. Alas, not me: January 2017

29 January 2017

28 January 2017

Review: Peter Pan

Peter Pan Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a sublime little book this is, which I had never read till now. It's so much sadder and full of longing, both for those who grow up and those who don't, than I ever expected it to be. Among the many things I found interesting was that there is only one actual fairy in it, the splendidly chaotic Tinker Bell, but the story isn't about her. In fact she disappears for much of it.

Rather, it is the adventures of humans in Faërie: the lost boys, the Darling children, the Pirates, the Indians, even Peter. But, as Tolkien, who as a very young man (1910) had seen the stage play of Peter Pan and was much impressed by it, pointed out decades later, that is what good fairy-stories are:

Stories that are actually concerned primarily with “fairies,” that is with creatures that might also in modern English be called “elves,” are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting. Most good “fairy-stories” are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.
On Fairy-stories,  ¶ 11

Part of what's interesting about this is that Tolkien of course grew to loathe fluttery gossamer fairies like Tinker Bell. Another interesting point, which Dimitra Fimi has discussed in her Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (2010) 34-38, is the moment when Peter, in order to help save Tinker Bell, reaches out to children in the real world who are asleep and 'might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees' (chapter XIII, Do You Believe in Fairies?). The idea that dreaming children are 'nearer' to Faërie reappears in Tolkien's early poem (1915) 'You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play,' in which children reach Faërie through their dreams. Tolkien also later speaks of this Path of Dreams, the Olórë Mallë, in The Book of Lost Tales, Part One.  We might also hear a more distant echo of this in Frodo's dream/vision of Elvenhome while in the house of Tom Bombadil.

So both for its storytelling and for its influence elsewhere, this is definitely a book worth reading.

John Hurt -- Jabberwocky

26 January 2017

Anachronism and Artifacts of Translation (FR 1.i.27-28)

The lights went out. A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a red-golden dragon – not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion. 
(FR 1.i.27-28, emphasis mine)
'Like an express train' is of course a simile entirely unsuited to the pre-industrial world of Middle-earth. Many have called it an anachronism, and it is, broadly speaking, but, as Corey Olsen has noted more than once in my hearing, strictly speaking it is not, because the 'translator' of the Red Book has introduced this phrase, not the narrator. Presumably the narrator (Frodo) used a phrase or idiom that conveyed the same meaning, only with different words. The translator, however, wasn't sufficiently alive to the words he was using to realize the paradox he was creating. 

Sound far-fetched?

Not quite.

Consider one of Aubrey de Selincourt's least happy translations of Livy's Latin:
The tribune would have been roughly handled but for the universal and determined support of the mob and the rapid filling of the Forum by excited men who ran from every part of the city to swell the crowd. Appius stuck to his guns, ugly though the situation was.... 
(Livy, Book 2, Chapter 56; emphasis added)
The events described here took place, according to Livy, in the year we would call 471 B.C.E.  So clearly Appius, one of the consuls of that year, had no guns to stick to. The Latin for 'Appius...was' is 'sustinebat tamen Appius pertinacia tantam tempestatem,' which may be easily rendered into the following English: 'Nonetheless through tenacity Appius withstood so great a storm.' De Selincourt, however, in his search for a forceful metaphor lost sight of the literal meaning of the words he chose.

Thus we can understand 'express train' as precisely analogous to 'stuck to his guns', as an artifact of a translation momentarily out of touch with the larger context of the words being translated.* And since Tolkien himself is the only 'translator' of the Red Book who lived in the age of express trains, he is poking fun at himself by not removing the 'anachronism', perhaps at first as unwittingly as de Selincourt later did with Livy. 

Livy, 'The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of 'The History of Rome from Its Foundations,' translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, Penguin (1960, reprinted with additional material 2002).



*It has been suggested that a close paleographical analysis of the surviving ms of the Red Book of Westmarch is consistent with the reading 'like Bolgers at a buffet' for the original simile,

25 January 2017

In the Realm of Useless Footnotes III

In the first chapter of Peter Pan, while reckoning up the costs of raising children with his wife, Mr Darling mentions mumps, measles, German measles (rubella), and whooping cough (pertussis). My edition of the text, which appeared in 2005, footnotes each of these diseases with a description of its symptoms. 

It took me a dull moment to realize why the editor felt the need to gloss these once common childhood diseases for her readers. Ah, once common. Then I could only laugh out loud. It isn't every day that a work of fantasy supplies evidence of the effectiveness of vaccination. 


J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan, with introduction and notes by Amy Billone, Barnes and Noble Books (New York: 2005).

19 January 2017

After the Deluge

Sorry for all the reviews. I am consolidating both my blogs. But it is now safe to send out the dove in search of land.

Review: Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness

Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I give it four stars solely on the quality of the writing. The man really knew how to put words together. Often, though, and this is more often true of his prose than his poetry, which can be quite striking, what he had to tell was repulsive and left you feeling the need of a shower.

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Review: The First Man in Rome

The First Man in Rome The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book. It was well researched and not implausible, a tale well told, but each succeeding book in the series declined. When I reached the point, three or four books in, where Julius Caesar began talking to his masculinity, I just gave up.

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Review: Nightfall and Other Stories

Nightfall and Other Stories Nightfall and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

the collection is good overall, but the title story is outstanding, often and justly considered one of the greatest of SF stories.

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Review: The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary

The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

some of the entries are so acidic you expect the pages to hiss.

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Review: The Ice Palace

The Ice Palace The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

lovely and slow, dreamlike, full of sorrow and grief and hope again after.

