. Alas, not me: 2017

29 December 2017

Review: The Wolf in the Attic

The Wolf in the Attic The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable read, which got steadily more interesting as it went along. It does a good job of maintaining a child's perspective, though it's not a children's book, and of suggesting that there's more out there in the dark, in the woods beyond the lights of Oxford, than most adults would be comfortable admitting. The characters range from a Dickensian evil landlord and a wastrel father to the Devil, werewolves, and (apparently) Cerunnos. Lewis and Tolkien also appear as peripheral characters, who are welcome and amusing, but may not be strictly necessary as themselves. On the other hand, there is no little irony in their seeming ignorance of the perilous realm that surrounds and even penetrates Oxford. And this may be the point of their presence, since their ignorance underlines the greater ignorance of the modern world.

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15 December 2017

But How Do You Really Feel, Mr Bliss?

Since I never read introductions first, I only just looked at the preface to Dunning and Bliss' edition of The Wanderer just last night, after reading the poem five or six times back to back. At the end of the first paragraph (vii) appears the following sentence:

If we appear to have singled out Dr. Leslie rather often for disagreement, this is because his [edition] is usually the most accessible, and often the most able, defence of interpretations which we find unacceptable.

Well alrighty then. That in turn made me think of this passage from another source:

This was unexpected and rather difficult. There was some scattered clapping, but most of them were trying to work it out and see if it came to a compliment. 
(FR 1.i.30)

The Wanderer, T. P Dunning & A. J. Bliss edd., Methuen 1969. 


Tolkien and Amazon

Amazon to Adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s Globally Renowned Fantasy Novels, The Lord of the Rings, for Television with a Multi Season Production Commitment 
Full Release Here
By now I doubt there's a Tolkien fan who has not heard this news. I have said very little about it, though I've been skeptical. Perhaps the smartest thing I've heard anyone say about it was when my friend Katherine Sas​ tossed a Tolkien quote into the middle of a heated discussion, and then vanished in a puff of logic. In the famous letter to Milton Waldman (Letters, no 131), Tolkien discussed the future he had once foreseen for the tales he was composing.
"I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd."

While an older Tolkien here dismisses his own youthful dreams, he underestimates the scope and power of his vision, still rippling outward a century on.  But in the days Tolkien first dreamt these dreams, he had just lost the boyhood friends, Rob Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who, together with Christopher Wiseman, imagined a great future for themselves:
'Really, you three, especially Rob, are heroes,' [Wiseman] wrote. 'Fortunately we are not entirely masters of our fate, so that what we do now will make us the better for uniting in the great work that is to come, whatever it may be.'
(quoted in Garth [2003] 137)
'The great work that is to come', and '[o]ther minds and other hands' are bitter counterpoints indeed to '[b]y 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead' (FR xxiv). Not that Tolkien meant Gilson, Smith, and Wiseman when he spoke of other hands, but it may be that the idea of a cooperative vision he shared with them continued here in a different form. This would be no surprise since one might to some degree characterize the development of his legendarium as an attempt to answer the question of G. B Smith, who had asked Tolkien what the first Eärendil poem was all about when he heard him read it in 1915. 'I don't know. I'll try to find out' (Carpenter, 75).

I would love it if someone made a series that was consistent with Tolkien's vision in the sense that it remained 'high fantasy'. We've already seen how very close to that mark Peter Jackson's films sometimes came, and yet how embarrassingly far off he was at other times. There were spectacular moments in them, both good and bad -- inventions, adaptations, disasters -- and I am sure that we could not all agree on what these bad and good parts were. One invented character I have spoken of before is Tauriel. She is an excellent case in point for me. I like the character -- she falls within the 'scope of other minds and hands' -- but she was shoddily and clumsily used in the service of an insipid subplot. Or so I believe. Many others, people whose opinions I respect, hate Tauriel root and branch. 

Today's tendency in stories with large amounts of 'action' is that each installment must be a new spectacle that outdoes what came before. It's hard to go back to The Hobbit after you've made The Lord of the Rings, and not try to remake it in the image of its more grown-up successor. By making The Lord of the Rings first, Peter Jackson filmed himself into a corner. But we can see this effect at work even where the books are concerned. The pull of The Lord of the Rings led Tolkien to try to rewrite The Hobbit completely in the early 60s. Master of Retcon that Tolkien was, he failed.

We can also see a similar phenomenon in the reaction of many to the long denouement of The Lord of the Rings, who believe that we could do without much of the Tale after the coronation and marriage of Aragorn. I am not here to argue this point, though I disagree. I will, however, gladly concede that the pace of the Tale certainly downshifts once the hobbits turn for home. Everything from the last words of Book IV -- "Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy -- the words that catapulted my eleven year old self out the door, onto my bike, and over to Ruth's Stationery on Main Avenue in the desperate hope that the third volume was still there, which, thank God, it was -- everything from those words on until the end of The Steward and the King passed in such breathless terror and joy that no one (except perhaps Tolkien) would have complained much if the book had ended with that chapter's final words:
And Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.
(RK 6.v.974-75)
But while I am sure that in the long nights of his wandering Aragorn had meditated 'on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow', The Lord of the Rings is no Jane Austen novel. Its meditations don't stop there. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  Aragorn's love of Arwen is an important, if underplayed, element of the story, as is Sam's for Rosie Cotton. But both Sam and Strider also see the world at times sub specie aeternitatis. The hobbit raises his eyes to the stars to glimpse the transcendent (RK 6.ii,922); the Man looks beyond the Circles of the World (RK App. A 1063). 

Is it an accident then, I wonder, that Sam's first (recorded) thoughts of Rosie come after he has recognized that 'in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing' (RK 6.ii. 922; iii.934, 939)? 

Such thoughts are more often than not lost in a two or three hour film. More often than not, though perhaps not always. Yet the small screen affords writers far more time to develop the subtle characterizations and character histories that make such moments work. I have seen shows like Babylon Five and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, for example, blend action (and plenty of it) with plot and character so expertly over time that all of a sudden this viewer found himself on the verge of tears, both kinds. And I still do when I watch again.  Both of these series, moreover, are structured more like novels, B5 at least intentionally so, with very little that is merely episodic. I am sure that there are further examples that will spring to the mind of those better versed in recent television drama than I am.  And it is these series' adaptation of the approach to storytelling found in books that gives me hope that a television series might be the best place for telling stories of Middle-earth.  So Amazon may be the best place after all, provided the writers keep Middle-earth a world of high fantasy. 

12 December 2017

Buying Bagels, with Kramer

A couple of years back I stopped to buy some bagels, and had the following conversation with the man behind the counter:

He: What can I get you?  
Me: A dozen everything bagels, please.  
He: All of them everything?  
Me: Everything all of them.  
He: You got it. 

I suddenly felt like I was on Seinfeld.

03 December 2017

C. S. Lewis, the Little People, and the Wrong Shoe

Every now and then Lewis' Irish gets out, usually in the form of (for me) vexing remarks about 'Papists', but this story was more of a surprise, since it reminded me of my grandmother, also from Ulster (Cavan), though 10 years older than he and a Catholic. I don't remember her ever saying 'the Little People', but I do recall her speaking of fairies, and fairy mounds and lights and dancing. I only wish I remembered more of what she said, or that I had asked her to tell me the stories again when I was older than six or seven. I have no idea whether she believed them at all, but she had me convinced at the time. And she scared me quite a bit with her tales of banshees, which people she knew (so she said) had heard and even almost seen.

