. Alas, not me

19 January 2022

'So that they are its life and it is theirs' (Silm. 20)

Many readers will no doubt recall this fascinating passage in The Silmarillion (20) which draws an equivalency between the life of the Valar and the life of Arda. I have always wanted more of an explanation than we find here.

Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar beyond the confines of the World; but others, and among them many of the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

A comment in the recently published The Nature of Middle-earth (2021: 14) presents an even more interesting comment along similar lines, suggesting a likeness (parallel? analogy?) between the spirits and bodies of Incarnates and between the Valar and Arda itself:

The Valar having entered Arda, and being therein confined within its life, must also suffer (while therein and being as it were its spirit, as the fëa is to the hröa of the Incarnate) its slow ageing.

I am sure there's more to think about and say here, and I want to take a look at the other versions of the Ainulindalë. For now, though, I just wanted to toss the two passages into the cauldron and let them simmer. 

17 January 2022

Chaucer's Troilus and Tolkien's Fool of a Took: Troilus and Criseyde V.1800-25 and The Return of the King 5.x.892-93

 Almost five years back (2 March 2017) I wrote a post about what I took -- and still take -- to be Tolkien having a bit of fun with Chaucer and everyone's favorite fool of a Took. Recently I came across another bit of evidence that convinces me even further that Tolkien had medievalist mischief in mind when he wrote the scene quoted below. The new evidence comes from a summary of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien included in the well-known 1951 letter to Milton Waldman, but which Humphrey Carpenter left out when he published many of Tolkien' s letters in 1981 (Letters, no. 131). Fortunately Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull have made this summary available in an appendix to their The Lord of the Rings: a Reader's Companion (2014: 747). I shall insert the relevant part of the letter directly after the passage from The Return of the King upon which it comments. 

First RK 5.x.892-93:
Then Pippin stabbed upwards, and the written blade of Westernesse pierced through the hide and went deep into the vitals of the troll, and his black blood came gushing out. He toppled forward and came crashing down like a falling rock, burying those beneath him. Blackness and stench and crushing pain came upon Pippin and his mind fell away into a great darkness.  
'So it ends as I guessed it would,' his thought said, even as it fluttered away, and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And even then as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above: 
'The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!' 
For one moment more Pippin's thought hovered. 'Bilbo!' it said. 'But no! That came in his tale, long, long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!' And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more. 

And now Tolkien's letter to Milton Waldman as quoted in Hammond and Scull:
In the last pages of this Book [i.e., Book 5] we see the hopeless defeat of the forlorn hope. The hobbit among them (Peregrin) falls under the weight of the slain, and as consciousness fails and he passes into forgetfulness, he seems to hear the cry of 'The Eagles'. But he knows that was the turning point of Bilbo's story, which he knew well, and laughing at his fancy his spirit flies away, and he remembers no more.

What first drew my attention in this scene of The Return of the King is the peculiar use of 'thought' in the second and fourth paragraphs, which is quite similar to its use in the famous scene in which Gollum's two 'thoughts' struggle with each other while Sam listens, fascinated and appalled (TT 4.ii.632-34). While there 'thought' seems very close to what we would call 'personality,' here 'consciousness' is a better fit, which is fact what Tolkien calls it in his letter. The word 'consciousness', however, did not enter English before the 17th Century, and the meaning in question here -- 'the totality of the impressions, thoughts, and feelings, which make up a person's conscious being. In pl. = conscious personalities' (OED sv. 5, emphasis original) -- seems to have awaited the invention of Locke. Given Tolkien's linguistic predilections, it is not hard to see why he would have preferred 'thought', since MED þoht (3c, d) offered the requisite meanings.  

I am as yet, however, unaware of any use of þoht to describe situations similar to those we see in these two passages of Tolkien.  (If any reader knows of one, please, do let me know.)  So I began to think that perhaps I should look for passages with similar elements.  Almost immediately Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde came into my mind, specifically the scene in which Troilus dies:

1800   The wraththe, as I began yow for to seye,
       Of Troilus, the Grekes boughten dere;
       For thousandes his hondes maden deye,
       As he that was with-outen any pere,
       Save Ector, in his tyme, as I can here.
1805   But weylawey, save only goddes wille,
       Dispitously him slough the fiers Achille.

       And whan that he was slayn in this manere,
       His lighte goost ful blisfully is went
       Up to the holownesse of the seventh spere,
1810   In convers letinge every element;
       And ther he saugh, with ful avysement,
       The erratik sterres, herkeninge armonye
       With sownes fulle of hevenish melodye.

