. Alas, not me: May 2020

15 May 2020

Again, sternly, 'with other vision' (RK 6.iii.945)

In my post on this subject on 9 May 2020 I did not comment on Sam's use of 'stern' to describe how he saw Frodo 'with other vision' both in the Emyn Muil and on Mt Doom. The persistence of this single word unaltered, while the rest of the description changes and darkens, makes it stand out quite proudly when comparing the two visions. Here are the relevant phrases once more:

a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud
(TT 4.i.618)
stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire.
(RK 6.iii.945)
Sternness is of course commonly associated with a kingly or authoritative manner or appearance. Aragorn, Gandalf, Boromir, Faramir, Denethor, Théoden, and Éowyn are all called stern. Frodo is repeatedly called stern as he tries to tame Gollum by means of the Ring (TT 4.i.616, 618 twice;.iii.640, 643). Yet the word has another sense, one long obsolete and unfamiliar to most people today. In Middle and Early Modern English, in authors from Layamon to Shakespeare, it could also mean merciless or cruel. We need look no farther than Tolkien’s own edition of Ancrene Wisse for two most pertinent examples of precisely this sense of the word:
He dude him seoluen bitweonen us & his feader þe þreatte us forte smiten ase moder þe is reowðful deð hire bitweonen hire child ant te wraðe sturne feader hwen he hit wule beaten.’
‘He put himself between us and his Father who was threatening to smite us, just as a mother who is merciful puts herself between her child and the wrath of a stern father when he wishes to beat him’.
In this first passage we see the sturne feader contrasted with the moder þe is reowðful. Given the father's intent and the mother's compassion or mercy, 'cruel' would be accurately render sturne here. 

Rihtwisnesse, he seið, mot beo nede sturne, ant þus he liteð cruelte wið heow of rihtwisnesse. Me mei beon al to riht wis. Noli esse iustus nimis. In ecclesiaste.

‘Justice’, he says, ‘must necessarily be stern’, and thus he dyes cruelty with the hue of righteousness. But one may be all too righteous. ‘Be not excessively just.’ [It says] in Ecclesiastes.

That ‘untouchable now by pity’ follows 'stern' immediately further argues that by the time they reach Mt Doom Frodo’s sternness has gone beyond righteousness towards cruelty. For given the cardinal importance Gandalf assigned to pity and mercy in The Shadow of the Past, a lesson Frodo refused to learn until his own sufferings and the wretchedness of Gollum taught him otherwise, to be beyond pity’s touch simply cannot be good. 

Moreover, there is less to Frodo’s appearing to be ‘a figure robed in white’ than meets the eye. In the Emyn Muil Sam saw him as ‘a mighty lord’ who shone with a light from within, something Sam and Gandalf have seen Frodo do before. Here on Mt. Doom the most important element in the vision is the Wheel of Fire. Here it is the Ring which blazes with a light of its own and which has transfigured the ‘mighty lord’ into an indistinct ‘figure’, an ‘it’ rather than a person. 

The whiteness which robes the figure is also ambiguous, since whiteness can be deceiving. When Frodo becomes able to see beneath the cloaks of the Black Riders, he sees them and their clothing as grey and white (FR 1.xi.195; xii.213). Saruman the White also appears white, when he is so no longer. The dismissive 'but' that follows at once identifies the Wheel of Fire as by far the more important detail. In the end the Wheel is what remains, and thus it is from the Wheel that the voice seems to speak, loud and cruel. 

13 May 2020

I'll show myself out (RK 6.iii.946)

'Precious, precious, precious!' Gollum cried. 'My Precious! O my Precious!' And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone. 
(RK 6.iii.946)
'Precious' six times and 'my' twice, which certainly makes clear his view of things:

'Methinks I could not die anywhere
so contented as in the [R]ing's company'

(Henry V 4.i.130-31).

I'll show myself out.

09 May 2020

'With other vision' (RK 6.iii.945)

While working on the scenes at Mt Doom lately, I have been staring a lot at the passage quoted just below, and reflecting on the description of what Sam sees here 'with other vision'. The phrase 'a figure robed in white' (all italics mine) at first glance seems to be positive, and thus is not well-matched to the obviously negative phrases on either side of it.

A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire.  
(RK 6.iii.945)
This passage also directs our attention back to the scene in the Emyn Muil where Sam first saw Frodo and Gollum 'with other vision'. 

