17 June 2018

Revising The Hobbit in Life and Fiction



In the summer of 1950 Tolkien received from Allen & Unwin, his publishers, proofs of the forthcoming second edition of The Hobbit (Letters no. 128). To his surprise he found that without consulting him they had removed the original Chapter 5, Riddles in the Dark, and substituted a new version, which he had sent to them three years earlier as 'a specimen of rewriting' (Letters no. 111) and which he had not originally meant to have published as written (no. 128). This new version, as many know, presents a very different portrayal of Gollum, Bilbo, and the Ring, one far more in keeping with the dark power invested in the Ring in The Lord of the Rings.** In a brilliant stroke Tolkien recast the version given in the first edition of The Hobbit as a lie Bilbo told Gandalf and the dwarves. 

With mischief in his heart, however, Tolkien did not stop there. For in the Prologue we meet the following comment on The Red Book: 
This [first] account Bilbo set down in his memoirs, and he seems never to have altered it himself, not even after the Council of Elrond. Evidently it still appeared in the original Red Book, as it did in several of the copies and abstracts. But many copies contain the true account (as an alternative), derived no doubt from notes by Frodo or Samwise, both of whom learned the truth, though they seem to have been unwilling to delete anything actually written by the old hobbit himself.
(FR Pr. 13)
Publishers are much more pliant when they are your fictional characters. Take that, Rayner and Stanley Unwin!




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**  For a side by side presentation of Chapter 5 in the first (1937) and second (1951) editions, see here.

10 May 2018

The Bard Reviews 'Avengers: Infinity War'


Here be spoilers withal:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!
Cymbeline IV.ii.329-52 (adapted).

24 April 2018

Dwarf-ridden



'Dwarves!' said Bilbo in pretended surprise. 
'Don't talk to me!' said Smaug. 'I know the smell (and taste) of dwarf -- no one better. Don't tell me that I can eat a dwarf-ridden pony and not know it! You'll come to a bad end, if you go with such friends, Thief Barrel-rider.'
(Annotated Hobbit 281)

The most obvious interpretation of 'dwarf-ridden pony' in this, or perhaps even most contexts, is 'ridden by a dwarf'.

But that's not the only possibility, and in a conversation so full of riddling and wordplay as that of Bilbo and Smaug we might want to consider the following.

From Old English bӕddryda, or bedreda, comes the modern 'bedridden.' From 'bedridden' by analogy descend various words, e.g., 'bird-ridden' (1835), 'bug-ridden' (1848), 'bureaucracy-ridden' (1861), 'capitalist-ridden' (1844), 'caste-ridden' (1840), 'chair-ridden' (1885), 'chamber-ridden' (1856), 'child-ridden' (1843), 'class-ridden' (1842), 'conscience-ridden' (1617), 'crime-ridden' (1801), 'devil-ridden' (1707), and, not to belabor the point 'dragon-ridden' (1922) 'pixie-ridden' (1893), and even 'Nazi-ridden' (1942). A search in the OED for *ridden reveals these and over a hundred other such formations from the beginning of the alphabet to the end, only a few of which -- such as 'overridden' the past participle of 'override' -- have other than a decidedly negative connotation. The noun modified by the *ridden adjective is oppressed, beset, infested, or otherwise disabled by the first part of the compound.

From Smaug's perspective, then, ponies ridden by dwarves are also infested by dwarves, vermin-ridden, as it were. The dragon's wordplay in this sentence is followed up in the next, as he promises Bilbo, who came from 'the end of a bag', that with friends like dwarves he will come to a bad end. The tongue of the worm doesn't miss a turn, any more than the pen of Tolkien does. 

***

Note: I would like to thank my friends, Shawn Marchese and Alan Sisto, of The Prancing Pony Podcast, since it was while listening to their reading of this passage on my way to work this morning that the other interpretation of 'dwarf-ridden' occurred to me.
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23 April 2018

From The Top Of That Chimney You Can See Mordor (RK 6.viii.1004)


By 3 April 1944 Tolkien had started work on The Taming of Sméagol (Letters, no. 58). By the end of the month of May he had a finished draft of the whole of book IV, and moved C. S. Lewis to tears by his reading to the Inklings of The Choices of Master Samwise (Scull and Hammond [2017] 1.291). He had also perforce begun to give thought to what Mordor was like. No one who has read the books will need reminding that ashes, dust, fumes, and smoke figure prominently. It has also long been clear that Tolkien's experience of the trenches in World War One had a profound influence on his descriptions of the blasted landscape of Mordor and the Dead Marshes (Scull and Hammond [2017] 3.1408-1409).

