28 November 2019

Call for Papers






1/4/2020 -- 4/4/2020

In few areas do the people of today feel inferior to their predecessors and ancestors. Paradoxically, or not, the most educated among us are most prone to perceive themselves inadequate in comparison to the scholars of times past. Who has not looked upon the vast sweep of the works of a Grimm or Mommsen -- let alone Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Mommsen's son-in-law -- and wondered how they accomplished so much so well? 

The Interdisciplinary Symposium of Berlin is pleased to announce a call for papers to be presented at its inaugural conference in April 2020. The topic will be:

The Roots of 21st Century Academic Impostor Syndrome 
The Footnotes of 19th Century German Scholarship

Abstracts of no more than 150 words, not counting footnotes*, are to be laid at the feet of the statue of Theodor Mommsen at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin no later than tomorrow morning.

Mommsen's study

*Endnotes strictly forbidden.

13 November 2019

Almost the touch was a caress -- TT 4.viii.714

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing. 
(TT 4.viii.714)

This paragraph is so remarkable rhetorically that examining it in great detail will repay the effort. Let's take it a sentence at a time.

1. Gollum looked at them. (4)

2. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face.(9)

3. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. (15)

4. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. (28)

5. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee – but almost the touch was a caress. (24)

6. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.(51)

By separating the sentences as I have done, something becomes immediately clear even without counting the words. Five sentences out of the six are significantly longer than the sentences before them. But the sentences do not just get longer. They become more complicated.

The first sentence has a subject, a verb, and a prepositional phrase. The second has the same structure, but by the addition of two adjectives it evokes an archetypal figure of treachery to a benefactor -- 'Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look' (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 1.2.195). The third sentence begins exactly as the first two did (subject, verb, prepositional phrase), but adds a second coordinate clause, with four adjectives in rhythmic alliterative pairs to expand upon the first clause. In doing so, the third sentence answers the suggestion of the second: Gollum's lightless eyes reveal only weariness and age.

The fourth sentence is not just compound, but in its second part becomes complex, using three subordinate clauses ('peering...shaking...as if....') to illuminate the action of its first half. It anticipates the betrayal the reader knows is coming and seems to recapitulate silently the debate Sam overheard in the Dead Marshes.

'Then he came back’, the first four words of the fifth sentence, act like a hinge at the paragraph's center, pivoting the Tale away from treachery, and towards the repentance if not the redemption, which the complex, heavily modified second clause and the blunt, breathtaking third declare to be possible at this instant. The dash before 'but' and the emphatic displacement of 'almost' draw the reader's attention like a manicule to the difference between the 'caress' of Gollum's 'trembling hand' here and the 'long fingers flexed and twitching, claw[ing] towards [Frodo's] neck' at the end of the earlier debate (TT 4.ii.634). Here, too, the betrayal hinted at by the 'interior debate' of the fourth sentence is answered by the 'almost the touch was a caress'.

The sixth sentence sweeps up all the long years of Gollum's life into one astonishingly poignant 'fleeting moment'. It depicts that moment for the reader by means of an exceptionally long and complex sentence in the form of a condition contrary to fact. It imagines a circumstance which did not arise and a sight which was not seen, except by the reader; and yet the reader's vision of Gollum here, echoing Bilbo's vision of Gollum in The Hobbit, feels right and true. Recall that the narrator of The Lord of the Rings is usually Frodo and sometimes Sam, not some omniscient third person. As the narrator tells us, they were both asleep. How then can the reader see this if they did not? (A fascinating question I will address elsewhere.) For the moment we will content ourselves with the thought that the prose here is so rhetorically powerful that it can persuade the readers that they have seen something which, except for the last gesture, no one in the book could have seen or told of. 


Here are a few nice touches to be found in this paragraph.

The first word is 'Gollum', and the last is 'thing', which in apposition with 'hobbit'.

Saying that Gollum was 'shrunken' by the years might be meant to call to mind the Cumaean Sibyl, who shrank as she lived on and on without dying.

The last four words -- 'old starved pitiable thing' -- may be scanned as a spondee, a dactyl, and a spondee, which gives a nice, rhythmic ending to the paragraph, a trick of ancient rhetoric Tolkien will have learned in school.

26 October 2019

Eärendil and Wade's Boat, Or, what do you mean you're not going to tell us the story?

Artwork copyright Donato Giancola

Alan and Shawn over at The Prancing Pony Podcast (which, if you don't already listen to it, why not?) have just published another excellent and fun new episode (# 141, "Starship Trooper") on Eärendil and the poem about him that Bilbo sings in Many Meetings (FR 2.i.233-36).

Crucial to the tale of Eärendil the Mariner is his ship, Vingelot or Vingelótë, without which Eärendil would have been stuck in a port on a western bay where lonely sailors pass the time away talking about their homes. The name Vingelot gives us a tantalizing and frustrating example of how very easily stories can be lost, likely forever.

In Chaucer's Merchant's Tale is a (for us) obscure reference to 'Wades bote' (IV E 1424). Wade, son of Weyland the Smith, evidently had many stories told about him in the Middle Ages, of which virtually all trace has vanished. The boat was named Guingelot, which is even closer to Vingelot than appears at first glance, since in Norman French the word would have been pronounced something like Wingelot or Wingelok (Skeat).

In his 1598 edition of Chaucer Thomas Speight commented upon this line, and Thomas Tyrwhitt in his 1775 edition was scathing about Speight's neglect, as quoted below:

Ver. 9298. Wades bote] Upon this Mr. Speght remarks, as follows: "Concerning Wade and his bote called Guingelot, as also his straunge exploits in the same, because the matter is long and fabulous, I passe it over." Tantamne rem tam negligenter?* Mr. Speght probably did not foresee, that Posterity would be as much obliged to him for a little of this fabulous matter concerning Wade and his bote, as for the gravest of his annotations. The story of Wade is mentioned again by our author in his Troilus, iii. 615. 

He songe, she playde, he tolde a tale of Wade.

It is there put proverbially for any romantic history; but the allusion in the present passage to Wades bote can hardly be explained, without a more particular knowledge of his adventures, than we are now likely ever to attain.

