. Alas, not me: August 2017

31 August 2017

Sean Connery -- Two Unexpected Parallels, Paradisiacal, and Profane

In one of the more spectacular innuendos in James Bond history, Sean Connery, in 1964's Goldfinger, awakens to find Honor Blackman watching him.

Connery: Who are you? 
Blackman: My name is Pussy Galore. 
(A truly stunning series of smirks rapidly cross Connery's face, threatening to escape containment, but wit prevails.) 
Connery: I must be dreaming.

A decade later in The Wind and the Lion Sean Connery plays the Raizuli, a Berber Chieftain who has abducted an American woman, Mrs Pedecaris, played by Candice Bergen. As they ride through the desert, she asks him his name:

Bergen: There is just one thing I would like to ask you. What is your first name? 
Connery: My first name? 
Bergen: Your Christian name, I mean, the name that precedes all your other names. 
Connery: My first name, my Christian name. I am Muli Ahmed Muhammad Raizuli the Magnificent, Lord of the Rift. 
Bergen: Muli, Muli. That is a nice name. 
Connery: Yes 
Bergen: Muli ... I am Eden, Muli. 
His heads whips around. He looks at her. 
Connery: Eden ... Of course. 
A bemused smile crosses his face as he rides away from her.

30 August 2017

Review: Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War

Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War by Elizabeth Vandiver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was my great pleasure some years ago to discover Paul Fussell's marvelous The Great War and Modern Memory, which remains one of the best blendings of literary criticism and history I have yet read. And even though subsequent research has made clear that Fussell (among others) did not cast his net wide enough, and consequently gave too much emphasis to the bitterness and disillusion of war poets like Sassoon and Owen, there is still much to learn from his pages.

Elizabeth Vandiver's Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War explores how British poets, male and female, soldier and private citizen, with widely varying knowledge of Latin and Greek, used what they knew to process their experiences in and attitudes towards The Great War. As she does so, she makes perfectly clear how very wide the range of opinion was among them:

A way to frame the aggression of the Kaiser; a source of appropriate elegies for the eternally youthful dead; a measure of an autodidact's learning; a strengthening and heartening foundation for the concept of liberty; a dead weight of meaningless platitudes that must be cast aside; a template against which one's own experience of the war could be read: classics was all of these and more for writers trying to express the varying realities of their own war.

Vandiver's knowledge of Greek and Roman poetry allows her to handle masterfully all the many transformations the poets of The Great War worked on their material. And if the conclusion seemed to me to speak too much of Rupert Brooke, there is a lesson in that too for the reader, especially this one. For the hero cult that attended Brooke's memory and poetry in and after the war is essential for understanding the way the poet and those who tended his shrine drew on the classics of Greek and Roman poetry. A full understanding requires that we examine even those parts of the picture that we don't understand or care for. Brooke, as enshrined, may seem to me a good fit for a song by Carly Simon, but I cannot ignore the evidence because of that.

What emerges is a fascinating and significant portrait of a culture using the tools it had to search for the meaning of so many of the concepts they had grown up with, all of this at the dawn of a calamitous century.

28 August 2017

Review: Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium

Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium by Walter S Judd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book makes a very nice addition to the library of those who find Middle-earth compelling. It will be an especially welcome reference for those of us who lack an extensive knowledge of the flora of the world in which we live. The entries are informative, both for Tolkien's Middle-earth and our own, and are well illustrated with images by Graham A. Judd in the style of woodcuts. The author also refers, a good touch this, to Tolkien's own illustrations of the flora, Old Man Willow, for example. which appear in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. References to the scenes in The Lord of the Rings in which the various plants appear or play a role are copious and detailed. There is even a section on hobbit names, so many of which, both first and last, spring from the names of flowers. So far so good. Yet the lack of a separate entry on Ents and Entwives might frustrate some, Yavanna not least, though it would not surprise her. One inexplicable blemish, however, needs to be pointed out. Athelas, or Kingsfoil, arguably most important plant to the plot of The Lord of the Rings is everywhere misspelled athelias.

26 August 2017

Achilles ... terrifies us with his violent shouting.

