28 June 2016

Getting to the Bottom of Celeborn

'An evil of the Ancient World it seemed, such as I have never seen before,' said Aragorn. 'It was both a shadow and a flame, strong and terrible.' 
'It was a Balrog of Morgoth,' said Legolas; 'of all elf-banes the most deadly, save the One who sits in the Dark Tower.' 
'Indeed I saw upon the bridge that which haunts our darkest dreams – I saw Durin's Bane,' said Gimli in a low voice, and dread was in his eyes. 
'Alas!' said Celeborn. 'We long have feared that under Caradhras a terror slept. But had I known that the Dwarves had stirred up this evil in Moria again, l would have forbidden you to pass the northern borders, you and all that went with you. And if it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria.' 
'He would be rash indeed that said that thing,' said Galadriel gravely. 'Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life.'
(FR 2.vii.356)

Oh, darn, another image of Cate Blanchett
For his words here Celeborn earns a gentle rebuke from Galadriel. Her words are third person (he) rather than second (you), and all very politely subjunctive, 'would be' rather than 'is/are', leading to a generalization about a type of person ('that said') rather than a precise comment about a specific individual ('who said').  As such, Galadriel's statement neatly answers the two unreal conditional statements ('had I known.... And if it were possible') with which Celeborn responded to the news of the balrog and the death of Gandalf. In essence, she is saying that Celeborn, appearances notwithstanding, is not the sort of person who would say such things.

And though he accepts her reproof and apologizes at once, readers have been far less forgiving than Galadriel and the members of the Company. Indeed Celeborn is seen as something of a dolt, whose folly here wholly belies Galadriel's statement, only a few moment later, that he is 'accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth' (FR 2.vii.357). Since he plays little other role, and since the attention shifts almost completely to Galadriel, the rashness of his remarks, spoken 'in the trouble of my heart', is never redeemed. We never get to see the wisdom of which Galadriel speaks. So, readers have long wondered just what it is she's talking about. Indeed Celeborn's wisdom seems chiefly to consist in having married Galadriel.

and another one!
His words and his apology, I would argue, are meant to have a different and a greater effect than a first glance suggests. They aim to reveal how frightening a balrog is, even to the wisest Elf and to indicate how troubling the fall of Gandalf is with the fate of Middle-earth hanging in the balance. Consider the reaction of the otherwise dauntless Legolas, whom the balrog so 'filled...with terror' that he dropped his arrow and cried out in 'dismay and fear' (FR 2.v.329). By contrast, when the Company later encounters the winged Nazgûl the 'sudden dread' Legolas and the others feel does not prevent him from shooting it from the sky just as 'suddenly' (FR 2.ix.387). Aragorn himself, moreover, calls the balrog 'terrible', which he means quite literally, that is to say, it inspires terror; and to Gimli it is Durin's Bane, a race-nightmare of which he speaks with 'dread in his eyes.' It was, as Gandalf said, 'a foe beyond any' of them, and its power posed a serious challenge to his own (FR 2.v.327, 329-331). Small wonder, then, that at the bridge he chose to declare himself.

We must also recall that Aragorn seems to have broken off his account at 'the coming of the Terror,' that is, before the battle at the bridge, in order describe the balrog. This exactly parallels the narrative of events, which pauses to do the same once the balrog comes into view. (FR 2.v.329-330). The Terror which so dismays Legolas that his courage briefly falters at that moment, has its match in the lapse of Celeborn's wisdom in this one. It may also be, given Aragorn's apparent pause in telling the tale, that Celeborn does not yet know that Gandalf threw the balrog down into the abyss, apparently killing it. He may know only that Gandalf saved his companions and perished himself. His '[h]ad I known that the Dwarves had stirred up this evil in Moria again' makes more sense if he does not know that the balrog also fell.  If Gandalf is dead and a balrog is on the loose, that would be a very troubling situation indeed. Nor is Celeborn alone in questioning the wisdom of entering Moria. Aragorn also thought it folly, and warned Gandalf against it (FR 2.iii.286-87; iv.297; vi.333).

But if a close reading provides us a context in which Celeborn does not seem entirely dim, we still never encounter any evidence that allows us to consider him 'the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth.' If anything, the surefooted grace with which Galadriel steps in to save the situation, gently but firmly correcting her husband and simultaneously winning the heart of a 'glowering' Gimli with her generosity and charm, makes her appear wiser by far than Celeborn.  And everything we see of her hereafter tends only to reinforce this opinion of her wisdom: her power in creating Lothlórien and defending it from Sauron, her humility in refusing the Ring when Frodo freely offers it, and her willingness to let all she loves fade in defense of all else.  In short nothing Celeborn does or says, and nothing anyone else says of him, allows us to reconcile Galadriel's description of him with the impression he initially creates in the reader of not being particularly wise at all.