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Review: The History of the Hobbit

The History of the Hobbit The History of the Hobbit by John D. Rateliff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

this is no light read. it is a work of serious scholarship intended for serious students of Tolkien.

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Review: The Long War

The Long War The Long War by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I can only repeat here what I said about The Long Earth, except to add that The Long War is even less interesting.

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Review: Atonement

Atonement Atonement by Ian McEwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In which the innocent atone for the sins of the guilty, but isn't that always the case? Beautifully, brilliantly written.

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Review: Ajax Penumbra 1969

Ajax Penumbra 1969 Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

a decided improvement on "Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore," which is too transparently clever for its own good. The pacing here is better and the storytelling more persuasive.

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Review: Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North

Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North by G. Ronald Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

scholarly, persuasive, fascinating, one of the very best books I've read in many years. The only drawback is the publisher's failure to reproduce the photographs in way that is anything but embarrassing.

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Review: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A shallow young man lives in a thoughtless daydream of a world that is about to vanish. His older, more worldly self, tells the story, but allows his past actions to speak for themselves.

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Review: Red Harvest

Red Harvest Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Often crime fiction has a romantic glamour cast over it, as if there were honor among thieves when all there really can be is a doubtful truce. Red Harvest has no such illusions.

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Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully done book about what fools we human beings are. Our folly defies and defines both faith and reason. The climax of the book, which is melancholy but not without a glimmer of hope, is heartbreaking.

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Review: Wait Till Next Year

Wait Till Next Year Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A deftly done, clearly written memoir of growing up in an America that seemed idyllic, but was on the crest of change. It's nice to be reminded that memoirs needn't be sopping with narcissism, and the lurid fascinations of shipwrecked lives.

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Review: Nothing On Earth

Nothing On Earth Nothing On Earth by Conor O'Callaghan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Written with a sure touch, it never gives much away, or spells anything out for you. It leaves you wanting to know more, but feeling that there is no more that can be known. Spooky, creepy, lovely.

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Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was a kid, the Burton-Taylor movie of this play always ran on tv in the middle of the night, split into two parts shown on two nights. There's a reason for that. The play is so scalding that it's hard to endure all at once. Amazing. Unpleasant. Brilliant.

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Review: Ender's Game

Ender's Game Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Aside from a nice twist right near the end, this book wasn't very interesting. Almost all the main characters are young children, which is fine, but they are implausible as such, and the author does little or nothing to make them plausible. The prose is sturdily unremarkable.

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Review: Middlemarch

Middlemarch Middlemarch by George Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What amazes me the most about Middlemarch is that its most powerful scenes take place in an eloquent ironic, silence, in which the characters can almost never say what they wish and often misunderstand each other entirely, while the reader looks on, fascinated and helpless.

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Review: The History of Middle-Earth Index

The History of Middle-Earth Index The History of Middle-Earth Index by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't so much a review as it is a recommendation. If you are interested in using The History of Middle-Earth as a source for studying Tolkien, this book is an indispensable aid. It's hard to come by, but will make for a lot less work. Not that flipping from volume to volume isn't fun.

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Review: Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien by Janet Brennan Croft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an excellent contribution to the scholarly study of the role and importance of women in the works of Tolkien. The writing is clear and level-headed, and the editing is thorough and professional. Every article is good, and several are exceptional. There's a lot of fine work here, which will repay the scrutiny of fan, student, and scholar.

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Review: The Long Earth

The Long Earth The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This was not a bad concept, but a middling execution, and a disappointment after all the good things I've read by Terry Pratchett in the past. I don't know whether to put it down to a partnership that just didn't work (unlike the successful partnership with Gaiman in Good Omens) or whether Pratchett, stripped of the humor of the Disc World novels, just doesn't have much to say.

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Review: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs

Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs by John Lindow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A solid work of scholarship. The introduction provides essential background material for the culture of the mythology, and an interesting, if brief, discussion of the nature of time in Norse mythology. Since the body of the book is arranged alphabetically by topic or character, it helps to have some grounding in Norse mythology to start with. So if what you're looking for is a narrative of the tales of the Norse gods, this not the right book.

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Review: Possession

Possession Possession by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a wonderful book, both fun and literarily impressive. Byatt weaves together many voices through letters, journals, books, and poems written by the characters, in addition to a third person narrator who sometimes addresses the reader and sometimes shows the reader things that most of the characters will never know. It's a good story well told, and it's even more fun if you know something about literary criticism and the academic world.

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Review: Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well written, but strange book, though I suppose the same could be said of its author. The first two thirds of the book remind me of a Thomas Hardy novel, with all the grim foreboding that entails, and you reach a point where you think it can only end in two gunshots. Then suddenly, with the turn of the page, a character who could have sprung from the forehead of Dickens appears, complete with an appropriate family, and you know somehow that all will end well.

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Review: American Gods

American Gods American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is the fourth book by Neil Gaiman that I've read, and the only one so far that I've found disappointing, very much so in fact. This was quite a surprise to me given how I liked Stardust, and loved both Good Omens and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and given how many people whose opinion I respected had told me good things about it. I found the basic concept of the book intriguing -- when immigrants bring their gods to a new land, and then stop believing in them, what happens to those gods? -- but was seldom charmed by, and often shook my head at, the execution.

