18 February 2017

Review: Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth

Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth by Brian Attebery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good book, not a great one, and there is the measure of my disappointment. Attebery is at his very best -- which is exceptionally good -- when actively analyzing and commenting on individual texts and authors. He is usually quite skilled in integrating such analysis with the opinions of other scholars. Attebery makes many fascinating observations on Charles Williams, Hope Mirlees, George MacDonald, and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others, as well as on various species of fantasy, angels, and post-colonial fantasy. This book is an excellent education in the history of the genre.

Yet it is not without fault. At times Attebery slips into that self-renewing world in which scholars reference only each other and make pronouncements for which they neither adduce evidence nor produce an argument. Some call this engagement, but elopement might be the better term. True enough, this turning away from evidence is a common enough failing in academic writing over the last couple of generations, but it is the flight of the deserter rather than the escape of the prisoner (and so not to be commended). Mercifully, Attebery never stumbles into the Mirkwood of Jargon, where every utterance is impressive, but only as clear as the lyrics to Close to the Edge.

He seems a bit harder on C.S. Lewis than is necessary, however, and is at times dismissive: the entry of Joy Davidman into Lewis' life is apparently the sole reason that Till We Have Faces is less open to the charge of misogyny than Narnia is. While Joy Davidman surely had a profound effect on him, perhaps Till We Have Faces should suggest the need for a re-examination of the case again Lewis rather than the facile conclusion that he was swept off his feet and into enlightenment.

He also makes the occasional bald assertion, such as claiming that 'in order to avoid direct representation of religious iconography' Shakespeare substituted 'fairies for angels.' Did he? How so? But no proof is offered, no argument made. Since Shakespeare's fairies could not be mistaken for angels, and since Shakespeare's audience knew well that fairies and angels were not the same. this is an odd claim.

In discussing the attempt, specifically of G. P. Taylor, to write fantasy acceptable to literalist Christians, a failed attempt as it turned out, Attebery comments: 'Even the most faithful transcription of faith language into a work of fantasy has the effect of setting religion adrift.' But this one unsuccessful attempt by Taylor doesn't establish this. Perhaps Taylor just did it badly. Moreover, while it only takes one example to prove that something can be done, one example cannot prove that it cannot be done.

So I do recommend this book, but not without reservation. I found much to profit by here, but also some moments that could mislead the unwary.

15 February 2017

Théoden King, or, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's

Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising
he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended;
over death, over dread, over doom lifted
out of loss, out of life, unto long glory. 
But Merry stood at the foot of the green mound, and he wept, and when the song was ended he arose and cried: 
'Théoden King, Théoden King! Farewell! As a father you were to me, for a little while. Farewell!' 
(RK 6.vi.976-77)
As many fans of Tolkien are perfectly well aware, the personal names of the kings of Rohan are all Old English words for king or ruler, or for an attribute that would be valued in a king in a more violent time. 

Eorl  -- a nobleman of high rank
Brego -- a leader, governor, prince
Aldor -- a chief or prince
Fréa -- a lord or master
Fréawine -- from Fréa plus wine, a 'dear or beloved lord.'
Goldwine -- a generous and kindly prince.
Déor -- 'brave, bold, as a wild beast.' Cf. Lionheart
Gram -- 'furious, fierce.'
Helm -- a helm, poetically used of a king who protects his people like a helmet.

Fréaláf -- Fréa, 'lord', 'master', plus láf, 'what is left, remnant.' Since both of Helm's sons had perished, he was succeeded by Fréaláf, his sister's son.
Brytta -- 'bestower, distributor, prince.'
Walda --  'ruler'. See also here.
Folca -- from folc, 'people, folk;' in the form 'folca,' meaning 'of the people.'
Folcwine -- from folc plus wine, meaning 'friend of the people.'
Fengel -- 'prince.'
Thengel -- 'prince.'
Théoden -- 'prince, king.'

That's rather a lot of words for king or prince, no? Tolkien is obviously having a bit of philological fun, but a couple of points are worth making. First, although nearly every one of the words for ruler listed above appears in Beowulf, one of the most common in this -- for Tolkien -- poem of poems is entirely absent, drihten, which is also an important term, even in Beowulf, for God, i,e, 'the Lord.' This suggests that Tolkien was not just haphazardly converting words into names. (As if that would ever happen.) Which brings me to my second point. Given this, was Tolkien perhaps taking a cue from the history of another name that became a title? Caesar, as we know, became both kaiser and czar. Did the names of the kings of his beloved Rohirrim become titles in the same way? Was it part of Théoden King's 'long glory' that his name outlived his memory and became synonymous with king?