In part, as I have said, this has to do with the subtlety of the context, which would of course have been plain as day to the man who wrote it. An author's intent is not always perfectly realized on the page; and even if it is, it is not always fully or easily appreciated by readers. In part it also has to do with the way the text developed. Once introduced into the narrative the Lady of Lothlórien quickly became more important than the Lord (The Treason of Isengard 233-66). The combination of the subtlety of the context and the transition from Lord to Lady did Celeborn no favors. 

Yet there may be one more small aspect of the portrayal of Celeborn and Galadriel that we need to consider briefly. It's possible that Tolkien was having a bit of fun with us. We have seen him do this before. At FR 2.iv.298 we have seen him play with the tale of Odin being swallowed by Fenris Wolf. At 1.x.171 he plays with Shakespeare's 'fair is foul and foul is fair' in contrasting the apparent and the real characters of Strider (Macbeth 1.i.10). At TT 4.viii.714 he plays with 'the lean and hungry look' of Cassius in Julius Caesar (1.2.193-96). In larger and more forceful ways at TT 3.iv.484-87, ix.564-69 and RK 5.vi.840-42 he amuses himself with 'Birnam Wood' and 'none of woman born' (Macbeth 4.1.95-96, 108-110; 5.5.31-36, 8.9-16).  I would also argue that the vision of the Kings and Chieftains of the Dúnedain which Bombadil conjures for the hobbits (FR 1.viii.145-46) owes much to the third prophecy -- the vision of the line of Stuart Kings (Macbeth 4.116-140) -- in that same scene in Macbeth which gives us Birnam Wood and 'none of woman born'. But it is never a mere echo of Shakespeare or Norse Myth. Gandalf is not Odin. Strider is not Macbeth. Gollum is not just thin as starvation, but no more to be trusted than Cassius. The wood really does march to war. And the Witch-king is slain by two people, one not a Man, and the other not a man. 

So where might we find a fairy queen in an enchanted wood who is mistaken about the wisdom of her beloved? In A Midsummer Night's Dream of course, where Titania, under an enchantment, falls in love with Bottom. 'Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful', she tells him (3.1.140). Since Puck has just given Bottom, 'the shallowest thickskin of that barren sort' (3.2.13), the head of an ass, Titania is clearly out of her reckoning. Bottom is of course neither wise nor Titania's husband, but Titania's folly is also brief and presently Oberon, her spouse, recalls her to her senses.

Of the points I have made here the one I am most serious about, and most convinced of its value, is the first part of the point about the context in which we need to read this scene. The second part, about the seeming pause in Aragorn's account has to contend with the quite reasonable objection that Celeborn asked to be told 'the full tale', and Aragorn seems to set out to do just that. While I believe that it can contend with that objection, not everyone may be convinced.  And I do think that Tolkien probably is having a bit of fun here, playing Titania and Bottom against Galadriel and Celeborn, but if so it is a mere whiff of a joke meant to underscore the seriously troubling situation that Celeborn believes confronts him.*



*I will admit that this connection between Tolkien and Shakespeare actually came to me in a dream on or about Midsummer. Blame it on Puck then.

19 June 2016

Lincoln at Gettysburg and Modern Effrontery

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863
On July 1-3 it will be the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles in what remains by far the bloodiest war in the history of the United States, a war that was both our darkest and our finest hour. It is a mark of the man that Lincoln spoke of the People and the Nation they comprised, not of the States; of the ideals upon which the Nation was founded by the People, and not of the imperfect realization of those ideals which precipitated the Civil War; of what the soldiers did, and of what we can and cannot do, but never of himself as President or Commander-in-Chief.  I know of only one other speech that is as great and as humble as this one. 

Amid the horror of civil war and slavery, of hatred and hard words, of death and oppression, Lincoln did not pray in the words of psalm 109 that the days of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee might be few, and that their widows and children might be homeless beggars. No. Not even in jest. For Lincoln, though not an especially religious man in a strict sense, would have known that to invoke God in service of a malicious jest is shameless blasphemy.  And Davis and Lee would have known this as well. Rather, Lincoln spoke of the meaning of devotion and sacrifice, and suggested that hope was not lost for America and the ideals of 'our fathers'. That the tarnished ideals may yet be clean. This hope did not rest on him, but upon the People. 

Where, as Lincoln might ask, are the better angels of our nature?

