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.