. Alas, not me: 2018

27 December 2018

Idiotic Book Blurbs

Writing blurbs for the covers of books reached Pythonesque heights of self-parody years ago, so to laugh at their idiocy is nothing new. Which doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

Here's one that merits ridicule as hyperbolic as itself:

----------- --------- writes with the unflinching, cumulatively devastating precision of Chekhov and Munro, peeling back layer after layer of illusion until we're left with the truth of ourselves. Practically every line is a revelation of language, of character, of experience; ------'s lyricism stalks our hearts like a gorgeous assassin.

In the first sentence we have the obligatory, tedious comparison to authors whom a duration of time longer than fifteen minutes has proved to be true masters of the short story. Then there's the cliche promise of illusions giving way to something as residually profound as 'the truth of ourselves.' More offensive, however, is the juxtaposition of the exponentially cliche 'peeling back layer after layer', suggesting subtraction, with 'cumulatively', suggesting addition. More is less, I can only conclude.

The first part of the second sentence would actually be quite fine, if the author had experienced a revelation about writing instead of using revelation in an attempt to bear witness to the perception of new truths. The final three clauses use both anaphora and asyndeton to good effect, with each noun one syllable longer than the one before it. Yet recovering this gem is rather like recovering illegal diamonds that a mule has swallowed. And the preposterous simile of the second part of the second sentence steals back with both hands the bounty the first half has given. 

It's even sadder of course that none of it's true. 

07 December 2018

The Gaffer should give lessons (FR 1.iii.69)

Gandalf's 'good morning' exchange with Bilbo in the first chapter of The Hobbit is rightly famous as much for its humor as for Bilbo's failure to get the wizard to go away and leave him alone. There is another scene, however, in which a hobbit outside Bag End succeeds in baffling the inquiries of an unwelcome visitor, and sees him off. In Three's Company, as Frodo, Pippin, and Sam are about to leave Bag End, Frodo overhears Gaffer Gamgee speaking to a stranger who proves to be one of Ringwraiths hunting Frodo.

[Frodo] turned to go back, and then stopped, for he heard voices, just round the corner by the end of Bagshot Row. One voice was certainly the old Gaffer’s; the other was strange, and somehow unpleasant. He could not make out what it said, but he heard the Gaffer’s answers, which were rather shrill. The old man seemed put out. 
‘No, Mr. Baggins has gone away. Went this morning, and my Sam went with him: anyway all hisstuff went. Yes, sold out and gone, I tell’ee. Why? Why’s none of my business, or yours. Where to? That ain’t no secret. He’s moved to Bucklebury or some such place, away down yonder. Yes it is – a tidy way. I’ve never been so far myself; they’re queer folks in Buckland. No, I can’t give no message. Good night to you!’ 
Footsteps went away down the Hill.
(FR 1.iii.69)

Bilbo was clearly too polite.

29 November 2018

Review: Beside the Ocean of Time

Beside the Ocean of Time Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just read this book for the second time. The first time through I had enjoyed its air of another world, its characters, and its wry and lyrical prose. The memory of that stuck with me, and kept calling me back to read the book again, as if it were my childhood memory of a former life. It was even better than I remember it.

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20 November 2018

'altogether precious' -- on the beauty of the One Ring

The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious.  
(FR 1.ii.60)

A comment by a friend, Kate Neville, on my last post got me thinking. She noted that pure gold was too soft to hold a shape, and that other substances -- in other words, impurities -- must be introduced to make it durable. She also noted that Tolkien clearly knew something about the properties of gold, since he knew the fire of a simple hearth could not melt it. Then Kate asked a marvelous question about the One Ring: 'Was the essence of Sauron the impurity added? And what does that say about the apparently intrinsic beauty of the Ring... Its "precious"-ness?'

When Sauron's body was destroyed in the drowning of Númenor, 'he was robbed now of that shape in which he had wrought so great an evil, so that he could never again appear fair to the eyes of Men' (S 280-81). We can see something similar in Morgoth after his duel with Fingolfin: 'Morgoth went ever halt of one foot after that day, and the pain of his wounds could not be healed; and in his face was the scar that Thorondor made' (S 154). What's intriguing here is that both Morgoth and Sauron have transferred much of their native power out of themselves as a means to exercise dominion, the one into the substance of the world itself, the other into the Ring (Morgoth 399-401). For Sauron at least this transfer seems permanent, since the 'strength and will' (S 287) he had put into the Ring did not return to him when the Ring was destroyed.