16 June 2016

Nienna's Room With a View -- Silmarillion, 28

Taken from the International Space Station in September 2010
[Nienna's] halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos, which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world.
(Silmarillion, 28)
Recently on the Prancing Pony podcast (which I recommend) the hosts, Alan Sisto and Sean Marchese, were discussing a question sent in by a listener about the Valaquenta, specifically on the meaning of the last sentence quoted above. Is Nienna looking out across Ekkaia, the vast sea that encircles the world, to a physical horizon, or is she somehow looking beyond the world itself to the Void and the Timeless Halls of Ilúvatar? 

The question seems vexed. Over the decades Tolkien wrote of the Walls of the World, the Walls of Night, or even the Wall of Things; nor is it quite clear whether in every case he meant the same walls, or, if he did, whether he conceived of them in precisely the same way, or, if they were different, how they differed. It is also difficult to say if we should make something of the lack of capitalization of the phrase in The Silmarillion, though it is very tempting to do so. In Morgoth's Ring Christopher Tolkien examines these phrases, but does not feel that the matter can be completely sorted out (26-29, 62-64). At this point I can't disagree with him. 

But it got me thinking.  I have, quite literally, just been reading a book that furnishes an interesting context in which to begin thinking about Tolkien's description of the halls of Nienna. In his The Sea and Medieval English Literature Sebastian Sobecki discusses (72-99) how from antiquity onward England was seen as the end of the earth, the farthest shore bounded by the great, all encompassing, infinite Ocean. The Old English word for this shoreless sea that lay beyond England (Ireland notwithstanding -- pay no attention to that far green country behind the grey rain curtain) is garsecg, and while its etymology is in dispute one intriguing possibility is gares secg, literally 'promontory's edge', that is, 'the end of the world' (Anderson, 272; Smith, 16). What makes this attractive is the note of harmony it strikes with what we later find in Middle English (a citation for which I am indebted to Sobecki, 84). In the MED s.v. 'occean' 1a, 'the circumferential sea surrounding the world' we find two instances of the phrase 'clif of occean' defined as 'the end of the world.'

If we look earlier we will see that both the Beowulf poet and the translator into Old English of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, moreover, use garsecg to suggest the liminality of this natural boundary and to hint at what might lay beyond. In Beowulf Scyld comes from and returns to the western sea, and 'no man, not the counsellors in the hall, not warriors under heaven, could say in truth who received' the ship bearing Scyld back into the west (50-52). And as Sharon M. Rowley points out in The Old English Version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica (71-72)the use of garsecg there, like that of oceanus in the original Latin Bede, not only places the island of Britain on the border of the world, but is part of the strategy of the translator to recast Bede's account of the salvation history of Britain. In both cases this outer sea is the edge of the world, but like an icon directs our attention beyond itself.  For beyond that sea might be found the Earthly Paradise, denied to men since the Fall. Seeing the western sea in this way was quite common in the Middle Ages, as Sobecki shows in his discussion cited above. Indeed, the tradition that the outer ocean was a path to another world was as old as Homer (Odyssey x.520-xi.25, transl. Fagles. See also here.)*

In Tolkien this notion of the sea does a kind of double duty. First there is Belegaer, The Great Sea, that lies between Middle-earth and the Undying Lands, which became inaccessible to all but Elves at the end of the Second Age when Ilúvatar removed Aman from the Circles of the World (another term only indifferently clear). But, in the second place, still the Halls of Nienna remain, and still presumably look outward across the Encircling Sea. There are, moreover, two other factors we cannot ignore here.  First,
it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen. 
(Silmarillion, 19) 
Second, Nienna is in and of the world, as all the Ainur became once they entered it, but her face is turned towards what is beyond. Her halls are near the Halls of Mandos, from which the Elves return to life in Aman, and from which Men depart Ëa entirely.  Let us turn back to the passage with which we began, but expand out focus somewhat:
So great was [Nienna's] sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. Her halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos, which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world. 
(Silmarillion, 28)
Given the echo of the Music in the Sea, and given the weaving of Nienna's sorrow into that Music, it is hard to see how the Encircling Ocean, by sight and by sound, could not evoke the thought of what lies beyond the Walls of the World. The Sea does so in and of itself, even if those who hear the Music in its waters do not understand what they hear. And, without the reincarnation within Ëa that is natural to the Elves, the hope, strength, and wisdom Nienna brings to the souls of Men in Mandos can look nowhere but beyond Ëa.

The answer, I fear, can only be a bit Elvish. Do the windows of Nienna's halls look out from the edge of Creation? Physically, no; metaphysically, yes.

photograph by Rick Battle


Anderson, Earl R., Folk Taxonomies in Early English, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (2003), 272, cited in Rowley, 71 n. 5.

Rowley, Sharon M., The Old English Version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, Anglo-Saxon Studies, Boydell and Brewer (2011) 71-98.  

Smith, Roger, Garsecg in Early English Poetry, English Language Notes 24.3 (1987), 16, cited in Rowley 71 n. 5.

