27 June 2018

Review: Beowulf and the Critics

Beowulf and the Critics Beowulf and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not to be confused with The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, this book supplies Old English scholars and fans and scholars of Tolkien with two versions of the writings that lie behind that briefer and more focused work. It makes a wonderful companion to Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell.

View all my reviews

17 June 2018

Revising The Hobbit in Life and Fiction

In the summer of 1950 Tolkien received from Allen & Unwin, his publishers, proofs of the forthcoming second edition of The Hobbit (Letters no. 128). To his surprise he found that without consulting him they had removed the original Chapter 5, Riddles in the Dark, and substituted a new version, which he had sent to them three years earlier as 'a specimen of rewriting' (Letters no. 111) and which he had not originally meant to have published as written (no. 128). This new version, as many know, presents a very different portrayal of Gollum, Bilbo, and the Ring, one far more in keeping with the dark power invested in the Ring in The Lord of the Rings.** In a brilliant stroke Tolkien recast the version given in the first edition of The Hobbit as a lie Bilbo told Gandalf and the dwarves. 

With mischief in his heart, however, Tolkien did not stop there. For in the Prologue we meet the following comment on The Red Book: 
This [first] account Bilbo set down in his memoirs, and he seems never to have altered it himself, not even after the Council of Elrond. Evidently it still appeared in the original Red Book, as it did in several of the copies and abstracts. But many copies contain the true account (as an alternative), derived no doubt from notes by Frodo or Samwise, both of whom learned the truth, though they seem to have been unwilling to delete anything actually written by the old hobbit himself.
(FR Pr. 13)
Publishers are much more pliant when they are your fictional characters. Take that, Rayner and Stanley Unwin!



**  For a side by side presentation of Chapter 5 in the first (1937) and second (1951) editions, see here.

10 May 2018

The Bard Reviews 'Avengers: Infinity War'

Here be spoilers withal:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!
Cymbeline IV.ii.329-52 (adapted).

24 April 2018


'Dwarves!' said Bilbo in pretended surprise. 
'Don't talk to me!' said Smaug. 'I know the smell (and taste) of dwarf -- no one better. Don't tell me that I can eat a dwarf-ridden pony and not know it! You'll come to a bad end, if you go with such friends, Thief Barrel-rider.'
(Annotated Hobbit 281)

The most obvious interpretation of 'dwarf-ridden pony' in this, or perhaps even most contexts, is 'ridden by a dwarf'.

But that's not the only possibility, and in a conversation so full of riddling and wordplay as that of Bilbo and Smaug we might want to consider the following.

From Old English bӕddryda, or bedreda, comes the modern 'bedridden.' From 'bedridden' by analogy descend various words, e.g., 'bird-ridden' (1835), 'bug-ridden' (1848), 'bureaucracy-ridden' (1861), 'capitalist-ridden' (1844), 'caste-ridden' (1840), 'chair-ridden' (1885), 'chamber-ridden' (1856), 'child-ridden' (1843), 'class-ridden' (1842), 'conscience-ridden' (1617), 'crime-ridden' (1801), 'devil-ridden' (1707), and, not to belabor the point 'dragon-ridden' (1922) 'pixie-ridden' (1893), and even 'Nazi-ridden' (1942). A search in the OED for *ridden reveals these and over a hundred other such formations from the beginning of the alphabet to the end, only a few of which -- such as 'overridden' the past participle of 'override' -- have other than a decidedly negative connotation. The noun modified by the *ridden adjective is oppressed, beset, infested, or otherwise disabled by the first part of the compound.

From Smaug's perspective, then, ponies ridden by dwarves are also infested by dwarves, vermin-ridden, as it were. The dragon's wordplay in this sentence is followed up in the next, as he promises Bilbo, who came from 'the end of a bag', that with friends like dwarves he will come to a bad end. The tongue of the worm doesn't miss a turn, any more than the pen of Tolkien does. 