Reconstruction of the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

If you've really read The Iliad through, slogged through the sometimes horrid tedium of the so called battle books, the deaths of both Sarpedon and Patroclus hit you hard, with all the weight of how different it could have been for them thrown into the scales of Zeus. And now, with Patroclus' death, Achilles' wrath has a cause that even we these days can grasp fully, the needless and unexpected violent death of one we love. The rage that comes soaring up from within him, shouting 'now for wrath, now for ruin, and a red nightfall' as it were, can blow you away. As it did the Trojans, as it did me. (But then fuimus Troes.) Tennyson's version of this explosion of wrath at Iliad 18.202ff. is a marvel. Read it out loud.

Achilles Over the Trench

SO SAYING, light-foot Iris pass’d away.
Then rose Achilles dear to Zeus; and round
The warrior’s puissant shoulders Pallas flung
Her fringed ægis, and around his head
The glorious goddess wreath’d a golden cloud,
And from it lighted an all-shining flame.
As when a smoke from a city goes to heaven
Far off from out an island girt by foes,
All day the men contend in grievous war
From their own city, but with set of sun
Their fires flame thickly, and aloft the glare
Flies streaming, if perchance the neighbours round
May see, and sail to help them in the war;
So from his head the splendour went to heaven.
From wall to dyke he stept, he stood, nor join’d
The Achæans—honouring his wise mother’s word**
There standing, shouted, and Pallas far away
Call’d; and a boundless panic shook the foe.
For like the clear voice when a trumpet shrills,
Blown by the fierce beleaguerers of a town,
So rang the clear voice of Æakidês;
And when the brazen cry of Æakidês
Was heard among the Trojans, all their hearts
Were troubled, and the full-maned horses whirl’d
The chariots backward, knowing griefs at hand;
And sheer-astounded were the charioteers
To see the dread, unweariable fire
That always o’er the great Peleion’s head
Burn’d, for the bright-eyed goddess made it burn.
Thrice from the dyke he sent his mighty shout,
Thrice backward reel’d the Trojans and allies;
And there and then twelve of their noblest died
Among their spears and chariots.

** Achilles' mother, Thetis, had asked him not to enter battle until Hephaestus made him new armor.

The title of this post of course comes from C.P. Cavafy's allusion to this moment in his poem Trojans.

And go visit Kathleen Vail's Shield of Achilles website. It's worth every minute.



One of the most powerful moments I have ever had in a classroom was discussing The Iliad for weeks, and then watching the 1989 film Glory. I wept.  It also gave me the idea for what was my favorite exam question. I quoted the scene in The Odyssey, where the ghost of Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be the slave of the lowest man on earth than king of all the dead, and asked my students if they thought the men of the 54th Massachusetts would agree.

20 August 2017

It Wants To Be Found

Near the beginning of his chapter on 'The Heavens' in The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis quotes from Chaucer to illustrate the view of Medieval science that '[e]verything has its right place, its home, the region that suits it, and, if not forcibly restrained, moves thither by a sort of homing instinct':
Every kindly thing that is
Hath a kindly stede ther he
May best in hit conserved be;
Unto which place every thing
Through his kindly enclyning
Moveth for to come to.  
(Chaucer, Hous of Fame, II, 730 sq.) 
'Kindly' here has its old meaning of 'natural' or 'innate' -- every natural thing has a natural place and a natural inclination to go there.  This is not anthropomorphism, but metaphor, just as it is a metaphor to say (as Lewis also points out) that an object falls to earth when released because it is 'obeying the law of gravity'. Moderns aren't attributing sentience to the object when they speak thus, any more than Chaucer would have been if he said that a stone had a 'kindly enclyning' -- 'a tendency, a propensity, a bent' -- to fall to earth.

