18 September 2018

Houses of Mirth and Lamentation

Copyright Donato Giancola

A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.' 
A sword rang as it was drawn. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.' 
'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!' 
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. 
 (RK 5.vi.841)

(Okay, this post is going to be nowhere near as charming as Jerry Burns' Mathom-House post from a couple of days ago.)

The houses of lamentation just sound so KJV, and Dernhelm's laughter is like something out of a Viking saga. (See Tom Shippey's marvelous new book, Laughing Shall I Die: The Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings.) But it's the juxtaposition of the two, and the Witch-king's calling her a fool that has long made me wonder if there was something else Tolkien was playing off in this scene besides Macbeth

The notion struck me when I first read one of my other favorite books, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, the title of which comes from Ecclesiastes 7.4. The KJV renders this verse:

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

If Tolkien is recalling the Bible here, he is using it expertly and ironically to undercut the Witch-king. For of course he is the fool here, not Éowyn who will have the last laugh when she finds happiness in the Houses of Healing.



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