Tolkien, too, had many ideas about the 'straunge exploits' of Eärendil in his ship, the vast majority of which are known only, as with Wade, through comments and outlines (Lost Tales 2.252-277) and some thirty lines of poetry, in which Tuor, the father of Eärendil, is briefly called Wade (Lays 142):

'But Wade of the Helsings    wearyhearted'                     

 Upon which Christopher Tolkien comments (Lays 144):

The likeness of Guingelot to Wingelot is sufficiently striking; but when we place together the facts that Wingelot was Earendel's ship, that Earendel was Tuor's son, that Tuor was peculiarly associated with the sea, and that here 'Wade of the Helsings' stands in the place of Tuor, coincidence is ruled out. Wingelot was derived from Wade's boat, Guingelot as certainly, I think, as was Earendel from the Old English figure (this latter being a fact expressly stated by my father, II. 309).
Why my father should have intruded 'Wade of the Helsings' into the verses at this point is another question. It may conceivably have been unintentional - the words Wada Haelsingum were running in his mind (though in that case one might expect that he would have struck the line out and not merely written another line against it as an alternative): but at any rate the reason why they were running in his mind is clear, and this possibility in no way diminishes the demonstrative value of the line that Wingelot was derived from Guingelot, and that there was a connection of greater significance than the mere taking over of a name -- just as in the case of Earendel.


* 'so great a matter [handled] so negligently?'

12 October 2019

Review: The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent book, well-written and told in a compelling way. The narrator has a distinct voice and carries the tale in a way that most first-person narrators fail to do. She was interesting in herself, rather than merely interesting to herself. Most first person narrators make me think of Auden's line: 'Oh, miserable wicked me, how interesting I am!' Not Offred, who grows more interesting as her tale goes on, and who in time made me forget the question of how her society came to this point. The last page of her narrative reminded me strongly of the end of Matheson's I am Legend.

I found, however, that the anticlimactic 'Historical Note' that follows immediately afterwards severely lessens the impact of Offred's last scene. For me, it left a powerful moment with the aftertaste of disappointment. I would suggest not reading the 'Historical Note' at once, but let the ending sink in and resonate.

View all my reviews

05 October 2019

The Last Enchantment -- FR 2.viii.377

As they passed her they turned and their eyes watched her slowly floating away from them. For so it seemed to them: Lórien was slipping backward, like a bright ship masted with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they sat helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world. 
(FR 2.viii.377)
Up to this point in The Lord of the Rings the word 'enchantment' and forms of the verb 'enchant' are used synonymously, or nearly so, with 'spell'. Afterwards 'spell' has a negative meaning. A spell tricks or deceives or dominates those upon whom it is cast. The only time it may not do so is when Legolas, speaking of the Huorns, refers to 'the spell' of the forest (TT 3.viii.541). It is worth noting, however, that he is not affected by that spell, but Gimli's fear may well indicate that he is (TT 3.ix.549). At the very least Gimli could not be said to have a positive view of 'the spell of the forest'. 

Concomitant with this narrowing of the meaning of 'spell' is the near disappearance of 'enchant' or 'enchantment' from the text. Only one form of it occurs hereafter, referring to Saruman's voice -- 'Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment' (TT 3.x.578) -- and significantly that enchantment fails to attain its ultimate goal.

When Lothlórien begins to fade from Middle-earth, enchantment fades with it. While we could not say that only 'the deceits of the enemy' remain (FR 2.vii.362), this shift in usage is a harbinger of the passing of Faërie in Middle-earth.

31 August 2019

A Wizard or a Warrior -- But Why not Both?

'I am learning a lot about Sam Gamgee on this journey. First he was a conspirator, now he's a jester. He'll end up by becoming a wizard – or a warrior!' 
'I hope not,' said Sam. 'I don't want to be neither!'
FR 1.xii.208
But maybe both?
[Sam] felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
RK 6.i.901

Two passages nearly seven hundred pages apart tell us about the working of the Ring on the mind. Do the 'wild fantasies' now arising in Sam's mind reveal the role he imagined for himself as a boy when he was listening to Mr Bilbo telling, say, the tale of Gil-Galad, just as Boromir's fantasies about becoming king of Gondor reflect his childhood desire for the Stewards to ascend the throne (FR 2.x398; TT 4.v.670)? The pull of the Ring's power allows us to imagine the fulfillment of desires we already had somewhere within us, even if we had set them aside as childish things. 

18 August 2019

'When winter first begins to bite -- Echoes and Re-echoes of Chaucer at FR 2.iii.273

In The Road to Middle-earth Tom Shippey argues (184-85) that the poem Bilbo recites to Frodo in The Ring Goes South 'in rhythm and theme ... echoes the magnificent coda to Love's Labour's Lost' :

When winter first begins to bite
and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
'tis evil in the Wild to fare;
(FR 2.iii.273) 

When icicles hang by the wall
 And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,

(LLL 5.2) 
As far as rhythm and theme go there can be little argument, but I would suggest that we can say more here. For the words of Bilbo's poem echo the opening lines of þe Clerkes Compleinte, Tolkien's little known parody of the opening lines of Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Tolkien's Middle English original is followed by my rendering into Modern English:

þe Clerkes Compleinte 
Whanne þat Octobre mid his schoures derke
Þe erþe haþ dreint, and wetė windes cherke
& swoghe in naked braunches colde and bare,
& þ’oldė sonne is hennes longe yfare; 
The Clerk's Complaint 
When October with his showers dark
The earth has drowned, and wet winds creak
And sigh in naked branches cold and bare,
And the old sun has from here far fared;
The dark waters, the cracking stone and the creaking, naked branches, the cold of winter, the rhyme of bare and yfare tell the tale plainly: in composing Bilbo's verse Tolkien echoes his own echoes of Chaucer.* 

þe Clerkes Compleinte is most easily found in J. Fitzgerald's A "Clerkes Compleinte": Tolkien and the Division of Lit. and Lang. Tolkien Studies 6 (2009) 41-57.

I have not yet completed my research on this connection yet, so I am unsure whether someone else has already noted it. Even so, I believe it is interesting enough to mention.

17 August 2019

First Steps into Ithilien (TT 4.iv.648-52)

Another excerpt from To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power, a much longer work I am writing at present.