       And doun from thennes faste he gan* avyse
1815   This litel spot of erthe, that with the see
       Embraced is, and fully gan* despyse
       This wrecched world, and held al vanitee
       To respect of the pleyn felicitee
       That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
1820   Ther he was slayn, his loking doun he caste;

       And in him-self he lough right at the wo
       Of hem that wepten for his deeth so faste;
       And dampned al our werk that folweth so
       The blinde lust, the which that may not laste,
1825   And sholden al our herte on hevene caste.
(Troilus and Criseyde, V.1800-1825)

(*gon (11a) = 'proceed to', 'set about', 'go to', as in 'go to sleep'.)

Now clearly Pippin's experience here is meant to remind us first of all of Bilbo's at the Battle of Five Armies, when the Eagles came and Bilbo was knocked unconscious, but woke to find himself 'not yet one of the fallen heroes' (Hobbit 298-99). But there's more to it than that. Bilbo has no 'thought' as he loses consciousness. His reflections come after he revives. 

What happens to Pippin's 'thought' is far more like the experience of Troilus' 'goost': both of them laugh and undergo a profound change in attitude towards the troubles of the world of which they are letting go. Each of them believes his tale is over. True, Pippin is not in fact dying, but he thinks he is. So, the contrast between him and Troilus is also noteworthy. His 'thought' flies 'away', but Troilus' 'goost' rises heavenward. Troilus looks back down at the 'woe / of hem that wepten for his deeth so faste' and dismisses it; Pippin hears the 'voices...crying from some forgotten world above' (emphasis added) and dismisses them and the hope the coming of the Eagles should offer. These directions reflect the differences in worldview in each work. Chaucer's Troy is Medieval and Christian, whereas Tolkien's Middle-earth is pre-Christian and without any concept of a heaven above. Hence also Tolkien drew on a word like þoht rather than 'goost'. What notion Hobbits have may have of their continued existence after death is uncertain beyond their awareness of the existence of ghosts. As an offshoot of Men, however, they are doomed to leave the world after death, and go no one knows where. So it makes sense that Pippin's 'thought' has no expressed destination. And perhaps as a final bit of the absurdity that has often attended this once 'fool of a Took', Pippin is ignominiously squashed by a troll he has killed himself, while Troilus, a great warrior, is killed by the greatest of all warriors. In both cases, however, the dignified serenity both Troilus and Pippin attain with their last thoughts is remarkable. For neither of them could be said to have possessed that before. 

Finally, that Tolkien saw fit to point out Pippin's seemingly final thought in his letter to Milton Waldman seems quite curious, since in a letter attempting to persuade Collins to publish both The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion together the reference to Pippin serves no rhetorical purpose. In the entire letter to Waldman, a letter of over 10,000 words, Tolkien mentions Pippin by name but once, in the paragraph directly preceding this one, and mentions him parenthetically at that: 'The Fifth Book returns to the precise point at which Book Three ended. Gandalf on his great horse (with the Hobbit Peregrin Took) passing along the great "north-road", South to Gondor.' In the hierarchy of this sentence Pippin comes last. He seems just such 'a passenger, a piece of luggage' as he had imagined himself to be in his darkest hour when a prisoner of the Orcs (TT 3.ii.445). And even when Tolkien alludes to that hour in this letter, he denies him a name. One has to have already read The Lord of the Rings to know that he is one of 'the two hobbits that have been captured by Orcs' (Hammond and Scull: 745). 

So for Tolkien to include a detailed description of this hobbit's amused 'final' thoughts at the culmination of Book Five is quite curious indeed. Yet clearly Tolkien felt it worth doing so. I suggest that the hierarchy of the sentence comes to our rescue here. (Dare I say 'The parentheses are coming! The parentheses are coming!) For in the description of this scene, too, Pippin is also named only in a parenthesis. His name is an aside, an afterthought. His identify is less important to Tolkien here than the near-death experience which parallels the experience of Troilus, and the humorous parallel is briefly of greater import than the rhetorical purpose of this letter or even of Pippin himself to the action of the story at this point. Tolkien was simply too pleased with this parallel to omit it. 



15 December 2021

Ylfig and the Foresight of the Elves

Alaric Hall in his article Elves on the Brain: Chaucer, Old English, and Elvish makes an excellent case for believing that in Chaucer's time and earlier 'elvish' could mean 'prophetic'. To be brief, Hall notes that ylfig

is transparently derived from the late West Saxon form of ælf and the denominative adjectival suffix -ig; as this suffix has been productive from Common Germanic to present day English, ylfig could have been coined at any time. Parallel Old English formations are werig (‘weary, tired, exhausted’ < wor ‘ooze, bog’); sælig (‘happy, prosperous’ < sæl ‘prosperity, happiness’); and gydig (‘possessed (by a god)’ < *γuðaz ‘god’). All these suggest ‘(like) one engaged with noun X’: ‘like one in a bog’, ‘one in good fortune’, ‘one engaged with a god’, and so forth. The etymological meaning of ylfig seems therefore to be ‘(like) one engaged with an ælf or ælfe’. 