Now one might object that while Tolkien seems to have some knowledge of the properties of gold, his knowledge might not go very far. I have heard it said that throwing the Ring into a volcano wouldn't have melted the Ring any more than a hearth would. From what I can see, however, this is not so at all times. Lava can range from 700 to 1,200 ℃ (1,300 to 2,200 ℉), and the melting point of gold is 1,064 ℃ (1,948 ℉). Magma can be even hotter, up to 1,600 ℃ (2,912 ℉). Given that the Sammath Naur is inside Mt Doom, we might well surmise that we are talking about the upper end of the temperature range. 

Another objection would be that the Ring changes size and weight. Bilbo wrote to Frodo and told him as much (FR 1.ii.47): 'it did not seem always of the same size or weight; it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight.’ Frodo's experience is somewhat different. When Bombadil returns the Ring to him (FR 1.vii.133), '[i]t was the same Ring, or looked the same and weighed the same: for that Ring had always seemed to Frodo to weigh strangely heavy in the hand.' In Moria, 'at whiles it seemed a heavy weight' (FR 2.iv.312).

Note here the uncertainty introduced by 'seem' in each case, and contrast it with the following statement in Book 4: 'In fact with every step towards the gates of Mordor Frodo felt the Ring on its chain about his neck grow more burdensome. He was now beginning to feel it as an actual weight dragging him earthwards' (TT 4.ii.630, italics mine). This suggests the subjectivity of the perception of the Ring's weight. We may also compare the experience of Sam. He feels the 'weight' of the Ring the instant he puts it on (TT 4.x.733; RK 6.i.898). But, when he picks up Frodo on Mt Doom, 'to his amazement he felt the burden light. He had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so' (RK 6.iii.941). At the very least examination of these passages calls into question the notion that the actual weight (or size for that matter) of the Ring changes. What seems far more likely is that the Ringbearer's perception changes.

Be that as it may, the One Ring is also a magic ring, imbued with vast power drawn from within himself by a being of angelic stature in his origins. Whatever the exact properties of the gold in the Ring, the infusion of Sauron's 'strength and will' changed it as much as it changed him. But is it not passing strange that this transfer seems to have left Sauron bereft of the ability to regenerate (to borrow a phrase) into a fair form while at the same time conferring a perfect beauty upon the Ring? If this is correct, if Tolkien actually meant this connection, we may see Sauron paying a terrible price for the power to dominate all others: all that remained in him that was fair and fine. The rest was darkness. 



08 November 2018

The Purposed Domination of the Author

Allegory, Tolkien said, 'resides ... in the purposed domination of the author' (FR xxiv). I don't know why I never saw until the other day that this description so closely matches what he says about the Ring, but lately I've been working on a book about the Ring inter alia. So perhaps that allowed me to see this phrase differently.  We need think only of the incantation contained in the Ring verse and inscribed on the Ring itself (FR 1.ii.50); of Elrond's words to Glóin that 'those who made [the Elven rings] did not desire strength or domination' (FR 2.ii.268); or of Galadriel's warning to Frodo that to use the One Ring '[he] would need ... to train [his] will to the domination of the wills of others' (FR 2.vii.366).

I could be mischievous and suggest that the Ring is an allegory of Allegory, but that would be too meta. It would also be wrong. But I guess he wasn't kidding when he said he expressed his dislike for allegory. So were all stories in Mordor allegories?

07 November 2018

'I could not take it from him' -- The peril of seizing the Ring

'I could not take it from [Bilbo] without doing greater harm; and I had no right to do so anyway. ' 
(FR 1.ii.48)

'And I could not “make” you – except by force, which would break your mind.' 
(FR 1.ii.60)

So says Gandalf to Frodo in The Shadow of the Past about the consequences of taking the Ring by force. Presumably Gandalf reckons 'breaking the mind' of Bilbo to be the 'greater harm' he would have done, and we can certainly see how paranoid and close to violence Bilbo comes when Gandalf pushes him to leave the Ring to Frodo, as he wished and promised to do until the moment came in which he had to do so (FR 1.i.34). Bilbo laid his hand on the hilt of his sword. Taking hold of a weapon in the middle of a heated argument is not what you'd call a subtle hint. It's a threat. (Trust me.) How much farther would Bilbo have gone if Gandalf had actually tried to take the Ring? 

