. Alas, not me: March 2015

28 March 2015

Again That Vile Creature, With A Special Guest Appearance by Grendel

In a series of recent posts I've been analyzing the portrayal of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings prior to his entry to the stage in The Taming of Sméagol.1 One point I have touched upon is that the way Bilbo and Frodo see Gollum -- whether as an it or as a he, whether as a thing and a creature or as a person -- has a great impact on whether they can and do pity him.  And, though I am not yet ready to address this scene completely here and now, Sam finally attains the ability to pity Gollum at precisely the moment when Frodo, corrupted by the Ring, loses it and sees Gollum as only a thing once more.2
'Down, down!' [Frodo] gasped, clutching his hand to his breast, so that beneath the cover of his leather shirt he clasped the Ring. 'Down, you creeping thing, and out of my path! Your time is at an end. You cannot betray or slay me now.'  
Then, suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. 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....  
Sam's hand wavered. His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and it also seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum's shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.  
'Oh, curse you, you stinking thing!' he said. 'Go away! Be off!'

(RK 6.iii.944)
If you've read my previous posts, the references to Gollum as it and thing and creature will seem familiar, but note also the effect that possession of the Ring has had on Frodo.  Just as Gollum is a shape and a shadow, a creature and a thing, so Frodo is a figure, not now or no longer a him, but also an it.  But even as this figure is 'untouchable now by pity' (a very bad sign), Sam at last discovers that same pity in his own heart, Sam who nevertheless still sees Gollum as a thing.

Clearly, however, Gollum has once again become for Frodo 'that vile creature' which -- not whom -- he thought it a pity that Bilbo did not kill.  Sam's thoughts, among other things, also remind the reader of that moment, and of Frodo's assertion that Gollum was ' "as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy.  He deserves death" ' (FR 1.ii.59).  This signifcant recurrence of the word 'creature' here argues that an examination of the uses of this word throughout The Lord of the Rings might prove interesting.

'Creature/s' occurs 105 times in The Lord of the Rings, 95 times in the tale itself, and 10 times in the prologue, synopses, and appendices.  Usage varies, describing a wide range of living or sentient beings, good, evil, and in between.  From the thinking fox in the Shire (FR 1.iii.72) to Treebeard's rhyme, 'Learn now the lore of living creatures' (TT 3.iv.464); from Gandalf's 'hobbits really are amazing creatures' (FR 1.ii.62) to Elrond's puzzled comment on Bombadil: 'He is a strange creature' (FR 2.ii.265); from Quickbeam and other ents (TT 3.viii.549, 568) to Grishnákh and the fell beasts the Nazgûl ride (TT 3.iii.447; 4.iii.645); and from the kind-hearted description of a post-Lockholes Lobelia as a 'poor creature' (RK 6.ix.1021), and of Bill the Pony as 'a poor old half-starved creature' (FR 1.xi.179), to Frodo's Ring-induced visions of Bilbo as Gollum (or something very like him), and Sam as an orc:
To his distress and amazement [Frodo] 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)
[Frodo] 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 eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and a slobbering mouth.
(RK 6.i.912)
Yet, despite the broad range of usage, the preponderance of uses is decidedly negative. Only 22 of the 95 uses can be called positive or neutral (23% -- see the starred items in the list below).  The other 73 are generally negative, as in the two quotes just above, or specifically describe beings that are evil.  28 of these 73 (38.4%) refer to orcs, trolls, Nazgûl, or other 'creatures of Sauron.'  But even more, 34/73 (45.6%), refer to Gollum.  No other single 'creature' -- not orcs nor even the Nazgûl -- comes close to his total.  So not only does the usage of the narrator (Frodo) show a decided preference for 'creature' as a description of evil beings, but in his eyes Gollum almost seems to define the category.

