02 July 2020

When put to shame by a dwarf and fairy queen, shut up and take it. (FR 2.vii.359)

'Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone.' She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled.  
And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer. 
He rose clumsily and bowed in dwarf-fashion, saying: 'Yet more fair is the living land of Lórien, and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth!' 
(FR 2.vii.356)

Often he took Gimli with him when he went abroad in the land, and the others wondered at this change.
(FR 2.vii.359)

A thought occurred to me on the drive home tonight. The reason for Legolas' change of heart towards Gimli once they got to Lothlórien lies in the interchange between Gimli and Galadriel. The kindness and understanding of the one and the humble courtesy and eloquence of the other shamed him, opening his eyes far more than Galadriel had opened Gimli's.


15 May 2020

Again, sternly, 'with other vision' (RK 6.iii.945)

In my post on this subject on 9 May 2020 I did not comment on Sam's use of 'stern' to describe how he saw Frodo 'with other vision' both in the Emyn Muil and on Mt Doom. The persistence of this single word unaltered, while the rest of the description changes and darkens, makes it stand out quite proudly when comparing the two visions. Here are the relevant phrases once more:

a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud
(TT 4.i.618)
stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire.
(RK 6.iii.945)
Sternness is of course commonly associated with a kingly or authoritative manner or appearance. Aragorn, Gandalf, Boromir, Faramir, Denethor, Théoden, and Éowyn are all called stern. Frodo is repeatedly called stern as he tries to tame Gollum by means of the Ring (TT 4.i.616, 618 twice;.iii.640, 643). Yet the word has another sense, one long obsolete and unfamiliar to most people today. In Middle and Early Modern English, in authors from Layamon to Shakespeare, it could also mean merciless or cruel. We need look no farther than Tolkien’s own edition of Ancrene Wisse for two most pertinent examples of precisely this sense of the word:
He dude him seoluen bitweonen us & his feader þe þreatte us forte smiten ase moder þe is reowðful deð hire bitweonen hire child ant te wraðe sturne feader hwen he hit wule beaten.’
‘He put himself between us and his Father who was threatening to smite us, just as a mother who is merciful puts herself between her child and the wrath of a stern father when he wishes to beat him’.
In this first passage we see the sturne feader contrasted with the moder þe is reowðful. Given the father's intent and the mother's compassion or mercy, 'cruel' would be accurately render sturne here. 

Rihtwisnesse, he seið, mot beo nede sturne, ant þus he liteð cruelte wið heow of rihtwisnesse. Me mei beon al to riht wis. Noli esse iustus nimis. In ecclesiaste.

‘Justice’, he says, ‘must necessarily be stern’, and thus he dyes cruelty with the hue of righteousness. But one may be all too righteous. ‘Be not excessively just.’ [It says] in Ecclesiastes.

That ‘untouchable now by pity’ follows 'stern' immediately further argues that by the time they reach Mt Doom Frodo’s sternness has gone beyond righteousness towards cruelty. For given the cardinal importance Gandalf assigned to pity and mercy in The Shadow of the Past, a lesson Frodo refused to learn until his own sufferings and the wretchedness of Gollum taught him otherwise, to be beyond pity’s touch simply cannot be good. 

Moreover, there is less to Frodo’s appearing to be ‘a figure robed in white’ than meets the eye. In the Emyn Muil Sam saw him as ‘a mighty lord’ who shone with a light from within, something Sam and Gandalf have seen Frodo do before. Here on Mt. Doom the most important element in the vision is the Wheel of Fire. Here it is the Ring which blazes with a light of its own and which has transfigured the ‘mighty lord’ into an indistinct ‘figure’, an ‘it’ rather than a person. 

The whiteness which robes the figure is also ambiguous, since whiteness can be deceiving. When Frodo becomes able to see beneath the cloaks of the Black Riders, he sees them and their clothing as grey and white (FR 1.xi.195; xii.213). Saruman the White also appears white, when he is so no longer. The dismissive 'but' that follows at once identifies the Wheel of Fire as by far the more important detail. In the end the Wheel is what remains, and thus it is from the Wheel that the voice seems to speak, loud and cruel. 

