. Alas, not me: 2021

15 December 2021

Ylfig and the Foresight of the Elves

Alaric Hall in his article Elves on the Brain: Chaucer, Old English, and Elvish makes an excellent case for believing that in Chaucer's time and earlier 'elvish' could mean 'prophetic'. To be brief, Hall notes that ylfig

is transparently derived from the late West Saxon form of ælf and the denominative adjectival suffix -ig; as this suffix has been productive from Common Germanic to present day English, ylfig could have been coined at any time. Parallel Old English formations are werig (‘weary, tired, exhausted’ < wor ‘ooze, bog’); sælig (‘happy, prosperous’ < sæl ‘prosperity, happiness’); and gydig (‘possessed (by a god)’ < *γuðaz ‘god’). All these suggest ‘(like) one engaged with noun X’: ‘like one in a bog’, ‘one in good fortune’, ‘one engaged with a god’, and so forth. The etymological meaning of ylfig seems therefore to be ‘(like) one engaged with an ælf or ælfe’. 

Hall then notes a glossator's use of ylfig to clarify further a Latin gloss for the word fanaticus: futura praecinens. Ylfig thus explains futura praecinens, 'foretelling the future'. Elves thus at one point were believed to possess this ability or skill. 

In The Lord of the Rings foresight and foretelling are strongly associated with Wizards, Elves and those with elvish blood in them (Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn, Gandalf, Saruman, Legolas, Arwen, Gilraen). I haven't the leisure right now to look more fully into this. It may be a coincidence, and it may well be impossible to prove. Yet I wouldn't be surprised if Tolkien, too, had seen this gloss, and that it lies behind the foretellings of Tolkien's Elves.


I admit I find the derivation Hall gives for 'werig' very amusing, but I am a bit perplexed by it, since I haven't yet found another source that says the same. Admittedly my search has been short and this is far more his patch than mine. I would love to learn better.

12 December 2021

Tolkien on what a lot of things an author means

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. 


“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you. You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.

“What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

“Not at all, not at all, my dear sir! Let me see, I don’t think I know your name?”

“Yes, yes, my dear sir—and I do know your name, Mr. Bilbo Baggins. And you do know my name, though you don’t remember that I belong to it. I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me! To think that I should have lived to be good-morninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!”

Italics mine. 

11 December 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 5

Previously we have noted that parenthetical commentary appears and disappears as the story grows lighter and darker by turns, and that this in general follows the relationship of Bilbo and then Frodo with the Ring. We have also just seen a very similar dynamic occur with Merry and Pippin in Book Three. Though neither of them ever possesses the Ring, it is nevertheless Saruman's lust to acquire it and Sauron's to regain it that motivates their kidnapping by the orcs, thus directly causing the darker and lighter turns the narrative takes in The Uruk-hai and Treebeard. Indeed Merry and Pippin perceive the role the Ring is playing in their captivity, and with desperate audacity play upon Grishnákh's mistaken belief that they have it, wagering their lives for a chance at escape. So here, too, the Ring is intimately connected to the dynamic at work and the parentheses. Since it transfers so smoothly from Bilbo and Frodo to Merry and Pippin, and, as we shall presently see, to Sam, it should also be evident just how closely concerned with the hobbit voice these asides are. 

After the cluster of parentheses in Treebeard a long gap of 155 pages follows (TT 3.iv.483-4.iii.638), empty except for the somewhat knowing comment on the sinister multiple meanings of Orthanc (TT 3.viii.555). An even longer gap of 177 pages before Treebeard (3.iv.465) extends back to The Ring Goes South (FR 2.iii.288), also interrupted only once (2.vi.344). This lack of parenthetical comments elsewhere in Book Three coincides with the general absence of the hobbits from this book despite the crucial role played by Merry and Pippin, a dynamic to be repeated in Book Five. Something similar holds true also in Book Two, where the narrative attends more to the Company as a whole than to the hobbits or Frodo specifically. So darker turns in the narrative connected to the Ring may be the most striking reason for the absence of parentheses, but not the only reason.