The evil of these creatures, we should note, lies not just in the eye of the beholder, as does that of the crickets of the Midgewater Marshes (FR 1.xi.183), of Sam as seen by Shelob (TT 4.x.728), or of Sam as seen by Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol (RK 6.i.912).  Rather, they are evil in intention and action.  They are also almost all beings whose original natures have been corrupted, either individually or as a race: Gollum and the Ringwraiths by their rings, and orcs and trolls by the interventions of successive Dark Lords.3

Now here we need to draw attention to an intertextual link with Beowulf, specifically with Tolkien's translation of, and other remarks upon, on the poem. At lines 99-104 the poet mentions Grendel for the first time:
Swa þa drihtguman    dreamum lifdon,
eadiglice,     oð ðæt an ongan

fyrene fremman    feond on helle;
wæs se grimma gæst    Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa,    se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten;
Which Tolkien translates:
Even thus did the men of that company live in mirth and happiness, until one began to work deeds of of wrong, a fiend of hell.  Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens....
 (Beowulf, p. 16, ll. 81-85)

Creature renders gæst in line 102 of the Old English, which Bosworth-Toller defines as 'The soul, mind, spirit, spiritus, animus.'  Now one might object that this is just a coincidence, but Tolkien had clearly devoted some thought to the translation of the one word by the other.  In the appendix to his essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, he discusses 'Grendel's Titles,' like feond on helle, and in that context he says of gæst:
... it cannot be translated either by the modern ghost or spirit. Creature is probably the nearest we can now get.  Where it is genuine it applies to Grendel probably in virtue of his relationship or similarity to bogies (scinnum ond scuccum), physical enough in form and power, but vaguely felt as belonging to a different order of being, one allied to the malevolent 'ghosts' of the dead.5 
And in his commentary on this same passage Tolkien writes:
The Old English féond on helle is a very curious expression.  It implies, of course, that Grendel is a 'hell-fiend', a creature damned irretrievably. It remains, nonetheless, remarkable; for Grendel is not 'in hell', but very physically in Denmark, and he is not yet a damned spirit, for he is mortal and has to be slain before he goes to Hell.  There is evidently a confusion or twilight in the thought of the poet (and his age) about these monsters, hostile to mankind.  They remain physical monsters, with blood, able to be slain (with the right sword).  Yet already they are described in terms applicable to evil spirits; so here (*102) gæst.
(Beowulf, p.119, emphasis Tolkien's)
And in a note on gæst here Christopher Tolkien points out that '[i]n all the texts of the translation [gæst] is rendered "creature".'  

Consider also part of Gandalf's description of Gollum:
'[t]he wood was full of the rumour of him, dreadful tales even among the beasts and birds.  The Woodmen said that some new terror was abroad, a ghost that drank blood.  It climbed trees to find nests; it crept into holes to find the young; it slipped through windows to find cradles.'
(FR 1.ii.58)
Ghosts that drink, and climb, and creep, and slip through windows are quite clearly 'physical monsters, with blood, able to be slain.'  Tolkien has taken 'ghost,' the direct etymological descendant of gæst, and used it here much as he has argued gæst is used in line 102 of Beowulf.

Similarly, Faramir says of the Nazgûl: 'to them the Enemy had given rings of power, and he had devoured them: living ghosts they had become, terrible and evil' (TT 4.vi.692).  The Nazgûl, too, were 'physical enough in form and power' -- we should not confuse their invsibility with incorporeality -- else they would not need or even be able to ride horses, to wear cloaks or wield swords, open gates or knock on doors, be washed away by floods or killed by swords. And they, too, as we will recall, are called creatures as well as ghosts.

So we can see that the use of 'creature' to describe Gollum is hardly a neutral term. It does not just dehumanize him, as 'thing' does, but by itself almost defines him as evil, as being 'as bad as an orc,' and like the Ringwraiths themselves.  It classes him among the servants of Sauron, since not only orcs and trolls and wraiths are named 'creature' -- the very slaves of his will -- but so, too, are Saruman and Wormtongue (TT 3.ix.573; RK 6.vi.980), more remote servants who, like Gollum, mean only to serve themselves.6 Finally, we can see the link between 'creature' and gæst in Tolkien's thought, which can enhance our understanding of both The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf.