13 May 2020

I'll show myself out (RK 6.iii.946)

'Precious, precious, precious!' Gollum cried. 'My Precious! O my Precious!' And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone. 
(RK 6.iii.946)
'Precious' six times and 'my' twice, which certainly makes clear his view of things:

'Methinks I could not die anywhere
so contented as in the [R]ing's company'

(Henry V 4.i.130-31).

I'll show myself out.

09 May 2020

'With other vision' (RK 6.iii.945)

While working on the scenes at Mt Doom lately, I have been staring a lot at the passage quoted just below, and reflecting on the description of what Sam sees here 'with other vision'. The phrase 'a figure robed in white' (all italics mine) at first glance seems to be positive, and thus is not well-matched to the obviously negative phrases on either side of it.

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.  
(RK 6.iii.945)
This passage also directs our attention back to the scene in the Emyn Muil where Sam first saw Frodo and Gollum 'with other vision'. 

For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog. 
(TT 4.i.618)
Frodo, as Sam sees him in these two moments, has changed from 'a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud' to a 'figure robed in white'. In each scene what Sam sees is very much tied up with the power of the Ring, by which Frodo is seeking to dominate Gollum. In the Emyn Muil Frodo is doing so for the first time. In the second, they are on the slopes of Mt Doom not far from the Chambers of Fire. As they have gotten closer to the place of the Ring's forging and as Frodo has been slowly worn down by the burden of it, what Sam sees has changed from a mostly positive image to a mostly negative image. The first Frodo sounds more like Gandalf or Aragorn, the pitilessness of the second at once declares a crucial difference, as does his whiteness, which is undermined by its being external and denied by the Wheel of Fire. Even Sam can see it now. The liturgy of their sufferings between the Emyn Muil and the Sammath Naur has changed them, master and servant alike. In the first Sam regards Frodo with admiration and Gollum with contempt. In the second he looks upon them both in sorrow and pity. 

That Sam comes to view his master with pity is hardly a surprise. That in one instant he comes to pity Gollum and to see the disturbing truth of the effect of the Ring on Frodo -- that he is beyond pity and embracing the Ring -- is more remarkable. It also inevitably directs the reader back to the scene on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, in which Gollum is on the point of repentance, but Sam wakes and misunderstands what he is seeing. He rebukes Gollum, but the reader knows he is wrong to do so because the narrator has allowed the reader to see with other vision the truth of this scene.

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.ix.714)

Nor should we allow 'robed in white' to dupe us into thinking that the whiteness must betoken goodness, or that Sam takes it as such (though he has misjudged others, too, in protecting Frodo). Aside from the phrases before and after 'robed in white', our thoughts should quickly turn to Saruman the White, the color of whose robe had been first a lie and then an illusion for quite some time. More relevant here, however, is what Frodo sees at Weathertop, while wearing the Ring, and then at the Ford of Bruinen, while almost in the world of the wraiths himself because of the wound he suffered at Weathertop. He finds he can see beneath the robes of the Black Riders.

In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes;
(FR 1.xi.195)
He could see them clearly now: they appeared to have cast aside their hoods and black cloaks, and they were robed in white and grey
(FR 1.xii.213)
There's obviously a great deal more to say about all of these passages and how they fit into the larger picture of how the Ring affects those bearing it and near it as well. For now, the lack of harmony within Sam's vision on Mt Doom is a clue to his own uneasiness about what he's seeing in Frodo moments before he claims the Ring for himself.