In Book 4 parentheses reappear in The Black Gate Is Closed. As I noted in Part 4, in this book Sam begins to carry the burden of the narrative as Frodo becomes increasingly preoccupied by his struggle against the Ring. It is Sam to whom the three parenthesis in The Black Gate Is Closed refer, at least two of which give us Sam's commentary on his own thoughts at the time (TT 4.iii.638, 640), and the third almost certainly does, too (4.iii.647). This last is perhaps the most remarkable since Sam's behavior in the tale here is as lighthearted as his comment on it, recalling Frodo from the darkness of his cares and purpose by this recitation of 'the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt' outside the Black Gate of Mordor, and recalling for the reader an earlier such moment where Sam did the same thing in the same way, hands behind his back and all (FR 1.xii.206-208). Consider also the comment in Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit where we learn that Sam is 'a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning' (TT 4.v.653), an art hobbits 'begin to learn before their letters (which many never reach)'. Here we must remember that Sam was called out by name a full chapter and seventeen years before we met him as a hobbit who had learned his letters. As with his pose while 'speaking poetry', the narrator is using the parentheses to remind the reader of how special Sam is. Not only could he cook the cabbages and potatoes which his Gaffer thought he'd be better off minding, but he knew his letters and poetry and great tales, which repeatedly helped to sustain him on the long road into darkness he and Frodo had to walk. His sense of mission comes from his learning his letters. Sam Gamgee had read all the right books.

These parentheses also further mark the shift we saw earlier with Merry and Pippin, a shift away from Frodo as his hobbit comrades step forward and begin to take up the roles they will play until the end of the book. This is not to say that Frodo is becoming less important. Far from it. But his are now not the only small hands that turn the wheels of the world while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. Sam in particular becomes critically important, and increasingly the story of Frodo's journey is seen through his eyes because Frodo's eyes are elsewhere.

26 November 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 4


Unsurprisingly, given what we've seen in Parts One, Two, and Three of this post, the narrator includes no lighthearted parenthetical comments once the Witch-king stabs Frodo on Weathertop. The only such remark in Flight to the Ford describes the rather grim state, doubly grim for Hobbits, of their provisions by the time they met Glorfindel: 'stale bread and dried fruit (which was now all they had left)' (FR 1.xii.211, emphasis mine). Once Frodo is recovering safely in Rivendell, the commentary picks up again slightly, with one parenthetical in direct speech (Gandalf: FR 2.i.221, sourcing an idiom), one strictly informational (the age of Dáin: 2.i.229), and one in which Frodo, himself just out of his sick bed, curiously wonders whether anyone is 'ever ill in Rivendell'(FR 2.i.230). Again unsurprisingly the serious matters of The Council of Elrond leave no room for such commentary, but once more in The Ring Goes South we find four hobbitish asides of a humorous bent (FR 2.iii.277, 280 twice, 288). Once the fellowship sets out, however, another 48 pages pass before the next such item appears, in Lothlórien (FR 2.vi.346), which notes the hobbits' approval of the food shared with them by the elves on their first night in the Golden Wood. Two hundred and twenty pages then pass before we come to another, in the chapter Treebeard, to which we now turn.

Here we encounter the last significant spike upwards, with fourteen parenthetical remarks. No chapter after Treebeard has more than five. Now Joe Hoffman over at Idiosophy has made several excellent observations and -- what is not necessarily the same thing -- has been quite complimentary of my analyses of these texts. Treebeard does sound like an old hobbit dispensing advice to the young, and Merry and Pippin must have been Frodo's sources for this chapter as well as the preceding chapter, The Uruk-hai (where regrettably neither Uglúk nor Grishnákh sounds like the gaffer or even Ted Sandyman). That eleven of the fourteen parentheses annotate descriptions of Treebeard and the other ents bears out Joe's observation (TT 3.iv.465, 470, 471, 472, 478, 480 five times, 483), which receives further support from the three such comments Treebeard makes himself (TT 3.iv.465, 473 , 476). So, too, and more directly does Pippin's quoted reminiscence about Treebeard's eyes, which the narrator makes clear derives from a later time (TT 3.iv.463): 'often afterwards Pippin tried to describe his first impression of them.'