2 There is much in this scene on the slopes of Mt Doom that needs to be parsed, but to do so properly, with even the slim hope of a well founded understanding, requires working my way through the entire spiritual and psychological journey of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. That's going to take a while. 

3 Treebeard says that '[t]rolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves' (TT 3.iv.486); and Frodo: 'The Shadow that bred [Orcs] can only mock, it cannot make: not real things of its own.  I don't think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined and twisted them....' (RK 6.i.914).  Before the time of this tale, orcs had begun to appear who did not fear daylight (TT 4.iii.449, 452; vii.540; RK A.1053), and trolls who 'were no longer dull-witted, but cunning' (FR 1.ii.44; RK F.1132). It nowhere says explicitly in The Lord of the Rings that Orcs were first made by Morgoth from Elves, but that is reasonably inferred from the statements just quoted.  See The Silmarillion (50):
Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressëa, that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes.
Tolkien thought much about the origins of the Orcs in his later years.  See Morgoth's Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One.  The History of Middle-Earth (New York, 1993) x.408-424, a fascinating series of notes and essays in which Tolkien wrestles with the nature of Orcs and its theological implications.

4 For a fine discussion of intertextuality in Tolkien and Beowulf, I would like to refer the reader to Sørina Higgins' lecture on the topic in Professor Tom Shippey's current course at the Mythgard Institute, Beowulf Through Tolkien, and Vice Versa, but the recording is not available to the public at this time.  Should that change, I will add the link.

5 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, ed. C. Tolkien (London, 2006) p. 35.  The emphasis in the quotation is Tolkien's.

6 Gandalf suspected that Gollum had been released from Mordor '[o]n some errand of mischief' (FR 1.ii.59). Frodo also believes this to be true (TT 4.iii.643: 'Were you not rather permitted to depart, upon an errand?'). Which Gollum admits, with an explanation ('Indeed I was told to seek for the Precious; and I have searched and searched, of course I have. But not for the Black One. The Precious was ours, it was mine I tell you.' TT 4.iii.643). He also had had contact with orcs (TT 4.iii.42), perhaps including Grishnákh, who clearly knew who Gollum was (TT 3.iii.455-56).


Occurrences of 'Creature/s' in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Prologue p. 2 ('the world after being full of strange creatures beyond count')
Prologue p. 10 ('There were many reports and complaints of strange persons and creatures prowling about the borders [of the Shire], or even over them')
Prologue p. 11 ('[Gollum] was a loathsome little creature')
Prologue p. 12 ('this slimy creature,' i.e. Gollum)
Prologue p. 12 ('[Bilbo] would not use [the Ring] to help him kill the wretched creature at a disadvantage,' i.e. Gollum)

1.ii.44 ('murmured hints of creatures more terrible than [orcs and trolls]')
1.ii.54 (Gollum)
1.ii,58 (Gollum)
1.ii,59 (Gollum)
*1.ii.62 ('Hobbits really are amazing creatures.')
*1.iii.72 ('A few creatures came.... A fox....')
1.iii.83 (black riders)
*1.iii.84 ('[The Elves] are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth,')1.iv.90 (of a Black Rider: 'A long-drawn wail came down the wind, like the cry of some evil and lonely creature.')
1.v.108 (Frodo dreaming, apparently of Black Riders)
*1.vii.129 (Bombadil speaks of "the strange creatures of the forest")
*1.viii.145 (The narrator, quoting Bombadil's words, " 'free to all finders, birds, beasts, Elves or Men, and all kindly creatures.' ")
1.ix.152 ("[Sam] had imagined himself meeting giants taller than trees, and other creatures even more terrifying")
*1.xi.179 (Bill the Pony: 'a poor half-starved creature')
1.xi.183 ('there were also abominable creatures haunting the reeds and tussocks that from the sound of them were evil relatives of the cricket')
1.xi.189 ('the Riders can use men and other creatures as spies')