In any event, I discovered this story in a letter Lewis wrote to his brother, Warnie on 21 April 1940, decades after either of them had lived in Ireland:
I never told you a curious thing - I have meant to include it in several letters - wh[ich] provides a new instance of the malignity of the Little People. I was going into town one day and had got as far as the gate when I realised that I had odd shoes on, and one of them clean and the other dirty. There was no time to go back. As it was impossible to clean the dirty one, I decided that the only way of making myself look less ridiculous was to dirty the clean one. Now w[oul]d you have believed that this is an impossible operation? You can of course get some mud on it - but it remains obviously a clean shoe that has had an accident and won’t look in the least like a shoe that you have been for a walk in. One discovers new catches and snags in life every day.

As if one could foil the wrath of 'the Little Folk' by the simple expedient of dirtying a clean shoe. 

And just in case you think the fairies aren't still malicious to those who cross them, here's a more recent tale from Cavan, complete with a butcher playing the part of Ted Sandyman. 

I have often wondered how different it must be for those who believe in fairies to read fairy stories or hear them told.

02 December 2017

Review: The Great Code: The Bible and Literature

The Great Code: The Bible and Literature The Great Code: The Bible and Literature by Northrop Frye
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'If we insist that the Bible is "more" than a work of literature, we ought at least to stick to the word "more," and try to see what if means.

'What I think it means is that we have to turn again to the traditional but still neglected theory of "polysemous" meaning. One of the commonest experiences of reading is the sense of further discoveries to be made within the same structure of words. The feeling is approximately "there is more to be got out of this," or we may say, of something we particularly admire, that every time we read it we get something new out of it. This "something new" is not necessarily something we have overlooked before, but may come rather from a new context in our experience. The implication is that when we start to read, some kind of dialectical process begins to unfold, so that any given understanding of what we read is one of a series of phases or stages of comprehension.'

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25 November 2017

Further Remarkable Daughters

For some time the Letters of C. S. Lewis have been the reading on my nightstand. If I don't read a page or two before I fall asleep, I often read a couple of dozen when I awaken in the deep heart of the night. The letters themselves I love, but my response to the footnotes of Walter Hooper, Lewis' indefatigable literary executor, is at best a shrug. And yet the other night, a couple of thousand pages in, he made me sit up in bed, thinking I had dreamt what I just read. In a footnote to a letter of 19 November 1939 he wrote: 

Unity Valkyrie Mitford (1914-1948) was the fourth of the remarkable daughters of Lord Redesdale.

Fans of Tolkien will immediately notice the similarity of phrasing to the first chapter of The Hobbit:

The mother of this hobbit -- of Bilbo Baggins, that is -- was the famous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took.

There's no denying that the Mitford sisters were indeed noteworthy, some of them even notorious; and the world brims with remarkable daughters. So Hooper's phrasing may be a matter of chance. But it would also be no surprise if Hooper consciously echoed a work Lewis esteemed so highly.

21 November 2017

Quickened to Full Life by War (OFS ¶ 56) -- Living the Iliad

Julian Grenfell

Julian Grenfell was a poet and soldier of the Great War, who embraced the idea of battle and the war even as he also sneered at the lives of Staff Officers safely away from the trenches.  The moment before he died in hospital of a wound suffered at the front, a ray of sunlight came through his window. Grenfell said 'Phoebus Apollo', his last words. Within three months the war also claimed his brother. His mother received a letter of condolence from a family friend, in which the writer evokes both Christ and Apollo in the hope of offering some consolation:

How often Christ's cry upon the cross re-echoes through one's aching soul; that most desolate and piercing cry the saddest ever uttered in this sad world.... We do not know how God answered it; but we believe that, in spite of cruelty and sin and death, the answer is peace. I think the answer to you comes through the testimony, the living proof, of those most glorious boys, who never looked back, and went to death like Bridegrooms, like Phoebus Apollo running his course; Phoebus, who sent his shafts to Julian in his last moments on earth, and was answered by the flicker of his eyes; that gleam from Julian which will speak to you, in the long hours of waiting and darkness, of the immortality of the soul and the deathlessness of love.  
(Vandiver 204-205)
In her exceptional book, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great WarElizabeth Vandiver comments on the 'remarkable ... unproblematized, matter-of-fact manner' in which the letter joins Christianity and Greek Mythology. It reflects the society from which the poetry of the Great War sprang, regardless of whether the poet was Grenfell or Brooke, Rosenberg or Owen:
In a cultural situation in which the elder generation chose to phrase its condolence letters and its exhortations in such terms, it is small wonder that poets who were themselves soldiers employed a similar amalgamation of Christian and pagan imagery and concepts, in which the idea of the soldiers as new Christ, who lays down his life for his friends and his country, is inextricably intertwined with classical exempla.  Some poets invoked not just classical allusions but the Olympians by name, and in a tone that would imply utter sincerity did we not know that the soldiers of 1914 were nominally, and often much more than nominally, Christians, and their poetry is permeated with invocations of Jehovah and Christ. Yet, although of course no British poet (soldier or civilian) writing in 1914-18 would have claimed to 'believe in' the Olympian gods in the sense of assuming those gods' objective reality, pagan imagery of the Olympians and the heroes is inextricably interwoven with Christian imagery. The Christian soldier must fight for justice and the protection of the weak; it is his Christian duty -- and Zeus and the heroes of Troy will spur him on to do so.
(Vandiver 206)
Clearly for Greek mythology to wield such imaginative power over these poets and their contemporaries, it must have been as alive as their faith was, even if not as objectively real. It is what we know, what we love and believe in, and what we find important that help us parse our experiences, all of them of course, but most noticeably those that shock our innocence and challenge the way we have seen things so far. Not long ago I wrote about C.S. Lewis and asked what it must have been like to go off to The Great War with a head full of Homer, as so many of his generation did. It was in discussing that post with Connie Ruzich that I learned about Vandiver's book, which explores precisely all the different ways in which British poets of The Great War used the imaginative tool given them by their knowledge of Homer and the Classics to grapple with the war and its meaning.

In that book, moreover, I came across a poem I am not sure I'd seen before.  However that may be, the poem now struck me in a new way:
Deaf to the music, once a boy
    His Homer, crib in hand, had read;
Now near the windy plains of Troy,
    He lives an Iliad instead.
Of these lines by Edward Shillito -- and I have not yet been able to ascertain whether they comprise the entire poem, or are but a selection, since the book in which they appear is hard to come by (road trip!) -- Vandiver aptly remarks:
Far from saying that the actual experience of real war shows the boy how insufficient literature in general and Homer in particular are, Shillito's poem implies instead that the actual experience of war shows the boy precisely how real Homer is. The contrast is not between reading the Iliad and experiencing actual war but between reading the Iliad and experiencing the Iliad. Thus the Iliad is assumed to occupy both realms -- active and contemplative -- simultaneously. 
(246, italics original)
Shillito's verses and Vandiver's observations on them together brought to my mind remarks by another veteran of The Great War, who had a similar experience, but with a different mythology. In his essay On Fairy-stories, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote:
Poetry I discovered much later in Latin and Greek, and especially through being made to try and translate English verse into classical verse. A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war. 
(OFS ¶ 56)

Indeed, one might well say that for the lad in Shillito's poem, the Iliad was 'quickened to full life by war.'  While I don't for a moment imagine that Tolkien needed a crib of Homer, Beowulf, or any other text, I find the parallel between his statement about fairy stories and Shillito's about Homer striking. Both chose to represent the effect of war as a bringing to full life to something not so before. If Shillito's young man found himself suddenly in the Iliad, as it were, Tolkien had already started down the road to Faërie. Philology had already given him the taste for fairy stories, but only the experience of war brought that taste 'to full life'.