As for Frodo, who later does have the Ring taken from him by force, one may question whether his mind is broken by losing it in this way. Tom Shippey certainly does in J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century (118), not without reason, but the Frodo who loses the Ring to Gollum is not the same Frodo as the one Gandalf is speaking to in The Shadow of the Past. He has changed in ways both good and bad in the meantime; and he is broken by losing the Ring, in spirit if not in mind, and even if this is not immediately clear: "'It is gone forever,' he said, 'and now all is dark and empty'" (RK 6.ix.1024).

But there is another aspect to seizing the Ring by force, whether that force is physical or not, which the story of Gollum and the words of Gandalf should make us consider. Gollum took the Ring by force from Déagol, claiming the Ring as his due because it was his birthday and committing murder to enforce his claim. His claim to the Ring wasn't even specious. He had 'no right to [take it] anyway'. The violence he does to his own mind and soul is perhaps greater than that which he does to poor Déagol's body. And when he seizes the Ring a second time, from Frodo in the Sammath Naur, he is twice described as 'like a mad thing' (RK 6.iii.946). This should give us pause. For not only would Bilbo have been harmed, had Gandalf taken the Ring taken from him by force, but committing such an act would have been harmful to Gandalf himself. If refraining from unnecessary violence was able to slow the effect of the Ring on Bilbo, not doing so, as the tale of Sméagol and Déagol indicates, only speeds that effect. So, whatever protection from the pull of the Ring Gandalf's motives might have afforded him would have been negated by the harm he would have done himself in harming Bilbo. 

This should come as no surprise. The Ring was made specifically to enable its bearer to dominate the wills of others. To begin one's possession of the Ring with an act of domination, whether physical or spiritual, with good intent or ill, was to court one's own domination by the Ring. We might also find a pattern for Gandalf's wisdom in that of Elrond who, failing to persuade Isildur to cast the Ring into the fire 3,000 years earlier, made no attempt to take the Ring from him by force. He knew better. He knew that to do so was to fall.



05 November 2018

Review: The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien

The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien by Paul E. Kerry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent collection of articles by scholars, who fairly and thoroughly assess the role played by Tolkien's Catholicism in his writings. The book begins with an excellent survey of the history of Christian approaches to The Lord of the Rings, which should be required reading for anyone interested in this question. After that the first section of the book addresses the pagan elements of Tolkien's legendarium and how they fit with the Christian elements. The second investigates how Tolkien's world is 'fundamentally Christian', as Tolkien himself put it, and specifically influenced by the Roman Catholicism which was so essential a part of his life.

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18 October 2018

Review: Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings

Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings by Matthew Dickerson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dickerson explores the moral choices made by characters in The Lord of the Rings, and provides a far more nuanced and persuasive analysis of Christian elements in Tolkien's work than one usually finds. On the whole an excellent critical work, though at times I found myself disagreeing with him on matters of details.

Minus one star, however, for no index and repeatedly calling The Lord of the Rings a trilogy.

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28 September 2018

The Dark Lord's Bread and Butter -- 'He'll eat us all'

'Don't take the Precious to Him! He'll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world.' 
(TT 4.iii.637)
Whether by chance or by design two prominent traits of Hobbits converge in Bilbo's likening of himself at the Ring-enhanced age of eleventy-one to 'butter that has been scraped over too much bread' (FR 1.i.32). The first is of course the Hobbits' well-known love of food. The other is their habit of jesting about serious matters. As Merry says to Aragorn in The Houses of Healing
'But it is the way of my people to use light words at such times and say less than they mean. We fear to say too much. It robs us of the right words when a jest is out of place.' 
(RK 5.viii.870)
What makes this fascinating is that in The Shadow of the Past, the very chapter after Bilbo makes his comparison, we find Gandalf comparing the action of the Ring and of Sauron himself to eating and devouring no less than four times (FR 1.ii.47, twice on 55, 57). We find the same in Faramir's description of what had happened to the nine men given Rings of Power by Sauron: 'he had devoured them' (TT 4.vi.692); and elsewhere he calls Sauron 'a destroyer who would devour all' (TT 4.v.672). And as we saw in the quote with which I began, Gollum, too, saw things in similar terms. It's not often Gandalf, Faramir, and Gollum agree.

Given all this, Bilbo's choice to compare himself to food is even more psychologically revealing than at first it seems, which makes its presence here a matter of chance, if chance you call it.


I would very much like to thank Joe Hoffman and Corey Olsen for the friendly banter which we engaged in on the subject of Hobbits and butter, and which in turn led me to this reflection.