10 February 2017

Some Thoughts on Structure and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings

Yes, Simon. There she is again

Quite a few years ago now in his still highly relevant article, 'The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings', Richard West made clear how intricately woven together The Lord of the Rings is. Unlike the simpler and more 'organic' practice common in modern novels, the medieval technique of '[i]nterlace, by contrast, seeks to mirror the perception of the flux of events in the world around us' (West 78), which leads to a narrative that, like life, is 'cluttered', 'digressive', and 'chaotic' (79). But there's more to it than that, as West points out:
Yet the apparently casual form of the interlace is deceptive; it actually has a very subtle kind of cohesion. No part of the narrative can be removed without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones. The medieval memory (lacking modern information retrieval systems and therefore necessarily greater than ours) delighted in following repetitions and variations of themes, whether their different appearances were separated by scores or hundreds of pages. Musical art gives an analogous aesthetic pleasure and shows a similar structural binding ... but in literature, the interlace structure allows detailed examination of any number of facets of a theme.
(West 79)
Now in the course of The Lord of the Rings Frodo offers to give the Ring to others three times, but all of these come in the first two books, and never again after that.  A proximate cause is easy to spot -- Boromir's attempt to take the Ring at the end of the second book -- but that is only part of it. It is not the truest cause.  For in the first two books Tolkien weaves together a series of offers by Frodo with a series of (real and imagined) attempts by others to take the Ring. How these offers and attempts are made are telling in themselves, but as with Boromir each of them is part of the larger web of the story and allows us to reflect on questions of the effect the Ring has on those who possess it, claim it, or who have considered what they might accomplish if it were theirs.

  1. In The Shadow of the Past Frodo offers the Ring to Gandalf in fear, but has just proved himself unable even to throw the Ring into his fireplace, which, it has already been demonstrated, is scarcely able to warm it up (FR 1.ii.49-50, 60-61). Gandalf refuses the Ring, also out of fear, because he knows his 'pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good' will make him a prey to the Ring's power. Given the truculence with which Bilbo, like Gollum before him, asserted and defended his claim to ownership of the Ring in A Long-expected Party, Frodo's offer to Gandalf is tantamount to a denial of a claim to the Ring. 

  2. In The Council of Elrond Frodo, upon learning that Aragorn is Isildur's heir, seems almost relieved: '"Then [the Ring] belongs to you, and not to me at all!" cried Frodo in amazement, springing to his feet, as if he expected the Ring to be demanded at once.' Aragorn replies, 'It does not belong to either of us...but it has been ordained that you should hold it for a while' (FR 2.ii.237).  Frodo here in fact asserts Aragorn's claim to the Ring. This not only shows how true and wise Aragorn is by his refusal, but also supports the view taken above that Frodo has so far refused to claim the Ring. 

  3. In The Mirror of Galadriel Frodo's perception of things that are hidden and secret is enlarged, because he is 'the Ring-bearer, and one who has seen the Eye' in Galadriel's Mirror. This puts him on more of an even footing with Galadriel, since it allows him to recognize her as another Ring-bearer. Now he asks her what she wants, just as she had asked all the members of the Fellowship earlier in this chapter, and the fears for Lothlórien she reveals in her response parallel Frodo's fears for the Shire in The Shadow of the Past (FR 1.ii.62), as well as those stirred in Sam by what he has just seen in the Mirror.  In all humility then, it seems, Frodo offers to give her the Ring, and by implication renounces any claim to it: 'I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.'  Like Gandalf and Aragorn, Galadriel also refuses, but not without admitting the dreams of power and glory she had dreamt, as she pondered what she would do if the Ring ever came into her possession; and not before giving Frodo a glimpse of the majesty she would attain with the One Ring on her hand (FR 2.vii.365-66). It is intriguing, however, that here the offer of the Ring is conditional -- 'if you ask for it.' Requiring her to ask for it is an assertion of power and control, and suggests that Frodo's attitude towards the Ring has been changing. It is also intriguing that no sooner does she reject the Ring than he asks her how he might use it to 'see all the [other Rings] and know the thoughts of others', which Galadriel warns him not to try, since to use the power of the Ring would require him to train his 'will to the domination of others.' To try, she says, 'would destroy you.'
In addition to these three offers to give up the Ring -- whether Frodo could have actually done so if anyone had accepted is another matter -- Books One and Two begin and end with attempts, two real and two imagined, to seize the Ring -- 
  1. In A Long-expected Party Bilbo claims that the Ring is his when Gandalf urges him to give it to Frodo: 'It is my own. I found it. It came to me.' But, as Gandalf continues to press him, Bilbo grows paranoid and fears that Gandalf wants the Ring for himself and will try to take it by force.  He lays his hand on his sword, implicitly threatening the kind of violence he had so significantly eschewed by not stabbing Gollum when he had the chance (FR 1.i.34).  