2.i.232 (Frodo's vision of Bilbo as 'Gollum')
2.ii.253 (Gollum)
2.ii.255 (Gollum)
*2.ii.265 (Elrond on Bombadil)
*2.iii.284 (No folk dwell here now, but many other creatures live here at all times, especially birds.')2.vi.348 ('...to the east the lands are waste, and full of Sauron's creatures....')
2.vi.350 (Gollum)
2.ix.383 (Gollum, 3 times),
2.ix. 387 ('a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night')

The Two Towers

Synopsis: 'Already they had become aware that their journey was watched by spies, and that the creature Gollum, who had once possessed the Ring and still lusted for it, was following their trail.'

3.i.415 ('The River of Gondor will take care at least that no evil creature dishonours his bones')3.iii.447 ('...Grishnákh, a short crook-legged creature, very broad with arms that hung almost to the ground.')
3.iii.450 ('[Pippin] was famished but not yet so famished as to eat flesh flung at him by an Orc, the flesh of he dared not guess what creature.')*3.iii.467 ('Many of the trees seemed asleep, or as unaware of him as of any other creature that merely passed by.')
*3.iv.464 ('Learn now the lore of Living Creatures.')
*3.iv.474 ('Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn'),
*3.iv.480 ('They had expected to see a number of creatures as much like Treebeard as one hobbit is like another')3.vii.536 ('But these creatures of Isengard, these half-orcs and goblin-men that the foul craft of Saruman has bred....')
3.viii.546 ('No Orc or other living creature could be seen.')
*3.viii.549 (Ents: '...and turning again, the riders saw other creatures of the same kind approaching, striding through the tall grass.'
*3.viii.549 (Ents; 'So it seemed to be; for as he spoke the tall creatures, without a glance at the riders, strode into the wood and vanished.')
*3.ix.568 ('Quickbeam is a gentle creature....')
3.ix.573 (of Wormtongue: 'and he looked a queer twisted sort of creature himself.')

4.i.614 (Gollum, twice)
4.i.615 (Frodo remembering his conversation with Gandalf about Gollum at 1.ii.59)
4.i,615 (Gollum)
4.i.617 (Gollum)
4.ii.624 (Gollum, twice)
4.iii.645 ('And these winged creatures that they ride on now...')
*4.iii.645 ('...they can probably see more than any other creature.') This instance and the previous are two parts of the same sentence. So, while I set down the second as neutral, it may be tainted by the first.4.iv.657 (Gollum)
4.iv.657 (again Gollum)
4.vi.685 (Gollum 3 times)
4.vi.686 (Gollum)
4.vi.687 (Gollum)
4.vi.689 (Gollum, 4 times)
4.vi.690 (Gollum)
4.vi.691 (Gollum, twice)
*4.vii.696 ('no living creature, beast or bird, was to be seen, but in these open places Gollum....'). I count this instance as neutral, but the presence of Gollum may give it a whiff of evil.
*4.x.728 ('No onslaught more fierce was ever seen in the savage world of beasts, where some desperate small creature armed with little teeth, alone, will spring upon a tower of horn and hide that stands above its fallen mate.') 
4.x.728 ('Now the miserable creature was right under her....')  This is Shelob's imagined perspective on Sam during their battle).  See n. on RK 6.i.912.
4.x.733 ('...may no foul creature come anigh you!')

The Return of the King

Synopsis: 'Already they had become aware that their journey was watched by spies, and that the creature Gollum, who had once possessed the Ring and still lusted for it, was following their trail.'