26 September 2018

It Comes in Slabs? Hobbits and Butter

‘Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.’
(FR 1.i.32)
What reader of Tolkien doesn't know Bilbo's famous simile? And who doesn't recall it on that morning years later when Pippin is shocked (shocked!) at the short commons of besieged Minas Tirith?
Pippin looked ruefully at the small loaf and (he thought) very inadequate pat of butter which was set out for him, beside a cup of thin milk. 'Why did you bring me here?' he said.
(RK 5.iv.806)
But how many of us -- I'm looking at you, Joe Hoffman -- have ever wondered if we could quantify just how much butter a hobbit would deem adequate? 
They were washed and in the middle of good deep mugs of beer when Mr. Butterbur and Nob came in again. In a twinkling the table was laid. There was hot soup, cold meats, a blackberry tart, new loaves, slabs of butter, and half a ripe cheese: good plain food, as good as the Shire could show, and homelike enough to dispel the last of Sam's misgivings (already much relieved by the excellence of the beer).
(FR 1.ix.154, emphasis added)


18 September 2018

Houses of Mirth and Lamentation

Copyright Donato Giancola

A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.' 
A sword rang as it was drawn. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.' 
'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!' 
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. 
 (RK 5.vi.841)

(Okay, this post is going to be nowhere near as charming as Jerry Burns' Mathom-House post from a couple of days ago.)

The houses of lamentation just sound so KJV, and Dernhelm's laughter is like something out of a Viking saga. (See Tom Shippey's marvelous new book, Laughing Shall I Die: The Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings.) But it's the juxtaposition of the two, and the Witch-king's calling her a fool that has long made me wonder if there was something else Tolkien was playing off in this scene besides Macbeth

The notion struck me when I first read one of my other favorite books, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, the title of which comes from Ecclesiastes 7.4. The KJV renders this verse:

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

If Tolkien is recalling the Bible here, he is using it expertly and ironically to undercut the Witch-king. For of course he is the fool here, not Éowyn who will have the last laugh when she finds happiness in the Houses of Healing.



13 September 2018

Waiting for Aeschere's Head -- Beowulf 1419b-1423

I've been re-reading Beowulf lately, my second time through the poem in Old English. It brings joy and laughter to my geeky soul, not least because somehow it got easier between the first and second readings. Of the many things that have delighted me, I wanted to mention lines 1419b-1423. Not only are they a great example of the things you can do with word order in an inflected language, but what they do here in particular is funny. 

Just a bit of background first. Beowulf has killed Grendel and Grendel's mother has come looking for revenge. She breaks into Heorot in the middle of the night and carries off Ӕschere, one of king Hrothgar's most trusted advisers. The next morning a posse of Danes (Hrothgar's folk) and Geats (Beowulf's) sets out for the lair of Grendel and his mother.

                                Denum eallum wæs,
winum Scyldinga,   weorce on mode
to geþolianne,   ðegne monegum,
oncyð eorla gehwæm,   syðþan Æscheres
on þam holmclife   hafelan metton.
                               For all the Danes it was,
for the friends of the Scyldings*, a pain in their hearts
to endure, for many a thane,
a grief for every warrior, once they
found Ӕschere's head on the sea-cliff. 

Richard Rohlin was just talking the other day over at Blog on the Barrow-Downs about ways in which the Beowulf poet builds tension in a story that most of his audience would have known. It's an excellent post which I encourage you to read for its discussion of shifting perspectives within the story. Here and now, we're on a much smaller scale, an elegant and balanced little sentence that withholds the crucial piece of information until the very end, poor Ӕschere's head, the twenty-first of twenty-two words.

Here's what you might call an exploded view, which aims to make clear how nice a sentence this is:

For all the Danes
it was
for the friends of the Scyldings
a pain in their hearts to endure
for many a thane
a grief
for every warrior
once they found Ӕschere's head on the sea-cliff.

All of the phrases beginning 'for' are interlaced with the verbal structure of the sentence, while 'grief' is in apposition with 'a pain...endure.' 

It's like a walk down a long dark hallway in a horror movie. You know something bad is coming, just around the next corner, and somehow it still takes you by surprise when you finally get there. Richard Rohlin and I also both got a laugh out of the fact that in the Old English Ӕschere is quite literally separated from his head. 

And if this kind of humor appeals to you, you should take a long look at Tom Shippey's Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings.