I have long been dubious of the position we often encounter, in various forms and places, that the One Ring is in some way sentient. At one extreme, in Peter Jackson's films, we are not just told that 'the Ring is trying to get back to its Master. It wants to be found', but presented with a Ring that can even whisper the names of those it would corrupt. We may also see view of the Ring in William Senior's more sober entry in The Tolkien Encyclopedia: 'as an extension of Sauron, it appears to have a power and sentience of its own' (484). Most scholarly and daunting of all is Tom Shippey. In The Road to Middle-earth (2003), he argues that The Lord of the Rings may be understood as an 'attempt to reconcile two views of evil, both old, both authoritative, both living, both seemingly contradicted by the other' (140).  The view of St Augustine and Boethius is that 'evil is nothing', that it has no independent existence and cannot create, and that it will in the end be 'redressed' by good. The other view holds that evil is in fact 'real, and not merely an absence' (140-41). Our own experience of this world makes the latter view a tempting one to embrace. Shippey continues:

Tolkien's way of presenting this philosophical duality was through the Ring. It seems in several ways inconsistent. For one thing it is notoriously elastic, and not entirely passive. It 'betrayed' Isildur to the arrows of the orcs; it 'abandoned' Gollum, says Gandalf, in response to the 'dark thought from Mirkwood of its Master'; it all but betrays Frodo in The Prancing Pony when it slips onto his finger and proves his invisibility to the spies for the Nazgûl then present. 'Perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room', thinks Frodo, and he is clearly right. For all that it remains an object which cannot move itself or save itself from destruction. It has to work through the agency of its possessors, and especially by picking out the weak points of their characters.... These two possible views of the Ring are kept up throughout the three volumes, sentient creature or psychic amplifier. 
As we can see, it's a very simple matter to come up with quotations from the book that point in the direction of sentience if we take them literally. Even the film's 'It wants to be found', which does not occur in the book, is a reasonable extrapolation from the book's choice of active verbs -- 'betrayed' (FR 1.ii.55), 'abandoned' (56), 'is trying' (55) and many, many more -- to describe what the Ring is 'doing'. Indeed it is difficult to think of a way to speak of the effect the Ring has without making it sound as if the Ring is sentient. Which brings us back to 'obeying the law of gravity' and 'a kindly enclyning.'

What I wonder is this: what if we consider statements such as those Gandalf makes about the Ring betraying Isildur and abandoning Gollum and trying to get back to its Master from the perspective Lewis describes? As he tells us, such a way of speaking was Medieval, and Tolkien was, after all a Medievalist. Sauron made the Ring and 'let a great part of his former power pass into it', so much so that destroying it will undo him forever. Given this, Chaucer might well say that the hand of Sauron is the Ring's 'kindly stede' to which it would, of its nature, try to return, just as a stone returns to earth and fire to heaven.

But the Ring is not a natural thing, someone might object, unlike the stone Pippin which drops in the well in Moria. True enough. But surely even our benighted age does not yet require a demonstration that any object will fall if let go, regardless of whether it is a work of nature or craft? That palantír plummets rather nicely (TT 3.x.583-84); Frodo drops his sword at Weathertop (FR 1.xi.196); Gollum his fish at the forbidden pool (TT 4.vi.689); and, as everyone knows, 'not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall' (TT 3.ii.424).

How would our understanding of the problem of evil in The Lord of the Rings change if we took these expressions of what the Ring is 'doing' as metaphors? If we step back and say 'the Ring slipped off Isildur's finger' or 'the Ring fell out of Gollum's pocket,' doesn't the burden of evil shift? A complete answer would, I think, involve a long and complex examination of the Ring and all those affected by its 'gravity', both individually and together, and especially Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum. I think I've been moving in this direction for a while. Let's see where it leads. 



18 August 2017

Justice Is Indivisible

I think of myself as Irish-American first of all, both of those things one and inseparable. I think about the history of my country and the country of my ancestors, beyond which I think of the history of Europe because that is where my people come from and that is the civilization that had the largest influence on the culture I live in. And just because these cultures are important to me doesn't mean I believe they are immaculate, or alone in the contribution they make to the world.

About the last thing I consider of any importance is the color of my skin, which I like just fine, but it doesn't make me better than anyone else. Admittedly, there are lots of things I don't have to worry about much, if at all, because of the color of my skin. The same goes for my being a straight male. And let's not forget that I am a Christian as well (though not a particularly good one). These accidents of birth confer undeserved privileges on me. As little privileged as I feel, it's hard to fail to see that others have a harder time, sometimes a terribly hard time, without them.