With Merry and Pippin in these two chapters we see again much the same as we have previously seen with Bilbo and Frodo. Painful and frightening experiences close down the good humor on display in the parentheses. The quarrel with Gandalf, the horror in the barrow, the terrible mistake with the Ring at the Prancing Pony, the abduction by the orcs shows that the Hobbit tendency to make jokes even in serious situations has it limits (RK 5.viii.870). Some experiences are too dreadful for asides. But we can also see their resilience. Once they have left the barrow behind once they have escaped the orcs, their spirits quickly revive. 

As with Frodo in the barrow, the seeds of Pippin's courage begin to grow when things looks darkest for him and Merry as captives of the Uruk-hai. Pippin here started to be less the 'fool of a Took' Gandalf had called him (FR 2.iv.313), just as Frodo there became less one of the 'ridiculous Bagginses' (FR 1.ii.49). We also learn from Pippin that Merry had displayed exceptional bravery when the orcs first attacked them (TT 3.iii.444), though he had not had so far to go. The parallel between Frodo and Pippin here, and through Pippin's recollection to Merry, is maintained by the resumption of parenthetical comments once the danger is behind them. The emergence of Pippin and Merry in book three will be followed by Sam's in book four where he begins to carry the narrative burden, i.e., the tale is told increasingly from his perspective as Frodo becomes more isolated in his lonely struggle with the Ring. The parallel thus signals a shift which I shall follow up on in my next post. 

17 November 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 3

As we saw in Part One and Part Two, the number of parenthetical comments rapidly declines from the first chapter onwards. Thirty-two parentheses in A Long-expected Party alone are followed by thirty-four all told in chapters 2 through 8 of Book 1, from 1.5 parentheses per page (32/21) in chapter one to 1 every three pages (34/107) in the next seven chapters. 

In the section of text I will be discussing here in Part Three, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony starts us off with fifteen in thirteen pages, but from Strider through Flight to the Ford we find only eight in the next fifty-two pages. After At the Sign of the Prancing Pony we find only one more chapter that has a comparable number of parentheses, namely Treebeard, with fourteen. But these two chapters are aberrations. For in the balance of the book only once more do we find as many as five (Window on the West), and only three times do we encounter as many as four (A Knife in the Dark, The Ring Goes South, and The Grey Havens). By contrast there are thirty-four chapters with none at all, and seven with only one. At this point a simple chart (not a single logarithm, Joe) makes all perfectly clear: 

The fifteen parentheses in At the Sign of the Prancing Pony are indeed anomalous as far as the trend of the numbers goes, but not without an explanation as far as Hobbits go. As we saw in A Long-expected Party, the comments are good humored until something unpleasant happens, in this case, until Frodo puts on the Ring. Of the fourteen parentheses in the body of this chapter*, only one is strictly informational -- 1.ix.151: '(mostly dwarves)'. The rest smile upon the various characteristics of hobbits, touching upon their love of food, drink, genealogy and song as well on their peculiar relationship with the Men of Bree and those who pass through the town. If we bear in mind that the lighthearted parentheticals in Fog on the Barrow-Downs follow the horror of the barrow and round out the chapter on a (generally) much more positive vibe than it had at the start, we can see that At the Sign of the Prancing Pony begins emotionally where the previous chapter ended. This provides us with a story that sweeps more or less happily along from the moment when Frodo does precisely the right thing in the barrow to a moment when he does absolutely the wrong thing at the inn, leading to the rescue of his friends from the wight in the former, and plunging them into grievous danger in the latter.

