22 July 2017

The Problem with Tauriel




Unlike many fans of Tolkien I had no problem with Tauriel as a new character developed for the Hobbit films. My opinion of Jacksons' achievement with her is in general much higher than my opinion of his success overall. It was a series of films with moments I loved -- the unexpected party and riddles in the dark scenes in particular -- and one performance I thought was splendid -- Martin Freeman as Bilbo --  but which I thought wasted the assembled talent and the possibilities in the story.  Stephen Fry, a longtime favorite of mine, was dreadfully disappointing, and the scene with the goblins beneath the Misty Mountains was as ridiculous as the scene in the mines in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In fact my reaction to these three bloated movies is aptly summed up in the words of Dáin Ironfoot, as portrayed by Billy Connolly. When the were-worms burst out of the earth before the climactic battle, he cries out in exasperation: 'Oh, come on.'

From the start, however, Tauriel seemed competent, smart, and tough in herself regardless of others. Even in that cringing scene in which the contents of Kili's trousers (now there's a word Tolkien would have chosen to use) are the subject, if not the object, of banter, the goal seemed to be to portray that kind of cagey toughness and wit which Lauren Bacall played so well in To Have and Have Not. Sexy, poised, unafraid.




But she is more than that, too. She looks beyond the borders of her land to see the troubles of the larger world, just as the real Galadriel did before she diminished and went into New Zealand* and turned blue.  Tauriel grasps things that the inward looking males of Mirkwood do not wish to acknowledge. She see that her people may be able to fence themselves in, but cannot forever fence the world out. Like Éowyn she fights well and bravely and fearlessly, but unlike her she already knows how to heal. She understands her own heart.

Even so, despite Jackson's success with her character per se, her story went off the rails like an express train. The idea that she had to have some kind of love interest was a flaw from the beginning. It profoundly, almost contemptuously, underestimated the intelligence of the fans in general and women in particular. Still, an underplayed ending to her story might have approached success (faint praise, I know). Yet her preposterous exchange with Thranduil over Kili's body --- 'Why does it hurt so much?' 'Because it was real' -- exploded the credibility of her character, sacrificing all the good of it for one of the clumsiest weepy endings I can recall seeing. One need only compare Bilbo's scene with Thorin, and the silent witness he bears to the toll of the battle, to know how much better it could have been handled. But Bilbo's response to the losses around him has its origin in the pen of Tolkien, who could write and knew death on the battlefield too well.

So the problem with Tauriel is that creating a good character is not the same as writing a good story for her. Consider how much more firmly the makers of Wonder Woman reined in this aspect of her story, so that there even the banter about the needfulness of men to women subserves the larger tale of Diana's realization of her own heroic stature in a world both larger and lesser than her home, a world which the women of Themiscyra have long fenced out. Had Jackson resisted the temptation to follow the traditional cinematic playbook that requires female characters to have a love interest -- had he even asked himself what Tolkien would have done with her -- Tauriel's story might have proved meaningful instead of maudlin. 

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*No offense to the good folk of New Zealand, which seems a wonderful place. I very nearly moved there long ago.

21 July 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune





Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
Als ever was herde by nyghte or daye:
And þe maste meruelle ffor owttyne naye,
That euer was herde by-fore or syene,
And þer-fore pristly j ȝow praye,
That ȝe will of ȝoure talkyng blyne.

Listen, lordings, both great and small,
And take good heed of what I will say:
I shall you tell as true a tale,
As ever was heard by night or day:
The most marvellous, there's no denying,
That ever was heard before or since.
And therefore readily I you pray,
That ye will of your talking cease.


I am about to embark on a task for which I am not particularly well qualified, being rather an expatriate Classicist than a native Medievalist. But I am going to try to provide some kind of text of the Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune. I am doing this because I find it an interesting work, of undoubted influence, and because no one, as far as I can see, has done so since 1875. I hope that what I come up with will at least be useful because of its accessibility, even if it might not be all that every Medievalist (and sometime Classicist) would want it to be. 
That hat, those shelves!