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Review: The Great War and Modern Memory

The Great War and Modern Memory The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the very best books of literary criticism I have ever read, and I've read a few. It's not an easy book or a quick read, and it is an old school work of literary criticism that pays more attention to the facts of the text than to theories about the facts. But it is worth the effort, and you will learn a lot. If you're interested in WWI, read this book. If you're interested in the lost generation, read this book. If you're interested in 20th century poetry, read this book. If you're interested in the history of the 20th century and western civilization, read this book. If you're.... Need I go on?

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Review: Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden

Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden by Jack Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jack Vance's work has many charms. His prose is smooth and, for the most part, stealthily beautiful. Then all of a sudden it isn't stealthy at all, and it lifts you up. His wit is quick, surefooted, and dry. And he will surprise you by turning the story on a dime in an unexpected direction, but what he does follows, and you can't believe he just did that. So he is quite sly, and entirely persuasive. Even when he introduces fairies that seem to be just like those annoying, cloying toy pixies of the Victorians, they're not. Oh, no.

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Review: Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien

Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien by Patrick Curry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good and thoughtful book, knowledgeable and perceptive, though inclined to give much closer attention to the opinions of secondary sources than the evidence of primary.

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Review: Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very nice and useful edition, with the text of Boccaccio's Filostrato -- the source of Chaucer's poem -- on the facing page. This allows the reader to compare both texts closely, and to see where Chaucer departs from and expands, often greatly, on his source. In the second half of the book is a selection of scholarly articles on the poem. The only fault I can point to is one that this edition shares with too many editions of poems with explanatory notes -- that where a note is most needed, there almost never seems to be one. The story itself is marvelous, funny, sad, vexing, and enlightening. I look forward to re-reading Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida to see what he did with Chaucer's story.

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Review: Life After Life

Life After Life Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I hadn't read a review of this book before seeing the terrible cover they put on the American edition, I would probably have sneered at the book and walked on by. And the absurd endorsement that appears on the front of some editions would have only sped me on my way: "This is the best book I've read this century." It's only 2013. Maybe you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but people choose their books that way all the time.

This is a good and interesting book, well written, well read, at times bitterly funny, at times full of horror. Don't misunderstand the description given of this book. This isn't It's a Wonderful Life After Life. No bells ring here. No angels get their wings. This book has an edge, and a sharp one. And it will leave you wondering. The chapters on the Blitz are brutal.

I'm planning to read more Kate Atkinson.

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Review: Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Retribution is the first book I have read by Max Hastings, and I highly recommend it. It is an impressive work that provides a balanced account of the events and people involved in all the theaters of the Pacific War in 1944 and 1945, including many areas often neglected, e.g., China and Burma. Hastings writes well and clearly -- though, as another reviewer has noted, he chooses some odd words at times -- and he never seems shy about voicing his opinion either of the those who fought the war or of later historians who judge the way the war was fought.

As broad as the scope of his narrative is, it is also quite deep. He not only discusses and evaluates the famous leaders -- MacArthur, Stalin, Mao, Nimitz, and dozens of others -- but also spends time with many of the individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, and prisoners of war on both sides. He quotes often and extensively from their firsthand accounts and memories, which gives their stories an immediacy and emotional impact it could not have otherwise. What they went through, what they did, what they felt, are by turns breathtaking, horrifying, inspiring.

In the end it is this breadth and depth that make this book so good and worth reading. Others have written and will write again that, for example, it was wrong or right to drop the atomic bombs; others have criticized MacArthur or praised him. Those arguments are nothing new and will never be settled. Hastings has his opinions on the bomb and MacArthur, too. They will not be what I remember from this book. I will remember what I learned about the size of the war in China and Burma, and what I learned about the people who fought the war and how they felt about what they did and saw. This is a good book.

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Review: Tolkien

Tolkien Tolkien by Raymond Edwards
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This biography is much better on Tolkien's scholarship than Carpenter's. Edwards is perceptive, often witty, and definitely not shy about sharing his opinions. On Charles Williams, for example, he is quite scathing (p. 186):

"Williams was given to ... overuse of abstract nouns and to prolonged flirtations with impressionable young women. Williams clothed these flirtations, which in a couple of cases were prolonged over years and involved hundreds of letters, with a pseudo-mystical flummery borrowed from Dante, Swinburne and the whole overripe Blavatskian-Hermeticist tradition; but to all but dedicated fans, this stuff reads like transparent special pleading for what has aptly been called 'moral adultery'."

Now, really, who does not know that the young and impressionable must avoid the overripeness of the Blavatskian-Hermetecist tradition? I should think it goes without saying, but what does not go without saying is the source of borrowed judgements. By whom these 'prolonged flirtations' -- as as Edwards points out twice in so many words in two sentences -- were called 'moral adultery', we are never told. Not that I necessarily dispute the aptness of the opinion.

Nor is his lack of a citation here an isolated incident. For example, at one point Edwards cites Tom Shippey but gives no source (p. 303 n. 23 -- the nearest previous reference to Shippey is 15 footnotes earlier). At another (p. 83) he says that Robert Graves made a statement 'somewhere', and leaves it at that, but Google was able to locate that 'somewhere' in well under a second. Playing fast and loose like this with details undermines my confidence in the author. God and the Devil both lie in the details.

Despite faults like these, I enjoyed this book. I will consult it and find it useful. It does represent an advance beyond the hagiographic biography of Carpenter, and has profited by the research of the last 4o years. What we really need, however, is a new authorized biography based on much fuller access to Tolkien's letters, diaries, and papers.

As of this writing, the page count listed in Goodreads for this book is inaccurate. This edition has 336 pages, not 256.