If much of what we have seen in the first three chapters of Book Four traces a descent for Frodo, the next three chapters will show his path turn upward again. For the pity he showed Gollum is Frodo at his best, and confirms the good opinion Gandalf and Bilbo have of him. Soon, though, and in the name of his quest he uses the Ring to dominate a Gollum whom he would not kill and could not set loose. With use, the burden of the Ring increases until in doubt and despair he terrorizes Gollum with the threat of what he, as master of the Precious, would compel him to do ‘in the last need’. This is Frodo at his worst. His vaunting of his power over Gollum here is little different than Boromir’s boast as he tried to seize the Ring: ‘For I am too strong for you, halfling’. That neither Boromir nor Frodo can make good on his threat reveals once more the deception that lies at the heart of any experience of the Ring.
The green memory of the Shire, stirred by Sam’s recitation of Oliphaunt in the choking wasteland before the Black Gate, marks a turning point. It allows Frodo to reclaim some of his humanity, and with it some small hope. For his wish that the ‘third time may turn the best’ desires more than the transactional trust that has subsisted between him and Gollum thus far, an outcome possible only if they also ‘find Sméagol’ and Gollum reclaims his humanity.
Parallel to Frodo’s ascent in these chapters is his departure from ‘the desolation that lay before Mordor’ and entry into ‘Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate’ which ‘kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness’ (TT 4.iv.650). No one who has read The Lord of the Rings with the least attention needs to be reminded of this shift, so aptly described in the two phrases just quoted: from a ‘desolation’, where ‘nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness’ (TT 4.ii.631) to a ‘garden … now desolate’, that is to say, a garden where no one lived.[1] Tolkien’s remarkable selection of the word ‘dryad’ here evokes the immanent loveliness of the land by conjuring the reader’s understanding of the minor deities who lived in the woodlands of Greek Mythology. When we recall that the Old English for ‘dryad’ was ‘ælfen’[2] and that the narrative has been hinting at fairy tales for some time, we can see that the relief and recovery Frodo first experienced upon hearing Sam recite the ‘old fireside rhyme’, Oliphaunt, will continue in Ithilien.[3] But there are no Elves in Ithilien. To Frodo and Sam its woodlands smell of ‘the uplands of the Northfarthing far away’, that is, they smell of home, unlike the woods through which Bilbo passed on his approach to Rivendell eighty year earlier (H 90-91). For the first time in quite a while the hearts of the hobbits are lightened.
Sam and Frodo also feel themselves ‘reprieved’ by being there (TT 4.iv.648-49). Again we encounter a remarkable choice of words. Tolkien uses ‘reprieve’ only here, at the beginning of a section which ends with another, more formal, reprieve, as Faramir and Frodo revisit the question of Gollum’s deserts; and in fact Faramir spares Frodo and Sam the full weight of the law of the land (TT 4.vi.689-93). For even to walk in Ithilien is a capital crime for those not in the service of Gondor. Given Frodo’s words to Gildor about walking ‘in our own Shire’  (FR 1.iii.83), it is likely a measure of the horrors from which they have just emerged that two hobbits of the benignly anarchic Shire do not see this situation as the world-turned-upside-down.
Yet it is just such a world, in which Sam prepares a bit of home-cooking for Frodo as he sleeps just uphill from ‘a pile of charred and broken bones and skulls’, a ‘place of dreadful feast and slaughter’ (TT 4.iv.651). Here, too, Sam and Gollum banter like old comrades about coneys and taters despite their dislike of each other. Both look upon the sleeping Frodo, Sam seeing the same light welling from within him more clearly than he had seen it – we now learn – back in Rivendell (TT 4.iv.652) and which then gave Gandalf the hope that Frodo would become ‘like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can’ (FR 2.i.223). What Gollum sees as he looks at Frodo over Sam’s shoulder we never learn – much as we never learn what Bilbo saw in Frodo’s face in Rivendell which led him to say ‘I understand now…. I am sorry’ (FR 2.i.232) – but if he sees the same light Sam does, he has also ‘shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound’ (TT 4.iv.652). Strikingly juxtaposed with Sam’s expression of love and the light of Frodo, it is a poignant reminder both of the isolation imposed by the Ring and the longing for ‘the sun on daisies’ that may lie long hidden even in the darkest heart.

[1] See OED ‘desolate’, adj. and noun, 5 and 6a,which ‘are often combined in actual use’.
[2] For discussion of ‘ælfen’, its use to translate Latin ‘dryas’, and its close kin ‘ælf’, see Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (2007). Page numbers to follow once I get home to my bookcase. 
[3] Besides Gollum’s ‘once upon a time’ (TT 4.iii.638), he speaks of ‘wonderful tales’ which ‘we used to tell in the evening, sitting by the banks of the Great River, in the willow-lands, when the River was younger too’ (TT 4.iii.641). These Sam answers with memories of tales the hobbits in the Shire knew, in particular the Oliphaunt (TT 4.iii.646-47). This leads Frodo to imagine a fairy-tale ending: Gandalf, whom he thinks dead, breaks down the Black Gate at the head of a thousand oliphaunts, which he believes mythical (TT 4.iii.647).

06 August 2019

Frodo, Boromir, and the Ring: Two Parallels in Characterization

Although we don't often think of Frodo and Boromir as alike, in critical situations with the Ring both react in similar ways.


These half-elves and wizards, they would come to grief perhaps. Yet often I doubt if they are wise and not merely timid.  
(FR 2.x.398, emphasis added)
But into Mordor ... had [Gandalf] ever journeyed there? And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. 
(TT 4.iii.644, emphasis added)



'Why not get rid of it? Why not be free of your doubt and fear? You can lay the blame on me, if you will. You can say that I was too strong and took it by force. For I am too strong for you, halfling,' he cried; and suddenly he sprang over the stone and leaped at Frodo.  
(FR 2.x.399, emphasis added)


'You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol you said. Do not say that again! Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire of it may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back. In the last need, Sméagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command. So have a care, Sméagol!'
(TT 4.iii.640, first emphasis original)
In the first set of passages both question the wisdom and courage of Gandalf, among others. In the second set both have violent responses to the question of possessing the Ring. Both are mistaken in their threats and opinions; and both are deceived by the pull of the Ring on their desires.