But it struck me the other night that there might be another element in play here. During a Mythgard discussion of how 'volcanic' a landscape Mordor appears to be, I suddenly remembered that Vesuvius had a significant eruption in 1944. When I checked the date more precisely, I discovered that the eruption took place from 17 through 23 March, which makes for a very interesting coincidence. My first thought was that Tolkien might have seen newsreel footage like that below:



It seems more certain, however, that he would have read about it in the newspapers. Now in a 1966 interview Tolkien revealed that at that time he took three newspapers a day: The Daily Telegraph, The Times, and another which was probably a local Oxford paper (Scull and Hammond [2017] 3.1062). Granted, this evidence comes from two decades later, but it shows that dedication to reading newspapers which was not at all uncommon in those who grew up before the advent of television. The choice of papers also points us in a direction. The online archives of The Telegraph don't go back beyond 2000, but those of The Times reach even unto the deeps of time, all the way back to 1785. (Bless them. Of course they do.)

Starting on 20 March a series of articles record the devastation in precisely the terms one would expect to find: fountains and flows of lava, ash, smoke, mud.
Symptoms of the eruption continue to subside, though the crater is still emitting immense volumes of smoke, often, as throughout yesterday, dirty black smoke, making the mountain look like an immense brick kiln. The pilot of an aircraft flying yesterday to Naples from Palermo encountered this cloud 50 miles out at sea. After flying for 40 minutes in pitch darkness he preferred to turn back and circumvent the volcano by flying inland over Salerno and by the valley eastward from the crater. 
(The Times, 27 March 1944, p. 3
Obviously the pall of darkness encountered by the pilot will remind us of the similar cloud that flows out of Mordor starting in The Journey to the Cross-roads (TT 4.vii.699-700).* Yet, even if this is an influence, it is the comparison of the mountain to an 'immense brick kiln' that will lead us somewhere interesting. My first response was that Tolkien would have found this comparison fitting given his opinion of industrialization. My second was to recall the following passage from The Scouring of the Shire:
And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End [the hobbits] saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.
(RK 6.viii.1004)
And it was this that turned me back to the descriptions of the fields and towns being destroyed, and of the people driven from their homes, not only in the articles in The Times, but also in the vision Sam sees in The Mirror of Galadriel, where the smoking chimney also appears:
Like a dream the vision shifted and went back, and he saw the trees again. But this time they were not so close, and he could see what was going on: they were not waving in the wind, they were falling, crashing to the ground.  
'Hi!' cried Sam in an outraged voice. 'There's that Ted Sandyman a-cutting down trees as he shouldn't. They didn't ought to be felled: it's that avenue beyond the Mill that shades the road to Bywater. I wish I could get at Ted, and I'd fell him!' 
But now Sam noticed that the Old Mill had vanished, and a large red-brick building was being put up where it had stood. Lots of folk were busily at work. There was a tall red chimney nearby. Black smoke seemed to cloud the surface of the Mirror. 
'There's some devilry at work in the Shire,' he said. 'Elrond knew what he was about when he wanted to send Mr. Merry back.' Then suddenly Sam gave a cry and sprang away. 'I can't stay here,' he said wildly. 'I must go home. They've dug up Bagshot Row, and there's the poor old gaffer going down the Hill with his bits of things on a barrow. I must go home!' 
(FR 2.vii.362-63)
Of course when Frodo and Sam finally do arrive home, they discover that Sam's vision of the ruin of their 'own country' has come true; it is in fact 'worse than Mordor' (RK 6.viii.1004, 1018). To survive the war only to confront this 'was one of the saddest hours in their lives' (RK 6.viii.1016). That great chimney fouling the air with its black smoke looms over them just as Vesuvius did over the surrounding countryside. On 16 March 1944 the people living near the volcano must have thought that, with the war and fascism behind them, they could 'have just a nice quiet time in the country' (RK 6.viii.1018), that life could return to normal.

Did the newsreels and reports out of Italy influence Tolkien's portrayal of Mordor and the post-war Shire? The image of the chimney belching black smoke suggests it might have done so, but smoking factory chimneys were not an unusual sight in his day, and a man from Birmingham with his likes and dislikes would not have had far to go to come up with such an image. That Britain had already suffered extensive destruction from Nazi bombs, far more than it had during the first war when the necessary 'machines' were in their infancy, would have encouraged such a comparison. This is especially true since Italy itself had suffered from Allied strategic bombing, of which he disapproved: 'So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom!' (Letters, no. 75); 'But it is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain' (Letters, no. 100). Despite his admiration for the courage of the RAF's pilots and crews, and despite his son Christopher's serving in it, Tolkien found himself at odds with the idea of the RAF (Letters, no. 100).