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Review: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For anyone new to this series, whether you've just heard of it, or you've seen Game of Thrones on television, the first thing I would say is that these books are certainly not for children or the faint of heart. The violence is graphic and the sex (some would say) is pornographic. Rape is commonplace (often heard of, but rarely witnessed). A Song of Ice and Fire pulls no punches. It depicts a brutal world of treachery, murder, lust, and greed, in which even the good characters have to be ruthless if they wish to survive. Time Magazine has called Martin "the American Tolkien," but that is a superficial judgment. These books are nothing like Tolkien. Imagine the Sopranos in Middle Earth, and you'll get the picture.

And yet, as dark and twisted as these books are, they are compelling. No sooner did I finish one book than I started the next, and I am looking forward to the publication of "The Winds of Winter" somewhere between now and the end of time. This is because Martin's greatest strengths are plot and character. He weaves his tale out of many threads. The perspective shifts from chapter to chapter, as his main characters take their turns at center stage in Dickensian profusion. Some of them know what the other characters are up to, some think they do, and some don't know much at all. But each advances the complex plot, driving the story and the reader forward.

There are two areas in particular where Martin does an excellent job. First, he is more ruthless to his characters than Stephen King. No one is safe. No one. Second, almost all of his main characters are quite well rounded. They can surprise you. One character, for example, commits a horrific crime early in the series, and is known to have committed another. As the books go on and the portrait of his character develops, however, it becomes more difficult to pass a simple judgment because he begins taking actions the reader wants to admire him for. I had to keep reminding myself of what he had done before, and that, as someone says in one of the books, sins can be forgiven, but crimes must still be punished. The good guys aren't simply good, and the bad guys aren't simply bad.

All in all, a good, fun read, if you're up for it. There is no middle ground.

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Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To be honest right off, first person narration is something I find problematic and difficult, something too susceptible to the hothouse cleverness of writing school. That's not to say that a first person narrator cannot succeed. David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Rebecca, and Lolita are only a few examples of where it succeeds quite well.

First person narration adds an extra layer of difficulty to the author's already difficult task: with a first person narrator not only does the story have to be interesting, but so does the narrator. An uninteresting narrator -- which is not at all the same as an unlikable or an unreliable one -- has great difficulty carrying the story. And The Goldfinch is a long and difficult story, not without flaws of its own, for a narrator like Theo Decker who is not very interesting to have to carry alone.

The pity is, that Theo is at his most intriguing as a child whose mother has been killed in a terrorist bombing, and whose runaway alcoholic wastrel of a father looms offstage like the bad plot device that he is. Once his father (predictably) returns to claim him and take him to (where else?) Las Vegas, Theo devolves into just another teenager with a bad plot device for a father. He drinks, he drugs, he steals. He's just like his father, and only he doesn't know it yet.

When Theo's father dies in -- yes -- a drunk driving accident, and Theo flees back to New York City, he does become somewhat more interesting again, but not that much. Even at the end of the book, once the plot has resolved itself and Theo has revelations about life and beauty, he simply must blather on about them like someone who has read The Brothers Karamazov too many times in the middle of the night in his dorm room. It's not that what he says is not worth saying or pondering. He just takes so long to say it.

I would have found Theo a frustrating character if someone else had been telling his story -- almost very interesting, but not quite; almost very likable, but not quite. But in the narrator, those qualities work against the book. He reminds me of Pip from Great Expectations, interesting and likable as a child, but dull and vexing as an adult. Because his excesses start so early, by the time he is an adult they are merely tiresome.

Now some, like Stephen King, have used "Dickensian" to describe The Goldfinch. There certainly are a lot of orphans, and characters like Hobie and Pippa and (in a strange way) even Boris could slip into Dickens' world. So far so good. But that's about as far as I think the comparison goes. The wealthy Barbour family are a case in point. They take Theo in after his mother's death, and seem about to adopt him when his father shows up to take him away. Some years after Theo returns to New York, he becomes involved with them again.

Now if Dickens had brought them back into the story, as he would have done, he would have done something with them that would not have been better left out. There would have been some astonishing, unexpected moment where you learned something heartbreaking that you'd never guessed. For example, in Bleak House, Lady Dedlock flees her home and dies because she fears her husband's reaction to discovering the indiscretions of her youth, but he is shattered by her leaving. He doesn't care what she did long ago; he just loves her and wants her back. You don't see that coming. But in The Goldfinch the Barbours return for no reason that justifies all the time the story spends on them. They're just there, rich and blandly dysfunctional.

The story does end better than I had begun to fear it would. I was never really expecting a happy ending, but by page five hundred I was dreading that the denial of the happy ending might be delivered in a needless act of authorial tyranny. I am glad to say that did not happen.

Despite all this the novel does have its good points. Hobie and Boris in particular are excellent characters, and Tartt does a good job of portraying Theo and Pippa and Boris at different ages. In many ways the most interesting thing about Theo is the way his style changes over time, to reflect that the character was supposed to have begun writing this story as a teenager and continued as he grew older. That's nicely done. The story works overall. It has some nice twists and turns, two of which made me laugh out loud.

And there are moments when the prose possesses rhythm and beauty:

"Down narrow streets we wandered, damp alleys too narrow for cars, foggy little ochreous shops filled with old prints and dusty porcelains. Canal footbridge: brown water, lonely brown duck."

So I would give this book a tough three stars, because I cannot give it two and a half or three and a half. There is much in here that is very good, but could have been great.