Hall then notes a glossator's use of ylfig to clarify further a Latin gloss for the word fanaticus: futura praecinens. Ylfig thus explains futura praecinens, 'foretelling the future'. Elves thus at one point were believed to possess this ability or skill. 

In The Lord of the Rings foresight and foretelling are strongly associated with Wizards, Elves and those with elvish blood in them (Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn, Gandalf, Saruman, Legolas, Arwen, Gilraen). I haven't the leisure right now to look more fully into this. It may be a coincidence, and it may well be impossible to prove. Yet I wouldn't be surprised if Tolkien, too, had seen this gloss, and that it lies behind the foretellings of Tolkien's Elves.


I admit I find the derivation Hall gives for 'werig' very amusing, but I am a bit perplexed by it, since I haven't yet found another source that says the same. Admittedly my search has been short and this is far more his patch than mine. I would love to learn better.

12 December 2021

Tolkien on what a lot of things an author means

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. 


“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you. You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.

“What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

“Not at all, not at all, my dear sir! Let me see, I don’t think I know your name?”

“Yes, yes, my dear sir—and I do know your name, Mr. Bilbo Baggins. And you do know my name, though you don’t remember that I belong to it. I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me! To think that I should have lived to be good-morninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!”

Italics mine. 

11 December 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 5

Previously we have noted that parenthetical commentary appears and disappears as the story grows lighter and darker by turns, and that this in general follows the relationship of Bilbo and then Frodo with the Ring. We have also just seen a very similar dynamic occur with Merry and Pippin in Book Three. Though neither of them ever possesses the Ring, it is nevertheless Saruman's lust to acquire it and Sauron's to regain it that motivates their kidnapping by the orcs, thus directly causing the darker and lighter turns the narrative takes in The Uruk-hai and Treebeard. Indeed Merry and Pippin perceive the role the Ring is playing in their captivity, and with desperate audacity play upon Grishnákh's mistaken belief that they have it, wagering their lives for a chance at escape. So here, too, the Ring is intimately connected to the dynamic at work and the parentheses. Since it transfers so smoothly from Bilbo and Frodo to Merry and Pippin, and, as we shall presently see, to Sam, it should also be evident just how closely concerned with the hobbit voice these asides are. 

After the cluster of parentheses in Treebeard a long gap of 155 pages follows (TT 3.iv.483-4.iii.638), empty except for the somewhat knowing comment on the sinister multiple meanings of Orthanc (TT 3.viii.555). An even longer gap of 177 pages before Treebeard (3.iv.465) extends back to The Ring Goes South (FR 2.iii.288), also interrupted only once (2.vi.344). This lack of parenthetical comments elsewhere in Book Three coincides with the general absence of the hobbits from this book despite the crucial role played by Merry and Pippin, a dynamic to be repeated in Book Five. Something similar holds true also in Book Two, where the narrative attends more to the Company as a whole than to the hobbits or Frodo specifically. So darker turns in the narrative connected to the Ring may be the most striking reason for the absence of parentheses, but not the only reason.

In Book 4 parentheses reappear in The Black Gate Is Closed. As I noted in Part 4, in this book Sam begins to carry the burden of the narrative as Frodo becomes increasingly preoccupied by his struggle against the Ring. It is Sam to whom the three parenthesis in The Black Gate Is Closed refer, at least two of which give us Sam's commentary on his own thoughts at the time (TT 4.iii.638, 640), and the third almost certainly does, too (4.iii.647). This last is perhaps the most remarkable since Sam's behavior in the tale here is as lighthearted as his comment on it, recalling Frodo from the darkness of his cares and purpose by this recitation of 'the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt' outside the Black Gate of Mordor, and recalling for the reader an earlier such moment where Sam did the same thing in the same way, hands behind his back and all (FR 1.xii.206-208). Consider also the comment in Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit where we learn that Sam is 'a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning' (TT 4.v.653), an art hobbits 'begin to learn before their letters (which many never reach)'. Here we must remember that Sam was called out by name a full chapter and seventeen years before we met him as a hobbit who had learned his letters. As with his pose while 'speaking poetry', the narrator is using the parentheses to remind the reader of how special Sam is. Not only could he cook the cabbages and potatoes which his Gaffer thought he'd be better off minding, but he knew his letters and poetry and great tales, which repeatedly helped to sustain him on the long road into darkness he and Frodo had to walk. His sense of mission comes from his learning his letters. Sam Gamgee had read all the right books.

These parentheses also further mark the shift we saw earlier with Merry and Pippin, a shift away from Frodo as his hobbit comrades step forward and begin to take up the roles they will play until the end of the book. This is not to say that Frodo is becoming less important. Far from it. But his are now not the only small hands that turn the wheels of the world while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. Sam in particular becomes critically important, and increasingly the story of Frodo's journey is seen through his eyes because Frodo's eyes are elsewhere.