Note: I would like to thank my friends, Shawn Marchese and Alan Sisto, of The Prancing Pony Podcast, since it was while listening to their reading of this passage on my way to work this morning that the other interpretation of 'dwarf-ridden' occurred to me.


23 April 2018

From The Top Of That Chimney You Can See Mordor (RK 6.viii.1004)

By 3 April 1944 Tolkien had started work on The Taming of Sméagol (Letters, no. 58). By the end of the month of May he had a finished draft of the whole of book IV, and moved C. S. Lewis to tears by his reading to the Inklings of The Choices of Master Samwise (Scull and Hammond [2017] 1.291). He had also perforce begun to give thought to what Mordor was like. No one who has read the books will need reminding that ashes, dust, fumes, and smoke figure prominently. It has also long been clear that Tolkien's experience of the trenches in World War One had a profound influence on his descriptions of the blasted landscape of Mordor and the Dead Marshes (Scull and Hammond [2017] 3.1408-1409).

But it struck me the other night that there might be another element in play here. During a Mythgard discussion of how 'volcanic' a landscape Mordor appears to be, I suddenly remembered that Vesuvius had a significant eruption in 1944. When I checked the date more precisely, I discovered that the eruption took place from 17 through 23 March, which makes for a very interesting coincidence. My first thought was that Tolkien might have seen newsreel footage like that below:

It seems more certain, however, that he would have read about it in the newspapers. Now in a 1966 interview Tolkien revealed that at that time he took three newspapers a day: The Daily Telegraph, The Times, and another which was probably a local Oxford paper (Scull and Hammond [2017] 3.1062). Granted, this evidence comes from two decades later, but it shows that dedication to reading newspapers which was not at all uncommon in those who grew up before the advent of television. The choice of papers also points us in a direction. The online archives of The Telegraph don't go back beyond 2000, but those of The Times reach even unto the deeps of time, all the way back to 1785. (Bless them. Of course they do.)

Starting on 20 March a series of articles record the devastation in precisely the terms one would expect to find: fountains and flows of lava, ash, smoke, mud.
Symptoms of the eruption continue to subside, though the crater is still emitting immense volumes of smoke, often, as throughout yesterday, dirty black smoke, making the mountain look like an immense brick kiln. The pilot of an aircraft flying yesterday to Naples from Palermo encountered this cloud 50 miles out at sea. After flying for 40 minutes in pitch darkness he preferred to turn back and circumvent the volcano by flying inland over Salerno and by the valley eastward from the crater. 
(The Times, 27 March 1944, p. 3
Obviously the pall of darkness encountered by the pilot will remind us of the similar cloud that flows out of Mordor starting in The Journey to the Cross-roads (TT 4.vii.699-700).* Yet, even if this is an influence, it is the comparison of the mountain to an 'immense brick kiln' that will lead us somewhere interesting. My first response was that Tolkien would have found this comparison fitting given his opinion of industrialization. My second was to recall the following passage from The Scouring of the Shire:
And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End [the hobbits] saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.
(RK 6.viii.1004)
And it was this that turned me back to the descriptions of the fields and towns being destroyed, and of the people driven from their homes, not only in the articles in The Times, but also in the vision Sam sees in The Mirror of Galadriel, where the smoking chimney also appears:
Like a dream the vision shifted and went back, and he saw the trees again. But this time they were not so close, and he could see what was going on: they were not waving in the wind, they were falling, crashing to the ground.  
'Hi!' cried Sam in an outraged voice. 'There's that Ted Sandyman a-cutting down trees as he shouldn't. They didn't ought to be felled: it's that avenue beyond the Mill that shades the road to Bywater. I wish I could get at Ted, and I'd fell him!' 
But now Sam noticed that the Old Mill had vanished, and a large red-brick building was being put up where it had stood. Lots of folk were busily at work. There was a tall red chimney nearby. Black smoke seemed to cloud the surface of the Mirror. 
'There's some devilry at work in the Shire,' he said. 'Elrond knew what he was about when he wanted to send Mr. Merry back.' Then suddenly Sam gave a cry and sprang away. 'I can't stay here,' he said wildly. 'I must go home. They've dug up Bagshot Row, and there's the poor old gaffer going down the Hill with his bits of things on a barrow. I must go home!' 
(FR 2.vii.362-63)
Of course when Frodo and Sam finally do arrive home, they discover that Sam's vision of the ruin of their 'own country' has come true; it is in fact 'worse than Mordor' (RK 6.viii.1004, 1018). To survive the war only to confront this 'was one of the saddest hours in their lives' (RK 6.viii.1016). That great chimney fouling the air with its black smoke looms over them just as Vesuvius did over the surrounding countryside. On 16 March 1944 the people living near the volcano must have thought that, with the war and fascism behind them, they could 'have just a nice quiet time in the country' (RK 6.viii.1018), that life could return to normal.