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Review: The Book of Lost Tales, Part One

The Book of Lost Tales, Part One The Book of Lost Tales, Part One by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People who have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings often stumble when they turn to The Silmarillion, since the two works are so different in tone and perspective. The books in The History of Middle-Earth series are different again. They contain sixty years of stories we've never seen before because Tolkien abandoned them completely, as well as abandoned, early versions of the stories we have met elsewhere. These books are the archaeology of Tolkien's subcreation of Middle-Earth. Through alternating passages of text, notes, and commentary, Christopher Tolkien lays out how his father developed this world, tale by tale and word by word.

If that sounds interesting to you, then you may well find great pleasure in The Book of Lost Tales and the other books in this series. I know I have. That's not just because I have always been a big fan of Tolkien, but because I have also always been someone who studies books as much as I read books. I found it fascinating to discover how his conceptions of this world and these tales changed over time.

If you do decide to give this book a try, I'd suggest you also lend an ear to the Mythgard Academy's free online course on this book, which is available from Mythgard's website and iTunes, and is terrific. Even for the knowledgeable fan, it's nice to have an expert guide along.

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Review: The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's a great deal of very interesting information here, which Nicolson might have used to great effect.

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Review: History of the Rain

History of the Rain History of the Rain by Niall Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a thing of beauty.

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Review: J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology by Simon J. Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In an imaginary world like Middle-Earth, which is 'at once so multifarious and so true to its own inner laws' (C.S. Lewis), nothing could be easier than for fans and scholars to find some parts of this world far more fascinating than others. Many, for example, devote long study to Tolkien's languages, which are of great importance for his world and are indeed fundamental to its very creation.. Others find questions of the adaptation of the books to film, and of the impact of the books on popular culture (and the reverse), to be irresistible. Still others investigate the spiritual lessons and spiritual foundations of Tolkien's work. The list could go on to cover many more areas, all worthy of detailed study.

Now my own interest generally resides in a very old-fashioned, very detailed literary analysis of the texts themselves as they unfold their tale, and so I have never really paid much heed to Tolkien's famous statement that he felt the lack of a 'mythology for England' and wished to remedy it. But every now and then a work comes along that changes your perspective, that changes your mind about what is interesting. Simon Cook's J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology is just such a work.

At 49 pages, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology is more of a monograph than a book. Yet its brevity makes it only more impressive. With admirable force and economy, Cook analyzes Middle-Earth as 'an exploration of the ancient imagination of the North, forged from profound scholarship as well as literary genius, and situated on the threshold of actual history.' Through investigation of Tolkien's earliest tales, his work on Beowulf, and his response to Hector Munro Chadwick's The Origin of the English Nation, Cook has put together a compelling argument for the origins of Tolkien's 'mythology for England' and for its larger relevance to understanding how Tolkien came in the end to write The Lord of the Rings he wrote.

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Review: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I believe there are two types of people in the world: those for whom the past is like a well remembered movie and the present is all that is real; and those, like me, for whom the past is all that is real and the present is a loosely worn garment soon to be changed for another. That is a perspective I seem to share with Berie, the protagonist of this book. And perhaps that is part of why I like it so much. But that is not all.

Lorrie Moore's prose is fluid, poignant, and funny. More than once she made me laugh out loud, or pause to relish some marvelous description. She will at times suddenly disarm you, leading you somewhere soft and lyrical, only to stop you in your tracks with a surprising turn of phrase.

Passing cafés and restaurants, I walk through the bright glance of men in love, who, looking briefly away from the lover across from them in order to more perfectly form a sentence, unwittingly cast their gaze across my path like a light. And so, momentarily, to have accidentally caught their desire, swimming across the current of it like that, passing through, I feel loved, in a warm and random way, as if it were a rainbow, that old trick of light, or a place in a pool where someone has peed. There is a sweet, silent rot to it.

Wait. What? Everything was going, dare I say, swimmingly there. At first perhaps I thought the man's momentary gaze was going to be subverted because he would be distracted from his love, have his head turned by a pretty face -- how like a man, eh? -- but to her credit Moore did not shoot for the easy target. And with that menace safely past I was settling in to this rather nice description. For an instant "rainbow" made me cock an eyebrow, which lowered again with "that old trick of the light," but then before I could fully relax again I encountered the pee in the pool.

That stopped me dead. It seemed so out of harmony with everything that went before. But it was no mere gaffe, no sudden loss of touch. The current of love she swims through is a love felt for someone else by someone else. Her own husband does not love her and she knows it. So the love she feels for an instant is false, not for her, a trick of the light, a warmth that can only remind her of all that is rotten in her own life.

But Lorrie Moore's prose is also economical. The amount of story she packs into 125 pages without ever once seeming to rush or cram is astonishing. And after my remarks critical of first person narration in my review of The Goldfinch I feel it is only fair to say that here the choice of the first person is entirely successful.

Nicely done all around. A very good read.

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Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It may be laid down as a general rule that if a man begins to sing, no one will take any notice of his song except his fellow human beings. This is true even if his song is surpassingly beautiful. Other men may be in raptures at his skill, but the rest of creation is, by and large, unmoved. Perhaps a cat or a dog may look at him; his horse, if it is an exceptionally intelligent beast, may pause in cropping the grass, but that is the extent of it. But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak a language it understands. In the fairy's song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.

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Review: The Sparrow

The Sparrow The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many years ago I came to the conclusion that if we ever made it to another planet outside our solar system we would find the Jesuits already there waiting for us. Recently I mentioned this idea in conversation and discovered, to my delight, that someone had written just such a book. Naturally, I had to read it. And it is a very good read.