21 July 2019

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Best Preserved of All? (FR 2.i.225)

[Frodo] got out of bed and discovered that his arm was already nearly as useful again as it ever had been. He found laid ready clean garments of green cloth that fitted him excellently. Looking in a mirror he was startled to see a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered: it looked remarkably like the young nephew of Bilbo who used to go tramping with his uncle in the Shire; but the eyes looked out at him thoughtfully. 
'Yes, you have seen a thing or two since you last peeped out of a looking-glass,' he said to his reflection. 
(FR 2.i.225) 

In his discussion of this passage in Exploring the Lord of the Rings (episode 104, starting about 1:36:00) Corey Olsen argues that Frodo's address to his reflection in the second person foreshadows the split that develops within him because of the Ring, disconnecting him from this world. I think this is a point well made, but I think we might improve on his argument in one way. Seeing a reflection that looks much like his younger self from two decades earlier is not a sign that Frodo has been physically rejuvenated by his adventure and recovery from his Morgul wound, but a sign that he has been well-preserved by the Ring. While every fifty year old might wish to see his thirty year old self looking out of the mirror at him, that would be unnatural. If Frodo did not see this younger looking self the last time he gazed into a mirror, that is because he was overweight and out of shape. If Frodo now sees that much younger hobbit, and does not realize that his '(apparently) perpetual youth' is an outward sign of the effect the Ring is having on him, he is deceived. His youth is no less a deception of the Ring than his vision of Bilbo as a Gollum-like creature later this same evening. Frodo may find the one illusion more congenial than the other, but neither augurs well. Nor do they argue against the positive signs of growth and recovery to be seen in Frodo here. 

With the Ring, it's often one step up and two steps back.

14 July 2019

Lee's Myth: Susan Pevensie

Lee's Myth: Susan Pevensie: I was recently re-reading That Hideous Strength , and came across several passages that further underscore and buttress my views on Lewis&#3...

12 July 2019

Two Threats from Frodo

First let's take a look at two passages from Book Four

Things would have gone ill with Sam, if he had been alone. But Frodo sprang up, and drew Sting from its sheath. With his left hand he drew back Gollum’s head by his thin lank hair, stretching his long neck, and forcing his pale venomous eyes to stare up at the sky. 
‘Let go! Gollum,’ he said. ‘This is Sting. You have seen it before once upon a time. Let go, or you’ll feel it this time! I’ll cut your throat.’ 
Gollum collapsed and went as loose as wet string. Sam got up, fingering his shoulder. His eyes smouldered with anger, but he could not avenge himself: his miserable enemy lay grovelling on the stones whimpering. 
TT 4.i.614

About an hour after midnight the fear fell on them a third time, but it now seemed more remote, as if it were passing far above the clouds, rushing with terrible speed into the West. Gollum, however, was helpless with terror, and was convinced that they were being hunted, that their approach was known. 
‘Three times!’ he whimpered. ‘Three times is a threat. They feel us here, they feel the Precious. The Precious is their master. We cannot go any further this way, no. It’s no use, no use!’ 
Pleading and kind words were no longer of any avail. It was not until Frodo commanded him angrily and laid a hand on his sword-hilt that Gollum would get up again. Then at last he rose with a snarl, and went before them like a beaten dog. 
TT 4.iii.635

The second of these threats, which took place the night before they reached the Black Gate, is far different than the threat he made in the Emyn Muil. There Sam’s life was clearly in jeopardy, and Frodo’s response justified (TT 4.i.614). Yet had he simply struck Gollum down without warning in defense of Sam, not even Gandalf could have said that he was ‘eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for [his] own safety’ (TT 4.i.615). To use violence, however, or the threat of it merely to compel obedience is an act of terror more suited to an orc chieftain, like Uglúk in Book Three, or to a master of slaves, like Sauron, than it is like the brave hobbit who would not abandon his friends in the barrow a few months earlier, or who held out to Gollum the hope that Sméagol might be found again only a little while after he had threatened him to save Sam’s life. Between that threat and that hope came pity; between that hope and the latter threat came the increasing burden of the Ring, which was made to dominate others. Much is in flux within Frodo as the Ring pulls him one way and his sense of his mission pulls him the other. Within Gollum, too.*


*This paragraph is adapted from a chapter in a much larger work I am writing called (at least for now): To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power.

01 July 2019

'When we are enchanted' -- Mortal Men, Arda, and Faërie

The Light of Valinor © Ted Nasmith

In her paper, 'The Perilous Realm: Faërie and the Numinous in Tolkien', presented at Mythmoot VI this weekend, Emily Strand discussed this familiar passage from On Fairy-stories:

Now, though I have only touched (wholly inadequately) on elves and fairies, I must turn back; for I have digressed from my proper theme: fairy-stories. I said the sense “stories about fairies” was too narrow. It is too narrow, even if we reject the diminutive size, for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted

The question arose for me immediately: why do only 'mortal men' require enchantment to be 'contained' in Faërie? While I had written before about the mortal experience of Faërie in Middle-earth, I had never asked myself this question as far as I could recall. What came to mind at once was a passage from The Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth in Morgoth's Ring. There Finrod says to Andreth (MR 315):
'Now we Eldar are your kinsmen, and your friends also (if you will believe it), and we have observed you already through three lives of Men with love and concern and much thought. Of this then we are certain without debate, or else all our wisdom is vain: the fëar of Men, though close akin indeed to the fëar of the Quendi, are yet not the same. For strange as we deem it, we see clearly that the fëar of Men are not, as are ours, confined to Arda, nor is Arda their home.               
'Can you deny it? Now we Eldar do not deny that ye love Arda and all that is therein (in so far as ye are free from the Shadow) maybe even as greatly as do we. Yet otherwise. Each of our kindreds perceives Arda differently, and appraises its beauties in different mode and degree. How shall I say it? To me the difference seems like that between one who visits a strange country, and abides there a while (but need not), and one who has lived in that land always (and must). To the former all things that he sees are new and strange, and in that degree lovable. To the other all things are familiar, the only things that are, his own, and in that degree precious.' 