Did the newsreels and reports out of Italy influence Tolkien's portrayal of Mordor and the post-war Shire? The image of the chimney belching black smoke suggests it might have done so, but smoking factory chimneys were not an unusual sight in his day, and a man from Birmingham with his likes and dislikes would not have had far to go to come up with such an image. That Britain had already suffered extensive destruction from Nazi bombs, far more than it had during the first war when the necessary 'machines' were in their infancy, would have encouraged such a comparison. This is especially true since Italy itself had suffered from Allied strategic bombing, of which he disapproved: 'So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom!' (Letters, no. 75); 'But it is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain' (Letters, no. 100). Despite his admiration for the courage of the RAF's pilots and crews, and despite his son Christopher's serving in it, Tolkien found himself at odds with the idea of the RAF (Letters, no. 100).

To make a connection between England and the destruction of Vesuvius was no hard matter, as we may see in the recently published letter of an eyewitness, Ray Small, who was a wireless operator for British Intelligence at the time. He wrote home to his parents of what he'd seen:

In San Sebastiano they said there was a deathlike quiet except for a faint gurgle as the black crust of the lava broke and a mass of white-hot rock oozed out to advance a few more yards. About a third of the town had already gone; where it had stood was nothing but a big slag heap of lava, and a memory. Of the houses and shops that were there, neither stick nor stone remained in sight and would perhaps never see the light of day again. Bombs make a terrific row and leave ruins. Lava makes no sound and leaves – nothing. 
Can you imagine a 10 to 30 foot mass of molten rock slowly engulfing Wembley High Street, and, when it is all over, not a stone was left in sight? Sounds crazy, but that’s the way it is. The lava slowly approaches a building, the heat setting it on fire, and starts seeping through doors and windows like a lot of thick treacle. The lava continues to flow in as into a mould, until the pressure of thousands of tons of molten rock becomes too much, and the building collapses, sinking through the thin crust and disappearing for ever. 
(The Telegraph, 28 March 2014)

Finally, even if all we have here is a parallel, examining the two underlines how very close to the 'real' world Tolkien's fantasy can come. The fire and smoke of Vesuvius may be reflected in those of Mt. Doom and the smoking chimney, just as the fires of Coventry, which Tolkien glimpsed over the horizon on the night of 14 November 1940**, may be seen again in the words of Aragorn when saw 'the red glow under the cloud': 'Minas Tirith is burning' (RK 5.ix.877). For Tolkien, to have the hobbits find Mordor and its works in the Shire is as essential as having Sam find humanity in the dead enemy warrior:

It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace .... 
(TT 4.iv.661)

Refugees from Vesuvius 1944 by George Rodger



So much for flying the Ring into Mordor.

** See Scull and Hammond (2017) 1.261 : '14 November 1940 Working late, Tolkien sees an ever-increasing fiery glow on the horizon. On 15 November he will learn that Coventry, only forty miles away, had been devastated by German incendiary raids and 1,000 people killed. The bombing of London and other major cities in Britain will continue into 1942.'