These two moments help define his relationship with the Ring for Frodo as well as the reader. The decision Frodo faces in the barrow mirrors Bilbo's beneath the Misty Mountains, where he had Gollum's life in his hands. For Bilbo the choice to use the Ring to escape was correct, but for Frodo it would have been wrong; for Bilbo the choice to strike would have been wrong, but for Frodo it was right. Each passed the test. To choose otherwise was to become another Gollum. This is why Gandalf considered the experience in the barrow so crucial. Frodo's situation at Bree also mirrors that of Bilbo at his party. Bilbo, however, put the Ring on intentionally and meant to cause the consternation his disappearance provoked. How the Ring came to be on Frodo's finger in Bree is unclear in the moment, even to Frodo, and draws precisely the sort of comment and attention that Frodo had most wished to avoid. In both cases dark, unpleasant conversations follow, with friends suspected of being enemies. By disappearing, however, Frodo has revealed himself to friends and enemies alike. In fact the two parenthetical comments in the following chapter, Strider, occur in the context of Gandalf's letter, which serves to demonstrate that Strider is a friend despite his rascally looks and Sam's wariness (FR 1.x.167, 169). Once the hobbits have survived the night thanks to Strider, a bit of humor returns with the parentheses in A Knife in the Dark, which smile wanly at Butterbur's insistence that he hadn't slept, Pippin's declaration that he can carry as much as he must, and the hobbits' leaving the 'evil relatives of the cricket' behind in the Midgewater Marshes (FR 1.xi.177, 178, 183). A fourth comment, recounting the happy fate of Merry's ponies who found their way back to Bombadil and thence to Butterbur, hints at a broader happy ending while reminding the reader that the ponies were more sensible when it came to danger than the hobbits (1.xi.179 ; cf. 1.viii.144), a truth which makes quite clear how lucky the hobbits were to meet Strider, just as they had been to meet Bombadil earlier. Strider, as Gandalf and Frodo will both say, is the one who saved [them] from disaster (FR 2.i.220).

Earlier the parentheses helped us see the ambivalence with which Frodo looks down the road ahead of him. We will do well to recall here Bilbo's own inability to make up his mind about the Ring and then to stick to the decision he had made to give the Ring to Frodo, and which he had at least in part arranged his party to enforce. Now they help to illuminate a range of behaviors seen in Frodo and Bilbo alike. These behaviors are at times intentional, at times accidental, at times even heroic. Yet a bad ending is not far off, as we see when Bilbo threatens Gandalf with his sword the night of the party, and when Frodo by betraying his identity and location to the Black Riders endangers the lives of the very friends his courage had saved only the day before. 

The inconsistencies of Frodo's behavior are of a piece with the ambivalence of his feelings, and in these the earliest days of his quest the two give the measure of his burden. What comes next at Weathertop, at the Ford, and in Rivendell will take Frodo further down this road while adding new dimensions to his struggle. He will show courage and insight, hatred of his road and of his enemy, defiance and a wish to dominate those who would dominate him, a willingness to take on the quest to save Middle-earth and the desire to strike even his dearest kin when he reaches for the Ring.


* The one parenthesis not in the body of the text is in a footnote on 1.ix.160 which explains that 'Elves (and Hobbits) always refer to the Sun as She.'

04 November 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 2

After the 32 parentheses in A Long-expected Party, the number in The Shadow of the Past plunges to five. Of these one occurs in direct speech (Gandalf: 1.ii.53). Three present genealogical information, always of interest to Hobbits (all on 1.iii.42). A fifth wryly signals that Frodo had a bad feeling about the 'significant (or ominous)' approach of his fiftieth birthday (1.ii.43), the age at which 'adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo.' Since Tolkien always uses 'befall' of evil or at least strange and unpleasant events, this explains the rather proleptic 'ominous' as well as pointing to Frodo as the author of this comment. For Bilbo did not regard his adventure as an evil, even when he came to understand that the Ring was; and Frodo, whatever he may have genuinely felt about 'adventures' before Gandalf told him about the Ring, certainly did not want the 'adventure' he got. It would be no surprise then, though it need not be so, if as narrator Frodo took his disquiet as he neared fifty as ominous.