*The Scyldings were the dynasty that ruled the Danes in Beowulf. 'Friends of the Scyldings' is synonymous with Danes.

09 September 2018

The Annunciation and the Swan

A friend recently lent me a book of poems called 'Mary's Dust', by Melinda Mueller. Each of the poems treats the experience of a different character named Mary. Unsurprisingly, the first poem is about the Virgin Mary, and it's quite lovely:

The air before her congealed
and became the angel, blazing. 
Its robes streamed and whirled
in a wind that filled her ears. 
Through its transparent form
she could see the brown hills 
And stunted trees beyond, magnified
and trembling like flames. 
She could not have told
what was said. That story was 
conceived years later, by men
who had not been there. 
Afterwards the stirred dust
settled around her feet with a faint 
ringing, as if it were the dust
of a thousand bells.

Mueller evokes so much here by allusion. In 1 Kings 19 Elijah in despair flees into the wilderness, where he witnesses a whirlwind, an earthquake, and a fire, but knows that God is not in them. Then after the fire he hears a 'still small voice' and knows that it is God. We never hear what that voice is saying in that moment. Perhaps, like Mary, Elijah 'could not have told / what was said.' Perhaps for him, too, it rang in the dust for him that settled about his feet. Perhaps it was a voice that did not speak in words, and so its words could not be told.

But it was to another poem that the ineffability of the angel's conversation turned my thoughts. As soon as I read those words I thought of the end of Yeats' Leda and the Swan. When the human and the divine meet in this way, or in any way that could be called a union, what can be told? What can be said? Could we ever hope to find the words to describe what we knew in that moment?

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? 
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                   Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

05 September 2018

Review: Death and Immortality in Middle-Earth: Peter Roe Series XVII

Death and Immortality in Middle-Earth: Peter Roe Series XVII Death and Immortality in Middle-Earth: Peter Roe Series XVII by Daniel Helen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are quite a few interesting thoughts and perspectives here, and several good articles. Unfortunately, there are also lots of typos, and sometimes a lack of perfect fluency in English idiom obscures an author's meaning. (No doubt I would do no better if I chose to write an article in a language other than English.)

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06 August 2018

Review: Tom's Midnight Garden

Tom's Midnight Garden Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful, charming book that, like the garden in the title, may hold just as much for the reader older in years as for the young.

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30 July 2018

And Death Shall Be No More -- The Dream of the Rood ll. 112-14

The Ruthwell Cross - geograph.org.uk - 939546
Lairich Rig / The Ruthwell Cross

Frineð he for þære mænige   hwær se man sie,
se ðe for dryhtnes naman    deaðes wolde
biteres onbyrigan,   swa he ær on ðam beame dyde.

He will ask before the multitude   where the man is,
Who for the Lord's name's sake  would taste
Of bitter death,   just he already did on the tree.
The Dream of the Rood  ll. 112-14 

The verb onbýrigan in line 114 means 'to taste of'. It is a compound of býrigan, 'to taste'. What I find cool here is the echo of a different, but very similar sounding verb, byrigan, which means 'to bury'. It  differs only in the length of the 'y'. But I like the distant suggestion that those who taste of death, as Christ has already done on the cross, also bury it. 


Scholars have likely noted this ten thousand times already. Nevertheless....

27 June 2018

Review: Beowulf and the Critics

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

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

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17 June 2018

Revising The Hobbit in Life and Fiction

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

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



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

10 May 2018

The Bard Reviews 'Avengers: Infinity War'

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

24 April 2018


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

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

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

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

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


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


23 April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugees from Vesuvius 1944 by George Rodger



So much for flying the Ring into Mordor.

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

18 April 2018

Candles of the Grail, Candles of the Corpses

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Recently I've been reading Richard Barber's The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, and the other day I came across an intriguing passage. Barber is speaking of Wauchier's Second Continuation of Chrétien's Story of the Grail.  In doing so, he quotes from Wauchier (of which I have not yet seen a copy, but it will soon be in the mail):
Percival encounters the Grail without knowing it when he sees five lights like candles in the forest at the dead of night, 'so bright and clear that it seemed that the great, dense forest was lit up and blazing with their light on every side.' He learns the next day that this was a sign of the presence of the Grail....
(Barber, 32)
What caught my attention was the combination of Percival's quest to attain the Grail and the lights he sees in a wilderness. They find a mirror image parallel in the 'candles of corpses' Frodo, Sam, and Gollum see in the Dead Marshes on his quest to lose a treasure:

'What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.’ 
(FR 1.iii.66)
Presently it grew altogether dark: the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe. When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes: he thought his head was going queer. He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands. But neither of his companions spoke a word. 
(TT 4.ii.627)
In the one scene the candles light a nightmare of evil and a sorcerous illusion, in the other a blessed vision of darkness banished by the real presence of the Grail. Did Tolkien know this scene in Wauchier? It's not unreasonable to suppose that he did, but I have yet to find any proof. A curious parallel is all it may be, but worth noting nonetheless. 