5.iv.815 (Gollum)
*5.v.832 (Ghân-buri-Ghân)
5.vi.840 (the fell beast, twice)
5.vi.841 (the fell beast)
5.x.885 ('the Orcs and lesser creatures of Mordor')
5.x.889 (The Mouth of Sauron speaking of Frodo)
5.x.892 (trolls)

6.i.900 ('the evil land of Sauron where his creatures still lurked')
6.i.911 (orcs)
6.i.914 (orcs)
6.i.912 (Frodo's vision of Sam as an orc,  Cf. Shelob's perspective on Sam above.  If this instance counts as negative, so, too, must that one.
6.ii.929 (Gollum)
*6.iii.934 ('turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue {not unlike Gollum in fact})
6.iii.944 (Gollum, twice)
6.iv.949 ('orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved' in an epic simile)
6.vi.979 (Treebeard, speaking of orcs: 'these same foul creatures')
6.vi.980 (Treebeard, speaking of Wormtongue: 'that worm-creature')
6.vi.980 (Treebeard, speaking of Saruman and Wormtongue: 'such creatures as these')
*6.ix.1021 (The narrator says of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins: 'When the poor creature died next spring....'  Cf. 'Then there was Lobelia. Poor thing....' in the previous paragraph on the same page.)
*6.ix.1029 ('none saw them pass, save the wild creatures' -- interesting, almost a full circle back to the fox and the elves from 1.iii.72)


A.1040 (Orcs, and other fell creatures),
A.1067 (Men or other creatures more evil);
B.1087 (Sauron begins to people Moria with his creatures)

22 March 2015

Tolkien Reading Day 2015 -- On Friendship

The other day, thanks to +Jeremiah Burns, I read a BBC article on a 98 year old woman whose mother gave her the middle name of 'Somme' in remembrance of the horrific battle in which her father had died some months before she was born.  It was a moving piece.  The woman, Tiny Somme Gray, said she could not sign her name without thinking of the father she had never known.  Her mother did not speak of her husband's death, she told the BBC, or visit the local WWI memorial on which his name was inscribed.  But she made certain her daughter went there and would always remember.  The depth of her sorrow is clear even now, as is the depth of the love and friendship she must have shared with her husband.

Since we were just reading the first version of the story of Túrin in our class on The Book of Lost Tales, Part II at Mythgard, I was reminded of that story, in which Túrin's father, Húrin, goes off to fight in the battle that came to be known as the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.1  But in addition to a son, Húrin left behind Morwen, his wife who was carrying their child. Since Húrin did not return from the battle and no news of his fate could be learnt, Morwen named their daughter 'Nienor, which is Mourning' (Unfinished Tales, 73).2 

Stories like this must have been all too common in WWI.  Thousands of children, conceived on a brief visit home or a briefer honeymoon, must have been born to wives who waited in what was most likely stoic dread for the word that their child would be born too late to know its father; or, if these wives were not left pregnant, many of them must have wondered if they would ever have children at all. Among these women was Edith Tolkien, who married Tolkien 99 years ago today, on 22 March 1916, but 'May found [him] crossing the Channel ... for the carnage of the Somme' (Letters, no. 43, p. 53). He was 'a Second Lieut. on 7/6 a day in the infantry where the chances of survival were against you heavily' (Letters, no. 43, p. 53). Their first child, John, was born in November 1917:
She married me in 1916 and John was born in 1917 (conceived and carried during the starvation-year of 1917 and the great U-boat campaign) round about the battle of Cambrai, when the end of the war seemed as far-off as it does now [in 1941].
(Letters, no. 43, p. 53)
Even a quarter of a century later everything is seen in terms of the doubt and peril of the war (which seemed to be repeating itself, only worse in March 1941, when England stood entirely alone). What must it have been like for Edith in 1916 and 1917, with letters and telegrams arriving in every town in Britain every day to transform a woman's worst fear into sorrow? I have heard it said that people hated the very sight of the telegram delivery man. 