Sobecki, Sebastian, The Sea and Medieval English Literature, Boydell and Brewer (2008).


*For a good example of Tolkien's awareness and use of this idea of the Sea, see The Notion Club Papers (Part Two) in Sauron Defeated 257-273, passim, especially the included poem, The Death of Saint Brendan, and its revised (later separately published) version on 296-99:


 At last out of the deep sea he passed,
 and mist rolled on the shore;
 under clouded moon the waves were loud,
 as the laden ship him bore                                        4
 to Ireland, back to wood and mire
 and the tower tall and grey,
 where the knell of Cluain-ferta's bell
 tolled in green Galway.                                             8
 Where Shannon down to Lough Derg ran
 under a rain-clad sky
 Saint Brendan came to his journey's end
 to find the grace to die.                                             12

 'O tell me, father, for I loved you well,
 if still you have words for me,
 of things strange in the remembering
 in the long and lonely sea,                                         16
 of islands by deep spells beguiled
 where dwell the Elvenkind:
 in seven long years the road to Heaven
 or the Living Land did you find?'                              20

 'The things I have seen, the many things,
 have long now faded far;
 only three come clear now back to me:
 a Cloud, a Tree, a Star.                                               24

 'We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
 no field nor coast of men;
 no boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
 for forty days and ten.                                                 28
 Then a drumming we heard as of thunder coming,
 and a Cloud above us spread;
 we saw no sun at set or dawn,
 yet ever the west was red.                                           32

 'Upreared from sea to cloud then sheer
 a shoreless mountain stood;
 its sides were black from the sullen tide
 up to its smoking hood,                                               36
 but its spire was lit with a living fire
 that ever rose and fell:
 tall as a column in High Heaven's hall,
 its roots were deep as Hell;                                         40
 grounded in chasms the waters drowned
 and swallowed long ago
 it stands, I guess, on the foundered land
 where the kings of kings lie low.                                 44

 'We sailed then on till all winds failed,
 and we toiled then with the oar;
 we burned with thirst and in hunger yearned,
 and we sang our psalms no more.                                48
 At last beyond the Cloud we passed
 and came to a starlit strand;
 the waves were sighing in pillared caves,
 grinding gems to sand.                                                 52
 And here they would grind our bones we feared
 until the end of time;
 for steep those shores went upward leaping
 to cliffs no man could climb.                                       56
 But round by west a firth we found
 that clove the mountain-wall;
 there lay a water shadow-grey
 between the mountains tall.                                         60
 Through gates of stone we rowed in haste,
 and passed, and left the sea;
 and silence like dew fell in that isle,
 and holy it seemed to be.                                             64

 'To a dale we came like a silver grail
 with carven hills for rim.
 In that hidden land we saw there stand
 under a moonlight dim                                                68
 a Tree more fair than ever I deemed
 in Paradise might grow:
 its foot was like a great tower's root,
 its height no man could know;                                    72
 and white as winter to my sight
 the leaves of that Tree were;
 they grew more close than swan-wing plumes,
 long and soft and fair.                                                  76

 'It seemed to us then as in a dream
 that time had passed away,
 and our journey ended; for no return
 we hoped, but there to stay.                                         80
 In the silence of that hollow isle
 half sadly then we sang:
 softly we thought, but the sound aloft
 like sudden trumpets rang.                                           84
 The Tree then shook, and flying free
 from its limbs the leaves in air
 as white birds rose in wheeling flight,
 and the lifting boughs were bare.                                 88
 On high we heard in the starlit sky
 a song, but not of bird:
 neither noise of man nor angel's voice,
 but maybe there is a third                                             92
 fair kindred in the world yet lingers
 beyond the foundered land.
 But steep are the seas and the waters deep
 beyond the White-tree Strand! '                                    96

 '0 stay now, father! There is more to say.
 But two things you have told:
 the Tree, the Cloud; but you spoke of three.
 The Star in mind do you hold?'                                    100

 'The Star? Why, I saw it high and far
 at the parting of the ways,
 a light on the edge of the Outer Night
 beyond the Door of Days,                                             104
 where the round world plunges steeply down,
 but on the old road goes,
 as an unseen bridge that on arches runs
 to coasts that no man knows.'                                        108

 'But men say, father, that ere the end
 you went where none have been.
 I would hear you tell me, father dear,
 of the last land you have seen.'                                      112

 'In my mind the Star I still can find,
 and the parting of the seas,
 and the breath as sweet and keen as death
 that was borne upon the breeze.                                    116
 But where they bloom, those flowers fair,
 in what air or land they grow,
 what words beyond this world I heard,
 if you would seek to know,                                            120
 in a boat then, brother, far afloat
 you must labour in the sea,
 and find for yourself things out of mind:
 you will learn no more of me.'                                       124