16 April 2018

The 'Lame' Sovereignty of Melkor and Man -- Disability and Power in 'The Children of Húrin'

Fingolfin's Challenge © John Howe 2003

Plutarch's Agesilaos tells the story of a power struggle for the throne of ancient Sparta. When Agis II died in 400, his younger brother, Agesilaos challenged the claim of Agis' son, Leotychides, on the grounds that he was illegitimate. When it was objected that Agesilaos could not succeed his brother because he had a limp, and a prophecy warned that Sparta should beware lest 'lame kingship' (χωλὴ βασιλεία) harm the state, which till then had been 'sound of foot' (ἀρτίποδος; Ages. 3.3-4), by dint of superior cleverness -- and no doubt better politicking -- the cause of Ageslaos prevailed, arguing that the real 'lame kingship' would result from an illegitimate heir taking the throne (Ages. 3.5).

Here we see the word χωλή (khōlé) employed as an insult both literally and metaphorically, to suggest that the person or thing so described is impaired and therefore inferior to the 'sound of foot.' 'Lame' in English is similar in its range and potential for giving offense. A brain or an idea can be as 'lame' as a leg. The simpler, physical meaning, even if never wholly free from negative connotations, gives rise to the metaphorical and is then eclipsed by it. Clearly this has been going on since at least the time of Homer, centuries before the events of which Plutarch speaks:

ἄσβεστος δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐνῶρτο γέλως μακάρεσσι θεοῖσιν
ὡς ἴδον Ἥφαιστον διὰ δώματα ποιπνύοντα. 
(Iliad 1.599-600) 
Unquenchable laughter was roused in the blessed gods
When they saw Hephaistos bustling through the palace.

And why does the sight of Hephaistos bustling stir up such laughter, and why is it marked by the particle ἄρα, which signifies that their laughter is what was after all only to be expected? Because he is 'περικλυτὸς ἀμφιγυήεις / Ἥφαιστος', 'famous Hephaistos, lame in both feet' (Iliad 1.607-08).

Turning from Plutarch and Homer to Shakespeare, we see the magnificent villain, Richard III, revelling in and despising the stigma which his limp inflicts upon him (1.1.12-31). We can see it elsewhere, too, spread across his comedies, tragedies, and histories as well as the sonnets and other poems (see here). However much Tolkien may have preferred Old English and Old Norse, he was far from ignorant of Homer and Shakespeare; a knowledge of the history of the Greeks in the fifth and fourth centuries and a familiarity with the Lives of Plutarch would have also been normal for an educated man of his day (cf. C.S. Lewis, Letters, of 13 May 1917, 11 January 1939, 12 October 1940, 1 January 1949).

So, if an author like Tolkien introduces a character affected by a physical disability, the author may well be using that particular disability to suggest something. When that author introduces a second character with the same disability, it becomes difficult to claim that the author is not suggesting something. But when the author brings in a third such character in a pivotal role, we have only ourselves to blame if we fail to see that some point is being made. Thus we have The Children of Húrin, in which Tolkien gives us three characters who have a limp.

Early in the tale we meet Sador. Maimed by an accident while cutting wood, and thus unable to serve Húrin, his lord, as a fighting man, Sador works as a servant in his household, making and repairing things (40-41). Morwen and Húrin treat him with indulgence, though they believe he could spend his time better than he does (49-50, 72). Young Túrin, however, loves him and spends much time talking to him and learning things about life he has not learned from his parents. He affectionately calls Sador 'Labadal', that is, 'Hopafoot', which in his childlike way Túrin means as an endearment, and at which Sador takes no offense because he knows that it is meant 'in pity not scorn' (41). Yet Labadal is Túrin's first attempt at naming, the first of many he will make in his life, and it succeeds, to the extent that it does at all, only because Sador is wise enough not to take offense at its misapprehension of reality. 'Labadal' is the beginning of a series of names through which Túrin comes to challenge the world around him, culminating in Turambar, Master of Fate.