This is one of those rare books in which there are, intentionally, few surprises of external plot and action. As in Frank Herbert's Dune, the reader quite soon knows how the story will end. Indeed the first page tells the reader that the Jesuit mission to this new world will end disastrously, and a parallel is quickly suggested between the sufferings of the Jesuit Isaac Jogues among Mohawks in the Seventeenth Century and the Jesuit Emilio Sandoz on the planet Rakhat four hundred years later. Then there's the title, whose point is at last made explicitly:

"There's an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists."

"So God just leaves," John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. "Abandons creation? You're on your own, apes. Good luck!"

"No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering."

"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine," Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. " 'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.' "

"But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said.

They sat for a while, wrapped in their private musings.

We could do worse than to describe this book as just such a private musing, on that intensely private ground, between anger and desolation, where a sparrow such as Father Emilio might fall. And that makes it particularly interesting that no one in the room -- Jesuits all -- responds to Felipe's statement by quoting the next two verses of Matthew: "But the very hairs on your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore. Ye are of more value than many sparrows." And indeed the verse before the one quoted in The Sparrow makes clear that it is not physical but spiritual destruction that we should fear. From that God will save us, but still the sparrow will fall.

Perhaps another text is relevant here, too, since the whole point of the sparrow of Matthew is that it is not a human, but far less valuable, while the sparrow of this novel's title clearly seems to be a human, namely Father Emilio. For Hamlet likens himself to the sparrow of Matthew (5.2.165-170). In response to Horatio's intuition that he is in danger, Hamlet responds:

"...We defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be."

And that may be the truest answer to this private musing. That the readiness is all. Let be.

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Review: Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew

Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew by Max Egremont
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a good book, but not a great one. Much of that goodness, moreover, comes from the poets whose work is the heart of this volume.

Max Egremont has divided his chapters -- one for each year of the war and one for the aftermath -- into two parts. In the first he provides information on the experiences of each poet that year; in the second he lets the poets speak for themselves, with a selection of poems from the same year. Egremont does not stint on the poetry, with over 100 pages of poetry in 294 pages of text. This arrangement has the virtue of allowing the reader to see the changing attitudes of the poets as the war ground on.

And that's a good idea and quite interesting as far as it goes, but it seems that Egremont might have written a far better book if he had done more than simply provide information that supplied a narrative framework for the poetry. There is very little critical analysis or vision of any kind, and the two halves of each chapter, which in reality are linked by threads of experience, passion, and reflection, are little more than adjacent. Which is especially disappointing given the richness of the material and the possibilities it affords, as Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory shows. This book regrettably does not rise so high.

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Review: Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell by Unknown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have sometimes heard people remark on the sense of loss that is so prominent in Tolkien's fiction, and wonder where it comes from. It is convenient and probably not incorrect to point to his experiences in World War One and the deaths of all but one of his closest friends by 1918. John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War is a worthwhile read on this score, as is Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (though he never mentions Tolkien). But if you're familiar with The Lord of the Rings, you can't help but see how Tolkien fits in with the other writers Fussell discusses, who are far more famous as World War One writers.

But all of these men, whether Sassoon or Owen, Blunden or Tolkien, "walked eye deep in hell, believing in old men's lies," all lost friends, and together they all saw the world they shared pass away before their eyes. Much of modern literature first springs from the way this war shattered Western Civilization. The absurdity and alienation and uncertainties begin here. Tolkien's literary response to the War is quite different, but it is no less a response because of that. These connections deserve further scrutiny. But not here.

Yet before that for Tolkien there was already Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon literature, so much of which has a mournful tone. It runs through Beowulf like a cold stream. Right near the end of his commentary Tolkien coins the apt phrase "elegiac retrospect" (p. 351) to describe the poet's remarks on lines 1876-1908 of the translation (Klaeber 2231-71), which tell of the forgotten original owners of the dragon's hoard.  

This phrase so eloquently suits so much of what we read throughout the poem and in Tolkien generally that it is worth quoting the passage at length. One could do worse than to use this passage as a key to understanding how Tolkien evoked the sense of history and loss and high beauty that frets our hearts when we read his works. 

It is also characteristic of our poet (and of Old English as we know it as a whole) that the scene in the barrow passes at once into an elegiac retrospect on the forgotten lords who placed their gold in the hoard, and then died one by one until it was left masterless, an open prey to the dragon, 
But this is not inartistic. For one thing it occupies the 'emotional space' between the plundering of the hoard, and the curiously vivid and perceptive lines on the dragon snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft: lines which gain greatly from the concluding words of the interjected 'elegy': ne byð him wihte ðý sél *2277 ('no whit doth it profit him' 1918) -- the last word on the dragonhood. Also, of course, the feeling for the treasure itself, and the sense of sad history, is just what raises the whole thing above 'a mere treasure story, just another dragon-tale'.  The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real.  The 'treasure' is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess.  It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.  Not till its part in the actual plot is revealed -- to draw the invincible Beowulf to his death - -do we learn that it is actually enchanted, iúmonna gold galdre bewunden *3052 ('the gold of bygone men was wound about with spells' 2564), in which the quintessence of 'buried treasure' is distilled in four words, and accursed (*3069-73, 2579-84). 
So this passage rivals the exordium on ship-burial (*32-52, 25-40) as that very rare thing, an actual poetic expression of feeling and imagination about 'archaeological' material from an archaeological or sub-archaeological period.  Many such existed in Scandinavia, and even in England in the eighth century, already ancient enough for their puprose to be shrouded in mist.  Here we learn what men of the twilight time thought of them.  And. of course, the writing and the elegy are good in themselves, and not misspent -- since the ashes of Beowulf himself are now to be laid in a barrow with much of this same gold (though much also is to melt in the fire, *3010-15, 2530-4), and pass down into the oblivion of the ages -- but for the poet, and the chance relenting of time: to spare this one poem out of so many.  For this, too, almost fate decreed: þӕt sceal brond fretan, ӕled þeccean: that shall the blazing wood devour, the fire enfold. Of the others we know not. 
(pp. 351-353)
And maddeningly, beautifully, somehow fittingly, that is where the commentary ends.  Pale, enchanted gold indeed that summons us to follow it we know not whither.  But the way is shut.