  2. In The Flight to the Ford the Black Riders very nearly catch Frodo at the Ford of Bruinen (FR 1.xii.213-15). He attempts to command them, but they laugh at him. His questioning Galadriel about using the Ring needs to be read in connection with his failure here. His later invocations of the Ring to control Gollum (TT 4.i.618, iii.640; RK 6.iii.943-44), his wondering whether he was ready to confront the Witch-king at Minas Morgul ('not yet' -- TT 4.viii.706), and his claiming the Ring for his own (RK 6.iii.945), are all obvious 'facets' of this 'theme', but so, too, is his subsequent mourning for its loss (RK 6.ix.1024)

  3. In Many Meetings Bilbo's reaching out to touch the Ring sparks a reaction in Frodo as paranoid and close to violence as Bilbo's response to Gandalf had been (FR 2.i.232). This moment is significant in three ways: first, in showing the effect the Ring is already having on Frodo by recalling Bilbo's behavior in A Long-expected Party; second, by enabling Bilbo to understand at last what the Ring does to those who bear it; and third, by the alarmingly small effect this moment has on Frodo's understanding of what the Ring is doing to him: he just moves on. 

  4. In The Breaking of the Fellowship Boromir almost succeeds in seizing the Ring for himself (FR 2.x.396-400).  Frodo escapes only because he uses the Ring, which also results in vastly expanding his perception of the world, but in doing so he nearly reveals himself to Sauron, just as he had almost done, it would seem, when looking into Galadriel's mirror 11 days earlier. 

As Boromir's attempt follows so closely upon Frodo' offer to Galadriel, it might be worthwhile to consider these two moments side by side. Galadriel confesses that she has wanted the Ring, but will not take it or ask for it. She knows well that any good she might do at first will only end in despair. Boromir does not have the wisdom to see this -- he imagines himself becoming 'a mighty king, benevolent and wise.'  He not only wants the Ring, but requests it and will brook no refusal.  Frodo's psychic brushes with Sauron in these episodes, which emphasize his own increasingly complex relationship with the Ring -- 'He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you?' (FR 2.x.401) -- must be viewed in context with Galadriel's silent probing of Boromir's mind at their first meeting in Lothlórien, an encounter   that left Boromir rattled and suspicious, and Galadriel concerned that he was in peril (TT 3.v.496). Who would grasp that peril better than she? Who would find her desire to save her land and people more unnerving than Boromir? As Faramir later wonders, from a fascinating perspective that encompasses both sides of the experience: 'What did she say to you, the Lady that dies not? What did she see? What woke in your heart then?' (TT 4.v.667).  Boromir and Galadriel will have seen in each other's thoughts a reflection of their own fears and desires.

There are of course other scenes in the first two books that we might examine in greater depth, to see how they might contribute to our understanding of the Ring and the relationship of Frodo and others to it. In addition to some of the passages cited within the points made above, the scenes in the Shire, at Bree, and on Weathertop would be worth closer inspection. From my discussion of these same passages we can also see that much more lies ahead, which I have not yet fully thought through, and which will doubtless alter my own understanding of what I have seen so far. Still it would be foolish to think that every last passage can or should be fitted into some sort of pattern, as tempting as that can often be. 

But there is one more rather eccentric piece of this puzzle that I think requires comment at this time. In The Old Forest Tom Bombadil comes plunging into the story like some rogue comet from the Oort Cloud. The hobbits spend most of three chapters in Tom's Country, measuring from the High Hay to the East Road beyond the Barrow-downs, just as they do later in Lothlórien. Unlike Galadriel, however, Bombadil asks to see the Ring, which Frodo, to his own surprise, gives him without demur, but when Bombadil puts on the Ring and makes it disappear instead of vanishing himself, Frodo becomes alarmed and suspicious. Even though Bombadil immediately returns the Ring, Frodo must test it to be sure he hasn't been tricked. Again, the Ring has no effect on old Tom, who sees Frodo quite clearly (FR 1.vii.132-33).  Pardoxically Frodo reveals himself by disappearing. The Ring is already at work on him. Unlike Galadriel and everyone else in The Lord of the Rings, however, Tom is his own Master and desires nothing but what he has. Thus the power of the Ring has no pull on him. He knows of the Ring, but seems to have little interest in it except as a curiosity (cf. FR 2.ii.265).