Three is Company contains seven parenthetical statements, of which four are purely informational (1.iii.65, 68, 70, 81), two are humorous comments on Hobbits (1.iii.71, 77) and one again suggests uncertainty in Frodo's attitude towards something that made him uncomfortable (1.iii.70), namely the conversation he overhears between the Gaffer and a stranger later discovered to be one of the Black Riders.

In A Shortcut to Mushrooms one pokes fun at Sam's disappointment about missing the beer at The Golden Perch (1.iv.88) and the other at the way farmers complain about their prospects (1.iv.92).

A Conspiracy Unmasked provides five, three informational (all at 1.v.98), one showing Sam's mixed emotions about leaving the Shire (1.v.99), and one Frodo's about seeing his and Bilbo's things in the house at Crickhollow (1.v.100).

All three in The Old Forest suggest uncertainty. Merry isn't confident that it is the bonfire glade ahead of them (1.vi.111); Frodo doubts it's even possible to turn back (1.vi.113); and Frodo and Sam think the words Old Tom is singing are 'nonsense', but they aren't entirely sure (1.vi.119).

While the first parenthesis In the House of Tom Bombadil conveys details about the house itself (i.vii.124), the other three highlight Frodo's ambivalence regarding the Ring. Indeed these three seem to work together to accomplish precisely that in the scene with Bombadil and the Ring (all at 1.vii.133). When Old Tom returns it, Frodo suspects trickery '(like one who has lent a trinket to a juggler)'. Having put the Ring to the test by donning it, he is 'delighted (in a way)' and 'laugh[s] '(trying to feel pleased)'. It is as if on some level Frodo wished it were not his Ring, even though compelled to prove that it was. Bombadil's imperviousness to the effects of the Ring seems important to Frodo only in so far as it makes him doubt the Ring.

Fog on the Barrow-Downs is reminiscent of A Long-expected Party, which lacks parenthetical statements in the parts in which no one would find anything amusing. Here the scenes telling of the hobbits' capture by the Barrow-wight have no parenthetical remarks until the narrator reaches the moment when he recounts the awakening of Frodo's courage, a virtue 'hidden (often deeply it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit', and informs the reader that 'though [Frodo] did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) thought him the best hobbit in the Shire' (both at 1.viii.140). There is a gentle humor in the humble concession of the first and the citation of Gandalf as an authority in the second, which suggests a resolution in Frodo we have not seen before, and the narrator's faith in that resolution. As such it marks a strong contrast with the uncertainty we've seen before. 

Once Old Tom appears to rescue them the more broadly humorous commentary returns. just as it does in A Long-expected Party once Bilbo has let go of the Ring and left it to Frodo. The next five parenthetical comments, including one in direct speech by Bombadil (1.viii.144), are either amusing themselves or embedded in an amusing context (1.viii.142, 144, 145). Yet as the hobbits are about to return to the road, ending the passage through Faërie they had begun when they entered The Old Forest, even Bombadil makes a remark parenthetically that could be taken to express uncertainty (1.viii.147): 'Tom will give you good advice, till this day is over (after that your own luck must go with you and guide you)'. As always with Tolkien, however, what is called luck or chance is often far more. Bombadil's mention of luck here nicely balances his answer to Frodo's question upon their first meeting (1.vi.126) and thus bookends their acquaintance:

‘Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?’

Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering.'

Consider also consider that even as Old Tom tells them they must trust to their luck, Strider -- unbeknownst to the reader and the hobbits (and Bombadil?) -- is on the other side of the hedge dividing the Downlands from the road (1.x.163-64): Strider, whose role and arrival had been foreshadowed that very afternoon outside the barrow in Bombadil's conjuring of visions of the 'sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless' (1.viii.146). He, too, had heard news and was waiting for them, though it was no plan of his to find them here (1.x.163-64). 