It's certainly easy enough to see how the chaos, gore, and dismemberment that Grendel visited on Heorot every night could have become more vivid to a young subaltern on the Somme in 1916; and how the resistless doom that stalked Kullervo might have seemed more than just a tragic story to an officer with a life expectancy of six weeks (as was the common belief; cf. Tolkien, Letters, no. 43). Even many years after he wrote On Fairy-stories Tolkien still spoke of that time in words that convey a feeling of powerlessness in the face of something far more vast: 'to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends was dead' (FR xxiv). Tolkien being Tolkien, we should probably allow that by 'involved' he means far more than a dull variant of 'include'. In Middle English 'envolve' means 'envelop', as in John Lydgate's Troy Book: 'Vnhappyly with hap þei were envoluyd' (TB 2.3223): 'To their misfortune they were by fortune enveloped.' Sounds about right here. More importantly, however, the sudden shift from the impersonal forces and dates of Tolkien's first sentence here to the lonely private grief of the second stuns like a hammerblow. 

A similar disquiet born of memory can be heard in C. S. Lewis's letters of September 1939 in which he twice records 'the ghostly feeling that it has all happened before -- that one fell asleep during the last war and had a delightful dream and now has waked up again' (letters of  September 15th and 18th), and on October 2nd Lewis writes in a letter to his brother that the call-up of men 20 to 22 years of age would affect Tolkien's eldest son. Small wonder, then, that Tolkien or any man who felt he had been so 'caught' should think of escape, but it is the escape of the prisoner of war he speaks of, not of the deserter fleeing his duty. An important distinction is being made here. The prisoner of war who escapes is fulfilling his duty, and he escapes to carry on the fight, not to avoid it. Thus Tolkien is not speaking of an escape into fairy tales, but an escape through fairy tales. Just as Greek mythology did for others, fairy tales afforded Tolkien a way in which to parse his experience of the war and a framework in which to express the struggle to do so. 

In May 1944 in a letter to his son, Christopher, then in the RAF, Tolkien recommended writing as a means of expressing what he was feeling in the service:
I think also that you are suffering from suppressed 'writing'. That may be my fault. You have had rather too much of me and my peculiar mode of thought and reaction. And as we are so akin it has proved rather powerful. Possibly inhibited you. I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for a start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief. I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes.  
(Letters, no. 66)
Just as the bitterness of exceptional voices like Sassoon and Owen did not sum up all the possible reactions to the war (as many once believed, following Paul Fussell's brilliant The Great War and Modern Memory), so too Classics and Greek Mythology were not the sole means of expressing or working through those reactions. In recent years scholars have been moving towards a broader view of the poetry of The Great War, as well as a more balanced assessment of Tolkien vis à vis the other writers of his 'Modern' era. We need to do the same with the reaction that found expression in the 'mode' of fairy tale and fantasy. To write The Fall of Gondolin while recovering from trench fever is not the same as to fall for the Cottingley Fairies. We don't need to defend it as if it were. 



12 November 2017

Legolas at Night -- C.S. Lewis and the Dreams of the Elves

The other day I was listening to one of Malcolm Guite's marvelous talks -- I say marvelous, as if, absurdly, there were talks of his that were not marvelous -- this one was on C. S. Lewis and part of a series on The Inklings. Right near the end, he read aloud Lewis' poem, The Adam at Night, to convey Lewis' sense of what the consciousness of an unfallen human being might be like. In this poem, first published in Punch in 1949, Lewis imagines Adam not sleeping, says Guite, but, 'as it were, entering into the consciousness of the world itself without losing his consciousness as a person':
Except at the making of Eve Adam slept
Not at all (as men now sleep) before the Fall;
Sin yet unborn, he was free from that dominion
04  Of the blind brother of death who occults the mind. 
Instead, when stars and twilight had him to bed
And the dutiful owl, whirring over Eden, had hooted
A warning to the other beasts to be hushed till morning
08  And curbed their plays that the Man should be undisturbed,

He would lie, relaxed, enormous, under a sky
Starry as never since; he would set ajar
The door of his mind. Into him thoughts would pour
12  Other than day's. He rejoined Earth, his mother.
He melted into her nature. Gradually he felt
As though through his own flesh the elusive growth,
The hardening and spreading of roots in the deep garden;
16  In his veins, the wells filling with silver rains, 
And, thrusting down far under his rock-crust,
Finger-like, rays from the heavens that probed, bringing
To bloom the gold and diamond in his dark womb.
20  The seething, central fires moved with his breathing. 
He guided his globe smoothly in the heaven, riding
At one with his planetary peers around the Sun;
Courteously he saluted the hard virtue of Mars
24  And Venus' liquid glory as he spun between them. 
Over Man and his mate the Hours like waters ran
Till darkness thinned in the east. The treble lark,
Carolling, awoke the common people of Paradise
28  To yawn and scratch, to bleat and whinny, in the dawn. 
Collected now in themselves, human and erect,
Lord and Lady walked on the dabbled sward,
As if two trees should arise dreadfully gifted
32  With speech and motion. The Earth's strength was in each.

The first three quatrains (lines 1-12) called at once to my mind Tolkien's characterization of the dreams of Elves:
With that [Aragorn] fell asleep. Legolas already lay motionless, his fair hands folded upon his breast, his eyes unclosed, blending living night and deep dream, as is the way with Elves.
(TT 3.ii.442)
Legolas can do the same thing, or something very like it, by day as well:
and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.  
(TT 3.ii.429)
While quatrains 4 through 7 (12-28) do not bear the same close resemblance to what we find in Tolkien, the essential closeness of Adam to the world and the creatures in it is reminiscent of how closely to Arda the Elves are bound. Even at death they do not leave it -- as do Men whose proper home is not in Arda, but somewhere beyond it -- but after a time live again. And this will be so for as long as Arda lasts. In keeping with this is their way with nature, ranging from Legolas' ability to hear the stones of Hollin and communicate with Arod, the horse loaned him by Éomer, to the Elves' power to enchant and to 'wake up' creatures and teach them to talk, as they did with the Ents. 

Even so, the reference to the 'common people of Paradise' in lines 27-28 seems far more Narnian, and it is hard not to think of Tor and Tinidril of Perelandra when Lewis calls Adam and Eve 'Lord and Lady' in line 30. Yet this also turns us back to Tolkien, since the names Tor and Tinidril are modelled on Tuor and Idril from The Silmarillion, and his Ents are very much trees 'dreadfully gifted with speech and motion'. But so, too, in a sense, are Ask and Embla, the first two humans of Norse Mythology, whom Odin, Vili, and Vé fashioned from tree-trunks they found on the seashore: '[o]ne of Bor's sons gives [them] spirit and life; the second, mind and movement; the third, appearance, speech, hearing, and vision' (Lindow, 62). Both Lewis and Tolkien of course knew this myth perfectly well.