Fëa (pl. fëar) is the Quenya word for 'soul' or 'spirit'. Arda neither 'confines' the spirits of Men, nor is it their home. Men also seem to be the only creature or thing in Arda not naturally a part of Faërie. We alone require an enchantment to be 'contained' there. When viewed together, these two passages suggest that it is the nature of the fëar of Men which makes an enchantment necessary. They also suggest that Arda and Faërie once completely overlapped each other or were in fact the same place. Why would this no longer be so? The inevitable fading of Faërie with the coming of Men is part of it, especially as quickened by the removal of the Blessed Realm from Arda at the end of the Second Age.

These are just preliminary thoughts that I mean to follow up on, but I wanted to put them out there for now.

19 June 2019

Two -- No, Three Echoes of Vergil

In Book One of the Aeneid Venus comes in disguise to visit her son shortly after his battered fleet reaches the shores of North Africa. Not until the last moment does he realize who she is, but it's what tips him off that is of interest here:

Dixit et avertens rosea cervice refulsit
ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odorem
spiravere; pedes vestis defluxit ad imos;
et vera incessu patuit dea.  
She spoke and turning away blushed red as a rose,
And her ambrosial hair breathed forth a divine fragrance;
Her robe flowed down to the soles of her feet;
And by her stride was revealed a true goddess.*

The moment I first read that last line -- longer ago than I can believe possible, looking back at the wastrel lad that I was -- I immediately thought of my favorite line in Shakespeare's Sonnet 130:

'I grant I never saw a goddess go.'

Even if Shakespeare's Latin were as small as Ben Jonson thought it was, it would have included Book One of the Aeneid

Tonight I noticed something else about these lines, largely because a note in an edition of Book One I've been perusing pointed out that '"fragrance" was regularly associated with the presence of a deity.'** And that made me think of:

'"Hmmm! it smells like elves!" thought Bilbo....'
(Annotated Hobbit, 91)

Finally, there is part of Vergil's description of Charon:

iam senior, cruda deo viridisque senectus
'very old now, but for a god old age is fresh and green,' 

I have always loved (I believe) Fitzgerald's rendering: 'old age in the gods is green'.

And what strikes me as an echo in The Lord of the Rings:
'The countless years had filled [the trees of the Old Forest] with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green;' 
(FR 1.vii.130)

* The translations are meant to be serviceable, no more. 

** The note -- in Randall T. Ganiban's Vergil: Aeneid Book 1, Focus Publishing (2008) -- goes on to cite Euripides Hippolytus 1391 and Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 115.

30 May 2019

'Tolkien' -- Not Exactly A Film Review

When I heard the announcement of this film, I rolled my eyes and thought 'Oh, God, no.' Remembering the sandworms were-worms bursting from the earth in that last Hobbit movie, I could only view the prospect of a biopic with dread. We'll have Tolkien kicking a football into No-Man's Land, crying 'play up, play up', and storming the German trenches at the Somme on 1 July 1916, winning both the day and the war as he duels Herr Colonel Professor Doctor Melkor von Morgoth, the evil Prussian philologist, whom he kills by shouting 'Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput! (later used to such great effect in 1944). He thus also forever established the ascendancy of Lang over Lit, and won the hand of the fair Edith Bratt, whose raven hair and dancing skills had stirred such an evil lust in von Morgoth that he had precipitated the world into war by abducting her.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but you get my point: clearly I was not expecting the film to be anything but a disaster.

Much to my surprise, however, I liked it, when I saw it at a special screening in NYC in March. To be sure it got any number of chronological and factual details of Tolkien's life wrong, and I noticed them. Yet somehow they did not bother me as much as they had when Peter Jackson's films of The Lord of the Rings made similar mistakes about the events and characters of that tale. I found myself saying to myself, 'Well, a biopic is an adaptation, not a documentary. It is going after an impression of Tolkien's life that could not be satisfactorily communicated in two hours without some artistic license.' 

But this explanation did not work for me. There was something wrong with it, mostly because I had objected to so many of the adaptations made in Peter Jackson's films.So I kept thinking it over, and gathered but did not look at the reviews of others because I wanted to sort this on my own.  

I recognized that isn't adaptation I object to per se. Clearly different media have different narrative horizons and methods. What I liked about Tolkien was that the adaptations made in the film gave an impression of the man and of what was important to him and for his work, an impression that was right enough. Tolkien gave the gist of Tolkien, even if it departed from the true chronology and factual accuracy. 

Peter Jackson's films of The Lord of the Rings by contrast adapted Aragorn into some late 20th Century post-modern conflicted protagonist who has greatness thrust upon him, and in doing so got him entirely wrong. Aragorn is not a protagonist, but a hero, a warrior, and a king, the stuff of whom legends are made. (For heaven's sake, the dead follow his commands.) And while he may doubt whether he will succeed, he has no doubts about whether he wants to make the attempt. That is not the Aragorn Peter Jackson gave us. And despite Viggo Mortensen's fine performance, the gist of Aragorn is lacking in the Aragorn they gave him to play. That is where Jackson's films fail and Tolkien succeeds. One adaptation was right enough, and the other wasn't.

07 May 2019

and a spell / his voice laid on her

Again she fled, but swift he came.
Tinuviel! Tinuviel!
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her:  
(FR 1.xi.192)
I can think of no other instance of a human enchanting, or appearing to enchant, a fairy, except for this:
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again:
Mine ear is much enamour'd of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee. 
(MND 3.1.130-34)

I am just going to leave this here. It's just something I noticed in the middle of the night. It reminds me of what Tolkien does with Birnam Wood and 'No man of woman born'.

I would love to hear of other instances.

01 May 2019

Still on my Precious (FR 1.ii.47)

'Though [Bilbo] had found out that the thing needed looking after; it did not seem always of the same size or weight; it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight.’

‘Yes, he warned me of that in his last letter,’ said Frodo, ‘so I have always kept it on its chain.’
While it would be nice to know how long ago Frodo received this letter, we can tell that it was one of at least two, and, since Frodo doesn't know where Bilbo is, there seems to have been no return or forwarding address included. (B. Baggins, c/o Master Elrond, The Last Homely House, Rivendell, Eriador.) Bilbo did not want to be found.