01 May 2020

Authorial high-jinks on the slopes of Mount Doom

As we've seen before, Tolkien is hardly averse to slipping a bit of humor or even (gasp!) irony into his writing. We might not expect it on the slopes of Mount Doom, however.
And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dur was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung. 
(RK 6.iii.946, emphasis mine)

Sauron's discovery of what a fool he's been is apocalyptic both literally and metaphorically, and I would be hard-pressed to say which sense predominates. The Greek verb from which apocalypse and apocalyptic derive -- ἀποκαλύπτω -- means quite simply 'to reveal', as in 'the magnitude of his folly was revealed to him'. The New Testament book known in English as Revelation is called Ἀποκάλυψις (Apocalypsis) in the Greek original. Metaphorically, of course, it has been used for well over a century to mean: 

'Of, relating to, or characteristic of a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale; cataclysmic.' 
 That same sentence also recalls the moment thousands of years before, which Gandalf spoke of in The Council of Elrond:

For in the day that Sauron first put on the One, Celebrimbor, maker of the Three, was aware of him, and from afar he heard him speak these words, and so his evil purposes were revealed. 
(FR 2.ii.253)
Out of the Black Years come the words that the Smiths of Eregion heard, and knew that they had been betrayed: 
   One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
   One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.
(FR 2.ii.254)

The irony here is nothing short of precious.

Finally there's the 'blinding flash' which paradoxically allows Sauron to see, which it is tempting to see as an allusion to Amazing Grace, except that in Tolkien's time Roman Catholics and Protestants were rather less ecumenical with their hymns than they have since become. Then, too, Amazing Grace seems to have been far better known in the US than it was in the UK, where it only became popular in the 1950s and was first published in a hymnody in the 1960s. So, we had better regard this as unlikely to be an allusion, though not impossible.

21 April 2020

Oedipus and the Royal Navy -- Not quite the thing, you know

This is probably my favorite fictional example of the reception of the myth of Oedipus. Captain Jack Aubrey is on deck speaking to his former midshipman, Captain William Babbington, commander of HMS Oedipus, while politely ignoring the argument raging below them in the captain's cabin between their newly married friends, Dr. Stephen Maturin and Diana Villiers.

The yards were braced just so, the Oedipus was heading for Dover over a quiet, gently rippling sea, her deck was almost as steady as a table, and now that all was coiled down and pretty there was scarcely a sound but the wind in her rigging, the distant cry of gulls, and the water slipping down her side. They were standing not far from the cabin skylight, and in the comparative silence they distinctly heard the words, ‘God’s death, Maturin, what an obstinate stubborn pigheaded brute you are, upon my honour. You always were.’

‘Perhaps you would like to see our figurehead, sir,’ said Babbington. ‘It is a new one: in the Grecian taste, I believe.’

Oedipus might well have been in the Grecian taste, if the Greeks had been much given to very thick paint, an insipid smirk, eyes fixed in a meaningless glare, and scarlet cheeks. The two captains stared at the image and after a while Jack said, ‘I was never any great fist at the classics, but was there not something rather odd about his feet?'

‘I believe there was, sir. But fortunately they don’t show, he being cut off at the waist.’ ‘Though now I come to think of it, was it not his marriage, rather than his feet?’

‘Perhaps it was both, sir: they might go together. And I seem to recall something in Gregory’s Polite Education to that effect.’

Captain Aubrey pondered, staring at the dolphin-striker. ‘I have it,’ he cried. ‘You are quite right: both marriage and feet. I remember the Doctor telling me the whole story when we lay alongside Jocasta in Rosia Bay. I do not mean the least fling at your figurehead, still less your brig, Babbington, but that family was not really quite the thing, you know. There were some very odd capers, and it ended unhappy. But then the relationships between men and women are often very odd, and I am afraid they often end unhappy....

Patrick O'Brian

The Surgeon's Mate

17 April 2020

Knock, knock, knocking on Glamis' door -- Thomas De Quincey on Macbeth

Every time I read anything by Thomas De Quincey, I wish I had been named after him. You gotta love this guy, even his footnotes.