It was a time of horrors that shattered the mirror of complacency in which Europe had long admired itself.  Old Poets, like Yeats, felt it in The Second Coming.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And Young Poets felt it more so, men like Siegfried Sassoon, a contemporary of Tolkien, who also served in France and wrote many increasingly bitter poems about the war.
Suicide in the Trenches 
I knew a simple soldier boy 
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.  
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again. 
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
I could easily find and cite a hundred more poems -- not to mention short stories and novels -- that would bludgeon this point home, but the wonder here is that Tolkien did not become lost as so many others of his time did.3 And I at least always hear an echo of the disillusionment and despair that inform these poems in Frodo's words to Sam in Mordor:
'No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star, are left to me now.  I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.'
(RK 6.iii.937-938)
Frodo knew 'the hell where youth and laughter go.' And so, therefore, did Tolkien. Frodo never returned from that dark wood.  Sam and Tolkien did.  When you read the WWI poets you see the way they feel about England, and how much a part of their affection for their homeland some vision of the English countryside is.  This is especially true early on in the war.  But if you know your Tolkien, it is clear that his vision is much the same as theirs.  His found expression in the Shire.

Because of his faith, because of the stories he began to write down during the war, and probably just as importantly because of his friendship and love with his wife, Edith, who subsequently vanishes from our view into the life of raising her children, and whose presence is lost in the impossible whirlwind of her husband's stories and teaching and better known friendships with C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, Tolkien was able to transform that experience into something greater.  And I don't mean something as pseudo-intellectual as 'he transformed his experience into The Lord of the Rings.'  No, if anything his writing was a tool for him as much as it was a tale for others.  He transformed his experience into a full and round and thoughtful life.  And again I do not mean he sat down to write as a form of therapy.  That was just a large part of the way he approached the world and understood it.

What do most of us know of Edith?  Not much.  But if all we know is just one thing, it is that when she died Tolkien had 'Luthien' inscribed on the headstone, to be joined by 'Beren' when he died two years later. He even said at one point in a letter to his son, Christopher, that Edith had provided the inspiration for the Tale of Beren and Luthien (Letters no. 340, pp. 420-421).  This is of course all quite romantic and charming.  But if all we do is look warmly upon it, and think how sweet it is, we are missing something very important.  The relationship of Beren and Luthien changed their world.  They were not just lovers in the old or new sense of the word.  Through their love and friendship they worked together and accomplished what all the armies of Men and Elves could not; and their love and deeds had an effect that rippled down the ages, and more than once gave birth to hope in darkness. In that respect it is the most important Tale of Middle-Earth, and the Great Tales never do end. 

That is what love and friendship, as Tolkien sees them, can do. 

We should not neglect where the Tale went in remembering the sweetness of where it came from. 


1 British killed and wounded at the Somme between July and November 1916 numbered over 350,000. I have long thought that these casualties, combined with Tolkien's memory of Homer, who said that the destructive wrath of Achilles μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ἔθηκε (Iliad 1.2) -- 'put unnumbered woes on the Achaeans' -- was the inspiration (hardly the proper word for something so grim) for the name 'Unnumbered Tears.' μυρία means 'numberless, countless, infinite.' I would be quite surprised if I were the first to point this out.

2 I take a liberty here, using the more familiar, later forms of the names Húrin, Morwen, and Nienor. In The Book of Lost Tales, Part II they are called Úrin, Mavwin, and Nienóri.

3 For the WWI poets, see Santanu Das, The Cambridge Companion to the Poets of the First World War (2013); Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (2013); Max Egremont, Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew (2014); and John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: On the Threshold of Middle-Earth (2004).

04 March 2015

Me, Spock, and Beowulf, All on the Ferry.

In Beowulf, when the hero enters Heorot, the mead hall of King Hrothgar, he is greeted by the king and invited to join them at their feast. Then a man named Unferth, who sits in a position of great honor at the feet of the king, begins to speak, questioning Beowulf in a manner that probes his history and tests his character even as it insults him. Unferth is the king's þyle, his 'orator' or 'spokesman.' Beowulf, unprovoked and undaunted (as the hero no doubt should be), responds in kind, to the delight of the king. Evidently, Beowulf's response told Hrothgar everything he needed to know about him:
                             Then the treasure giver,
Grey haired, battle-famed, knew joy.
The Lord of Bright-Danes had heard Beowulf,
Counted his courage, his strength of spirit.
Then laughter lifted in the great hall --
Words were traded, Wealhtheow walked in,
Hrothgar's queen....