Finally in this lovely web of influences we should not forget that Tolkien modeled the way Treebeard spoke 'on the booming voice of C. S. Lewis' (Carpenter, 1977, 194), just as Lewis drew on Tolkien to shape his hero, Ransom, the philologist and hero of his Space Trilogy.



09 November 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune V (25-72)

Image 1

Als j me wente þis endres daye,
ffull faste in mynd makand my mone
In a mery mornynge of Maye,
28   By huntle bankkes my self allone,
I herde þe jaye, & þe throstyll cokke,
The Mawys meynde hir of hir songe,
Þe wodewale beryde als a belle,
32   That alle þe wode abowte me ronge.
Allone in longynge thus als j laye,
Vndyre-nethe a semely tree,
[was] j whare a lady gaye
[36   Come rydyng] over a longe lee.
If j solde sytt to domesdaye,
With my tonge, to wrobbe and wrye,
Certanely þat lady gaye,
40   Never bese scho askryede for mee.

25 -- j: as previously noted 'j' alone  = 'I'.

It is important to note that the poem begins as a first person account, as if by Thomas himself, which continues until line 72. Thereafter the poet tells the tale in the third person, with one brief reversion to first at line 276.

25 -- endres: 'other'. The statement that this all started the other day conflicts with the later statement on line 286 that Thomas spent three years in Elfland.

26 -- 'ffull faste in mynd makand my mone': 'with every intention of voicing my complaint'. Most likely an unhappy lover's complaint, since that is a commonplace of Middle English poetry. Consider Chaucer, The House of Fame, where Dido laments her abandonment by Aeneas in lines 315-60, and the narrator comments (362-63): 'Al her compleynt ne al hir moone, / Certeyn, avayleth hir not a stre'. See also Troilus and Criseyde IV.950: 'Ful tendrely he preyde and made his mone'.

28 -- huntle bankkes: Huntley Bank, a hillside near Earlston (Ercledoune), also known as Huntley Brae. The naming of an actual place begins the story firmly in this world. The references to 'the other day' (25) and the Eildon Tree (80, 84) play the same role. Thus Faërie is very close to the world we know.

29-32 -- The singing of the birds, just  as one would expect in May, also helps to root the story in the ordinary world.

29 -- þrostyll cokke: a thrush, perhaps the missel thrush (turdus viscivorus). Swainson notes that throstle cock is the name for this bird in nearby Roxburgh (2).

30 -- Mawys: the mavis or song thrush (turdus musicus).

-- meynde hir:  'reminded herself', 'recalled'.

31 -- wodewale: the woodlark (alauda arborea), says Murray. While I do not doubt this, I have been unable to find corroboration. Swainson (98-99) does not include wodewale as a local variant for woodlark, but for the Great Spotted Woodpecker (dendrocopus major) and the Green Woodpecker (gecinus viridis) in far off Hampshire and Somerset, respectively.  The OED identifies the woodwall first as archaic name for the golden oriole (oriolus galbula, which seems to be the same as the oriolus oriolus, but I cannot yet confirm this).

-- beryde: 'resounded'.

33 -- Allone in longyng: see note on line 26.

34 -- semely tree: not the same as the so-called Eildon Tree (80, 84), another landmark, whose location is commemorated by a monument. See image 1 above.

35 -- was] j whare: here and elsewhere below the Thornton MS has lacunae in the text, and I have used the other MSS to supplement. Cotton reads 'I was war', while Landsdowne has 'I saw where' and Cambridge 'Saw I where'.  Clearly there is also confusion between 'whare' (=  'aware') and 'whare' (= 'where'), and this has affected the verb. Since the lines preceding these detail the speaker's awareness of his surroundings, I am inclined to the far more vivid 'was j whare', i.e., 'I became aware', which also preserves the inverted word order suggested by the remains of this line in Thornton, and paralleled in Cambridge. 

36 -- Come rydyng]: Cotton: 'come rydyng'; Landsdowne: 'cam rydyng'; Cambridge: 'came ridand'.

-- lee: 'lea' denotes open land not currently under the plow, either used for pasturage or left fallow.  

38 -- to wrobbe and wrye: 'wrobben' means 'babble on, prattle'. 'Wry(e' means to 'move by twisting or turning', sometimes with connotations of misinterpretation or madness. 

40 -- scho: she.

-- askryede for mee: 'described by me'. True to his word, the poet spends virtually no time at all in what follows describing the Lady. Rather he focusses in detail on her horse and its saddle (42-46, 49-51, 57-64), with briefer comments on the Lady herself interspersed (47-48, 54-56).

Hir palfraye was a dapill graye,
[42 ........................................
Swylke one ne saghe j neuer none;
Also dose þe sonne on someres daye,
48   Þat faire lady hir selfe scho shone.
Hir selle it was of roelle bone,
ffull semely was þat syghte to see!
Stefly sett with precyous stones,
52   And compaste all with crapotee,
Stones of Oryente, grete plente;
Hir hare abowte hir hede it hange;
Scho rade over þat lange lee;
56   A whylle scho blewe, anoþer scho sange;
Hir garthes of nobyll sylke þay were,
The bukylls were of Berell stone,
Hir steraps were of crystalle clere,
60   And all with perell over-by-gone.
Hir  payettrelle was a of jrale fyne,
Hir cropoure was of Orpharë,
And als clere golde hir brydill it schone,
64   One aythir syde hange bellys three.
[She led iij grehoundis in a leeshe,
viij rachis be hir fete ran;
To speke with hir wold I not seesse;
68   Hir lire was white as any swan.
Fforsothe, lordyngs, as I yow tell,
Thus was þis lady fayre begon.]
Scho bare an horne abowte hir halse,
72   And under hir belte full many a flone;

42-45 Murray places a lacuna in his printing of the Thornton, Cotton, and Cambridge Manuscripts, yet he clearly believes something resembling the text of the Lansdowne once stood here, since his numbering of the lines takes the Lansdowne into account. Yet whatever memory of the original the Lansdowne preserves is an imperfect and troublesome one, which we cannot simply insert to fill the gap, since that would disrupt the rhyme scheme and the numbering. 

[The farest Molde that any myght be;
Here sadell bryght as any day.
*44   Set with pereles to þe kne.
And furthermore of hir Aray,
Divers clothing she had upon;]

41 -- palfrey: a riding horse of the Middle Ages, known for a smooth, quick gait that made it ideal for travelling long distances.

*42 -- Molde: type, nature, character.

*45 -- furthermore: in addition.

*45-46 -- Aray...clothing: it is difficult to be sure what is being described here, since aray can refer either to the furnishings of the saddle or the apparel of the Lady, and clothing can mean 'clothing' as well as the 'trappings' of a horse. 'And furthermore', however, seems to establish a connection to *43-44, and the descriptions of the horse's tack are more detailed than those of the Lady, whom the poet calls indescribable in line 40, or describes in vague or fulsome terms: she shines like the summer sun (47-480; wears her hair loose, blows a horn, or sings (54-56). This inclines me to believe that aray and clothing refer to the saddle and its trappings.