On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavoured with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect. 
Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding, when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else, which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes. Of this out of ten thousand instances that I might produce, I will cite one. Ask of any person whatsoever, who is not previously prepared for the demand by a knowledge of the perspective, to draw in the rudest way the commonest appearance which depends upon the laws of that science; as, for instance, to represent the effect of two walls standing at right angles to each other, or the appearance of the houses on each side of a street, as seen by a person looking down the street from one extremity. 
Now in all cases, unless the person has happened to observe in pictures how it is that artists produce these effects, he will be utterly unable to make the smallest approximation to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day of his life. The reason is that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes. His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear a horizontal line; a line that made any angle with the perpendicular, less than a right angle, would seem to him to indicate that his houses were all tumbling down together. 
Accordingly, he makes the line of his houses a horizontal line, and fails, of course, to produce the effect demanded. Here, then, is one instance out of many, in which not only the understanding is allowed to overrule the eyes, but where the understanding is positively allowed to obliterate the eyes, as it were; for not only does the man believe the evidence of his understanding in opposition to that of his eyes, but (what is monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave such evidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore quoad[*] his consciousness has not seen) that which he has seen every day of his life.

But to return from this digression, my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect, direct or reflected. In fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect. But I knew better: I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it. At length, in 1812, Mr. Williams made his debut on the stage of Ratcliff Highway, and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his; and, as an amateur once said to me in a querulous tone, "There has been absolutely nothing doing since his time, or nothing that's worth speaking of." But this is wrong; for it is unreasonable to expect all men to be great artists, and born with the genius of Mr. Williams. Now it will be remembered, that in the first of these murders (that of the Marrs), the same incident (of a knocking at the door, soon after the work of extermination was complete) did actually occur, which the genius of Shakespeare has invented; and all good judges, and the most eminent dilettanti, acknowledged the felicity of Shakespeare's suggestion, as soon as it was actually realized. 
Here, then, was a fresh proof that I was right in relying on my own feeling, in opposition to my understanding; and I again set myself to study the problem; at length I solved it to my own satisfaction, and my solution is this. Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct which, as being indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation, is the same in kind (though different in degree) amongst all living creatures: this instinct, therefore, because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of "the poor beetle that we tread on," exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. 
Our sympathy must be with him (of course, I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into his feelings, and are made to understand them -- not a sympathy of pity or approbation** {Footnote below}). In the murdered person, all strife of thought, all flux and reflux of passion and of purpose, are crushed by one overwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him "with its petrific mace." But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of passion jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look. 
In Macbeth, for the sake of gratifying his own enormous and teeming faculty of creation, Shakespeare has introduced two murderers; and, as usual in his hands, they are remarkably discriminated; but, though in Macbeth the strife of mind is greater than in his wife, the tiger spirit not so awake, and his feelings caught chiefly by contagion from her yet, as both were finally involved in the guilt of murder, the murderous mind of necessity is finally to be presumed in both. This was to be expressed; and on its own account, as well as to make it a more proportionable antagonist to the unoffending nature of their victim, "the gracious Duncan," and adequately to expound "the deep damnation of his taking off," this was to be expressed with peculiar energy. We were to be made to feel that the human nature, i.e., the divine nature of love and mercy, spread through the hearts of all creatures, and seldom utterly withdrawn from man was gone, vanished, extinct? and that the fiendish nature had taken its place. 
And, as this effect is marvellously accomplished in the dialogues and soliloquies themselves, so it is finally consummated by the expedient under consideration: and it is to this that I now solicit the reader's attention. If the reader has ever witnessed a wife, daughter, or sister in a fainting fit, he may chance to have observed that the most affecting moment in such a spectacle is that in which a sigh and a stirring announce the recommencement of suspended life. Or, if the reader has ever been present in a vast metropolis on the day when some great national idol was carried in funeral pomp to his grave, and chancing to walk near the course through which it passed, has felt powerfully in the silence and desertion of the streets, and in the stagnation of ordinary business, the deep interest which at that moment was possessing the heart of man -- if all at once he should hear the death-like stillness broken up by the sound of wheels rattling away from the scene, and making known that the transitory vision was dissolved, he will be aware that at no moment was his sense of the complete suspension and pause in ordinary human concerns so full and affecting as at that moment when the suspension ceases, and the goings-on of human life are suddenly resumed. 
All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible by reaction. Now, apply this to the case in Macbeth. Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart, and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is "unsexed;" Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? 
In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers and the murder must be insulated -- cut off by an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested -- laid asleep -- tranced -- racked into a dread armistice; time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that, when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them. 
O mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art: but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers; like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties, and in the perfect faith that in them there can be no too much or too little, nothing useless or inert but that, the farther we press in our discoveries, the more we shall see proofs of design and self-supporting arrangement where the careless eye had seen nothing but accident.