(Beowulf, 608-13, trans. Williamson)

In his lecture on this scene and the character of Unferth for our Beowulf through Tolkien class, Professor Tom Shippey described the role of the þyle as follows:
'What's a þyle, which is what Unferth is? I think that's rather easy. Both Gríma Wormtongue and Unferth have a place and that place is at the feet of the king. Later on Hrothgar, lamenting the death of one of his men will say "he was my runwita and my rædbora" (1325). Runwita means "a knower of secrets;" rædbora means "giver of advice." And that, I think, is what Unferth is. He is a confidant, someone who knows the king's secrets. He is a "rædbora," someone who gives the king advice, a counselor.

'In fact, if you're thinking of The Godfather, which is often quite a good idea in these circumstances, he is the consigliere to Hrothgar, who is himself the godfather, you might say.... So we could say that Unferth is a counselor, he's a spokesman because of þelcræft [or "þylcræft" = "oratory," the skill of a þyle]. He's very possibly a kind of genealogist. We're often getting these remarks about people being well known. This is an oral culture dependent on memory. You need somebody who remembers everything and you need someone who can say to the king "yes, yes, he is the son of so-and-so, he's the grandson of so-and-so." Important to remember that. Somebody has to do these things and Unferth does it. Tolkien translates, I think very sensibly, that he is the king's "sage." He is the wise man for the king, who is there to give the king advice. He's a mixture of a kind of researcher and possibly also spin doctor.

'And I'd finally suggest that he's a bit like the king's subjunctive mood. He says what the king might be thinking, but the king won't have said it. So that if it's wrong, as it is when he challenges Beowulf, it's retractable. It's not the king's fault. It's his adviser, and you can blame the adviser....'1 
Last Friday morning (2/27/15) as I was crossing Long Island Sound on the 11:00 AM ferry out of Orient, NY, I was thinking about this scene and Professor Shippey's commentary on it, which I had just listened to again in my car as I drove to Orient. Suddenly I made a connection I had not thought of before.  I think it arose from the combination of the way Hrothgar waits and watches while Unferth fences with Beowulf, and Professor Shippey's explanation of the role of the þyle as ' bit like the king's subjunctive mood.'  But I remembered a scene in Space Seed, one of the best and most important episodes of the original Star Trek.

In this episode, just in case you've never seen it, the Enterprise discovers a 170 year old ship from earth floating derelict in an unexpected region of space. There is no historical record of such a ship, and they go on board to investigate, finding 84 cryogenic pods with humans inside them, more than 70 of whom are still alive.  One of these humans revives, a magnetic, mysterious man who will identify himself only as Khan.  Kirk and Spock suspect that he and his shipmates might be the genetically engineered supermen who vanished at the end of the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s.  A dinner (or feast, if you will) is held to welcome Khan to the 23rd century.  As they sit at the table, the following conversation takes place:
KIRK: Forgive my curiosity, Mister Khan, but my officers are anxious to know more about your extraordinary journey.

SPOCK: And how you managed to keep it out of the history books.

KHAN: Adventure, Captain. Adventure. There was little else left on Earth.

SPOCK: There was the war to end tyranny. Many considered that a noble effort.

KHAN: Tyranny, sir? Or an attempt to unify humanity?

SPOCK: Unify, sir? Like a team of animals under one whip?

KHAN: I know something of those years. Remember, it was a time of great dreams, of great aspiration.

SPOCK: Under dozens of petty dictatorships.

KHAN: One man would have ruled eventually. As Rome under Caesar. Think of its accomplishments.

SPOCK: Then your sympathies were with --

KHAN (turning to Kirk): You are an excellent tactician, Captain. You let your second in command attack while you sit and watch for weakness.

KIRK: You have a tendency to express ideas in military terms, Mister Khan. This is a social occasion.

KHAN: It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed. Many prefer it more honest, more open.

KIRK: You fled. Why? Were you afraid?

KHAN: I've never been afraid.

KIRK: But you left at the very time mankind needed courage.

KHAN: We offered the world order!