*46 -- clothing: the trappings or caparison. In image two we see two caparisoned horses, one in blue, the other in red.

 lmage Two, by Jean Fouquet ca 1450s 1455-60.

46 -- Swylke one: 'such a one'. See next note.

-- ne saghe j neuer none: the vaporish modern prohibition against multiple negatives does not apply in Middle English. It requires a bit of gymnastics to make them all fit in: ''Nor saw I never none such as this one.' It is obviously a very strongly negative statement.

-- 49: selle also means saddle, but here may refer specifically to the seat. Cf. the same line in the Lansdowne -- 'here sege was of ryall bone' -- where sege clearly means 'seat',

-- roelle bone: walrus ivory, or possibly narwhal (OED s.v. ruel-bone). The Lewis Chessmen are likely the most famous example of work in walrus ivory. For much of the Middle Ages, elephant ivory was in short supply in northern Europe.

52 -- compaste: 'compassed', or 'surrounded', i.e., a border of gemstones ran along the edges of the saddle.

-- crapote: either toadstone -- a greenish fossil gemstone believed to be found inside the heads of toads (cf. Fr. crapaud), which could serve as an antidote to poison --  or emerald as  'Stones of Oryente' may indicate. How often is 'emerald' the more prosaic choice?

56 -- a whylle...anoþer...: sometimes...sometimes....

57 -- garthes: the girth of the saddle.

58 -- berell stone: beryl, of which emerald and aquamarine are examples.

59 -- crystalle clere: quartz crystal. Cf. Sir Orfeo 357-58, on the wall of the fairy king's castle: 'Al þe vt-mast wal / Was clere & schine as cristal'.

60 -- perell: pearl or mother of pearl.

-- over-by-gone: 'ornamented all over'.

61 -- payetrelle: peitrel, a 'protective breastplate' or 'breast collar' for a horse. See image three.

-- jrale fyne: an unknown precious stone. Murray says: 'I can get no light on iral-stane; the scribes also seem not to have understood it, and hence their alterations, rial, alarane, &c'. He guesses that iral-stane was the original reading, since that would rhyme with schone in line 63, which fyne obviously cannot.

63 -- cropoure: crupper, today only a strap running the back of the saddle to the horse's tail to keep the saddle from shifting; in the Middle Ages, a covering for the horse's hind quarters, often armored. See image two.

-- Orpharë: probably signifying that the crupper has an ornamental band or fringe of gold, from orfevrie, 'goldsmith's work', from Latin 'aurifaber', goldsmith.

Image Three

*65-70 -- A second lacuna, this one posited by Murray. While there is no visible gap in Thornton, Lansdowne shows one. Cotton is damaged at this point, but enough remains to show that it did not continue as Thornton does, directly from 'bellys three' to 'And sevene raches...'. Cambridge supplies the text I've inserted. This, however, is also problematic. For, as Murray points out, these lines are not in the poem itself, but 'written at the side and foot with marks of insertion'.

*66 -- rachis: a rache or ratch was a hunting dog that tracked its prey by scent, unlike greyhounds, which rely on sight.

*67 -- To speke with hir wold I not seesse: Since he has not spoken with her yet, this sentence seems unlikely to mean, 'to speak with her I would not cease'. Here 'with hir' makes more sense taken to mean 'regarding her'. He can't stop talking about her.

*68 -- lire: cheek.

*70 -- fayre begon: 'beautifully turned-out'.

71 -- halse: neck.

72 -- flone: arrows. Together with the horn and the dogs, the arrows suggest that she is hunting, but what, or whom? Arrows of course had long been associated with the god of Love. Does the poet's failure to mention a bow make it more conspicuous? Does her appearance as a huntress hark back to Venus' appearing to Aeneas as a huntress in Book One of The Aeneid? (1.379-497 Fagles). There Aeneas mistakes her for a human at first, recognizing her as his goddess mother only as she turns to go. Thomas will also mistake the Fairy Queen for someone else when he sees her (lines 85-96).


Note to the Reader:

I am not a Medievalist by training, though I've read a fair amount of Old and Middle English for someone who isn't. My goal is to make this fascinating text more readily available and more easily read than it has been so far. The text Murray published in 1875 is available from the Early English Text Society for a reasonable price. (Beware of scanned reprints put out by others.) I have also lately discovered that Ingeborg Nixon published a text and commentary in Denmark in the early 1980s, but I have not been able to find a copy of it for sale at anything like a reasonable price ($300+). For that much I should get to meet the Queen of Elfland herself. One of these days I will make a pilgrimage to consult it at the New York University library, which seems to have a copy. So, pardon any mistakes I make, and help me to correct them. I will gladly publish any comment that is civil and signed. Anything rude or anonymous I shall delete.


Works Consulted

Burnham, Josephine M, A Study of Thomas of Erceldoune, PMLA 23.3 (1908) 375-420.

Lyle, E.B., Thomas of Erceldoune: The Prophet and the Prophesied, Folklore 79 (1968) 111-121.

________, The Relationship between Thomas the Rhymer and Thomas of  Erceldoune, Leeds Studies in English 4 (1970) 23-30.

________, The Visions in St Patrick's Purgatory, Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas the Rhymer, and The Demon Lover, Neuphilologishe Mitteilungen 72 (1971) 716-722.

Paton, Lucy Alan, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance, Boston (1903).

Swainson, Charles, Provincial Names and Folklore of British Birds, London (1885).


⇦Thomas of Erceldoune IV || Thomas of Erceldoune VI⇨

26 October 2017

The More You Read, The More Jokes You Get

Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948)

A friend of mine once told me that the more you read, the more jokes you get.

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Lying down at OPHELIA's feet. 
No, my lord. 
I mean, my head upon your lap? 
Ay, my lord. 
Do you think I meant country matters? 
I think nothing, my lord. 
That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs. 
What is, my lord? 
You are merry, my lord. 
Who, I? 
Ay, my lord.

Once I was teaching Hamlet, and one of my exceptional, fun students, stopped me when we were discussing Act III Scene ii. There was an editor's note in the text, she said, which pointed out that 'country matters' was an obscene pun. She didn't get it. For a moment I stopped, trying to think of a way to suggest it to her without saying too much. You have to hear it to get it, I told her, and turned away to write on the board. A few seconds passed, in which the tap and scratch of chalk on slate seemed to fill the room. Then I heard her: "Oh..OH!" Recognition murmured its way across the room.

This morning, twenty years after, I was reading Thomas of Erceldoune, and came across an obscene joke that was almost certainly not there, but which I got but because I had read Shakespeare.

'Come lygge thyne hede downe on my knee,
And [þou] sall se þe fayreste syghte,
þat euer sawe mane of thi contree.' (1.194-96) 
Come lie thine head down on my knee,
And thou shalt see the fairest sight
That ever saw a man of thy country.

I don't think this is what my friend meant, but in a November of the soul you take what you can get.