More importantly we see that, even though Bilbo felt better immediately after giving up the Ring, he continued to think of it for some time thereafter. So his asking to see it and attempting to touch it at Rivendell do not mark some suddenly renewed interest induced by the sight of it. Which is not to say he spent all his time thinking about it.

He also made a point of advising Frodo about how easily it could be lost if one took it for granted. How much of that is looking after Frodo, and how much the horror a Ringbearer would naturally feel at the thought of the Ring being lost? One never knows who might pick it up, after all.

26 April 2019

Review: The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie

The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie by Jonathan S. McIntosh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In letter 142 Tolkien says that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" and that "the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." Nothing could make how literally Tolkien meant 'fundamentally' as clear as Jonathan S. McIntosh's excellent study,The Flame Imperishable.

This book needs to be read twice. In fact it deserves to be read twice.

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23 April 2019

Review: The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain

The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain by Sørina Higgins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review first appeared in Sehnsucht vol. 12 (2018) 154-56

With the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur, writes Sørina Higgins in her introduction to this volume, three truths became evident: that The Fall of Arthur is an important text worthy of study per se and for what it can add to our understanding of Tolkien and his legendarium; that in this work Tolkien draws on the significant cultural figure of Arthur whom many other British writers of his era found socially, morally, and spiritually relevant to their times; and that the coming of Tolkien’s Arthur also afforded the best opportunity for a study of the Arthuriana of the major Inklings. To illuminate these truths, Higgins has gathered twenty different scholars, herself not least, who turn their lights upon the Inklings and Arthur from a series of five different viewpoints. Through diversity in scholarly experience and choice of text, as well as in theoretical approach and theological perspective, this volume succeeds in all its goals. As often as scholars return to Arthur and the Inklings, they will return to this fine work.

Since intertextuality is integral to the entire concept of this book, the first section, “Texts and Intertexts,” quite properly begins with chapters that define terms (Higgins), review the history of Arthurian texts (Ordway), and demonstrate the lush web of significant connections between the Inklings and their sources as well as the among the works of the Inklings themselves (Dickieson). A splendid investigation of the place of Avalon as an evocation of the spiritual world that lies beyond ours reveals much about the ideas which Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien shared on the healing of the world and of ourselves (Huttar), while an initial exploration of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances leads to a provoking analysis of the role that myth, here in the form of the Grail, can play in helping us to regain a perspective on ourselves as part of a greater whole (Gaertner).

“Histories Past,” the second section, approaches the crossroads of myth and history that Arthur bestrides. For Lewis this crucial position revealed the struggle between the two; for Williams their coinherence meant that each affected the other; for Tolkien myth and history resonated together with spiritual truth (Imbert). Chesterton’s poems on Arthur similarly address the conflict between myth and history, which only the return of Christ will reconcile, and which takes place within the same broader context as Tolkien’s view of the Gospel as the Fairy-story that came true (Moore). The Fall of Arthur and The Lord of the Rings mythically reimagine the Middle Ages, constructing their perspective on nature, chivalry, and Christendom as a part of a cultural conversation with the Modernism of the Twentieth Century (Grewell).

“Histories Present” opens with a survey of the rise of Scientism, the prevailing intellectual culture of the Inklings’ time, and their responses to it, both their counterattacks on the narrowness of its vision, and their construction through Arthur of alternative moral visions (Jewell and Butynskyi). The Fall of Arthur subverts Arthurian myth by showing what harm the misappropriation of myth can do in the struggle between medieval community and individual domination, thus proving a dark foreshadowing of the central conflict in The Lord of the Rings (Drigger). In The Chronicles of Narnia Lewis seeks by quest and by healing the blighted land to recover from the despair inflicted by The Great War and mapped out in The Waste Land (Hooper). Through Arthur, often a racist or nationalist symbol, Williams holds up Otherness as a mirror in which we may see our own faults staring back at us, and mourns what humanity loses because of our attitudes towards the Other (Utter).

With “Geographies of Gender,” the scene shifts first to Tolkien’s Guinever, who, as heir to a mythic and literary tradition every bit as varied as Arthur’s, weaves together its Celtic and Germanic strands with the threads of Fate and Free Will, to create a figure embodying the transition from Britain to England, and challenging the notion that Tolkien’s female characters are lacking (House-Thomas). Charles Williams’s Arthurian poetry, with labyrinthine brilliance, seeks to advance his understanding of the City, or the Kingdom of God, through the essential interplay of Masculine and Feminine, but falters owing to its author’s troubled attitude towards women (Rasmussen). Similarly, in That Hideous Strength Lewis construes the Masculine and Feminine of the Spirit through the dual roles of Pendragon and Fisher King inhabited by Ransom (Shogren).

In “Cartographies of the Spirit,” the fifth section, we find George MacDonald mining the medieval revivalism of Victorian times to re-imagine contemporary notions of chivalry, seeking a moral way forward, not back, in which the true knight is the servant of all (Johnson). Similarly, in Williams’s Arthurian plays the choice of servitude brings freedom, another example of the paradoxical coinherence of the City of God, whose greatest expression is the Incarnation (Wells). War in Heaven shows the quest for the Grail to be more important than the Grail itself, because through the Eucharist it creates a communion of faith and experience (Bray). In Williams’s Arthurian poetry the Grail and the Eucharist again promise the union of Heaven and Earth, which may be achieved through service to the Grail, but the failure of Arthur and Logres is a failure to serve, thus causing the Grail to depart, but leaving still the promise of the Eucharist (Stout).

The literary Arthur, revised and re-visioned, is always a myth for its time, so Malcom Guite suggests in his conclusion to this volume. Through Arthur writers such as Malory and Tennyson addressed the spirit of their age. So, too, the Inklings. With a characteristically prophetic insight that seeks a recovery of vision, their Arthurs answer the despair and the marred self-image of the West since the First World War. That vision, that rex quondam, rexque futurus, is the mythic whole which we have lost that gives the parts meaning. In The Inklings and King Arthur Sørina Higgins has given us a study equal to its subject.

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08 April 2019

She didn't

It was rainin’ hard in Frisco. I needed one more fare to make my night....

