too often ignore the shadow within him because the light that at times shines from him is more comforting (FR 2.i.223; TT 4.iv.652).  His interest in using the Ring to know the thoughts of others is a darkness that exists in tension with his offer a moment earlier to surrender the Ring to Galadriel.  At the same time this 'technique' he desires to employ is also in tension with the 'art' he tries to practice in the poem he composes commemorating Gandalf earlier in this same chapter (FR 2.vii.359-60), his first use of poetry since being 'enchanted' by the art of elvish minstrelsy in Rivendell (FR 2.i.233).

01 December 2015

Abraham, Wilfred, and John at the Pyre of Denethor (RK 5.vii.850-57)

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. 
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In discussing Faramir during his recent course at Signum University, 'Tolkien's Wars and Middle-earth'John Garth astutely noted the parallels between Faramir's relationship with his father in The Pyre of Denethor (RK 5.vii).850-57 and Isaac's relationship with Abraham in Wilfred Owen's The Parable of the Young Man and the Old, which retells the story of Genesis 22:1-18.1  Just as Owen has in this poem mythologized the distrust which the young soldiers on the Western Front often felt for their older superiors who sacrificed them needlessly, as they saw it, so, too, Tolkien: Denethor first sends his son on a hopeless mission from which he returns near death, and then he attempts to burn him alive on the funeral pyre on which he means to kill himself. Thus, as is often the case, we may see Tolkien incorporating and transforming his experience of World War One in his literary works.

This is an area of study too long neglected, but which has lately begun to receive proper attention, thanks to works like Garth's Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle-earth, and this year's Baptism of Fire: the Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I, edited by Janet Brennan Croft. And it is a mark of just how much study needs to be done that writers such as Owen and Tolkien, whom most readers and critics would consider worlds apart, can have so similar a response to the war. Indeed it is tempting to ask if Tolkien was acquainted with Owen's poem, but this may be impossible to answer, and the story of Abraham and Isaac was -- and is -- one of the best known in the Bible. All we can say with certainty is that both men would have known the story in Genesis.

Yet Tolkien's vision is as multifarious as C. S. Lewis said it was.  If we set aside the links between Tolkien, World War One, and the story (I nearly said 'the parable') of Denethor and Faramir, there's still more to see.  For Tolkien recasts elements of the tale of Abraham and Isaac to tell a story of his own in The Pyre of Denethor, one about fathers and sons and pride and despair, just as Genesis tells of humility and faith. While several sets of fathers and sons appear in The Lord of the Rings -- Glóin and Gimli; Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir; Beregond and Bergil; Sam and the Gaffer -- only in this case do both father and son play prominent and critical roles in the story. Nor can we ignore Boromir in this connection, since even dead he is part of the dynamic of sacrifice acted out by Denethor and Faramir.

First let us have a look at Genesis 22:1-18 (KJV):
22 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.  
2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.  
3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.  
4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 
5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.  
6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. 
7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?  
8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.  
9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.  
10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 
11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.  
12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.  
13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.  
14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.  
15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,  
16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:  
17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;  
18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
Abraham acts out of faith. When the Lord tells him to sacrifice his son, he does not question or balk. He accepts that the Lord is the Lord, and that obedience is his due. In fact we see faith in operation throughout the story, as Abraham's men and his son obey him without question.  Nor does the story tell us that Isaac resisted being bound.  He submits to his father's authority just as Abraham did to God's. The one hint we get that Abraham is not some entirely emotionless monster is his response to Isaac, that 'God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.' This statement is true of course (both presently and with prophetic irony), but it is also a prevarication. Abraham will not tell Isaac that he is to be the lamb.