To make a connection between England and the destruction of Vesuvius was no hard matter, as we may see in the recently published letter of an eyewitness, Ray Small, who was a wireless operator for British Intelligence at the time. He wrote home to his parents of what he'd seen:

In San Sebastiano they said there was a deathlike quiet except for a faint gurgle as the black crust of the lava broke and a mass of white-hot rock oozed out to advance a few more yards. About a third of the town had already gone; where it had stood was nothing but a big slag heap of lava, and a memory. Of the houses and shops that were there, neither stick nor stone remained in sight and would perhaps never see the light of day again. Bombs make a terrific row and leave ruins. Lava makes no sound and leaves – nothing. 
Can you imagine a 10 to 30 foot mass of molten rock slowly engulfing Wembley High Street, and, when it is all over, not a stone was left in sight? Sounds crazy, but that’s the way it is. The lava slowly approaches a building, the heat setting it on fire, and starts seeping through doors and windows like a lot of thick treacle. The lava continues to flow in as into a mould, until the pressure of thousands of tons of molten rock becomes too much, and the building collapses, sinking through the thin crust and disappearing for ever. 
(The Telegraph, 28 March 2014)

Finally, even if all we have here is a parallel, examining the two underlines how very close to the 'real' world Tolkien's fantasy can come. The fire and smoke of Vesuvius may be reflected in those of Mt. Doom and the smoking chimney, just as the fires of Coventry, which Tolkien glimpsed over the horizon on the night of 14 November 1940**, may be seen again in the words of Aragorn when saw 'the red glow under the cloud': 'Minas Tirith is burning' (RK 5.ix.877). For Tolkien, to have the hobbits find Mordor and its works in the Shire is as essential as having Sam find humanity in the dead enemy warrior:

It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace .... 
(TT 4.iv.661)



Refugees from Vesuvius 1944 by George Rodger


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So much for flying the Ring into Mordor.

** See Scull and Hammond (2017) 1.261 : '14 November 1940 Working late, Tolkien sees an ever-increasing fiery glow on the horizon. On 15 November he will learn that Coventry, only forty miles away, had been devastated by German incendiary raids and 1,000 people killed. The bombing of London and other major cities in Britain will continue into 1942.'

18 April 2018

Candles of the Grail, Candles of the Corpses

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery


Recently I've been reading Richard Barber's The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, and the other day I came across an intriguing passage. Barber is speaking of Wauchier's Second Continuation of Chrétien's Story of the Grail.  In doing so, he quotes from Wauchier (of which I have not yet seen a copy, but it will soon be in the mail):
Percival encounters the Grail without knowing it when he sees five lights like candles in the forest at the dead of night, 'so bright and clear that it seemed that the great, dense forest was lit up and blazing with their light on every side.' He learns the next day that this was a sign of the presence of the Grail....
(Barber, 32)
What caught my attention was the combination of Percival's quest to attain the Grail and the lights he sees in a wilderness. They find a mirror image parallel in the 'candles of corpses' Frodo, Sam, and Gollum see in the Dead Marshes on his quest to lose a treasure:

'What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.’ 
(FR 1.iii.66)
Presently it grew altogether dark: the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe. When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes: he thought his head was going queer. He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands. But neither of his companions spoke a word. 
(TT 4.ii.627)
In the one scene the candles light a nightmare of evil and a sorcerous illusion, in the other a blessed vision of darkness banished by the real presence of the Grail. Did Tolkien know this scene in Wauchier? It's not unreasonable to suppose that he did, but I have yet to find any proof. A curious parallel is all it may be, but worth noting nonetheless. 

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16 April 2018

The 'Lame' Sovereignty of Melkor and Man -- Disability and Power in 'The Children of Húrin'


Fingolfin's Challenge © John Howe 2003


Plutarch's Agesilaos tells the story of a power struggle for the throne of ancient Sparta. When Agis II died in 400, his younger brother, Agesilaos challenged the claim of Agis' son, Leotychides, on the grounds that he was illegitimate. When it was objected that Agesilaos could not succeed his brother because he had a limp, and a prophecy warned that Sparta should beware lest 'lame kingship' (χωλὴ βασιλεία) harm the state, which till then had been 'sound of foot' (ἀρτίποδος; Ages. 3.3-4), by dint of superior cleverness -- and no doubt better politicking -- the cause of Ageslaos prevailed, arguing that the real 'lame kingship' would result from an illegitimate heir taking the throne (Ages. 3.5).

Here we see the word χωλή (khōlé) employed as an insult both literally and metaphorically, to suggest that the person or thing so described is impaired and therefore inferior to the 'sound of foot.' 'Lame' in English is similar in its range and potential for giving offense. A brain or an idea can be as 'lame' as a leg. The simpler, physical meaning, even if never wholly free from negative connotations, gives rise to the metaphorical and is then eclipsed by it. Clearly this has been going on since at least the time of Homer, centuries before the events of which Plutarch speaks:

ἄσβεστος δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐνῶρτο γέλως μακάρεσσι θεοῖσιν
ὡς ἴδον Ἥφαιστον διὰ δώματα ποιπνύοντα. 
(Iliad 1.599-600) 
Unquenchable laughter was roused in the blessed gods
When they saw Hephaistos bustling through the palace.

And why does the sight of Hephaistos bustling stir up such laughter, and why is it marked by the particle ἄρα, which signifies that their laughter is what was after all only to be expected? Because he is 'περικλυτὸς ἀμφιγυήεις / Ἥφαιστος', 'famous Hephaistos, lame in both feet' (Iliad 1.607-08).