No, wait. That’s a different story. I’ll come in again.

Quite a long time ago I drove a cab in New York City for a few months. My favorite adventure among the many took place on a rainy Friday night in December about 2:30 AM. The dispatcher sent me to pick up a fare on a quiet residential street in a neighborhood in transition from one generation’s immigrants to the next. 

As I pulled up, an elderly man emerged from the front door flanked by his wife and his adult son. They were helping him to stand. This did not bode well. When they got in the cab, I asked where we were going.

Woman: To Union Hospital, please.

Man (grasping his chest): Oh, oh, my heart, my heart.

Me: You sure about that? It’s going to take me fifteen minutes to get there. We could get to Jacobi in half that time.

Woman: His doctor’s at Union. We go to Union.

Man (grasping his chest): Oh, oh, my heart, my heart.

Son, looking wretched:

Me, selfishly resolving that no way was this guy gonna die in my cab: Okay, fine. Hang on. 

I jumped on the highway, drove much too fast, jumped off the highway, and ran probably a dozen red lights on my way to the hospital. I did slow down and make sure it was safe, but if the cops wanted to stop me, they could arrest me at the hospital. 

Man, at least once a minute: Oh, oh, my heart, my heart.

Son, looking more wretched:

We pulled in at the Emergency Room at Union Hospital in ten minutes.

Man, as the Woman and the Son were dragging him from the back seat: Give him a good tip!

29 March 2019

Penumbra: Your health has to come first

A friend of mine was recently telling me about a medical condition she had, which was not cancerous or life-threatening, but which her doctor still wanted to operate on. She had decided that she would let it be as long as it remained elective. I am sure that many would have told her that she should go ahead with the surgery just in case, that her health had to come first. But I couldn't have agreed with her more. 

I have had two surgeries in the last fifteen years. One of these was absolutely necessary if I wanted to avoid either bleeding to death or dying of gangrene. That one I have no regrets about, except in so far as it was my own carelessness that made it needful. The second is more complicated. I was injured at work because of the negligence of others. I suffered nerve damage, which caused persistent numbness in my left shoulder and parts of my left arm, sometimes all the way down to my hand. It also resulted in frequent low level pain in my neck. Movement and strength were not affected, however.

After ten months of tests and various attempts to fix the problem without surgery, it became clear that only surgery would keep the nerve damage from continuing to get worse. So I chose to have the surgery. It's now been seven months since the surgery. My shoulder is just as numb as it was before and I have much more frequent pain and cramping in my neck and shoulder. 

But it doesn't end there. Oh, far from it. I can't discuss the rest, however. And believe me I would love to rant about some of the things I have experienced as the result of choosing to put my health first. What I will say is that having this surgery, which wasn't necessary to keep me alive, was an enormous mistake. It has had consequences for my life and career that have left me angry and depressed much of the time, though I am taking steps to address these difficulties. There are moments I feel like it has ruined my life. But that is self-pity. 

Nothing that my injury could have done to me would have made me feel this way. Nothing. Claiming that the health of the body is the most important thing is a very limited point of view, a very unimaginative point of view. 

18 March 2019

Guest Post: Laura Lee Smith -- The Green Knight and Mouth of Sauron

The Mouth of Sauron's encounter with the Captains of the West in The Lord of the Rings has been reminding me of the Green Knight's visit to King Arthur's court in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The initial set-up is quite different, naturally.  The Green Knight comes in uninvited without any introduction or explanation -- the reader is thus in the same boat as members of Arthur's court -- whereas Tolkien gives us some backstory on the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr when he comes out in response to the heralds' challenge.  The Green Knight arrives alone on a color-coordinated steed that seems an ordinary animal except for its hue, but the poet hints the knight himself might possibly be supernatural ("Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were").  Intriguingly, the similarly color-coordinated fellow who approaches Aragorn & Co. is almost exactly the inverse, i.e., a living man on a possibly supernatural mount:
[O]ut of [the Black Gate] there came an embassy from the Dark Tower.  At its head there rode a tall and evil shape, mounted upon a black horse, if horse it was; for it was huge and hideous, and its face was [...] more like a skull than a living head, and in the sockets of its eyes and in its nostrils there burned a flame.  The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man.
(LotR 888, paragraph break omitted)
The core similarity, of course, is the disrespectful address.  In each version, the stranger boldly rides right up to the company and makes a big show of looking them up and down and asking who is in charge.  He is very specifically pretending not to be able to discern the leader -- a matter which would be self-evident both from the man's own physical location, bearing, and adornment and from his followers' reactions, since they would doubtless be turning to him or looking his way.  Here's Tolkien in LotR
Now halting a few paces before the Captains of the West he looked them up and down and laughed.  
'Is there anyone in this rout with authority to treat with me?' he asked. 'Or indeed with wit to understand me? Not thou at least!' he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn. 'It needs more to make a king than a piece of Elvish glass, or a rabble such as this. Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following!'
(LotR 889).
Clearly, the Mouth of Sauron knows who Aragorn is, since he specifically picks him and his Elvish glass out for the first round of mockery.  Here's the Middle English poet's verse (ll. 221-231):
Þis haþel [knight] heldez [proceeds, goes, comes] hym in and þe halle entres,
Driuande [lit: driving] to þe heȝe dece, dut [feared] he no woþe [danger],
Haylsed [greeted] he neuer one, bot heȝe he ouer loked.
Þe fyrst word þat he warp [uttered], 'Wher is', he sayd,
'Þe gouernour of þis gyng [company]? Gladly I wolde
Se þat segg [man, knight] in syȝt, and with hymself speke
     To knyȝtez he kest his yȝe,
     And reled [rolled] hym vp and doun;
     He stemmed [stopped, halted], and con [did] studie [look carefully, lit: study]
     Quo walt [possessed] þer most renoun.
The Green Knight's words are less overtly disrespectful here; he does not call into question Arthur's intellectual capabilities, compare him to a "brigand," or refer to his followers as "this rout" or "a rabble." Or does he?  The word "gyng" (l. 225) stands out initially due to its visual resemblance to "gang."  Tolkien's notes and glossary translate it as "company" (1st ed. p. 160) and his own translation uses "gathering" (p. 23).  Likewise, Borroff goes with "crowd" in her verse translation, both in the 1967 original and a revised version for the Norton Critical Edition (2010).