 In Ireland over wood and mire
 in the tower tall and grey
 the knell of Cluain-ferta's bell
 was tolling in green Galway.                                         128
 Saint Brendan had come to his life's end
 under a rain-clad sky,
 journeying whence no ship returns;
 and his bones in Ireland lie.                                           132

06 June 2016

In the Dead Marshes We Hear No Larks at Morning

Paul Nash, We Are Making A New World, Imperial War Museum

Since at least the twelfth century larks at morning have featured in English poetry, at first not even in English, as these Latin lines from Alexander of Neckam show, playing on the similarity of 'lark' (alauda) and 'praises' (laudat) to derive a (false) etymology:
Laudat alauda diem, praenuncia laeta diei
    Laudat, et a laudis nomine nomen habet.
Quamvis moesta thorum properans Aurora Tithoni
    Linquat, surgentem laeta salutat avis. 
(De Laudibus Divinae Sapientiae, 2.765-68
The lark, day's happy herald, praises the day,
    She praises it, and from the name of 'praise' gets her name.
Though sad Aurora leaves in haste Tithonus' bed,
    The happy bird greets her as she arises.
Onward through the centuries in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Wordsworth, Meredith, and Hopkins, the lark is jubilant, protective of its own, and soaring high and free to greet the dawn. There's nothing to wonder at in all this poetry on the lark. For long ago in the quiet of the world when there was less noise and more green, every morning was full of birdsong. (In fact, it still is. Open your windows; mute your machines.)  As J. V. Baker, who knew firsthand what the poets he was writing about knew, said: 
 Any knowledge of the habits of the English lark will make it easy to see why it is always associated with rapturous and soaring flight; no bird is apparently more airy and carefree or ventures higher; yet it always has an invisible cord of attachment that pulls it back to its grassy nest concealed on the ground. My first recollection of larks is of hearing them above a wheatfield; the golden ranks of wheat, relieved here and there with blood-red poppies, stood right up to the edge of the chalk cliffs falling perpendicularly into the sea near Margate; and the blue sky was filled with the song of larks. 
(The Lark in English Poetry, p. 70)
It is thus no surprise that during World War One men raised on such poetry and such experiences would find solace in the larks that sang and soared about the fields of France at dawn. 'What the lark usually betokens' for the men at the front, writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (p. 242), 'is that one has got safely through another night', though men were also well aware of the absurdity of the birds singing while around them swirled a nightmare of slaughter, something the poets of the war saw both sides of.
A Lark Above the Trenches  
Hushed is the shriek of hurtling shells: and hark!
Somewhere within that bit of soft blue sky-
Grand in his loneliness, his ecstasy,
His lyric wild and free – carols a lark. 
I in the trench, he lost in heaven afar,
I dream of Love, its ecstasy he sings;
Doth lure my soul to love till like a star
It flashes into Life: O tireless wings 
That beat love’s message into melody –
A song that touches in this place remote
Gladness supreme in its undying note
And stirs to life the soul of memory –
‘Tis strange that while you’re beating into life
Men here below are plunged in sanguine strife!
Will Streets
Returning, We Hear the Larks
Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl's dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides. 
Isaac Rosenberg
Now, as has long been clear, Tolkien's experience of the Somme in WWI influenced his portrayal of Sam and Frodo's journey to Mordor with Gollum. We can see this most clearly in The Passage of the Marshes, as Tolkien conceded (Letters, no. 226), and as John Garth has amply demonstrated in his splendid (if hard to come by) " 'As under a green sea': Visions of War in the Dead Marshes". Now we should not expect Tolkien to have included every commonplace of English literature, nor of the WWI poets, in his translation of his experience. Nor would its absence be particularly noteworthy, or even noticeable, if he did not draw our attention to it:
As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no colour and no warmth. But even at this faint reminder of her presence Gollum scowled and flinched. He halted their journey and they rested, squatting like little hunted animals, in the borders of a great brown reed-thicket. There was a deep silence, only scraped on its surfaces by the faint quiver of empty seed-plumes, and broken grass-blades trembling in small air-movements that they could not feel.  
'Not a bird!' said Sam mournfully.  
'No, no birds,' said Gollum. 'Nice birds!' He licked his teeth. 'No birds here. There are snakeses, wormses, things in the pools. Lots of things, lots of nasty things. No birds,' he ended sadly. Sam looked at him with distaste.
(TT 4.ii.626)
Larks belong to the serene, dazzling world of the golden sun, to a world where dawn came clear and bright, as it had not in the marshes that morning (TT 4.ii.625). Theirs is not the rotten, murky world in which the three hobbits seek to hide. Their absence is a silence that grieves and dispirits Sam. And Gollum, who regrets the lack of birds for a different reason, makes quite clear that their absence from the marshes is not merely a passing one. 