Sad Songs They Say So Much, or, Northrop Frye Explains It All

Northrop Frye statue outside the Moncton Public Library, not yet defaced by adherents of subsequent critical schools

In this miraculous paragraph Northrop Frye explains not only why sad songs are always the best, but also how Tolkien could write both The Hobbit and The Children of Húrin:

In literature there are two great organizing patterns. One is the natural cycle itself; the other, a final separation between an idealized and happy world and a horrifying or miserable one.  Comedy moves in the direction of the former, and traditionally closes in some traditional formula as "They lived happily ever after." Tragedy moves in the opposite direction, and towards the complementary formula "Count no man happy until he is dead."  The moral effect of literature is normally bound up with its assumption that we prefer to identify ourselves with the happy world and detach ourselves from the wretched one. The record of history, in itself, does not indicate this: it indicates that man is quite as enthusiastic about living in hell as in heaven.  To see misery as tragic, as a destroyed and perverted form of greatness and splendor, is a primary achievement of Greek literature. The Bible's vision of misery is ironic rather than tragic, but the same dialectical separation of the two worlds is quite as strongly marked. 
The Great Code, 73
It would also make a terrific passage to set for an examination essay, followed by the single word: discuss.

22 October 2017

Guest Post -- Meredith McEwen on Goldberry

Some weeks ago, following up on discussions in the class Meredith McEwen refers to below, I posted some observations on Goldberry. Soon thereafter Meredith had some astute remarks of her own to add to the conversation, and she has been gracious enough to allow me to share them with everyone. My thanks to her for allowing me to post them here. 


While discussing Goldberry and Tom Bombadil in Corey Olson’s intrepid Exploring the Lord of the Rings class, several of my fellow readers commented that “Goldberry” doesn’t sound at all like an appropriate name for a water-spirit. I wholeheartedly agree and got to thinking about who the River-woman’s daughter might truly be. What does the river nourish? Many things along its course: the flora and fauna surrounding the Withywindle. Perhaps “berry” is metaphorical for the “fruit” of the river plants- a golden flower among the reeds and lilypads. In particular, water-lilies can produce a yellow flower and the yellow iris grows in reed beds (reeds and water-lilies being the two plants explicitly named in connection with Goldberry). If you came across such a flower in the woods, might it look like a golden berry floating upon the river or swaying along the riverbank?

Goldberry’s role in Middle-Earth has always been a mystery to me, but I now strongly suspect she’s the spirit of the river flowers (the “daughters” of the river). The comparisons to a “reed by a pool” and a queen “clothed in living flowers” or wearing a gown “green as young reeds” create an undeniable connection to flowers and plant life. Tom recounts to the hobbits that he first met Goldberry “sitting in the rushes” by the pool of the Withywindle where water-lilies first bloom in the spring and “linger latest” in the autumn. The longevity of the lilies may be due to her influence as a flower spirit. Tom’s errand to collect lilies is more than the simple act of a husband bringing flowers to his wife: he uniting her home with his.

I also have to note that Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book contains an Estonian story called “The Water-lily, the Gold-Spinners”. The story is of a maiden who, after escaping a wicked witch’s cottage where she was forced to spin gold thread, is transformed by that witch into a yellow water-lily. The Prince who helped her escape asks a Finnish wizard how to rescue the maiden. The wizard explains that the Prince must transform into a crab, swim down into the river to where he can reach the water-lily’s roots, and cut the roots to remove the flower from the river. Then the prince will be able to transform both himself and maiden back into their natural forms and live happily ever after.

While it’s a tenuous connection, we know that Tolkien read Lang’s collections as a child. In Tolkien’s original Adventures of Tom Bombadil, the hero’s plunge into the river is involuntary, however he does succeed in “uprooting” Goldberry from the river bottom when they marry and she moves into his house. Perhaps the seeds of their relationship were planted in the Estonian fairy tale.

15 October 2017

Review: Ragnarok

Ragnarok Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

More complete and profound a retelling of Norse myths and their power than other less accomplished authors have recently published. Framed by the story of 'a thin child in wartime', Byatt's work illuminates both myth and the tottering world in which we now dwell.

View all my reviews

Iliad 1.1-52 Mythgard 2017 Webathon Recording

I make no pretense of being great at reading Homer aloud.  I am well aware I made a number of mistakes in this recording. There were times I stuttered, syllables I slurred, and a couple of rough breathings (a mark /ʽ/ before an initial vowel indicating an /h/) I just plain missed. At least once I jumbled two syllables, saying θυμῷ (''thymo' -- 'heart') at the end of line 33, when I should have said μύθῳ ('mytho' -- 'word'). Homer said that Chryses obeyed Agamemnon's 'word', which I by spontaneous metathesis corrupted into 'obeyed his heart.' I don't know whether that counts as evidence of something for the oral transmission of poetry or not. I am still amazed I made it through ἤϊε -- three vowels, three syllables, not a consonant in sight -- without hurting myself. I risked redefining hiatal hernia right there. But the cause was a good one.

However that may be, Corey Olsen at Signum University asked me for a recording of some Homer for the webathon for this year's annual fund. I obliged. For those who may be curious, or who, living in glassless houses, might want to throw stones, here it is. On the page below are Homer's Greek and Fagles' translation of these lines (1.1-52). I have divided both the Greek and English into new matching paragraphs, in the hope that it might help those with little or no Greek have some idea of how what they are hearing corresponds to what they are seeing. However, beyond the first few lines the line numbers of the Greek and the English do not match. 

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
5    οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

τίς τ᾽ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι;
Λητοῦς καὶ Διὸς υἱός: ὃ γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθεὶς
10    νοῦσον ἀνὰ στρατὸν ὄρσε κακήν, ὀλέκοντο δὲ λαοί,
οὕνεκα τὸν Χρύσην ἠτίμασεν ἀρητῆρα
Ἀτρεΐδης: ὃ γὰρ ἦλθε θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν
λυσόμενός τε θύγατρα φέρων τ᾽ ἀπερείσι᾽ ἄποινα,
στέμματ᾽ ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος
15    χρυσέῳ ἀνὰ σκήπτρῳ, καὶ λίσσετο πάντας Ἀχαιούς,
Ἀτρεΐδα δὲ μάλιστα δύω, κοσμήτορε λαῶν: 

"Ἀτρεΐδαι τε καὶ ἄλλοι ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί,
ὑμῖν μὲν θεοὶ δοῖεν Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχοντες
ἐκπέρσαι Πριάμοιο πόλιν, εὖ δ᾽ οἴκαδ᾽ ἱκέσθαι:
20    παῖδα δ᾽ ἐμοὶ λύσαιτε φίλην, τὰ δ᾽ ἄποινα δέχεσθαι,
ἁζόμενοι Διὸς υἱὸν ἑκηβόλον Ἀπόλλωνα."

ἔνθ᾽ ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες ἐπευφήμησαν Ἀχαιοὶ
αἰδεῖσθαί θ᾽ ἱερῆα καὶ ἀγλαὰ δέχθαι ἄποινα:
ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ Ἀτρεΐδῃ Ἀγαμέμνονι ἥνδανε θυμῷ,
25    ἀλλὰ κακῶς ἀφίει, κρατερὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε:

"μή σε γέρον κοίλῃσιν ἐγὼ παρὰ νηυσὶ κιχείω
ἢ νῦν δηθύνοντ᾽ ἢ ὕστερον αὖτις ἰόντα,
μή νύ τοι οὐ χραίσμῃ σκῆπτρον καὶ στέμμα θεοῖο:
τὴν δ᾽ ἐγὼ οὐ λύσω: πρίν μιν καὶ γῆρας ἔπεισιν
30    ἡμετέρῳ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ ἐν Ἄργεϊ τηλόθι πάτρης
ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένην καὶ ἐμὸν λέχος ἀντιόωσαν:
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι."