When Frodo steps out into the larger world and takes on the task of saving the Shire, he leaves behind the place which defined him, where he was 'the Mr. Baggins of Bag End'; and he does so on the very night when it becomes clear -- to the reader if not immediately to Frodo the character -- that this identity is not quite the advantage it had long seemed to be, even within the Shire. Farmer Maggot's attitudes towards Hobbiton show this, as do those of most of the hobbits who discuss the 'queerness' of the Bagginses in the evening at The Ivy Bush and The Green Dragon. Mr. Baggins may find them 'too stupid and dull for words' at times, but behind their deference they have their own opinions of how strange he and Mr. Bilbo are. When Maggot links Frodo's present troubles to Bilbo's adventures, he is doing no more than voicing to Frodo's face the longstanding common opinion that no good could come of adventures to the 'queer' folk who went on them. 

The larger world in which such adventures take place is far more dangerous in fact than even the most parochial hobbit imagines. Even the more broadminded Mr. Baggins of Bag End fails to grasp that not only is he 'quite a little fellow in the wide world after all', but that the wider world, whether it is the Faërie of The Old Forest, Bombadil, and the Barrow-wights, the world of History, or that blending of both in which a man might walk, will not be fenced out forever. The Ring, which threatens Frodo's identity because he already cannot do with it as he wishes, compels him to leave the place that helps define that identity. 

01 November 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 1

When I first got the idea for this post, my idea was to write it up quickly. The more I looked at the evidence I had gathered (with the welcome support and feedback of Joe Hoffman), the clearer it became that a longer post was in order. Or a series of shorter ones. So let it be written. So let it be done.


For some years now I have been inclined to believe that Bilbo is the narrator of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings. But how far he carried on with the story remains hard to say. I had also heard that Michael Drout had a similar opinion, which he was kind enough to confirm for me, but we didn't have the chance to discuss details. Recently, however, I noticed something about the text that looks very much like it might be a clue. First let's look at what we know.

Bilbo's conversation with Frodo and Sam in Rivendell in Many Partings makes clear that he didn't get very far.

The evening deepened in the room, and the firelight burned brighter; and they looked at Bilbo as he slept and saw that his face was smiling. For some time they sat in silence; and then Sam looking round at the room and the shadows flickering on the walls, said softly:

'I don't think, Mr. Frodo, that he's done much writing while we've been away. He won't ever write our story now.' 

At that Bilbo opened an eye, almost as if he had heard. Then he roused himself. 'You see, I am getting so sleepy,' he said. 'And when I have time to write, I only really like writing poetry. I wonder, Frodo my dear fellow, if you would very much mind tidying things up a bit before you go? Collect all my notes and papers, and my diary too, and take them with you, if you will. You see, I haven't much time for the selection and the arrangement and all that. Get Sam to help, and when you've knocked things into shape, come back, and I'll run over it. I won't be too critical.'

        (RK 6.vi.988)

It has also been long observed that the narrator of the earliest chapters of The Lord of the Rings starts out sounding much like the narrator of The Hobbit, but that changes before too long. Further, we have Tolkien's remarks in letter 151 of September 1954.

Frodo is not intended to be another Bilbo. Though his opening style is not wholly un-kin. But he is rather a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror — broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. None of the hobbits come out of it in pure Shire-fashion. They wouldn't. But you have got Samwise Gamwichy (or Gamgee).

In the Letters Tolkien uses 'style' many times, but almost invariably he is speaking of words -- of narrative, diction, and language -- when he does so. It's little likely then that his reference to Frodo's 'opening style' refers to anything but his writing style, a remark he offers as a concession of some regard in which they were a bit alike. We might expect Frodo, then, to begin in a style similar to Bilbo's, but to develop his own reasonably soon. But when does his portion of the narrative 'open'? And when does his style begin to diverge from Bilbo's?