And Tolkien was well acquainted the image of the lark at dawn and the power it could have. He certainly knew it from Chaucer and from most if not all of the poets down to Meredith and Hopkins; and even if he had never read another WWI poet, he had edited Spring Harvest, the collection of his friend Geoffrey Bache Smith, who wrote of the lark in his poem 'Over the hills and hollows green' before perishing at the Somme. In The Lay of Leithian, moreover, he uses the image of the lark three times (Lays, 176, 291, 355), and then once in Aragorn's song of Beren and Lúthien in The Lord of the Rings (FR 1.xi.192).  But it is in The Silmarillion (165) that he uses it with most striking effect:
There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Lúthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed. 
Then the spell of silence fell from Beren .... 
That Tolkien here likens Lúthien Tinúviel, the nightingale who sings in the dusk, to the lark is fascinating in its own right, and I think this juxtaposition signals just how epochal the love of Beren and Lúthien will be. Yet more importantly for us here now is that in both these texts without the song of the lark silence has lease. In The Silmarillion Lúthien sings like the lark and breaks the spell on Beren, whose naming her Tinúviel, nightingale, then casts a spell of love over her, thus changing the world. In The Passage of the Marshes, without lark or song, things just get worse for Frodo and Sam. Ahead of them that very night are the 'things in the pools' that Gollum slyly alluded to, the dead from whom the marshes take their name (TT 4.ii.627-28); and when, still later that same night, they at last hear a cry upon the air and the rush of wings, it is no skylark welcoming the dawn, but a creature of horror whose coming snuffs out even the candles of the corpses: " 'Wraiths!' he wailed. 'Wraiths on wings!' " (TT 4.ii.630). As a result, a shadow falls on all their hearts. Gollum begins to revert to his former self, and Frodo himself grows increasingly silent, like Beren before Lúthien sang.  After two more such visitations (TT 4.ii.634-35), the chapter ends :
So they stumbled on through the weary end of the night, and until the coming of another day of fear they walked on in silence with bowed heads, seeing nothing and hearing nothing but the wind hissing in their ears.
(TT 4.ii.635)
So in The Passage of the Marshes not only does Tolkien eschew the common trope of larks at dawn, which is reasonable enough given the context, but by substituting the winged Nazgûl to break the larkless silence he reworks the trope to introduce the nightmare that will persist and deepen, with one contrasting interlude in Ithilien, until Mt Doom. 



James V Baker, The Lark in English Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring 1950), pp. 70-79

Priscilla Bawcutt, The Lark in Chaucer and Some Later Poets, The Yearbook of English Studies,Vol. 2 (1972), pp. 5-12

02 June 2016

Melkor's Song of Ice and Fire - A Brief Note on The Ainulindalë

And Ilúvatar spoke to Ulmo, and said: 'Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou art drawn nearer to Manwë, thy friend, whom thou lovest.' 
Then Ulmo answered: 'Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain. I will seek Manwë, that he and I may make melodies for ever to my delight!' And Manwë and Ulmo have from the beginning been allied, and in all things have served most faithfully the purpose of Ilúvatar. 
(Silmarillion, 19)
In this conversation, which takes place before Ilúvatar creates the world described in the Music of the Ainur, we see shown forth the first example of Ilúvatar's warning to Melkor that anyone who 'attempteth [to alter the music in my despite] shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined' (17). Ilúvatar then repeats this warning to Melkor in the moment he grants the Ainur a Vision of their Music (17), and while the text tells us that he said 'many other things' (17) to them at this time, we get to hear only his words to Melkor and Ulmo. They are thus singled out, and Ilúvatar's words to them bookend the Vision, with Melkor addressed directly before it and Ulmo directly afterwards. 

While Ulmo responds with wonder and delight and declares his intention to collaborate with Manwë, as we saw, Melkor is for now silent and 'filled with shame, of which came secret anger' (17). The next (and last) time he speaks in the Ainulindalë follows immediately upon the entry of the Ainur into the newly made world:  

And in this work the chief part was taken by Manwë and Aulë and Ulmo; but Melkor too was there from the first, and he meddled in all that was done, turning it if he might to his own desires and purposes; and he kindled great fires. When therefore Earth was yet young and full of flame Melkor coveted it, and he said to the other Valar: 'This shall be my own kingdom; and I name it unto myself!' 

Melkor's stated intention of course provokes a refusal to submit from Manwë -- 'This kingdom thou shalt not take for thine own, wrongfully, for many others have laboured here no less than thou' (21) -- and leads to war between Melkor and the other Valar.