Turning from Plutarch and Homer to Shakespeare, we see the magnificent villain, Richard III, revelling in and despising the stigma which his limp inflicts upon him (1.1.12-31). We can see it elsewhere, too, spread across his comedies, tragedies, and histories as well as the sonnets and other poems (see here). However much Tolkien may have preferred Old English and Old Norse, he was far from ignorant of Homer and Shakespeare; a knowledge of the history of the Greeks in the fifth and fourth centuries and a familiarity with the Lives of Plutarch would have also been normal for an educated man of his day (cf. C.S. Lewis, Letters, of 13 May 1917, 11 January 1939, 12 October 1940, 1 January 1949).

So, if an author like Tolkien introduces a character affected by a physical disability, the author may well be using that particular disability to suggest something. When that author introduces a second character with the same disability, it becomes difficult to claim that the author is not suggesting something. But when the author brings in a third such character in a pivotal role, we have only ourselves to blame if we fail to see that some point is being made. Thus we have The Children of Húrin, in which Tolkien gives us three characters who have a limp.

Early in the tale we meet Sador. Maimed by an accident while cutting wood, and thus unable to serve Húrin, his lord, as a fighting man, Sador works as a servant in his household, making and repairing things (40-41). Morwen and Húrin treat him with indulgence, though they believe he could spend his time better than he does (49-50, 72). Young Túrin, however, loves him and spends much time talking to him and learning things about life he has not learned from his parents. He affectionately calls Sador 'Labadal', that is, 'Hopafoot', which in his childlike way Túrin means as an endearment, and at which Sador takes no offense because he knows that it is meant 'in pity not scorn' (41). Yet Labadal is Túrin's first attempt at naming, the first of many he will make in his life, and it succeeds, to the extent that it does at all, only because Sador is wise enough not to take offense at its misapprehension of reality. 'Labadal' is the beginning of a series of names through which Túrin comes to challenge the world around him, culminating in Turambar, Master of Fate.

It is late in the tale, when Túrin comes to Brethil where he will give himself the last of his names, Turambar, the Master of Fate, that Brandir enters the story, the second of the limping characters in The Children of Húrin. Unlike Sador, Brandir's disability arises from 'a leg broken in a misadventure in childhood' (193), but it also unfitted him for war, especially since he was already 'gentle in mood'. Like Sador, Brandir has more interest in wood than metal (41, 72, 193), with which we may contrast the importance of metal, both practically and symbolically, in Túrin's life -- the knife which he gives Sador as a gift, the dragon-helm that declares his identity as rightful Lord of Dor-Lómin, and the black sword with which he kills Glaurung, Brandir, and himself. Unlike Sador, however, Brandir is the lord of his people, a people at war whom he cannot lead in battle, which is of course his role.

Both Sador and Brandir also have crucial roles to play with Túrin's sisters. It is to Sador that the young Túrin turns when his beloved sister, Lalaith (Laughter), dies in childhood as a result of a plague sent by Morgoth (40-44). It is from Sador that Túrin first learns about the inevitability of death as the fate of all Men. It is from Brandir, on the other hand, that he learns that 'the feet of his doom were overtaking him' in his tragic ignorant marriage to Níniel (Maid of Tears), his 'twice-beloved' sister (250-56). And just as he had called Sador 'Labadal' in love and pity, he now calls Brandir 'club-foot' and a 'limping evil' in wrath and scorn. And just as 'Hopafoot' had told him of all that Men could learn from the Elves, it is the elf Mablung who teaches him the truth of 'Club-foot's' words. From the bewept Laughter to the beloved Maid of Tears, from the dear Hopafoot to the despised Club-foot, from the lore Men can acquire from Elves to the lesson of doom that Mablung brings, these two characters and their lameness frame this tale, both narratively by appearing at its beginning and end, and tragically by their involvement in and commentary on the life not only of Túrin, but of Man overall.

With lameness so interwoven into Túrin's tragic tale, it is impossible not to think of Oedipus and his tragic tale, which of course Tolkien himself openly acknowledged as a source of 'elements' in The Children of Húrin's (Letters, no. 131). Dimitra Fimi, moreover, has analyzed these 'elements' in her excellent '"Wildman of the Woods": inscribing tragedy on the landscape of Middle-earth in The Children of Húrin', where she comments:
Túrin is not lame or maimed himself, but two important characters in his tale are so afflicted: Sador [...] for whom young Túrin feels pity; and Brandir [...] whose position Túrin usurps as an able-bodied warrior. In Oedipus' case lameness is a sign of his real identity, while Túrin's reaction to lameness shows his change from sensitive youth to rash warrior, who associates the wilderness with aggression in order to channel his dangerous wrath. 
(Fimi, 55)
While I wholly agree with Fimi about 'Túrin's reaction' -- indeed he had previously usurped the authority of Orodreth at Nargothrond, whose leadership is also weak and who could be seen as metaphorically lame when viewed alongside Brandir's (CoH 160-65, 171-76) -- I would argue that there is more to be said about lameness in The Children of Húrin. Indeed, as Fimi has shown, the correspondences between the two stories are extensive. For anyone familiar with Oedipus, that Túrin himself is not lame is immediately noticeable but not necessarily noteworthy. After all, as Tolkien also pointed out,  Túrin owes 'elements' to Sigurd and Kullervo as well (Letters, no. 131). Yet the development of lameness as a metaphor through not two but three other characters who play important roles in Túrin's life indicates that Tolkien was after something bigger here. Considering the third of these characters will help us see what that is.