Still, Borroff's commentary on these lines in "The Challenge Episode: A Stylistic Interpretation" cites the OED to suggest the word conveys an ambiguously deprecatory sense.

Indeed, the first several definitions or subdefinitions in OED's entry for "ging, n. (1, 2a, 2b, 3a) are consistent with this neutral usage; it can mean (for example) a company of armed men, a great personage's retinue, household, followers, or retainers, or even more generally a gathering of people.  1, 2a, and 2b are attested at various times from 1043 (in Old English) through 1632, while 3a is attested ?c1200–1877. But then we reach definition 3b:
 b. depreciative. A crew, a rabble.
As we have seen, the Mouth of Sauron refers to the host as "this rabble."

Curiously, the Green Knight seems to have come indoors ("heldez hym þe halle entres  on horseback. He does not dismount on entering the feast-area, but instead drives or presses forward to the high dais ("Driuande to þe heȝe dece," rendered by Tolkien as "pressing forward to the dais").    In this regard, the Green Knight seems more overtly disrespectful than the Mouth of Sauron; an emissary summoned forth to answer a challenge might well ride up to the enemy awaiting him, but an unexpected visitor dropping in at Christmas revels "in halle" (l. 101) should surely, at the very least, approach the dais on foot.x;">The Green Knight's insolence devolves into increasingly open mockery (ll. 280-86, 309-15) and then to loud laughter (l. 316).  Arthur initially identifies himself and graciously invites him to join in the feast and let them know his business after, but the Green Knight declines.  He's not there for a fight, of course, because "Hit arn aboute on þis bench bot berdlez chylder" (l. 280).  Instead, he challenges them to a beheading game.  When his startling offer is met with stunned silence, the Green Knight throws off all restraint (ll. 309-22):
'What, is þis Arthures hous,' quoþ þe haþel þenne,
'Þat al þe rous [fame, talk] rennes of þurȝ ryalmes so mony?
Where is now your sourquydrye [pride] and your conquestes,
Your gryndellayk [fierceness] and your greme [wrath], and your grete wordes?
Now is þe reuel and þe renoun of þe Rounde Table
Ouerwalt wyth a worde of on wyȝes speche,
For al dares for drede withoute dynt schewed!'
Wyth þis he laȝes so loude þat þe lorde greued;
Þe blod schot for scham into his schyre face
and lere;

     He wex as wroth as wynde,
     So did alle þat þer were.
     Þe kyng as kene bi kynde
     Þen stod þat stif mon nere,
So Aragorn, unlike Arthur, passes the test insofar as keeping his cool under open mockery and laughter: "Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other's eye and held it, and for a moment they strove thus," until the challenger quails (LotR 889). The similarities in set-up perhaps reflect that, in each case, the emissary seeks to undermine, to provoke, to throw the good guys off their game, and ultimately to set a trap for them. ~~~~ Coda - Miscellaneous DetailsThe Green Knight issues his challenge on horseback, since immediately afterward "Þe renk on his rouncé hym ruched in his sadel" to look around at the company (l. 303).  Moreover, once the challenge has been accepted, "Lyȝtly lepez he hym to, and laȝt at his honde" (l. 328).  So he's kinda doubling down on the not-dismounting thing until he gets what he wants. The scene in LotR does not include a similar challenge/exchange.  The Mouth of Sauron is answering the heralds' challenge: "Come forth! [...] Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth! Justice shall be done upon him. For wrongfully he has made war upon Gondor and wrested its lands.  Therefore the King of Gondor demands that he should atone for his evils, and depart then for ever.  Come forth!" (LotR But this is a fundamentally different kind of challenge than the Green Knight's proffered exchange of one beheading for another. The Mouth of Sauron does offers the company an exchange, but it, too, is fundamentally different from that offered by the Green Knight, since the terms are wildly unequal on their face (rather than like for like): He invites total submission and capitulation in return for the non-torture of one hobbit.

~~~~ Note on Etymology: From the OED's etymological notes on "gang, n.
Sense 8 probably developed primarily from the conception of a group of people going about together, whereas senses 9 and 10 were probably additionally influenced by sense 7, as denoting a group or set (of people or animals) having characteristics in common. Compare earlier ging n.1 It is uncertain whether there was any influence from early Scandinavian uses in compounds, or whether these simply show a parallel development; compare Old Icelandic þjófa-gangr group of thieves, gaura-gangr group of ruffians, and also drauga-gangr group of ghosts, músa-gangr group of mice. (Dutch gang and German Gang denoting a group of criminals show borrowings < English.)
In turn, the outline for "† ging, n.1" provides:
Origin: Of uncertain origin. Either (i) a variant or alteration of another lexical item. Or (ii) a borrowing from early Scandinavian. Etymon: i-geng n.
Etymology: Either (i) aphetic < i-geng n., or (ii) < early Scandinavian (compare Old Icelandic ...
 1. A company of armed men, a troop, army, host.
 a. A retinue (of a great personage); a household, a body of retainers or followers.
 b. In plural. A person's followers or people. Also: people in general.
 a. gen. A gathering of people, a company; a band, a gang; a set. Also figurative.
 b. depreciative. A crew, a rabble.
 c. spec. The crew of a ship or boat. Cf. gang n.

 4. In Old Testament usage: the Gentile nations collectively; heathen peoples.

NOTE: The citations are rather rough - I'll have to go back and clean them up at some point.
Works Consulted
Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. W.W. Norton, 2008.

Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. W.W. Norton, 1967.
---. “The Challenge Episode: A Stylistic Interpretation.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Authoritative Translation, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Marie Borroff and Laura L. Howes, 1st ed, W.W. Norton, 2010, pp. 93–104.
---. “The Translated Text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Authoritative Translation, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Marie Borroff and Laura L. Howes, 1st ed, W.W. Norton, 2010, pp. 1–64.

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"Sir Gawayn and Þe Grene Knyȝt."  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, Clarendon Press, 1949.  (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/Gawain/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext)
---.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Edited by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, edited by Norman Davis, Norman, editor, 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, 1968.
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