ὣς ἔφατ᾽, ἔδεισεν δ᾽ ὃ γέρων καὶ ἐπείθετο μύθῳ:
βῆ δ᾽ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης:
35    πολλὰ δ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε κιὼν ἠρᾶθ᾽ ὃ γεραιὸς
Ἀπόλλωνι ἄνακτι, τὸν ἠΰκομος τέκε Λητώ:

"κλῦθί μευ ἀργυρότοξ᾽, ὃς Χρύσην ἀμφιβέβηκας
Κίλλάν τε ζαθέην Τενέδοιό τε ἶφι ἀνάσσεις,
Σμινθεῦ εἴ ποτέ τοι χαρίεντ᾽ ἐπὶ νηὸν ἔρεψα,
40    ἢ εἰ δή ποτέ τοι κατὰ πίονα μηρί᾽ ἔκηα
ταύρων ἠδ᾽ αἰγῶν, τὸ δέ μοι κρήηνον ἐέλδωρ:
τίσειαν Δαναοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσιν."

ὣς ἔφατ᾽ εὐχόμενος, τοῦ δ᾽ ἔκλυε Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
βῆ δὲ κατ᾽ Οὐλύμποιο καρήνων χωόμενος κῆρ,
45    τόξ᾽ ὤμοισιν ἔχων ἀμφηρεφέα τε φαρέτρην:
ἔκλαγξαν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὀϊστοὶ ἐπ᾽ ὤμων χωομένοιο,
αὐτοῦ κινηθέντος: ὃ δ᾽ ἤϊε νυκτὶ ἐοικώς.
ἕζετ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε νεῶν, μετὰ δ᾽ ἰὸν ἕηκε:
δεινὴ δὲ κλαγγὴ γένετ᾽ ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο:
50     οὐρῆας μὲν πρῶτον ἐπῴχετο καὶ κύνας ἀργούς,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ᾽ αὐτοῖσι βέλος ἐχεπευκὲς ἐφιεὶς
βάλλ᾽: αἰεὶ δὲ πυραὶ νεκύων καίοντο θαμειαί.

Rage -- Goddess sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
05   feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving towards it end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

What god drove them to fight with such a fury?
10   Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king
he swept a fatal plague through the arm -- men were dying
all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo's priest.
Yes, Chryses approached the Achaeans' fast ships
to win his daughter back, bringing a priceless ransom,
15   and bearing high in hand, wound on a golden staff
the wreaths of the god, the deadly distant Archer.
He begged the whole Achaean army, but most of all
the two supreme commanders, Atreus' two sons,

"Agamemnon, Menelaus, all Argives geared for war!
20   May the gods who hold the halls of Olympus give you
Priam's city to plunder, then safe passage home.
Just set my daughter free, my dear one ... here
accept these gifts, this ransom. Honor the god
who strikes from worlds away, the son of Zeus, Apollo!

25   And all the ranks of Achaeans cried out their assent:
"Respect the priest! Accept the shining ransom!"
But it brought no joy to the heart of Agamemnon.
The king dismissed the priest with a brutal order
ringing in his ears:

                               "Never again, old man
30   let me catch sight of you by the hollow ships!
Not loitering now, not slinking back tomorrow.
The staff and the wreaths of the god will never save you then.
The girl -- I won't give up the girl. Long before that
old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,
35   far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth
at the loom, forced to share my bed! Now go,
don't tempt my wrath -- and you may depart alive."

The old man was terrified. He obeyed the order,
turning, trailing away in silence down the shore
40   where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag.
And moving off to a safe distance, over and over
the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,
lord Apollo:

                    "Hear me, Apollo, god of the silver bow
who strides the walls of Chryse and Cilla sacrosanct --
45   lord in power of Tenedos, Smintheus, god of the plague!
If I ever roofed a shrine to please your heart,
ever burned the long, rich bones of bulls and goats
on your holy altar, now, now, bring my prayers to pass.
Pay the Danaans back -- your arrows for my tears!"

50   His prayer went up and Phoebus Apollo heard him.
Down he strode from Olympus' peaks, storming at heart
with his bow and hooded quiver slung across his shoulders.
The arrows clanged at his back as the god quaked with rage,
the god himself on the march and down he came like night.
55   Over against the ships he dropped to a knee, let fly a shaft
and a terrifying clash rang out from the silver bow.
First he went for the mules and the circling dogs, but then,
launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves,
he cut them down in droves --
60   and the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight.


14 October 2017

The Wonder of the Unexplained (TT 3.v.498)

Carl Emil Doepler

From early on, people have wondered if Tom Bombadil is really Eru Ilúvatar in disguise. As early as September 1954, within weeks of the first volume's publication on 29 July, Tolkien was answering the question of whether Old Tom was God (No: Letter 153). Even at the stage of page-proofs, the question of who Tom seems to have arisen. Naomi Mitchison, who had been reading them early that year, had written to Tolkien with a number of inquiries to which Tolkien responds, but does not answer. At one point he writes:

There is of course a clash between 'literary' technique, and the fascination of elaborating in detail an imaginary mythical Age (mythical, not allegorical: my mind does not work allegorically). As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); and I have perhaps from this point of view erred in trying to explain too much, and give too much past history. Many readers have, for instance, rather stuck at the Council of Elrond. And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally). 
(Letter 144, 25 April 1954)

Other mysteries remain as well, and always will I hope. The Watcher in the Water (FR 2.iv.308-09), the 'fell voices on the air' in the night on Caradhras (FR 2.iii.289), the 'nameless things' that gnaw the world 'far, far below the deepest delving of the dwarves' (TT 3.v.501) make up an intriguing set, centered on the Misty Mountains around Moria. Why did Galadriel marry such a dolt? The man Brego and Baldor met at the Door to the Paths of the Dead (RK 5.iii.797-98). Who is that guy? Where does the locked door lead outside which Aragorn found Baldor dead (RK 5.ii.787)? Was that an Entwife Sam's cousin Hal saw up on the North Moors, or was Hal as daft as everybody but Sam seems to think he is (FR 1.ii.xx.44-45). And whose voice was speaking to Sam as he debated what to do when Frodo seemed dead (TT 4.x.731-32). These are only a few of the mysteries we encounter that unexplained make our experience all the richer.  But there's one that seems to have an explanation, but is it the explanation that is suggested to us?

Recall the the night Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas spend beneath the eaves of Fangorn. They briefly see an old man, cloaked and leaning on a staff, wearing a hat pulled down over his eyes (TT 3.ii.442-43). They assume that is Saruman, but the next day they meet Gandalf the White, and Gimli wonders whether they had seen Saruman or Gandalf: "'You certainly did not see me,'answered Gandalf, 'therefore I must guess that you saw Saruman.'" (TT 3.v.498).