For Morgoth is the third character, whose malice towards Húrin and his family drives the tale as much as Túrin himself does. Curiously, slyly, Tolkien never openly says in The Children of Húrin that as a result of his duel with Fingolfin 'Morgoth went ever halt of one foot after that day, and the pain of his wounds could not be healed' (Silm. 154). He does, however, emphasize that 'Morgoth hated and feared the House of Fingolfin, because they had scorned him in Valinor and had the friendship of Ulmo his foe; and because of the wounds that Fingolfin gave him in battle' (CoH 60, italics mine). Note the construction of this sentence. Rather than say that he hated Fingolfin's house because of a, b, and c, which would be the common way of phrasing it, Tolkien says that he hated them because of a and b -- pause (thus, the semicolon) -- and because of c. He thus quite literally singles out the final reason and signals through the balance of the sentence that this reason is of special importance, perhaps even of equal importance. And of the eight wounds which Fingolfin inflicted on Morgoth, the only one specifically named is the last, the wound that maimed his foot.


Morgoth punishes Hurin © Ted Nasmith
So, we have seen how the lameness of Sador and Brandir is meaningfully interwoven with Túrin's misfortunes. How does Morgoth's matter? It undermines the claims to unrivaled position and power he makes in his verbal duel with Húrin, whom he can dominate and destroy, but never daunt (CoH 61-65). In this respect Húrin's encounter with Morgoth parallels Fingolfin's. They both defy, though in different ways, a power by whom they are outmatched. Yet their linked defiance refutes their defeat and marks the inner deficiency in Morgoth which his outer disability exemplifies. Their defeat may be inevitable, but so is his; and because he is cruel and cowardly and selfish, Morgoth's defeat is a refutation of all that he claims. In the end his shall prove to be a 'lame' sovereignty. For as Ilúvatar told him before the beginning:
'And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.'
(Silm. 17)
No matter Morgoth's boast to Húrin that he is 'the Master of the fates of Arda', he is not, no more than Túrin 'Turambar' is the 'Master of Doom' that he claims to be (CoH 65, 196, 218, 243-44). Their positions are analogous. Though each of them is powerful, neither one can finally prevail in thought or strength against one who is in turn mightier than he. The connections we see here between Morgoth and Túrin also call to mind another passage:

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said: ''These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.' Yet the Elves believe that Men are often a grief to Manwë, who knows most of the mind of Ilúvatar; for it seems to the Elves that Men resemble Melkor most of all the Ainur, although he has ever feared and hated them, even those that served him. 
(Silm. 42)

© Alan Lee


There is more to be said here, I believe, more to be explored at length in greater detail, and I hope to turn to that before long. For now, however, it seems clear that the 'lameness' that surrounds Túrin and connects him and Men in general to Morgoth shows, directly in Morgoth and by reflection in Túrin, what Shakespeare might have called 'a will most incorrect to heaven' (Hamlet 1.2.101) and Homer, Sophocles, and Plutarch hybris. In such a case it is little wonder that, when Mablung arrives like the fateful messenger in Oedipus Tyrannos, and says to Túrin that the years 'have been heavy on you', he receives the reply (CoH 253):
'Heavy!' said Túrin. 'Yes, as the feet of Morgoth.'

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21 March 2018

Icarus, Bruegel, Auden

Detail of "Icarus", by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
    walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
    life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
W. H. Auden (1939)





Many thanks to @EFLOxford for tweeting Auden's poem out this morning on World Poetry Day.

20 March 2018

'You are grown up now' (RK 6.vii.996)

'I am with you at present,' said Gandalf, 'but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.
(RK 6.vii.996)
Gandalf is quite right of course. When the four hobbits arrive to discover the evil that has been at work in the Shire during their absence, they handle it quickly and deftly, restoring the quiet anarchy* which had reigned there for as long as anyone could remember. They make not a single misstep. In The Scouring of the Shire the hobbits rescue themselves.

How different this all is from the first steps of their journey when -- as we were discussing recently on Exploring the Lord of the Rings -- they had to be rescued almost every day, by Gildor and his company, twice by Tom Bombadil, and finally by Strider in Bree. Even before they leave Bag End, they are saved from a Black Rider by the Gaffer's ignorance that Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are still there. Then, too, at Bucklebury Ferry, aided by Farmer Maggot and his wagon, they make it across the Brandywine just before the arrival of a Black Rider. So chance, perhaps, or direct intervention save them repeatedly. Indeed the only day they do not have a close call is the day they spend safely  under Tom Bombadil's roof, going nowhere. From Bag End to the common room at The Prancing Pony they fail to grasp the caution that is required by the perils they face. They are not yet afraid enough, as Strider points out (FR 1.x.165). Their immaturity, to borrow Gandalf's metaphor, is in keeping with their current romantic and unrealistic understanding of what an 'adventure' is. In the same way, the maturity they gain from the real griefs they suffer on their 'adventures' balances the ending of the tale against its beginning.