The 1875 edition, published by the Early English Text Society (reprinted 2008), and edited by the James Murray, is also available at archive.org. The online edition is hard to work with because of the formatting, and the EETS reprint is bit dear. This led me to a mistake. I purchased (though not from EETS) what turned out to be a criminally overpriced, abominably bad scan of Murray's edition. I can only concede that I got what I paid for. It was so poor, blurry, and faint that I found it nearly impossible to read. Had I lashed it to a brick and hurled it through the manufacturer's window, a jury would have called us even. 

I then inquired of the good folk at the Middle English Texts Series whether anyone had an edition in the works for them. They said no, but declared themselves always willing to consider proposals. Though I backed slowly away, I nevertheless kept thinking that this work should be available and readable. So recently I bit the bullet and bought a library rebinding of the actual first edition. It's a wonderful little book, with the library hard covers bound over the original soft covers, and the marvelous ragged edges of a book whose pages came uncut. (If you've never cut pages, it is both thrilling and a little scary. The Collection Budé series of Latin and Greek authors still came with uncut pages as recently as the 1990s.)

What did I mean above when I said I meant to provide 'some kind of text' of this work? Well, nothing as ambitious as a critical edition. I haven't the time or the ability to go see the manuscripts themselves, of which there are five, nor do I have the expertise in Middle English, its northern dialects, or its paleography to establish or emend a text. Murray gives the texts of all five mss. I shall give only the text of the oldest, Thornton (Lincoln MS 91), which was made in the 1430s, a generation or so after the Romance was composed (Murray, xxiii), and about a century and a half after the historical Thomas the Rhymer lived (ca. 1220 - ca. 1298). For this I give two reasons. The oldest ms is often (though not always) the best, since it is closest to the source.  And simplicity: Murray supplies all five mss, as nearly side by side as can be managed on a small page, but this makes following the tale from one page to the next more difficult and at times confusing. At least this was so for me. By restricting myself to the Thornton MS, I aim to provide a text of the story that is easier to follow. In the end, that's what it's all about.

Wherever the other mss offer interesting details or readings of note, I will of course bring them in. Any scholarship more recent than 1875 that I find and can get my hands on will also find a place here along with my own comments on the text. I imagine that in time I will bring in the later material from the ballads, though I am still undecided about what to do, if anything, with the prophecies. But obviously the place to start will be with the Romance itself, which I will begin putting up soon. Any questions and suggestions will as always be welcome. Just be kind: in the fine tradition of Harlan Ellison, I am working without a net here.



14 July 2017

Who Says Middlemarch is Outdated?

The Statue of George Eliot in Nuneaton, Warwickshire




Every now and then at the shop we receive spectacular news. Today a notice came in that a certain edition of Middlemarch contained a printing error, and that, if we had copies containing this error, we had to pull them from the shelves and destroy them. A few words had been dropped from the following sentence:

'Ladislaw had made up his mind that she must be an unpleasant girl, since she was going to marry Casaubon....'

Which produced what can only be considered a major revision:

'Ladislaw had made up his mind to marry Casaubon'

This could work out rather nicely, since it makes possible the ending I found myself wishing for, in which Dorothea ended up with the doctor. Not being at all fond of Casaubon and Ladislaw, I am perfectly content that they should be miserable together.

(It occurs to me, not without some trepidation, that I have just written a blog post on Middlemarch at 1 o'clock in the morning. I may have to adopt several cats.)

10 July 2017

Ava Gardner, Robert Graves, and J.R.R. Tolkien Walk into a room....