Now it might seem that nothing in The Pyre of Denethor or the story leading up to it matches God's command to sacrifice Isaac, but that is not quite so. For after Denethor has dispatched Faramir on a fruitless errand against all advice (RK 5.iv.816) --  an act he characterizes as 'spending even my sons', which is the mark of 'all great lords' (RK 5.iv.818) --  Faramir is lucky to return alive:
The Prince Imrahil brought Faramir to the White Tower, and he said: 'Your son has returned, lord, after great deeds, and he told all that he had seen.' But Denethor rose and looked on the face of his son and was silent. Then he bade them make a bed in the chamber and lay Faramir upon it and depart. But he himself went up alone into the secret room under the summit of the Tower; and many who looked up thither at that time saw a pale light that gleamed and flickered from the narrow windows for a while, and then flashed and went out. And when Denethor descended again he went to Faramir and sat beside him without speaking, but the face of the Lord was grey, more deathlike than his son's. 
(RK 5.iv.821; cf. vii.856-57)
As we later learn, Denethor has just looked into the palantír of Minas Tirith, not for the first time, and been deceived by Sauron into abandoning all hope of victory or survival (RK 5.vii.856).  Add to this the bitter conflict within him over the way he has 'spent' his sons (RK 5.1.754-56; iv.812-13, 816-17, 824), and his mind is overthrown. Once all that he values seems lost -- city, sons, stewardship -- it does not matter that Faramir is not yet dead.
Messengers came again to the chamber in the White Tower, and Pippin let them enter, for they were urgent. Denethor turned his head slowly from Faramir's face, and looked at them silently. 
'The first circle of the City is burning, lord,' they said. 'What are your commands? You are still the Lord and Steward. Not all will follow Mithrandir. Men are flying from the walls and leaving them unmanned.' 
'Why? Why do the fools fly?' said Denethor. 'Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? 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. Go back and burn!' 
The messengers without bow or answer turned and fled.  
(RK 5.iv.825)
Gandalf, when informed of Denethor's actions, immediately comments: 'Even in the heart of our stronghold the Enemy has the power to strike us: for his will it is that is at work' (RK 5.vii.850), a sentiment he repeats or hints at no fewer than five more times in this short chapter (RK 5.vii,851, 853, 854-55, 856 [twice]). So it would seem that Sauron plays the same role here as God does in Genesis 22. Let me be clear about this.  I am not saying that Sauron told Denethor in so many words to burn himself and Faramir to death.  I don't think that's what Gandalf is saying either.

Rather, Sauron uses Denethor's pride and despair to destroy him by deceiving him about what he is seeing.  As with the temptation of the Ring, the creation of Sauron's malice and subtlety, the details will work themselves out in accordance with the stature of the person tempted: Gandalf and pity, Boromir and victory, Galadriel and rule, Sam and a garden, Gollum and murder. So, unlike God in Genesis 22, Sauron does not issue a specific command, but like him he sets events in motion.

Tolkien, moreover, was well aware that 'to tempt' is, fundamentally, 'to test,' even if it has acquired the predominant meaning 'to attempt to lure into evil.' And it is precisely as a test that he construes the act of looking into a palantír. Once Gandalf learns that Sauron has one of the seeing stones, he speaks of an encounter with him through the stones in just that way:
'Maybe, I have been saved by [Pippin] from a grave blunder. I had considered whether or not to probe this Stone myself to find its uses. Had I done so, I should have been revealed to [Sauron] myself. I am not ready for such a trial, if indeed I shall ever be so. But even if I found the power to withdraw myself, it would be disastrous for him to see me....' 
(TT 3.xi.595, emphasis mine)
'Easy it is now to guess how quickly the roving eye of Saruman was trapped and held; and how ever since he has been persuaded from afar, and daunted when persuasion would not serve. The biter bit, the hawk under the eagle's foot, the spider in a steel web! How long, I wonder, has he been constrained to come often to his glass for inspection and instruction, and the Orthanc-stone so bent towards Barad-dur that, if any save a will of adamant now looks into it, it will bear his mind and sight swiftly thither? And how it draws one to itself! Have I not felt it? Even now my heart desires to test my will upon it, to see if I could not wrench it from him and turn it where I would...' 
(TT 3.xi.598, emphasis mine)
In fact the use of a palantir is always portrayed as a struggle against Sauron. Pippin struggles to break free and fails (TT 3.ix.592). Saruman is 'trapped and held,' 'persuaded', 'daunted,' and 'constrained,' all of which suggest his attempts to resist. Gandalf fears to hazard such a trial. Only Aragorn, has both the right to the stone and the 'will of adamant' that allows him to prevail -- 'barely' but completely -- in such a struggle (RK 5.ii.780).  Denethor, perhaps because he lacks the right to use the stone, which makes it folly for him to try, seems to himself to have won the contest of wills with Sauron, but the Dark Lord is deceiving him by influencing what he sees (RK 5.vii.856). Like Saruman, Denethor's wisdom fails. His pride and despair work against each other to counter his strength and undermine his reason.  Thus he fails the test, just as Abraham, through faith and humility, passed it. And in failing the test Denethor causes unnecessary death -- his own not least -- and strife among his own, in contrast to the unity and obedience that prevails among those who follow Abraham.