It is late in the tale, when Túrin comes to Brethil where he will give himself the last of his names, Turambar, the Master of Fate, that Brandir enters the story, the second of the limping characters in The Children of Húrin. Unlike Sador, Brandir's disability arises from 'a leg broken in a misadventure in childhood' (193), but it also unfitted him for war, especially since he was already 'gentle in mood'. Like Sador, Brandir has more interest in wood than metal (41, 72, 193), with which we may contrast the importance of metal, both practically and symbolically, in Túrin's life -- the knife which he gives Sador as a gift, the dragon-helm that declares his identity as rightful Lord of Dor-Lómin, and the black sword with which he kills Glaurung, Brandir, and himself. Unlike Sador, however, Brandir is the lord of his people, a people at war whom he cannot lead in battle, which is of course his role.

Both Sador and Brandir also have crucial roles to play with Túrin's sisters. It is to Sador that the young Túrin turns when his beloved sister, Lalaith (Laughter), dies in childhood as a result of a plague sent by Morgoth (40-44). It is from Sador that Túrin first learns about the inevitability of death as the fate of all Men. It is from Brandir, on the other hand, that he learns that 'the feet of his doom were overtaking him' in his tragic ignorant marriage to Níniel (Maid of Tears), his 'twice-beloved' sister (250-56). And just as he had called Sador 'Labadal' in love and pity, he now calls Brandir 'club-foot' and a 'limping evil' in wrath and scorn. And just as 'Hopafoot' had told him of all that Men could learn from the Elves, it is the elf Mablung who teaches him the truth of 'Club-foot's' words. From the bewept Laughter to the beloved Maid of Tears, from the dear Hopafoot to the despised Club-foot, from the lore Men can acquire from Elves to the lesson of doom that Mablung brings, these two characters and their lameness frame this tale, both narratively by appearing at its beginning and end, and tragically by their involvement in and commentary on the life not only of Túrin, but of Man overall.

With lameness so interwoven into Túrin's tragic tale, it is impossible not to think of Oedipus and his tragic tale, which of course Tolkien himself openly acknowledged as a source of 'elements' in The Children of Húrin's (Letters, no. 131). Dimitra Fimi, moreover, has analyzed these 'elements' in her excellent '"Wildman of the Woods": inscribing tragedy on the landscape of Middle-earth in The Children of Húrin', where she comments:
Túrin is not lame or maimed himself, but two important characters in his tale are so afflicted: Sador [...] for whom young Túrin feels pity; and Brandir [...] whose position Túrin usurps as an able-bodied warrior. In Oedipus' case lameness is a sign of his real identity, while Túrin's reaction to lameness shows his change from sensitive youth to rash warrior, who associates the wilderness with aggression in order to channel his dangerous wrath. 
(Fimi, 55)
While I wholly agree with Fimi about 'Túrin's reaction' -- indeed he had previously usurped the authority of Orodreth at Nargothrond, whose leadership is also weak and who could be seen as metaphorically lame when viewed alongside Brandir's (CoH 160-65, 171-76) -- I would argue that there is more to be said about lameness in The Children of Húrin. Indeed, as Fimi has shown, the correspondences between the two stories are extensive. For anyone familiar with Oedipus, that Túrin himself is not lame is immediately noticeable but not necessarily noteworthy. After all, as Tolkien also pointed out,  Túrin owes 'elements' to Sigurd and Kullervo as well (Letters, no. 131). Yet the development of lameness as a metaphor through not two but three other characters who play important roles in Túrin's life indicates that Tolkien was after something bigger here. Considering the third of these characters will help us see what that is.

For Morgoth is the third character, whose malice towards Húrin and his family drives the tale as much as Túrin himself does. Curiously, slyly, Tolkien never openly says in The Children of Húrin that as a result of his duel with Fingolfin 'Morgoth went ever halt of one foot after that day, and the pain of his wounds could not be healed' (Silm. 154). He does, however, emphasize that 'Morgoth hated and feared the House of Fingolfin, because they had scorned him in Valinor and had the friendship of Ulmo his foe; and because of the wounds that Fingolfin gave him in battle' (CoH 60, italics mine). Note the construction of this sentence. Rather than say that he hated Fingolfin's house because of a, b, and c, which would be the common way of phrasing it, Tolkien says that he hated them because of a and b -- pause (thus, the semicolon) -- and because of c. He thus quite literally singles out the final reason and signals through the balance of the sentence that this reason is of special importance, perhaps even of equal importance. And of the eight wounds which Fingolfin inflicted on Morgoth, the only one specifically named is the last, the wound that maimed his foot.