Like Lothlórien, Tom's Country is also Faërie. Under his mastery time there flows differently from time in Bree or The Shire or Rohan, but not in the same way as it does in Lórien, from which one emerges to find that one has fallen behind time in the mortal world. In Tom's Country it is always the present, but the past remains vibrant and accessible: Tom can still go singing out into the ancient starlight when only the Elf-sires were awake (FR 1.vi.131); the trees can remember 'the times when they were lords' (FR 1.vii.130); the Barrow-wights can recall the first Dark Lord (FR 1.viii.141); and visions of Dunedain kings, once and future, can rise up before the hobbits' eyes as well as in their dreams (FR 1.viii.143, 145-46).  In Galadriel's Golden Wood we may also see visions of times past and times perhaps to come, but the land itself is anchored in an age long gone: In Lórien the Elder Days 'still lived on in the waking world' (FR 2.vi.349), but only if she had the One Ring could she perhaps preserve it that way forever. Tom and his Country serve as another structural counterpoise to Galadriel and hers.

What, finally, is the theme whose facets we are examining through this extensive and intricate web? Perhaps that which Gandalf touched upon first in The Shadow of the Past and which Elrond expands upon in The Council of Elrond, two chapters which occupy the same position and play much the same part in their respective books:
‘A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later – later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last – sooner or later the Dark Power will devour him.’
(FR 1.ii.47)
'Alas, no,' said Elrond. 'We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron's throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.' 
'Nor I,' said Gandalf. 
Boromir looked at them doubtfully, but he bowed his head. 'So be it,' he said.  
(FR 2.ii.267)
This is how good becomes evil. Boromir's question to Frodo on Amon Hen -- if the Wise won't wield the Ring, someone has to: 'Why not Boromir?' (FR 2.x.398) -- is not all that different from Frodo's asking Galadriel about using the Ring himself the moment she has refused his offer.

It will be interesting to see how this line of inquiry unfolds from here.

Richard C. West, 'The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings' in Jared Lobdell, A Tolkien Compass (1975), pp. 77-94.



04 February 2017

The Dark Heart of the Smith Still Dwells in It (Silmarillion 201-02)

Fireball over Banff National Park, CA. Dec. 2014 © Brett Abernethy

[Melkor] began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness. And darkness he used most in his evil works upon Arda, and filled it with fear for all living things.
(Silmarillion 31)
With passages like this in mind, which recall for many of us the words of Isaiah 14:12 -- 'How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! -- it is easy to forget that Melkor was not the only thing that fell from the sky and which a dark heart made evil.
'I ask then for a sword of worth,' said Beleg; 'for the Orcs come now too thick and close for a bow only, and such blade as I have is no match for their armour.' 
'Choose from all that I have,' said Thingol, 'save only Aranrúth, my own.' 
Then Beleg chose Anglachel; and that was a sword of great worth, and it was so named because it was made of iron that fell from heaven as a blazing star; it would cleave all earth-delved iron. One other sword only in Middle-earth was like to it. That sword does not enter into this tale, though it was made of the same ore by the same smith; and that smith was Eöl the Dark Elf, who took Aredhel Turgon's sister to wife. He gave Anglachel to Thingol as fee, which he begrudged, for leave to dwell in Nan Elmoth; but its mate Anguirel he kept, until it was stolen from him by Maeglin, his son. 
But as Thingol turned the hilt of Anglachel towards Beleg, Melian looked at the blade; and she said: 'There is malice in this sword. The dark heart of the smith still dwells in it. It will not love the hand it serves; neither will it abide with you long.' 
'Nonetheless I will wield it while I may,' said Beleg.
(Silmarillion 201-02)
Most people these days think of objects as morally neutral, and even if we tend to regard specific weapons as evil, we do not regard them as possessed, as it were, by the malice of their makers.  But clearly Tolkien portrayed things differently.  The intention of the smith, of the maker, matters greatly, for good or for ill, as Gandalf makes clear:
 ... let all put doubt aside that this thing is indeed what the Wise have declared: the treasure of the Enemy, fraught with all his malice; and in it lies a great part of his strength of old. Out of the Black Years come the words that the Smiths of Eregion heard, and knew that they had been betrayed: 
     One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
     One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.

(FR 2.ii.254)