Both Abraham and Denethor, moreover, receive visits from messengers.  Denethor in fact receives two such visits, first by his own men who seek to recall him to his duty: 'What are your commands? You are still the Lord and Steward' (RK 5.iv.825).  His mad response so terrifies them that 'without bow or answer they turned and fled.' Their failure to bow signifies the breakdown of the bonds between them, in much the same way as Beregond's subsequent choice to forsake his post and draw his sword to protect the helpless Faramir (RK 5.iv. 826-27; vii.850-52, 854-55).

The second messenger is of course Gandalf -- all of the Istari 'were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron' (RK B 1084) -- and like the 'angel of the Lord' in Genesis he comes explicitly to stop the 'burnt offering' about to be kindled.2 And every word of Gandalf's conversation with Denethor underlines the fact that, unlike Abraham, Denethor had no 'authority' to do as he was doing. Rather he was acting out of pride and despair, like 'the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power' (RK 5.vii.851-54). Gandalf's 'authority is not given to you' (by whom?) and his reference to 'heathen' kings are rare suggestions of supernatural authority in The Lord of the Rings, which the transition to a discussion of the earthly power of the Steward and the return of the King emphasizes by contrast.

Nor is Tolkien any stranger to making use of this passage in Genesis, but adapting it to his own needs. In the mid to late 1950s he wrote the chapter of The Silmarillion entitled Of Aulë and the Dwarves.3  There, in a passage whose language is quite biblical, Aulë is surprised by Ilúvatar after he has created the race of Dwarves.
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!'
(Silmarillion, 43-44)
In humility and obedience, 'as a child to his father,' Aulë offers up what he has created without authority, and even asks if it would not be better to destroy 'the work of my presumption.'  For his submission he is rewarded, just as Abraham was. Denethor transgresses as well, by daring to use the palantír without the right to do so, by scorning the return of the lawful King, and finally by preferring suicide and murder to courage and duty. Unlike Abraham and Aulë he will not submit to authority. His pride and despair prevent it and destroy him.  Thus in The Pyre of Denethor Tolkien transforms the elements of the story of Abraham and Isaac to shape a powerful mythic portrayal of the terrible consequences of Denethor's flaws and errors of judgement. 

If, as Garth persuasively argues, Tolkien's portrayal of the relationship between Faramir and Denethor also draws form and power from the relationship between the young soldiers in the trenches and their generals who 'spent their sons' with such profligacy, then Tolkien's use of Genesis here, likening Denethor to an Abraham who refused the messenger's command to spare his son, seems even more powerful and damning. And, if anything, it is that detail, which both Tolkien and Owen share -- the refusal to heed the messenger -- that makes me believe Tolkien likely did know Owen's poem. 


1 As John Garth has also pointed out in class and in correspondence, the parallel between The Pyre of Denethor and The Parable of the Young Man and the Old has also been noted before here and here.

2 'Angel' comes from the Greek ἄγγελος, a translation of the Hebrew מלאך, 'malakh,' both of which mean 'messenger.' Quite frequently in the letters Tolkien refers to the Ainur in general as 'angelic.' See, for example, Letters, 153, p. 193-94. See also letter 181, p. 237 on Gandalf: 'His function as a "wizard" is an angelos or messenger from the Valar or Rulers: to assist the rational creatures of Middle-earth to resist Sauron, a power too great for them unaided.'

See The War of the Jewels: The Later Silmarillion, Part Two. The History of Middle-Earth (New York 1994) IX 212-13.