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859)

[* quoad here means 'with respect to.']
** It seems almost ludicrous to guard and explain my use of a word, in a situation where it would naturally explain itself. But it has become necessary to do so, in consequence of the unscholarlike use of the word sympathy, at present so general, by which, instead of taking it in its proper sense, as the act of reproducing in our minds the feelings of another, whether for hatred, indignation, love, pity, or approbation, it is made a mere synonym of the word pity, and hence, instead of saying "sympathy with another," many writers adopt the monstrous barbarism of "sympathy for another."

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13 April 2020

Penumbra: Where did Alex's hope go?

At the beginning of the film The Big Chill a preacher is speaking of a character who has committed suicide. He asks, 'Where did Alex's hope go?'

Pain doesn't have to be excruciating to be exhausting. It just has to be constant and such that it can't be ignored. It's easy, for example, to ignore the sharp pain I regularly feel in my right foot. But the pain I feel pretty much all the time in my neck and shoulders and at the base of my skull is quite different. That's the kind of pain I have been in for a couple of years now. It slows me down at my job and makes it harder for me to work at the level I wish to work. What's worse than the pain itself is the energy it takes to force myself to keep working through it every day, and how that effort just drains my enthusiasm for a job I love. 

But this is easy compared to the pain and disappointment of feeling that almost no one I have trusted deserves to be trusted, which is also something I have come to feel because of what I have seen and experienced since I was injured. Nothing in my life has ever sucked the joy out of my life the way that has.

Maybe that's where Alex's hope went.

20 March 2020

Unceasing burned the pyres (Iliad 1.43-52)

In the midst of an article about COVID-19 virus in Italy, I came upon this horrific paragraph:

With funerals banned under Italy's lockdown decree, the city crematorium is set to begin operating on a new 24-hour schedule this weekend to keep up.
All I could think of in that moment was another, equally grim line from long, long ago, the final line of the verses of Homer I quote below. Chryses, a priest of Apollo, has just finished invoking his aid for the mistreatment he and his daughter, Chryseis, have suffered at the hands of Agamemnon:

ὣς ἔφατ᾽ εὐχόμενος, τοῦ δ᾽ ἔκλυε Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
βῆ δὲ κατ᾽ Οὐλύμποιο καρήνων χωόμενος κῆρ,
τόξ᾽ ὤμοισιν ἔχων ἀμφηρεφέα τε φαρέτρην:
ἔκλαγξαν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὀϊστοὶ ἐπ᾽ ὤμων χωομένοιο,
αὐτοῦ κινηθέντος: ὃ δ᾽ ἤϊε νυκτὶ ἐοικώς.
ἕζετ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε νεῶν, μετὰ δ᾽ ἰὸν ἕηκε:
δεινὴ δὲ κλαγγὴ γένετ᾽ ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο:
οὐρῆας μὲν πρῶτον ἐπῴχετο καὶ κύνας ἀργούς,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ᾽ αὐτοῖσι βέλος ἐχεπευκὲς ἐφιεὶς
βάλλ᾽: αἰεὶ δὲ πυραὶ νεκύων καίοντο θαμειαί. 

Iliad 1.43-52 

So Chryses spoke as he prayed; and Apollo heard,
Down he came from the peaks of Olympus with wrath in his heart,
With his bow and closed quiver upon his shoulders.
And the arrows clattered upon the shoulders of the god
As he set out in wrath; and he came on like the night.
Then he sat far off from the ships, and loosed a shaft.
A dreadful shrieking came from his silver bow:
First he attacked the mules and swift hounds.
Then he shot down the men with his piercing arrows.
And unceasing burned the pyres for their corpses.