What's most striking to me in all of this is that the beauty of water described in its various forms arises from the unintentional collaboration of Melkor and Ulmo. Melkor's hostility and selfish desire to dominate the Music has worked upon water to produce beauties 'fairer than my heart imagined,' as Ulmo recognizes. And precisely as Ilúvatar predicted. It should also stand out because it is the only time (I can think of off the top of my head) when Melkor's evil actions produce unquestionable, inspiring beauty untouched by any sorrow. It is a perfect example of the later statement that evil will prove good to have been, and yet remain evil (98). In that thought, however, there can be only sorrow, because Melkor cannot see the beauty he has helped to create, cannot be inspired by it to collaborate with Manwë, his 'brother ... in the mind of Ilúvatar' (21), cannot, therefore, repent of his desire to dominate.  Far from it in fact: 'Melkor hated the sea, for he could not subdue it' (30).

Clearly there is more work to be done here. A study of the meaning imparted by the way the Ainulindalë is structured looks like it could provide some intriguing results, given what we've seen here. I have skipped over the appearance of the Children in the Vision, for example, as well as the perhaps metaphysical implications of the question of why it is that water becomes more beautiful as a result of the effects of evil. Is it because it is the part of creation which best and most preserves the Music of the Ainur, and therefore the primordial thought of Ilúvatar as expressed in the themes he propounded to them? 

But so detailed a study I will have to leave for another day. 



01 June 2016

Wicked Bookish, or, Were the Books I Read as a Child Bad for Me?

As far back as I can remember I was a wicked bookish lad, devouring tales as hungrily as a drowning man gasps for air. The inner truths that permeate myth always moved me, even when I could not grasp them, even when I was only old enough to suspect that more lay between the hero and the quest, between the sorrow and the joy, than I could express. I know that this was so, because I quickly lost interest in tales that did no more than relate a series of events.  I still do. There must be something in the tale that speaks of life, the universe, and everything. But that's often not as grandiose as it sounds. It simply must speak of us and the dreams that are made on us.  Nor does it even matter if we cannot articulate these things. It is enough that we feel them.

So when I was a child, with all my road before me, every trip to a library or bookstore was a quest for a kind of Sangraal, as my mind strove to look over the horizons of my childish world and into the great mystery of the time before my birth.  I read every children's book I could find on the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and their myths. I read any number of books for little boys on King Arthur and his knights. I made my aunt play the original Broadway cast album to Camelot at least once a week. She was probably sorry she'd bought it, if that's even possible.  I made my grandmother tell me stories of fairies and banshees over and over again.  When I was in fourth grade, I somehow came by a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology.  I read it several times before going where it led me, straight to The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Song of Roland, to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, to El Cid, the Norse Gods, and Beowulf. It was a special moment indeed when my fifth grade teacher refused, at first, to accept a book report I had written on Le Morte D'Arthur, because she could not believe I had actually read it. In all of these tales, there was that something which spoke of us.

No one who reads this blog will be surprised to read that just a year after Le Morte D'Arthur I found myself enchanted by The Lord of the Rings.

Wicked bookish, as I said.

So, why am I telling you this? Well several weeks ago, Graeme Whiting, the headmaster of a school in the UK, posted online a short essay entitled 'The Imagination of the Child'.  In it he stressed how sensitive the minds of children are, and the care with which their parents and teachers must act if they wish to protect the children from negative influences. So far, so good, I guess. I can't really criticize this position: children are sensitive; they need protection.  But setting out such a proposition is the easy part. Many would say -- indeed have said -- that in his efforts to identify some of the influences from which we must guard children, and the means by which we should do so, Mr Whiting went off the rails:
I stand for the old-fashioned values of traditional literature, classical poetry, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Shakespearean plays, and the great writers who will still be read in future years by those children whose parents adopt a protective attitude towards ensuring that dark, demonic literature, carefully sprinkled with ideas of magic, of control and of ghostly and frightening stories that will cause the children who read them to seek for ever more sensational things to add to those they have already been exposed to. What then of their subconscious minds? What then of the minds of children whose parents couldn’t give the time to look closely at childhood; the sensitive period of the development of every human being? Where will this addiction to unacceptable literature lead? 
I want children to read literature that is conducive to their age and leave those mystical and frightening texts for when they can discern reality, and when they have first learned to love beauty. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few of the modern world’s ‘must-haves’, contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children; yet they can be bought without a special licence, and can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children. For young adults, this literature, when it can be understood for what it is, is the choice of many!
Buying sensational books is like feeding your child with spoons of added sugar, heaps of it, and when the child becomes addicted it will seek more and more, which if related to books, fills the bank vaults of those who write un-sensitive books for young children!
That first sentence alone is quite an experience. It begins stodgily enough, but if the authors and types of literature of which Mr Whiting approves are stodgy, so be it. I like everyone he recommends. But things take a strange turn with 'dark, demonic literature.' What starts out sounding like Digory Kirke ('It's all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?') ends up like a YouTube rant about the End Times and the Satanic Forces arrayed against us. For a man who thinks he's read all the right books, he appears not to have profited much by them. By this I mean they seem to have closed his mind rather than opening it, to judge by his later statement that he 'felt that by the age of thirty [he] had read all the books he wanted to read'. And I'll leave it at that. I'm not here to attack Mr Whiting. Lots of people have already done that, and it's all too easy to pick apart someone's sentences and censure them from afar.