Ava Gardner in "55 Days at Peking" (1963)



No, this isn't the beginning of a joke. But it is funny to hear Tolkien tell the story in a letter written January 1965:
I am neither disturbed (nor surprised) at the limitations of my 'fame'. There are lots of people in Oxford who have never heard of me, let alone of my books. But I can repay many of them with equal ignorance: neither wilful nor contemptuous, simply accidental. An amusing incident occurred in November, when I went as a courtesy to hear the last lecture of this series of his given by the Professor of Poetry: Robert Graves. (A remarkable creature, entertaining, likeable, odd, bonnet full of wild bees, half-German, half-Irish, very tall, must have looked like Siegfried/Sigurd in his youth, but an Ass.) It was the most ludicrously bad lecture I have ever heard. After it he introduced me to a pleasant young woman who had attended it: well but quietly dressed, easy and agreeable, and we got on quite well. But Graves started to laugh; and he said: 'it is obvious neither of you has ever heard of the other before'. Quite true. And I had not supposed that the lady would ever have heard of me. Her name was Ava Gardner, but it still meant nothing, till people more aware of the world informed me that she was a film-star of some magnitude, and that the press of pressmen and storm of flash-bulbs on the steps of the Schools were not directed at Graves (and cert. not at me) but at her. ....
Just so you know, the ellipsis at the end is not mine. Whether it was Humphrey Carpenter or Christopher Tolkien who edited out what immediately followed, I don't know. But the omission makes me wonder what came next.  Oddly, I had long remembered the letter for Tolkien's characterization of Graves and his lecture (the italics and the capital A are his), but had entirely forgotten the presence of Ava Gardner.  I really must get out more. 



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And his feet are faster -- Old Tom's Trochees (FR 1.viii.142)

copyright Alan Lee


Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster. 
(FR 1.viii.142)

So I was driving down the road thinking of Tom Bombadil, as one does. The bit about the feet had long seemed to me to be only one of the many odd things Old Tom says. But now it occurred to me that there may be more here than eccentricity. For virtually every word out of Bombadil's mouth is poetry. Whether singing or speaking, his words are rhythmic and predominantly trochaic, though not perfectly regular. We can see this clearly in the lines I quoted, three out of four begin with slow and heavy spondees, but then suddenly switch to trochees and rush off to the end of the line. The other line is entirely trochaic:

Óld Tóm Bómbadíl ís a mérry féllow.
Bríght blúe his jácket ís, ánd his boóts are yéllow.
Nóne has éver caúght him yét, for Tóm, he ís the Máster:
Hís sóngs are strónger sóngs, ánd his feét are fáster.


A trochee is a metrical foot which in English consists of two syllables, the first stressed and the second unstressed. The English noun trochee comes from the Ancient Greek adjective τροχαῖος (trochaios). This in turn derives from the verb τρέχω (trecho), meaning 'run'. Τροχαῖος, moreover, is shorthand for τροχαῖος πούς (trochaios pous), which means 'running foot'. Trochees thus run. They are much swifter than their opposite, iambs (unstressed, stressed), which in poetry both Greek and English have long been used to represent the rhythm of normal speech. All of this will have been well known to Tolkien, who, like many educated Englishmen of his day, had learnt a great deal of Latin and Greek at school. It was this, he said, that helped him discover his love of poetry:

'[As a child] I was, for instance, insensitive to poetry, and skipped it if it came in tales. Poetry I discovered much later in Latin and Greek, and especially through being made to try and translate English verse into classical verse.'
(OFS ¶ 56)

In this connection it is also intriguing that most other poetry in The Lord of the Rings is iambic, though the lengths of the lines vary.  Hobbit poetry tends to be in iambic tetrameter, Elvish in iambic heptameter, or alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter. Two things make this noteworthy. First, the first elf poem we encounter in The Lord of the Rings is in iambic tetrameter, which we normally associate with hobbits, but we are hearing this poem, which the Elves are singing in Elvish, as it is understood and represented by a hobbit (FR 1.iii.79). Second. Bombadil's songs are also in heptameter, but a largely trochaic heptameter. Thus their seven trochaic beats counterbalance the seven iambic beats of the 'elf meter.' Clearly Tolkien devoted thought to details of this kind, and one wonders what might lie behind this metrical opposition. When the poet is also a philologist who professes that '[t]he incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval' (OFS ¶ 27), there is certainly room for further inquiry.

So the faster feet of which Tom spoke may not be the feet we thought they were.

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