. Alas, not me: April 2018

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.'