20 January 2020

The fair and pleasant face of Boromir (FR 2.x.299-300)

Many a reader has noted the effect the Ring has on Frodo when he looks upon Bilbo at Rivendell and at Sam in Mordor:

Slowly [Frodo] drew it out. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him. 
(FR 2.i.232)
'No, no!' cried Frodo, snatching the Ring and chain from Sam's hands. 'No you won't, you thief!' He panted, staring at Sam with eyes wide with fear and enmity. Then suddenly, clasping the Ring in one clenched fist, he stood aghast. A mist seemed to clear from his eyes, and he passed a hand over his aching brow. The hideous vision had seemed so real to him, half bemused as he was still with wound and fear. Sam had changed before his very eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth. But now the vision had passed. There was Sam kneeling before him ....
(RK 6.i.911-12)

No one, as far as I can recall right now*, has remarked on what might be another instance of this same phenomenon. To be sure, it is easily overlooked, embedded as it is within Frodo's reaction to Boromir's actual attempt to seize the Ring. By contrast, Sam was not trying to take the Ring, and Bilbo, though yearning to see and touch the Ring again, reads Frodo's reaction and repents of even asking to see it so quickly, that it's hard to see his reaching for the Ring as hostile. Consider the following:

His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes.


Terror and grief shook [Frodo], seeing in his thought the mad, fierce face of Boromir, and his burning eyes.
(FR 2.x.399-400)

So, perhaps we should see Frodo's perception of Boromir's face here in the context of his clearly Ring-induced perceptions of Bilbo and Sam, and allow that the image of Boromir's face that Frodo had in his mind was not entirely accurate. For, if Frodo sees threats to the Ring where there are none and momentarily perceives those he loves as evil creatures, will he not experience the same distortion of his vision when the threat is real, as it is with Boromir.


* Please let me know if someone has made this comment before. I would love to see it.

09 January 2020

The Light that shines in the darkness -- Frodo and Sam in the Shadow of Death

Brocken Inaglory at the English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Lately, as part of another project, I've been working very closely with Shelob's Lair and The Choices of Master Samwise in Book Four, and The Tower of Cirith Ungol in Book Six of The Lord of the Rings. There is so much to comment upon in these chapters, so many links among them as well as between them and other chapters that it would take a discussion of some length to lay them all out.(Working on it.) There is one connection I finally recognized last night that I found so charming that I wanted to say a few words about it.

In Shelob's Lair the narrator points out that Gollum 'had bowed down and worshiped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret' (TT 4.ix.723). I had long felt that we have here an echo of the Twenty-Third Psalm: 'surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life' (23.6). I became certain of this the other day when I noted that in the hymn which Sam, without knowing what he is saying, sings to Elbereth, he uses the word 'nguruthos' (TT 4.x.729), which Tolkien translates in Letter 211 (p.278) as 'the shadow of (the fear of) death'.It is hard to imagine that a man of Tolkien's time, upbringing, and piety, did not intend another echo of the same psalm: 'yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death' (23.4).

Since Galadriel plays an important role, at least in the minds of Frodo and Sam during the episode with Shelob, I had also been thinking of her gift to Frodo of the star-glass to be 'a light when all other lights go out' and of her appearance in Sam's vision out of a blaze of blinding light. This moment when the darkness of Shelob is debilitating both Frodo and Sam seems to have been foreseen by Galadriel and provided for with her gift. The interplay of the powers of light and darkness in this scene also reminds us of what Haldir said of Galadriel's power: 'In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought, but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not been discovered. Not yet' (FR 2.vi.352; cf. 2.vii.364-65). 

The other night I was reading aloud to a particular friend what I had been writing about all this. She immediately quoted the Gospel of John (1.5) 'and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it'. 

And, as happens at such moments of revelation, the circle suddenly closed. 