Now none of the material in this book, whether translation, commentary, Sellic Spell, or the two lays that come at the end were ever prepared or meant for publication. So we cannot fairly judge them as if they were. What we have in this book is more like all the material that Christopher Tolkien published in his History of Middle-Earth than it is like the translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and Christopher Tolkien does his customary, outstanding job of sorting out the layers of texts and revisions.

The translation is thus far more of a scholarly exercise, making little or no attempt to rearrange the words into a word order more easily understood in Modern English, or to make the language and ways of thought more accessible. Old English is an inflected language in which word order is far more flexible than in Modern English; and in which idioms and modes of expression are entirely different than now. These are facts which anyone translating for publication must take into account, and changes must be made to transform the original into something intelligible for readers who are not experts in the original. So comparing it to the translation of Heaney (or anyone else) doesn't get us very far.

Now my Old English is not proficient or recent enough to allow me a worthwhile opinion on the accuracy of the translation. But I think it's safe to say I am in good hands with Tolkien. Reading it, for the reasons I mentioned above, is more of a challenge, but I often found that reading it aloud helped me find the proper phrasing for understanding what was being said.

The commentary I found fascinating and illuminating. I have read enough scholarly commentaries on texts in ancient languages with which I am familiar, and which have similar problems owing to the texts being preserved for centuries only in handwritten form by scribes whose understanding of the texts they were copying was imperfect at best, to be able to think that the commentary he offers is of a high quality. This probably surprises no one who knows what Tolkien did for a living, but I think it bears saying anyway. As I noted above, it is a great disappointment that the commentary ends well before the end of the poem, but I loved every syllable of what was there.

Another element in this book is Sellic Spell (meaning "strange tale"), which is a very interesting attempt to imagine both in Modern and Old English the story that lay behind Beowulf itself. It would be an intriguing exercise to set the two texts side by side and compare them in detail. Lastly there are two versions of a brief lay or song of Beowulf, one of which Christopher Tolkien remembers his father singing to him in the early 1930s.

On the whole this is a very good edition of Beowulf to have and use for study. The translation is, as I noted, a scholarly exercise, not as polished and finished as it would have been had Tolkien meant to publish it. I will say, however, that the more I read the translation, especially aloud, the more I like it. 

Review: Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits

Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits by Dimitra Fimi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dimitra Fimi's work here is excellent. What she has written reads much like a cultural history of the creation of Middle-earth. She not only explains Tolkien's fascination with mythology and language and how they came together in the (sub-)creation of his legendarium, but explores the ways in which, across his long life, the world Tolkien lived in affected the shaping of the world he wrote about. At no time is Fimi's work heavy-handed. Her touch is always as light as it is far-reaching. Her writing is clear, concise, and persuasive. Her handling of evidence is fair and honest. Her knowledge of Tolkien and of the scholarship on his inner and outer worlds is hard to match. The expert and the newcomer to the study of Tolkien will each find much to learn and much to reflect upon in this essential work.

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16 January 2017

Review: Summerlong

Summerlong Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this fine, new novel, Beagle tells of a mysterious stranger, vulnerable, powerful, and far more than she seems, who enters the lives of a long established couple. With the touch of a master, Beagle handles the meeting of the mythological and the mundane far more deftly than others have done more famously.

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15 January 2017

Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath! (FR 1.iii.79)

Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
(FR 1.iii.79)

Frodo first hears these words sung in the woods of the Shire, translated in his mind by the enchantment of Elvish minstrelsy.  There's one word, though, that had puzzled me since I first read it as a boy: breath. What on earth does it mean to say Elbereth's breath is bright? I finally decided to think it through a little the other day. When I could find no meaning of 'bright' in Old, Middle, or Modern English to describe someone's breath suitably, I turned to consider 'breath.'

It came together right then. My mistake had been to think of 'breath' as her physical breath, which is why the phrase made no sense. The praise of Elbereth's eyes earlier in the same line allowed me to mislead myself, especially since we rarely use 'breath' to mean 'spirit.'  It is the splendor of her spirit the hymn praises. The irony, of course, is that in the very next line we see a clue that Tolkien is not using every word in the sense we most readily understand it: snow-white.


Works Consulted ... 


08 January 2017

No Laughing Matter: the Ring and the Quality of the Dúnedain

'We know the Ring is no laughing-matter; but we are going to do our best to help you against the Enemy,' says Merry to Frodo at Crickhollow  (FR 1.v.104), revealing for the first time the stout heart and shrewd mind he shows throughout the tale. There are, however, a couple of moments involving the Ring and humor that are themselves quite telling about the characters involved.