But must we guess the same? We never receive a definitive answer, never see a bit of evidence that it was Saruman. Saruman certainly never tells. Who then? In Letter 107 says that he thinks of Gandalf as 'an Odinic wanderer', since Odin sometimes appeared as a wanderer cloaked and in a broad-brimmed hat, much the same garb as Gandalf and (it seems) Saruman wear. He was also called 'All-father' (Alföðr), not unlike Ilúvatar, literally 'the father of the universe', which has il 'all' as one of its roots (Lost Road, 361).

Carl Emil Doepler

Do I really think it's Ilúvatar they see? No. That's not very likely, but it's fun to speculate (so idly) that a visit from god himself might lie hidden in plain sight.  Wouldn't be the first time, I imagine.

06 October 2017

Review: Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology

Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology by Dimitra Fimi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was with a learned touch and a clear, precise voice that Dimitra Fimi gave us Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. This essential work she followed up, in splendid alliance with Andrew Higgins, with J. R. R. Tolkien: A Secret Vice. Now she devotes that same scholarship and persuasive clarity to Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology.

Calling out this intriguing partnership of myth and genre, Dr Fimi analyzes the ways in which today’s writers have drawn upon primary texts, centuries old folklore, 19th and 20th century scholarship (some of it problematic if not downright loony), as well as the fantasy of earlier writers (e.g., Alan Garner), and transformed these sources into stories of their own that resonate with their own times and concerns. In this regard they have much in common with Celtic writers, both Irish and Welsh, as far back as the Middle Ages.

Whether the young protagonists of these tales travel themselves to the past or to the Otherworld, or whether the past and the Otherworld come to them, these fantasies combine education and pleasure, utile dulci: family, culture, nationality, and growing up blend with enchantment, adventure, and wonder. They all take place within a continuum of ‘Celticity’, which sometimes seems best understood as a portmanteau of ‘Celtic’ and ‘elasticity’. If the writers Dimitra Fimi has studied here – Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Mary Tannen, Pat O’Shea, Lloyd Alexander, Kate Thompson, Henry Neff, Jenny Nimmo, and Catherine Fisher – have not told tales as up to date as they might have been from the perspective of contemporary scholarly understanding of the Celts, they have succeeded in telling tales that will inform and delight the young of all kinds, and spur them onward to learn both more and better. Thanks to Dr Fimi’s fine synthesis, the readers of the present volume will also go forward, informed and delighted, about these works in particular and about the writing of Children’s fantasy in general.

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02 October 2017

Faërian Drama: the Final Curtain? (FR 2.viii.377-78)

The singing drew nearer. One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood. This was the song as Frodo heard it.... 
(FR 1.iii.79)

If the power of Elvish song is such that those who do not know Elvish still understand it, as Frodo, Sam, and Pippin do when they encounter Gildor's troop in the woods of the Shire, why don't they also understand the lament of the Elves of Lothlórien for Gandalf, which Legolas refused to translate because it was too difficult and too painful (FR 2.vii.359); and why does Legolas feel the need to translate the song of Nimrodel (FR 2.vi.339)?

Or is it only poetry in Quenya and Sindarin that have this power? Legolas makes clear that the poem about Nimrodel is 'in the woodland tongue', by which he means the Silvan Elvish descended from Nandorin. Since the Elves of Lothlórien were of the same folk, their lament for Gandalf, which Legolas alone of the Company understood, was also in Silvan, or so it would seem. For, had it been in Sindarin, Aragorn and Boromir at least would have understood it.

This raises the intriguing and likely unanswerable question of why only song in Quenya and Sindarin might be capable of this effect. At first I thought that the power might be proper only to the High Elves, or Calaquendi, like Gildor or the minstrels in Rivendell, who are Noldorin. It would make a certain sense if singers who had dwelt in Valinor and seen the Light of the Trees possessed this ability, except that song the hobbits hear in the Shire is in Sindarin, and Daeron of Doriath, is said to have been 'the greatest of all the minstrels of the Elves east of the Sea, named even before Maglor son of Fëanor' (S. 183). It is perhaps not irrelevant here that Doriath had a twofold connection with Valinor, namely Thingol and Melian; and in the time of Daeron and Maglor, the fading of the Elves had scarcely begun. Still what we seem to be seeing is a clear distinction in powers of enchantment between different kinds of Elves.

We also should not ignore the two songs Galadriel sings before the departure of the company from Lothlórien.  The first, 'I sang of leaves' (FR 2.viii.372-73), they apparently understand at once, just as they did the hymn to Elbereth in the Shire and the songs at Rivendell. The narrator makes no comment to draw the reader's attention to their understanding of the language. Nor does he have any need to do so because of the continuity with these passages. On the contrary, it is precisely the failure to understand the songs of the woodland Elves that the narrator considers worthy of note.

In the case of 'Namarië', however, we find something strange and rather different, something which has had me wondering for decades and which I now believe I understand at last.  After Galadriel sings in Quenya, the narrator calls out the fact that Frodo has not understood her song, though he remembers the words and translates them, with difficulty, 'long afterwards'. Suddenly, the song of this most powerful and majestic of all the Elves in The Lord of the Rings, a lament to Varda herself in the language of Elven song, fails to convey its meaning to its audience, just as the songs of the woodland Elves did. 

The translation, moreover, is also into prose, not verse, which is odd in itself, given the power of Elven song to come to life, as it were, in the minds of its audience (FR 2.i.233; S. 140-41, 171). Finally -- and perhaps this is just a matter of taste --  that prose rendering, while sturdy and serviceable, has always seemed rather bookish and not the masterful elegy Galadriel's lament calls for. The rather intrusive 'scholarly' gloss on 'Varda', which we are probably meant to regard as the work of a later hand, only reinforces the lack of enchantment we find here. The answer, I would argue, lies in the introduction to the poem:

On the green bank near to the very point of the Tongue the Lady Galadriel stood alone and silent. As they passed her they turned and their eyes watched her slowly floating away from them. For so it seemed to them: Lórien was slipping backward, like a bright ship masted with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they sat helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world. 
Even as they gazed, the Silverlode passed out into the currents of the Great River, and their boats turned and began to speed southwards. Soon the white form of the Lady was small and distant. She shone like a window of glass upon a far hill in the westering sun, or as a remote lake seen from a mountain: a crystal fallen in the lap of the land. Then it seemed to Frodo that she lifted her arms in a final farewell, and far but piercing-clear on the following wind came the sound of her voice singing. But now she sang in the ancient tongue of the Elves beyond the Sea, and he did not understand the words: fair was the music, but it did not comfort him. 
Yet as is the way of Elvish words, they remained graven in his memory, and long afterwards he interpreted them, as well as he could: the language was that of Elven-song and spoke of things little known on Middle-earth.
(FR 2.viii.377)
Lothlórien, as Verlyn Flieger has argued (1997: 89-115, 192-97), is the supreme example of Faërian Drama, where, to use Tolkien's words  'you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp' (OFS ¶ 74). Galadriel has already told us that Spring and Summer will never again come to Lothlórien (FR 2.viii.375). This song is over. Frodo does not understand 'Namarië' because the spell is broken. The curtain has come down on Faërian Drama, and Frodo must parse out his Quenya like the rest of us, huddled beneath our midnight lamps.

'Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.'
(FR 2.vii.365)
Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad. 
'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.'  
(FR 2.vii.366)