KHAN: Excellent. Excellent. But if you will excuse me, gentlemen and ladies, I grow fatigued again. With your permission, Captain, I will return to my quarters.

(Kirk stands, and Khan leaves.)

Unify, sir?
With your permission, Captain, I will return to my quarters.

Now I don't believe that the writers of this episode (Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber) were thinking of Beowulf when they composed this scene. I couldn't even guess if they had read it (though the writer of Star Trek: Voyager, Heroes and Demons definitely had2).   Still I would say that the parallel between the scenes in Beowulf and Space Seed is much more illustrative than that between Beowulf and The Godfather. While the positions of Unferth and Hrothgar are indeed analogous to those of consigliere and godfather, it is in Space Seed that we see the parallels in behavior, as Spock questions Khan while Kirk looks on, evaluating Khan's reactions and responses.  

The verbal duel between Spock and Khan all but proves that Khan is the dangerous enemy they suspected he was, and makes amply clear for us the nature and purpose of such an exchange. For while a modern reader of Beowulf might not immediately recognize what Unferth is really doing, there is no mistaking what Spock is up to. Kirk's involvement makes the parallel even clearer.  First he pretends that it is not he, but his officers who have questions for Khan, which allows Spock to begin his 'attack,' as Khan puts it.  

Then, when Kirk moves to defuse the tense situation by claiming that a social occasion is no place for warlike speech, Khan challenges him more directly, saying that he prefers his warfare 'more honest, more open.' At which point Kirk presses his attack even more forcefully than Spock had.  Even so, when the exchange becomes too heated, Khan is allowed to retreat, avoiding a more dangerous confrontation. Like Hrothgar Kirk learns what he wanted to learn. That the king wished to see if the man before him was the sort of man he hoped for, and that the captain wished to see if the man before him was the sort of man he feared him to be, is not a material difference.  

So there I was with Beowulf and Spock on a ferry (a ferry) last Friday morning, thinking these thoughts. A few hours later I got to my hotel outside Boston.  I checked the news and said "Oh, no." Leonard Nimoy had died, at exactly the time I was thinking about him. No, I don't think there's a connection between these two events, not on any level, not even on the spooky chance-if-chance-you-call-it level. Except in my heart, where this wonderful character and the apparently decent man who gave him such persuasive life dwell now forever.  I am even especially glad I was thinking about him just then.  I now have another reason to remember him.


Beowulf and Other Old English Poems, edited and translated by Craig Williamson (Philadelphia 2011).  The line numbers cited above are for Williamson's translation; those directly below are from the Old English text.
Þa wæs on salum    sinces brytta
gamolfeax ond guðrof;   geoce gelyfde
brego Beorht-Dena;   gehyrde on Beowulfe
folces hyrde,    fæstrædne geþoht. 
Ðær wæs hæletha hleahtor,   hlyn swinsode,
word wæron wynsume.   Eode Wealhþeow forð
cwen Hroðgares....
(lines 607-13)
A more literal translation would run as follows:
Then the giver of treasure, gray haired and brave in battle, knew joy. The lord of the Bright Danes took hope in [Beowulf's] aid; in Beowulf the shepherd of the folk heard steadfast determination.

There was laughter from the men, it made a sweet sound, his words were pleasing. Wealhtheow, queen of Horthgar, came forth....

1 Since I was transcribing an audio recording, all punctuation and paragraphing are of course mine. I have tried to faithfully represent Professor Shippey's words, though I am not completely sure whether the word after 'wrong' in the final paragraph is 'as' or 'and.'  The difference, if there is one, is minimal.

Gríma Wormtongue is of course the counselor of King Théoden in The Two Towers. He first appears in the chapter The King of the Golden Hall, in a scene which has much in common with this one.

The recording is proprietary so I may not link to it.

2 See the article on Heroes and Demons at Memory Alpha for the comments of Naren Shankar, the writer of this episode, who states that he even went back and researched Beowulf in preparing the story. He was surprised to learn that no one else on the production team had ever read it.