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* On this kind of anarchy, see Letters, no. 52 (italics mine): 'My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)....' To be sure, Tolkien is on a bit of a rant in this letter to his son, Christopher, and so his opinion here need not be taken as a considered one, but anarchy of this kind is precisely what we see in the Shire.


04 March 2018

'I sit beside the fire and think' -- Home, Hearth, Hobbits



For Tolkien Reading Day, 25 March 2018

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been; 
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see. 
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know. 
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.


Ever since the first time I read 'I sit beside the fire and think' as a young boy, it's been my favorite. It has always spoken to me of home, just as I think it does to Bilbo, but it speaks in a more complex and poignant way than most other hobbit songs.

Of these, Pippin's 'Sing hey! for the bath at close of day' (FR 1.v.101) is probably the most purely hobbit-like. In a simple meter -- iambic tetrameter, which seems characteristic of hobbit poetry* -- it embraces the beauty and pleasures of water in its various forms, but emphasizes the special joy and even nobility of the hot bath 'that washes the weary mud away'.  Few things could conjure a more comforting image of home than Water Hot which so thoroughly redeems our weariness that we end up playfully splashing water with our feet, or even, as in Pippin's case, creating a fountain.

Similarly in Three Is Company the hobbits sing a song -- 'Upon the hearth the fire is red' -- which begins and ends by evoking hearth and home, roof and bed (FR 1.iii.77-78). Yet Bilbo wrote the words to this song, and his experiences gave him a deeper perspective. '[N]ot yet weary are our feet' tells us that we are not ready for home and bed. Adventure and discovery await us before then. We never know where we may find 'the hidden paths that run / Towards the Moon or to the Sun'. All that we may meet on our journey, however, will in the end fade before the lights of hearth and lamp that summon us home to bed and board.

Immediately after the end of this song, however, the approach of a Black Rider impresses the dangers of the journey upon them. After their last near encounter earlier in the day the hobbits had seen Bilbo's warning about the perils of stepping out the front door take on new meaning, as it must when Ringwraiths show up down the lane. Adventures are too often 'not a kind of holiday ... like Bilbo's' (FR 1.ii.62), nor, as events at Crickhollow will show, do front doors keep all perils out (FR 1.xi.176-77).

We may also discover a little noticed counterpoint to the hobbits' song in the hymn** to Elbereth sung by the elves whose arrival drives off the Black Rider. The longing for their home '[i]n a far land beyond the Sea', which lies at this song's heart, balances the exile of the elves against the security the hobbits (wrongly) feel is their due in their own Shire (FR 1.iii.83). Though the elves know where to find those 'hidden paths', they linger 'in this far land beneath the trees.' Their 'chance meeting' with Frodo, who regards his own journey as a flight into 'exile' for himself and his companions, brings face to face those whose age-long exile is nearly over with one who senses that his home will soon be forever lost to him, if indeed it has not already been lost.

If we take a further step back towards that home, we come to the first song that Frodo sings, Bilbo's 'The road goes ever on and on', which he recalls, not from conscious memory, but from some deeper place beyond all names. Yet, as many have remarked, Frodo's version differs in a single word from the one Bilbo recited as he left Bag End seventeen years earlier. Bilbo sets off on the road, 'pursuing it with eager feet'  (FR 1.i.35), but Frodo's feet are 'weary' from the start (FR 1.iii.73). Recall 'the weary mud' in Pippin's bath song, to be washed off at journey's end. Recall the 'not yet weary' feet of Bilbo's walking song. These songs better suit the 'eager' feet of Bilbo, who embraces both journey and journey's end: 'I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains' (FR 1.i.33). That Frodo has a different attitude towards his journey is part of the tragic situation in which he finds himself, for which the Ring is largely, though perhaps not solely, to blame. Like Merry, who 'loved the thought of [mountains] marching on the edge of stories brought from far away', Frodo may have 'longed to shut out [their] immensity in a quiet room by a fire' (RK 5.iii.x.791). If  so, that was not to be.

