31 January 2016

Words Which They Only Partly Understood -- The First Hymn to Elbereth (FR 1.iii.79)


‘Listen! They are coming this way,’ said Frodo. ‘We have only to wait.’ 
The singing drew nearer. One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood. This was the song as Frodo heard it: 
    Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
         O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
    O Light to us that wander here
        Amid the world of woven trees! 
    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.  
    O stars that in the Sunless Year
        With shining hand by her were sown,
    In windy fields now bright and clear
        We see your silver blossom blown! 
    O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
        We still remember, we who dwell
    In this far land beneath the trees,
        Thy starlight on the Western Seas. 
(FR 1.iii.79)


Where is the partial understanding here? It cannot be of the sentences as such, since 'the song as Frodo heard it' is quite clear syntactically. So it must be the meaning of the content that eludes the hobbits. This suggests a limit to the power of elvish song. For elvish minstrels, we are told in The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, 'can make the things of which they sing appear before the eyes of those that listen' (RK App. A 1058), a statement which is made in the context of The Lay of Leithian. When telling a tale, elvish minstrels can create the impression that the listener is inside it. But this is a hymn of praise, which invokes images without telling their story. 

So, even though elvish minstrelsy can overcome the barrier of language, it cannot overcome that of ignorance through allusions alone. While Frodo recognizes the name of Elbereth, and knows that the High Elves, i.e., the Noldor, have great reverence for her, the rest of the song is obscure to him, presumably because he lacks the knowledge to make sense of the references to the Sunless Year and Elbereth's sowing of the stars.

See how hard life was before Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish?

Frank Wilbert Stokes -- 1902





17 January 2016

Gandalf, Odin, and the Wolf's Belly (FR 2.iv.298)


At Ragnarök the monstrous wolf, Fenrir, will swallow Oðinn, some of whose attributes Tolkien drew on in envisioning Gandalf, whom he saw as an 'Odinic wanderer' (Letters, no. 107).1  Gandalf shows this in The Lord of the Rings, as Marjorie Burns points out, 

by wearing a broad-brimmed hat and carrying a walking staff, as the wandering Odin does, though Gandalf's association with eagles, his enmity with wolves, and his ownership of a nearly supernatural horse add to this as well.2

All of which leads me to think that Sam's remark when the Company is being menaced by wolves is a joke on Tolkien's part:

'My heart's right down in my toes, Mr. Pippin,' said Sam. 'But we aren't etten yet, and there are some stout folk here with us. Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I'll wager it isn't a wolf's belly.' 
(FR 2.iv.298)


___________________________

1 See John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, Oxford (2001) 111-14, 247-52, 254-58.

2 Marjorie Burns, Norse and Christian Gods: The Integrative Theology of J. R. R. Tolkien, in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader, ed. Jane Chance, The University of Kentucky Press (2004) 168; Marjorie Burns, Gandalf and Odin in Tolkien's Legendarium, edd. Verlyn Flieger and Carl Hostetter, Greenwood Press (2000) 219-31. Gandalf, however, would have balked at the claim that he owned Shadowfax, a horse that carried riders only by his own consent. In Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, University of Toronto Press (2005) Burns rightly notes that Odin's fate is hinted at in Sam's words, but overlooks their humor.

Let me have hobbits about me that are fat (TT 4.viii.714)

Gielgud as Cassius
In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar 1.2.193-96 Caesar points out Cassius to Antony and comments:
Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
To anyone moderately acquainted with Julius Caesar these lines are quite familiar, and to say that someone has 'a lean and hungry look' has passed into the language as a warning against treachery. The words function much like a kenning, telling the reader more of a story than the words alone say. Now consider the following: 
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
(TT 4.viii.714)
Thus, even as Gollum's teeters on the brink of repentance we find a hint that he is dangerous and not to be trusted, but at the same time the use of this phrase here deepens the pathos by sharpening the contrast between Gollum, never to be trusted, and Sméagol, shrunken, starved, and pitiable.