I would suggest that the punctuation gives us a clue. During a recent reading of A Long-expected Party I noticed, not for the first time, that the narrator made an awful lot of parenthetical remarks. I found myself relishing the marvelous running social commentary the narrator was  offering on his fellow hobbits. 'For what do we live', we might almost hear him ask, 'but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?' That so much of this commentary is nested in and around parentheses made me wonder. On reflection I could not recall it as a conspicuous feature of the entire work. 

A quick search revealed my impression was correct. The entire Lord of the Rings (removing the appendices) contains 158 parenthetical remarks, 20 percent of which (32/158 = 20.25%) occur in A Long-expected Party. If we discount the 25 instances in the Prologue, which we know was written by a Man rather than a Hobbit, the portion in A Long-expected Party approaches a quarter (32/133 = 24%). Numbers aren't everything of course, but this compares rather well with An Unexpected Party, which contains 25 parenthetical remarks out The Hobbit's total of 120 (25/120 = 20.08%) in The Hobbit as a whole.*

Two thirds (22/32) of the parentheses in A Long-expected Party occur before or during the party up to the reactions of the guests to Bilbo's disappearance (FR 1.i.31: 'with a few exceptions'). Of these 22, 14 are funny per se or in their context, and eight simply add information (e.g., 1.i.22: 'the Old Took himself had only reached 130'). There is, however, not a single parenthesis in all of Bilbo's argument with Gandalf about the Ring or in Frodo's brief conversation with Gandalf after Bilbo has gone. The remarks resume again the following morning in very much the same generally humorous vein. Only two of these ten comments are strictly informational ('two Boffins and a Bolger' and 'old Odo Proudfoot's grandson', both at 1.i.39).

Surely it is noteworthy that a long (5+/21 pages), centrally located, and thematically crucial section of this chapter has none of the types of comments we find on almost every other page of it. True, the two scenes found in these pages (31-36) are much more dramatic, more dialogue than narrative, which leaves less scope for parenthetical remarks; but it is also true that there is nothing that either the characters in these scenes or their narrator found in the least amusing. It is a bitter, uneasy darkness at the heart of the chapter, bracketed, as it were, by the far brighter sections on either side (pp 21-31, 36-42).


I have found Joe's friendship, humor, and commentary invaluable for some years now. He is also my second if I am challenged to any duels. 

*The Hobbit is also far more densely packed with parentheses: 120 in 95356 vs 158 in 481,103. The Hobbit also raises its own questions about narrators, which we shall examine elsewhere in connection with the narrators of The Lord of the Rings. The interested reader should look to Paul Edmund Thomas' 'Some of Tolkien's Narrators' in Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth, edd. V. Flieger and C. Hostetter (2000).

30 October 2021

When it stopped being fun

A couple of months ago a long-time friend and colleague of mine at work were talking, and we agreed that it was no longer fun to work there anymore. What started our conversation was my increasing dislike for the location I worked in and my sadness at how little I was coming to care about a job I greatly loved. 

That's a long story in itself, and one in which I must bear some of the blame for my unhappiness. But not all. No one can tell me, for example, that a coworker's disclosure of my medical information to customers while I was out on disability was not a grievous betrayal of my trust. Nor can anyone tell me that the failure of management to make any substantive effort to discover precisely who had violated my legal rights to privacy isn't even more egregious. When I asked about it, I was told 'we talked about it in meetings, to let the employees know they can't do that.' 

Does it sound like they even cared? It doesn't to me.

I didn't want anyone fired. I wasn't threatening to sue. I didn't file any complaints with government agencies. I just wanted an admission of wrongdoing by the guilty party, and an apology. That's all. I didn't think malice was involved, just ignorance or inattention. 

Eventually, after two years of listening carefully to what people said and asking enough indirect questions, I narrowed it down to one suspect. I brought it up casually in conversation one day with her -- 'Oh hey, you know what, I finally found out who gave my medical information to customers' -- and I watched her pupils dilate and her body stiffen up. I didn't say anything else. I just walked away.