But what kind of idiot would I have to be to think that I am being threatened because others want the same privileges as I was born with? If others can reach a point where they don't have to worry about violence and discrimination because of their color or gender or religion or sexuality, how does that harm me? How is my 'race' diminished? Is there somehow only a finite amount of justice or decency or safety or even just plain courtesy in this world? So some of us have to lose justice in order for others to gain it? 

That's stupid, just plain stupid. I'll just stay Irish-American, if that's what it means to be white. I have nothing in common with people who think like that. Nor do I wish to. There's so much I don't understand about the world today, about people and how they see themselves and what they think is important, but 'I know that justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'

08 August 2017

Dol biþ se þe eaðmod leofaþ?

This morning I sat down to finish The Seafarer. As I usually do, I copied out the lines I was going to translate, trying to get a sense of them as write. Almost at once something seemed a bit odd to my still uncaffeinated eye. (The pot was on, just not there yet.) The first sentence made sense grammatically, but even in the world turned upside down in which we now live it just didn't fit its context, as follows:

Dol biþ se þe eaðmod leofaþ; cymeþ him seo ar of heofonum. 
Foolish be he who lives meekly; to him comes grace from heaven.

So, foolish are the meek, but they get rewarded anyway? That didn't seem even vaguely beatitudinous. I double-checked my vocabulary. I double-check the text I'd written out. Those were the meanings of the words, and those were the words I'd written. As I continued on through the next lines, that first seemed even stranger. It fit less and less with what the poet said. 

What was I missing?

A whole line, as it turned out:

Dol biþ se þe him his drythen ne ondrædeþ: cymeþ him se deaþ unþinged.
Eadig biþ se þe eaþmod leofath; cymeþ him seo ar of heofonum
Foolish be he who does not fear the Lord: to him comes death unlooked for.
Blessed be he who lives meekly; to him comes grace from heaven.

Since I copy out three or four words at a time, my eye must have skipped because three of the first four words are the same. 

So once again my respect and sympathy for those in the scriptorium grows. Alcuin said there'd be days like this.

06 August 2017

'Not Unlike the Verse of the English' -- From Rohan to the Havens of Sirion

Alan Lee © 2007 

Many of us no doubt first encountered alliterative verse in Tolkien, in the scene where Aragorn first chants in the language of the Mark, and then translates the words of 'a forgotten poet long ago':
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
(TT 3.vi.508)
Or later in the stirring lines as the host of Rohan sets forth to war:

From dark Dunharrow in the dim morning
With thain and captain rode Thengel's son
(RK 5.iii.803)
Soon we learned, if The Lord of the Rings had truly fired our imaginations, that the people and culture of Rohan owed much to Tolkien's love of Old English and the people who spoke it. Beowulf, the epic so central to his scholarly and imaginative lives, and the study of which he had so great an effect on precisely because of his scholarly and imaginative lives -- Beowulf was composed in alliterative verse, as was The Wanderer, which provided the model for the lines Aragorn chanted (92-93):
Hwær com mearh? Hwær com magu? Hwær com maðumgiefa?
Hwær com symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?  
Where is the horse? Where is the warrior? Where the giver of treasures?
Where are the seats at the banquet? Where the joys of the mead-hall?
Elsewhere Faramir speaks to Frodo of the men of Rohan, saying that they have not become like the men of Gondor. For they 'hold by the ways of their own fathers and to their own memories, and they speak among themselves their own north tongue.' Of the ways and history of Gondor they have learned only what was necessary for them to learn.
they remind us of the youth of Men, as they were in the Elder Days. Indeed it is said by our lore-masters that they have from of old this affinity with us that they are come from those same Three Houses of Men as were the Númenóreans in their beginning; not from Hador the Goldenhaired, the Elf-friend, maybe, yet from such of his sons and people as went not over Sea into the West, refusing the call.
(TT 4.v.678)
That Faramir, whose heart is of downfallen Númenor and waning Gondor, should link the Rohirrim to those of the Edain who did not go into the West, citing 'our lore-masters' to back up the general impression of the Men of Rohan, is intriguing enough in itself  -- for they escaped the fall that Númenor suffered -- but for now it is enough to note that his words point to the persistence of their traditional ways. Which is not to say that their ways have been unchanged for thousands of years, or that he regards them as faultless (he does not), but that their ways and their language are old, more in touch perhaps with what Men were on their own. This may well include their mode of poetry. And the fact that Aragorn's poem about Eorl the Young, who died five centuries earlier, was also in alliterative meter points in the same direction. Indeed the song and the form have persisted long after the poet himself has been forgotten.