Bilbo's embrace of journey and journey's end alike is also visible in 'I sit beside the fire and think', yet this poem is also firmly tied to the idea of hearth and home by the repetition of the initial line to begin the third and fifth quatrains and the variation of it in the first line of the last. It is the song of someone whose days of adventure are over, but for whom memory and reflection on the time he spent journeying enrich the life he now lives by hearth and home. Nor need we think of this poem as applying only to Bilbo in his years in Rivendell, where he introduces us to the poem. We can also easily imagine it across the decades he spent in the Shire after his return, dawdling with his book, walking the countryside with Frodo and talking of adventure, 'learning' young Sam Gamgee his letters and telling him tales of the Elves. The walking song he composed the words to, the evolution and distillation of 'The road goes ever on' from the poem we first see at the end of The Hobbit, and his meditations on the 'dangerous business' of stepping out of one's home and into the road, all point to the close connection between 'there' and 'back again'. So, too, does his exchange with Sam and Frodo at Rivendell:
'Books ought to have good endings.[said Bilbo] How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?'  
'It will do well, if it ever comes to that,' said Frodo. 
'Ah!' said Sam. 'And where will they live? That's what I often wonder.' 
(FR 2.iii.273-74)
And Bilbo's last quatrain, especially its final words, is significant in that it comes after the bow to approaching death in 'a spring that I shall never see'. For tales goes on despite death.  With 'I listen for returning feet / and voices at the door' Bilbo also accepts that his part in the tale has already ended and that others will carry it on and bring the word of their journeys back to him. In just this way he awaits the return of Sam and Frodo. In this way, too, Sam and Frodo, who both finally expect not to survive their quest, imagine that their part in the great tale in which they have found themselves will come to an end for them, but that others will have their own parts to play later on. It is no accident that the book itself ends with Sam at home in his chair by the fire. 

At the last, that is what all the tales are about.


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'I sit beside the fire and think' is not in iambic tetrameter, but in alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which is more characteristic of Elvish poetry, and likely shows the influence of such poetry on Bilbo.

** If alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter distinguish Elvish poetry, one may rightly ask why the hymn to Elbereth is not in this meter, or in the single lines of heptameter which also occur (e.g., 'Nimrodel'). The answer lies in the fact that the song is mediated through the understanding of the hobbits -- as the text explicitly says at FR 1.iii.83: 
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...



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All citations reference the single volume fiftieth anniversary edition of The Lord of the Rings, Houghton Mifflin (2004).

16 February 2018

And thus was Númenor avenged (RK 6.iii.947)

"Queen Tar-Miriel and the Great Wave" © Ted Nasmith


That Tolkien had a recurring dream of a great green wave rushing across the land, which informed his description of the drowning of Númenor, is well known (Letters nos. 131, 163, 180, 257, 276). Indeed the paragraph describing the last moments of Númenor is remarkable for its beauty and its sorrow.
In an hour unlooked for by Men this doom befell, on the nine and thirtieth day since the passing of the fleets. Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea, with all its children and its wives and its maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and its balls and its towers, its tombs and its riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its lore: they vanished for ever. And last of all the mounting wave, green and cold and plumed with foam, climbing over the land, took to its bosom Tar-Míriel the Queen, fairer than silver or ivory or pearls. Too late she strove to ascend the steep ways of the Meneltarma to the holy place; for the waters overtook her, and her cry was lost in the roaring of the wind.
(Silm. 279)

Tonight I once again reached the fall of Barad-dûr in The Return of the King and noticed, as if for the first time, a link between the two passages. Given the importance of the image of the wave to Tolkien, it seems hard to see it otherwise:

A brief vision he had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed. Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down upon the land. 
(RK 6.iii.947, italics mine)

Elsewhere I have noted that the Mouth of Sauron has (just) sneered at Aragorn by reminding him of Númenor 'the downfallen'.  It seems particularly apt then that we find the downfall of Sauron, who did so much to entice the Númenóreans to their destruction, quietly mocked in such similar terms. 


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13 February 2018

'untouchable now by pity' -- Frodo on the slopes of Mt Doom (RK 6.iii.944)




Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. 
(RK 6.iii.944)

The disturbing description of Frodo in this passage is fascinating. Frodo is now ‘a figure’, an 'it', not Frodo himself. He is ‘untouchable now by pity’, which given Gandalf’s emphasis on the crucial role of Pity (FR 1.ii.59), can only be a bad thing. That a commanding voice -- whose? -- speaks out of the fire blurs the distinction between Frodo and the Ring, the 'wheel of fire' which he has declared to be the only thing that he can see any more (RK 6.ii.919; iii.938). Indeed they now seem one, though whether it matters any longer whether Frodo has claimed the Ring or the Ring Frodo may be impossible to say.  What of “robed in white”? Gandalf is now robed in white, though Frodo doesn't know that. So was Saruman before he lost his way. Most importantly, perhaps, Galadriel wears white, while black is the color of Sauron and his servants. Is this the nearly fallen Frodo’s vision of himself that we are seeing? Like Galadriel’s projection of herself as a ruling queen? Yet she knew it would all end in despair.

In answer to these questions the text is silent. Yet it is Sam who takes up the Pity that the figure of Frodo has laid down (RK 6.iii.944).