Morgoth punishes Hurin © Ted Nasmith
So, we have seen how the lameness of Sador and Brandir is meaningfully interwoven with Túrin's misfortunes. How does Morgoth's matter? It undermines the claims to unrivaled position and power he makes in his verbal duel with Húrin, whom he can dominate and destroy, but never daunt (CoH 61-65). In this respect Húrin's encounter with Morgoth parallels Fingolfin's. They both defy, though in different ways, a power by whom they are outmatched. Yet their linked defiance refutes their defeat and marks the inner deficiency in Morgoth which his outer disability exemplifies. Their defeat may be inevitable, but so is his; and because he is cruel and cowardly and selfish, Morgoth's defeat is a refutation of all that he claims. In the end his shall prove to be a 'lame' sovereignty. For as Ilúvatar told him before the beginning:
'And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.'
(Silm. 17)
No matter Morgoth's boast to Húrin that he is 'the Master of the fates of Arda', he is not, no more than Túrin 'Turambar' is the 'Master of Doom' that he claims to be (CoH 65, 196, 218, 243-44). Their positions are analogous. Though each of them is powerful, neither one can finally prevail in thought or strength against one who is in turn mightier than he. The connections we see here between Morgoth and Túrin also call to mind another passage:

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said: ''These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.' Yet the Elves believe that Men are often a grief to Manwë, who knows most of the mind of Ilúvatar; for it seems to the Elves that Men resemble Melkor most of all the Ainur, although he has ever feared and hated them, even those that served him. 
(Silm. 42)

© Alan Lee

There is more to be said here, I believe, more to be explored at length in greater detail, and I hope to turn to that before long. For now, however, it seems clear that the 'lameness' that surrounds Túrin and connects him and Men in general to Morgoth shows, directly in Morgoth and by reflection in Túrin, what Shakespeare might have called 'a will most incorrect to heaven' (Hamlet 1.2.101) and Homer, Sophocles, and Plutarch hybris. In such a case it is little wonder that, when Mablung arrives like the fateful messenger in Oedipus Tyrannos, and says to Túrin that the years 'have been heavy on you', he receives the reply (CoH 253):
'Heavy!' said Túrin. 'Yes, as the feet of Morgoth.'



21 March 2018

Icarus, Bruegel, Auden

Detail of "Icarus", by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
    walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
    life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
W. H. Auden (1939)

Many thanks to @EFLOxford for tweeting Auden's poem out this morning on World Poetry Day.

20 March 2018

'You are grown up now' (RK 6.vii.996)

'I am with you at present,' said Gandalf, 'but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.
(RK 6.vii.996)
Gandalf is quite right of course. When the four hobbits arrive to discover the evil that has been at work in the Shire during their absence, they handle it quickly and deftly, restoring the quiet anarchy* which had reigned there for as long as anyone could remember. They make not a single misstep. In The Scouring of the Shire the hobbits rescue themselves.

How different this all is from the first steps of their journey when -- as we were discussing recently on Exploring the Lord of the Rings -- they had to be rescued almost every day, by Gildor and his company, twice by Tom Bombadil, and finally by Strider in Bree. Even before they leave Bag End, they are saved from a Black Rider by the Gaffer's ignorance that Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are still there. Then, too, at Bucklebury Ferry, aided by Farmer Maggot and his wagon, they make it across the Brandywine just before the arrival of a Black Rider. So chance, perhaps, or direct intervention save them repeatedly. Indeed the only day they do not have a close call is the day they spend safely  under Tom Bombadil's roof, going nowhere. From Bag End to the common room at The Prancing Pony they fail to grasp the caution that is required by the perils they face. They are not yet afraid enough, as Strider points out (FR 1.x.165). Their immaturity, to borrow Gandalf's metaphor, is in keeping with their current romantic and unrealistic understanding of what an 'adventure' is. In the same way, the maturity they gain from the real griefs they suffer on their 'adventures' balances the ending of the tale against its beginning.



* On this kind of anarchy, see Letters, no. 52 (italics mine): 'My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)....' To be sure, Tolkien is on a bit of a rant in this letter to his son, Christopher, and so his opinion here need not be taken as a considered one, but anarchy of this kind is precisely what we see in the Shire.