From about six hundred years before that comes another example of alliterative verse, and from a source we might not at first expect, given the strong association of this type of verse with Rohan:
'Thus spoke Malbeth the Seer, in the days of Arvedui, last king at Fornost,' said Aragorn: 
Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers;
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.
(RK 5.ii.781)
Now as Corey Olsen pointed out in discussing these verses in his Signum University course of Tolkien's Poetry, the Anglo-Saxons were not the only people in Medieval Europe to compose alliterative verse. We have many examples of it in Old Norse, Old High German, and Old Saxon. So we should not be surprised to find alliterative verse elsewhere in Middle-earth. But since different races within Middle-earth tend to compose in different meters -- Hobbits in iambic tetrameter, Elves in iambic heptameter, Tom Bombadil in trochaic heptameter -- may we not wonder if Tolkien means alliterative verse to represent a distinctly mannish verse form?

Relevant to this are some notes of Tolkien's, first referred to in Unfinished Tales (146) and later published in The War of the Jewels (311-315), which allow us to make a leap backward into the poetry of the First Age, to the oldest piece of mannish verse we know of, the Tale of the Children of Húrin. The speaker is Ælfwine:
But here I will tell as I may a Tale of Men that Dírhaval of the Havens made in the days of Eärendel long ago. Narn i Chîn Húrin he called it, the Tale of the Children of Húrin, which is the longest of all the lays that are now remembered in Eressëa, though it was made by a man.

For such was Dírhaval. He came of the House of Hador, it is said, and the glory and sorrow of that House was nearest to his heart. Dwelling at the Havens of Sirion, he gathered there all the tidings and lore that he could; for in the last days of Beleriand there came thither remnants out of all the countries, both Men and Elves: from Hithlum and Dorlómin, from Nargothrond and Doriath, from Gondolin and the realms of the Sons of Fëanor in the east. This lay was all that Dírhaval ever made, but it was prized by the Eldar, for Dírhaval used the Grey-elven tongue, in which he had great skill. He used that mode of Elvish verse which is called [minlamad thent/estent] which was of old proper to the narn; but though this verse mode is not unlike the verse of the English, I have rendered it in prose, judging my skill too small to be at once scop [i.e., poet] and walhstod [i.e., interpreter/translator]. 
(Jewels 312-13)

According to Patrick Wynne and Carl Hostetter (2000, 121-22), the elvish name of this verse form strongly suggests alliterative verse, and we know also of course that Tolkien wrote a long, but incomplete alliterative Lay of the Children of Húrin in the 1920s (Lays 3-130).  Should we then see some connection between this and the poem that Ælfwine translated? Christopher Tolkien admits that it's tempting to do so, but suggests that 'this may be delusory' (Jewels 314).  However that may be, we need no such link to see that Tolkien imagined alliterative verse as something composed by Men all the way back into the First Age. The connection to the House of Hador shared by Dírhaval and the Rohirrim is both striking and sad, since he neither crossed the sea to Númenor nor refused the call. For he was slain in the Third Kinslaying at the Havens of Sirion.



05 August 2017

'Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?' -- A Shakespearean Túrin

Alan Lee © 2007

One of the strangest sidelights on the long dark tale of Túrin Turambar is perhaps the following:

[F]or indeed the speech of Doriath, whether of the king or others, was even in the days of Túrin more antique than that used elsewhere. One thing (as Mîm observed) of which Túrin never rid himself, despite his grievance against Doriath, was the speech he had acquired during his fostering. Though a Man, he spoke like an Elf of the Hidden Kingdom, which is as though a Man should now appear, whose speech and schooling until manhood had been that of some secluded country where the English had remained nearer that of the court of Elizabeth I than of Elizabeth II.
(Jewels 312)
Tybalt wouldn't stand a chance, but then again no one near Túrin did.