In The Prancing Pony, Strider several times indulges in humor at his own expense as he tries to convince the hobbits that he is not only a friend, but also the genuine Strider.  He banters with Frodo about his 'rascally look', 'with a curl of his lip and a queer gleam in his eye' (FR 1.x.164). He takes up Pippin's glib comments about 'lying for days in ... ditches' making them all look like Strider and responds that they would die in those ditches years before they looked like him, 'unless you are made of sterner stuff than you look to be' (FR 1.x.170-71).  Later he jokes with Frodo about how he looks: '"I see," laughed Strider. "I look foul and feel fair. Is that it?"' (FR 1.x.171). (Note also how Tolkien uses the easily spotted allusions to Shakespeare in these last two statements to draw our attention.)

But even before this last jest Strider's grim and self-effacing humor has already culminated in his pretending to threaten them to kill them and take the Ring, all in the effort to make a point to them about who he is, and is not:
Pippin subsided; but Sam was not daunted, and he still eyed Strider dubiously. 'How do we know you are the Strider that Gandalf speaks about?' he demanded. 'You never mentioned Gandalf, till this letter came out. You might be a play-acting spy, for all I can see, trying to get us to go with you. You might have done in the real Strider and took his clothes. What have you to say to that?' 
'That you are a stout fellow,' answered Strider; 'but I am afraid my only answer to you, Sam Gamgee, is this. If I had killed the real Strider, I could kill you. And I should have killed you already without so much talk. If I was after the Ring, I could have it – NOW!' 
He stood up, and seemed suddenly to grow taller. In his eyes gleamed a light, keen and commanding. Throwing back his cloak, he laid his hand on the hilt of a sword that had hung concealed by his side. They did not dare to move.  Sam sat wide-mouthed staring at him dumbly. 
'But I am the real Strider, fortunately,' he said, looking down at them with his face softened by a sudden smile. 'I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.' 
(FR 1.x.171)
Turning from one Captain of the Rangers to another, we find a similar moment with Sam and Faramir in Ithilien.  In his righteous eagerness to defend Frodo from what he feels are the unjust insinuations of Faramir, Sam gives away the secrets his master has tried so hard to conceal, that it is the One Ring which Frodo is carrying, and that Boromir tried to take it from him.

'Now look here, sir!' He turned, facing up to Faramir with all the courage that he could muster. 'Don't you go taking advantage of my master because his servant's no better than a fool. You've spoken very handsome all along, put me off my guard, talking of Elves and all. But handsome is as handsome does we say. Now's a chance to show your quality.' 
'So it seems,' said Faramir, slowly and very softly, with a strange smile. 'So that is the answer to all the riddles! The One Ring that was thought to have perished from the world. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way – to me! And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality! Ha!' He stood up, very tall and stern, his grey eyes glinting.
Frodo and Sam sprang from their stools and set themselves side by side with their backs to the wall, fumbling for their sword-hilts. There was a silence. All the men in the cave stopped talking and looked towards them in wonder. But Faramir sat down again in his chair and began to laugh quietly, and then suddenly became grave again. 
'Alas for Boromir! It was too sore a trial!' he said. 
(TT 4.v.680-81)
Aside from the simple physical parallelism of Sam Undaunted standing up to a Man literally twice his size, we have him challenging Faramir to prove his quality, just as he had challenged Strider to prove his (though not in so many words). But the parallel works both ways, Faramir responds with humor and a feigned threat, just as Aragorn had done. He stands tall. There is a light in his eyes, and his stern manner frightens them. His 'Ha!' nicely punctuates his statement, just as Strider's 'NOW!' does his.  And as Aragorn had suddenly smiled at them to reveal his jest, Faramir does the same with laughter. But their humor offers no simple release. There's too much pain and irony in it for that.  Aragorn is the heir of Isildur, who did not destroy the Ring, and he lays his hand on the hilt of the broken sword with which Isildur cut it from Sauron's. Faramir realizes he had guessed the meaning of his and Boromir's dream aright after all -- 'So that is the answer to all the riddles' (emphasis mine) -- and that he was now presented with the same 'trial' as his brother had been, and with a far greater advantage of strength over Frodo than Boromir had boasted of. In the words 'Alas for Boromir!' his own situation confronts him.

Yet both Faramir and Aragorn turn from their sad humor to matters more serious.  Aragorn pledges his life to Frodo and the hobbits. Faramir briefly mourns his brother's 'too sore a trial,' and then tells the hobbits that he would not pick up the Ring if he found it in the road, converting a boast he had made in ignorance into a vow he would die to keep.  Since both Aragorn and Faramir have the hobbits at their mercy, and the Ring within their grasp, we should not be surprised to recall here another Captain of the Dúnedain, Boromir.  For during the scene in Ithilien with Faramir, only the reader is aware, poignantly so, that Boromir did not fall entirely, but after Frodo's escape recognized what he had done, repented of it, and in dying to protect Merry and Pippin redeemed himself.  'Few have gained such a victory,' Aragorn tells him before he dies (TT 3.i.414).

Yet back at the Council of Elrond, when Boromir first saw the Ring and he was pondering the 'riddle' of the dream he shared with his brother, his 'eyes glinted as he gazed at the golden thing’ (FR 2.ii.247). Unlike Faramir and Aragorn, however, he finds nothing to laugh at in the situation or in himself. Boromir came to Imladris to seek 'the meaning of a riddle' (FR 2.ii.247), but the answers he receives offer him nothing but doubt and perplexity. It is only in his 'too sore a trial' that he will find the crucible of his quality.