Now I can't offer an informed opinion on The Hunger Games, since I've neither read the books nor seen the films. My knowledge of Harry Potter is also small compared to that of many I know, none of whom, as far as I can tell, have turned out badly because of early exposure to the boy who lived. As for Terry Pratchett, I've read a dozen or so of his novels and haven't felt compelled to attend a Black Mass, not even once.

On the other hand, George R. R. Martin.

His works are something else entirely.  While I wouldn't go quite so far as to call A Song of Ice and Fire 'demonic', I can only agree that it is very, very dark. I am pretty sure I wouldn't let children in grade school, if I had any, watch the HBO series. The books would be a tougher call, for conflicting reasons. With one exception, my parents never forbade me any book. For that I have always been grateful, though my choice of books may have made it easier for them to be so lenient. (I somehow can't see my parents letting me read Bukowski at ten years old.) But books engage the imagination so much more actively and completely than films do (at least as I experience them), and Martin's books are raw, brutal, and full of cruelty. Even if, as Martin has been quoted to say, his tale will have a bittersweet ending in the manner of Tolkien, what will have gone before will (to judge by the first five novels) be so dire and hopeless that the reader, whether adult or child, will come to the end more a Frodo than a Sam.

To be fair, I was an adult when these books came out.  But the first time I read The Lord of the Rings I was eleven, precisely the age Mr Whiting is talking about, still at least three years shy, as he claims, of having 'a thinking brain'. And there were indeed 'demonic' forces at work in the story. The Black Riders were creatures of horror, cut off from all light and life, undead slaves of the Ring; and Sauron, their master, was even worse, especially when 'seen' in the Mirror of Galadriel or glimpsed briefly and indirectly through a terrified Pippin's eyes. And Mordor, teeming with orcs and ash heaps, was clearly a land of dark, Satanic mills. 

Not quite the Eye, but appropriate to our topic.

But for every evil there was an opposite and apposite good, and often more than one. For Mordor there was The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlórien. For the Black Riders there was shining Glorfindel, who puts them to flight; and, more fatally for their Captain, there was the pair who became heroes by force of love and courage despite the unheroic roles assigned them by stature and gender. Against Sauron himself we found Gandalf and Galadriel, who rejected the power of the Ring when it was offered to them, one of whom sacrificed himself, and the other the land she loved, for the sake of defeating evil. More subtly, though, and if we were paying attention, we recognized the hand of God (Eru) in all the references to 'chance' scattered throughout the work, almost never without qualification. Even Frodo's failure to complete the quest on his own strength bore witness to 'chance if chance you call it' (FR 1.vii.126), since it was 'more than chance' (FR 1.iii.84) that led Bilbo to Gollum, to the Ring, and most importantly of all to pity (FR 1.ii.59).[1] 

So far from being damaged in my unthinking brain by all this, I was uplifted in my soul by 'Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief' (Tolkien, OFS para. 99).  I did not know these words for it then any more than I knew anything of grief at eleven, but it touched my heart and taught it; and in after years, many of which were very dark, its depictions of love, courage, endurance, and nobility gave me something to hold onto in my mind.  The Lord of the Rings was hardly the only book to teach me these lessons, both in childhood and now, well after the age of thirty.  My reading would have been very narrow indeed if it were. Perhaps it's a failure of my own imagination that I cannot see how any literate person who has actually read The Lord of the Rings while awake can see in it only darkness and demonic forces that endanger the minds of children. Or perhaps, as Sam says to Faramir, stating what amounts to a general truth about Faërie itself: 'It strikes me that folk takes their peril with them into Lórien, and finds it there because they've brought it' (TT 4.v.680).

Now those words might seem a good place to end, but I think that would be shortsighted. Words can harm and words can heal. Thus there will be books that are inappropriate for children. I just cannot see The Lord of the Rings as one of them.

Still, if I am going to be wicked in any one thing, let me be wicked bookish.

A wholly extraneous image. I just like it.


[1] On Frodo's 'failure', see Tolkien, Letters no. 181.