Allusion, of course, is what we find here, not allegory. The echoes of the Latin 'comprehenderunt', are heard quite loudly in the English translation of John, but in Tolkien, more fittingly, they sound as dimly as the horns of Elfland. Yet sound they do. The light of the silmaril as borne by Eärendil and captured in the water of Galadriel's mirror does not suggest that she or Eärendil are Christ figures. Rather, it is a matter of all myths reflecting the 'true' myth (the evangelium), and of all uses of the imagery of light and darkness to represent good and evil having common elements. Our knowledge of the one shapes and enhances our understanding of the other. If anything, so many of the characters suggested as 'Christ-figures' in The Lord of the Rings simply underline the need for Christ, for Eru to enter his creation himself, because the Children of Ilúvatar, being fallen, cannot overcome the evil that is the cause and consequence of their own fall.

It is intriguing also to note that the Earendel whom Tolkien found in the Old English poem Christ (1.104), and who sparked the creation of Middle-earth, was understood by some to represent Christ and by others John the Baptist**. In either event, he is the morning star, who presages the sun and brings light and hope to those who 'have had to endure the dark shadow of death' (1.118: deorc deaþes sceadu  dreogan sceoldan), like Sam facing Shelob and like the speaker of the psalm.

Most interesting, finally, are the words of John the Evangelist*** who seems almost in dialogue with this question of who 'the Light' is, as if answering a question already raised during the lifetime of John the Baptist and Jesus -- some thought Jesus might be John come again, others that the Baptist might be the Messiah -- or anticipating that such a question would be raised again and clarifying the truth of the matter ahead of time (1.6-8):
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

Tolkien asserted that his work was 'fundamentally Christian'. He meant that adverb literally, as in 'at its foundation'. This makes sense because his themes are themselves at the foundation of our reality and Middle-earth's. 

* The parenthesis glosses the words before it, explaining them, not adding to them.

** See Cook The Christ of Cynewulf, a 1964 reprint of the 1909 impression, with the notes beginning on p. 88. Since identification of Earendel with Christ or with John the Baptist, except perhaps by Tolkien, is not relevant here, I have not engaged with scholarship later than Tolkien's discovery of him. Given Eärendil's role as the one who prepares the way for the (semi-)divine intervention of the Valar, Tolkien may have seen Earendel as more likely to be John the Baptist.

*** Coincidentally, perhaps, Tolkien regarded John the Evangelist as his patron saint (Letter 309), though the shared name was a coincidence.

A couple of comments on The Inimitable Prancing Pony Podcast

On a recent episode (starting at 3:30) of The Prancing Pony Podcast, Alan and Shawn were discussing the question of whether the Ringwraiths had possession of their own rings or whether Sauron had them. Near the end Alan made an interesting point, to which I think I can add some support. Alan noted that on Weathertop Frodo could not see the rings of the Black Riders, even though the One Ring enabled him to see much about them that was invisible to everyone else present. 

As Alan admitted, this is an argument from silence. But it becomes far more persuasive when we recall that Frodo could see Galadriel's ring when Sam could not, which she attributes specifically to Frodo being the Ring-bearer (FR 2.vii. 365-66). These two points together strike me as pretty compelling, especially when added to the other evidence that Sauron held the Rings of the Nine.

On another episode (starting at 1:34:00) a question arose about the scene in Rivendell in which Bilbo tries to touch the Ring and Frodo sees him momentarily as a Gollum-like creature whom he wishes to strike. I have just a couple of observations here and a question.

  • Frodo in this scene is in exactly the same place as Bilbo was in the scene with Gandalf in A Long-expected Party. Both are on the brink of violence towards someone they care deeply for because they see that person as a threat to their possession of the Ring. What Bilbo likely sees in Frodo at this moment is himself. Something similar will happen with Frodo and Sam in Mordor.
  • One powerful effect of the Ring is to distort the reality of its bearer even when it is not being worn. Presumably this is connected to the temptations others not in possession of it feel.
  • What are we to make of the way Frodo-the-narrator chose to represent this scene?