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24 January 2018

The Last Word on Adventure -- TT 3.viii.711




'I guess that you have been having adventures, which is not quite fair without me.' 
Merry Brandybuck, A Conspiracy Unmasked

One of the more marked differences between the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the initial attitude of the main characters towards the prospect of 'adventure.' Bilbo, as we recall, responded quite unfavorably when Gandalf tried to recruit him for one:  'We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,' (Hobbit 12).  By the time that Frodo has reached the age at which 'adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo' (FR 1.ii.43.), however, the tales of Bilbo's exploits have taught at least some of the younger hobbits connected to him to see things differently.  Merry (FR 1.iv.102, quoted above), Pippin (FR 1.iv.104), and Sam (FR 1.iv.99), all look gleefully forward to the adventure upon which they are embarking with Frodo, even is they also realize there must also be darkness and danger for it to be an adventure:
'Three cheers for Captain Frodo and company!’ they shouted; and they danced round him. Merry and Pippin began a song, which they had apparently got ready for the occasion.  
It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune....
(FR 1.iv.106)
Frodo, however, who would love to go on just such an adventure as Bilbo's, is gloomily aware that his journey is quite unlikely to be one (FR 1.ii.62; cf. 1.iii.77, and note the capital A): 
‘Of course, I have sometimes thought of going away, but I imagined that as a kind of holiday, a series of adventures like Bilbo’s or better, ending in peace. But this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me.

In fact Frodo fully expects his journey 'there' to have no 'back again' (FR 1.iii.66). Even so, neither he nor any of the others ever guessed that their adventures might involve fighting before Tom Bombadil handed them the swords from the barrow (FR 1.viii.146). Had Old Tom not rescued them, again, they would have all 'come to the end of [their] adventure' (FR 1.viii.140) then and there. All the hobbits then, including the more mature and sober Frodo, approach their journey with a certain naivete. 

In keeping with this it is no surprise to find that in The Lord of the Rings 'adventure' overwhelmingly records or reports the attitudes of the hobbits towards Bilbo's journey or their own. Of the twenty-eight instances of the word, only twice does a character who is not a hobbit use it. Glóin does so, but he is speaking to Frodo of his experiences on the road to Rivendell (FR 2.i.228). Gandalf alone employs it of the exploits of those who are not hobbits, when he says rather grimly of the Dúnedain: 'It may be that this War of the Ring will be their last adventure' (FR 2.i.221), an assessment haunted by the prospect of no 'back again'.

It is also no surprise that after the Company leaves Rivendell, by which time even Sam's 'desire for adventure was at its lowest ebb' (FR 2.iii.280), the word occurs only four more times. The first three are quite matter of fact, without the least air of Adventure. Once the Company are discussing their 'adventures' with each other as they seek to decide whether to go to Mordor or Minas Tirith (FR 2.x.402). Merry and Pippin then speak of their 'adventures' when Treebeard bids them to tell him their tale (TT 3.iv.471). Frodo, too, narrates the 'adventures' of the Company when he meets Faramir in Ithilien (TT 4.vi.677). The journey to Rivendell, the seemingly hopeless quest begun there, the shattering loss of Gandalf, Boromir's near fall and his self-sacrifice, have forced a shift in perspective on the hobbits. To sit at Bilbo's feet as children and with kindling eyes hear him speak of the brave deaths of Thorin and Fíli and Kíli is one thing; to watch their friends and comrades die -- even die heroically -- is quite another. Now they have not only have they known adventure, but the loss that too often comes with it, even before they have reached the most challenging parts of their journey. 

And it is precisely in the moment before Sam and Frodo plunge into the worst part of their adventure that the last use of word comes.
The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.
(TT 4.viii.711, italics mine)
Their growth as characters is reflected in their evolving understanding of the very words they use. Step by step on their journey they leave behind both the conceptions they had, and the hobbits they were, when they began, which makes Sam's thoughts as he crosses the Brandywine for the first time seem almost prophetic: 
Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before. He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front. 
(FR 1.iv.99)
And, as is the way of prophecy, he had no idea how true it was.

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03 January 2018

Etymology is Destiny, Saruman, Saruman





As many are aware, Tolkien derived the name 'Saruman' from Old English. The entry in Bosworth- Toller for searu starts with ambiguity (I.) and moves straight to the 'bad sense' (II.). The good sense (III.) comes in a distant and by comparison feeble third, all the examples of which are adverbial uses of the instrumental case. searwum, 'skillfully, ingeniously, with art'. Amid the wealth of marvelous, damning examples under sense II. we find right near the end of the section a quote from the Blickling Homilies (173.8) in which St. Peter tells St. Paul of Simon Magus and recounts

'Hwylce searwa se drý árefnde what artifices the sorcerer practised'




So while it is true to say that searu can be either negative or positive, the surviving evidence indicates that negative is the far more common meaning. When we also consider that the word is so frequently ambiguous that this uncertainty merits the first place in the dictionary entry, it seems a fitting source for the name of a wizard who, even as his 'wickedness' was 'laid bare' (TT 3.ix.567), had proclaimed himself no longer Saruman the White, but 'Saruman of Many Colours' (FR 2.ii.259):
'I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.'
Since Tolkien named him Saruman from his first appearance in his plot outlines (Treason 70, 72-73), his character and his fate were coeval with his name.

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