For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog. 
(TT 4.i.618)
Frodo, as Sam sees him in these two moments, has changed from 'a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud' to a 'figure robed in white'. In each scene what Sam sees is very much tied up with the power of the Ring, by which Frodo is seeking to dominate Gollum. In the Emyn Muil Frodo is doing so for the first time. In the second, they are on the slopes of Mt Doom not far from the Chambers of Fire. As they have gotten closer to the place of the Ring's forging and as Frodo has been slowly worn down by the burden of it, what Sam sees has changed from a mostly positive image to a mostly negative image. The first Frodo sounds more like Gandalf or Aragorn, the pitilessness of the second at once declares a crucial difference, as does his whiteness, which is undermined by its being external and denied by the Wheel of Fire. Even Sam can see it now. The liturgy of their sufferings between the Emyn Muil and the Sammath Naur has changed them, master and servant alike. In the first Sam regards Frodo with admiration and Gollum with contempt. In the second he looks upon them both in sorrow and pity. 

That Sam comes to view his master with pity is hardly a surprise. That in one instant he comes to pity Gollum and to see the disturbing truth of the effect of the Ring on Frodo -- that he is beyond pity and embracing the Ring -- is more remarkable. It also inevitably directs the reader back to the scene on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, in which Gollum is on the point of repentance, but Sam wakes and misunderstands what he is seeing. He rebukes Gollum, but the reader knows he is wrong to do so because the narrator has allowed the reader to see with other vision the truth of this scene.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing. 
(TT 4.ix.714)

Nor should we allow 'robed in white' to dupe us into thinking that the whiteness must betoken goodness, or that Sam takes it as such (though he has misjudged others, too, in protecting Frodo). Aside from the phrases before and after 'robed in white', our thoughts should quickly turn to Saruman the White, the color of whose robe had been first a lie and then an illusion for quite some time. More relevant here, however, is what Frodo sees at Weathertop, while wearing the Ring, and then at the Ford of Bruinen, while almost in the world of the wraiths himself because of the wound he suffered at Weathertop. He finds he can see beneath the robes of the Black Riders.

In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes;
(FR 1.xi.195)
He could see them clearly now: they appeared to have cast aside their hoods and black cloaks, and they were robed in white and grey
(FR 1.xii.213)
There's obviously a great deal more to say about all of these passages and how they fit into the larger picture of how the Ring affects those bearing it and near it as well. For now, the lack of harmony within Sam's vision on Mt Doom is a clue to his own uneasiness about what he's seeing in Frodo moments before he claims the Ring for himself.

01 May 2020

Authorial high-jinks on the slopes of Mount Doom

As we've seen before, Tolkien is hardly averse to slipping a bit of humor or even (gasp!) irony into his writing. We might not expect it on the slopes of Mount Doom, however.
And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dur was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung. 
(RK 6.iii.946, emphasis mine)

Sauron's discovery of what a fool he's been is apocalyptic both literally and metaphorically, and I would be hard-pressed to say which sense predominates. The Greek verb from which apocalypse and apocalyptic derive -- ἀποκαλύπτω -- means quite simply 'to reveal', as in 'the magnitude of his folly was revealed to him'. The New Testament book known in English as Revelation is called Ἀποκάλυψις (Apocalypsis) in the Greek original. Metaphorically, of course, it has been used for well over a century to mean: 

'Of, relating to, or characteristic of a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale; cataclysmic.' 
 That same sentence also recalls the moment thousands of years before, which Gandalf spoke of in The Council of Elrond:

For in the day that Sauron first put on the One, Celebrimbor, maker of the Three, was aware of him, and from afar he heard him speak these words, and so his evil purposes were revealed. 
(FR 2.ii.253)
Out of the Black Years come the words that the Smiths of Eregion heard, and knew that they had been betrayed: 
   One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
   One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.
(FR 2.ii.254)

The irony here is nothing short of precious.

Finally there's the 'blinding flash' which paradoxically allows Sauron to see, which it is tempting to see as an allusion to Amazing Grace, except that in Tolkien's time Roman Catholics and Protestants were rather less ecumenical with their hymns than they have since become. Then, too, Amazing Grace seems to have been far better known in the US than it was in the UK, where it only became popular in the 1950s and was first published in a hymnody in the 1960s. So, we had better regard this as unlikely to be an allusion, though not impossible.