But I digress. Perhaps. 

Today, however, I realized when it stopped being fun for me. Part of it was my fault. In February 2018 there was a day where the managers in every store received instructions to lay off about 1800 people at once by telling them their positions had been eliminated. There was no effort to reassign any of them or transfer them. They were all employees of supervisory rank, many of whom had been with the company a decade or more. It was a horrible, horrible day, without even the poor form of fairness that laying off the newest person first allows. I was not in that day. For three and a half years I have felt both glad of this and ashamed. The scum who ran our company at that time (since booted themselves, though not hard enough) then went on to boast to the shareholders that by economizing on payroll they had saved the company millions of dollars, which they were now free to spend on putting marble counters in the stores' cafes. They were so proud of themselves. They didn't claim that they fired those people to save the company. They didn't try to hide that they were 'saving' that money in order to spend it on countertops. Monsters.

Today I was thinking about a young woman named Jessica who worked with me for ten years at that point. She was unaffected by the layoff because she only worked a couple of shifts a week and wasn't paid half what she was worth. She quit that day because she knew that what was happening was wrong. On the spot. I have missed and admired her for the courage and principle she showed that day. She refused to be complicit. 

That was the day it stopped being fun. I deplored what was done of course. But I did nothing. I was afraid to lose my job. Because of my age, the thought that I might never get another, and the thought of having to go somewhere else and start over, led me to stand by though I knew without the least doubt that all those people were being wronged. So I became complicit because I was afraid. How many horrors has that kind of cowardice led to over the last hundred years alone?

If I had stood up, had said something -- even 'I won't be part of this. I quit.' -- I could have at least have told myself that I said 'no.' When you claim to have principles, when you say you believe in right and wrong, but don't stand up, you are lying to yourself and so of course to everyone else. It's easy to talk. That was the day to walk. It's easy to believe. It's hard to have faith.

I could have said no. One word would have been enough. It would have changed nothing, but it would have meant everything. I could have been the example of my principles I always wanted to be. Had I done so, perhaps the person who gave out my private information would not have done so, or, having done so by mistake, might have stood up. I failed this person because I was not who I should have been. I failed myself. I failed those I should have stood up for.

No wonder it stopped being fun.

15 October 2021

Sméagol-Gollum and the Legacy of Pity, part 2

In my last post I pointed out that the author of 'The Tale of Years' 'sees the moment of final transition from Sméagol-Gollum to Gollum in his loss of the Ring to Bilbo'. What I did not note there, but will add now, is that Gollum would agree with this assessment. When Frodo addresses him as Sméagol, Gollum replies:

Don't ask Sméagol. Poor, poor Sméagol, he went away long ago. They took his Precious, and he's lost now.'

        (TT 4.i.616)

From these words it would appear that for Gollum, Sméagol somehow continued to exist until he lost the Ring to Bilbo. Gollum seems to scorn him -- the verb describing how Gollum spoke the words in this paragraph is 'cackled'. So we should not mistake his tone in the words I've quoted. There's no sign that he has slipped back into the self-pity of earlier paragraphs, where he sobs and whimpers. The next exchange in the conversation confirms this. 

'Perhaps we'll find him again, if you come with us,' said Frodo.

'No, no, never! He's lost his Precious,' said Gollum.

Gollum is as firm here (and perhaps as judgmental) as Frodo was in The Shadow of the Past when Gandalf suggested that Frodo did not pity Gollum because he had not seen him:

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’ 

No doubt it was Sméagol, the last of him, that remembered the sun on daisies, at which Gollum, the evil part, grew angry. 

15 September 2021

Sméagol-Gollum and the legacy of Pity.

It was some years ago that I first noted differences in the use of the names Sméagol and Gollum. Gandalf only calls him Sméagol when he is trying to persuade Frodo that he is pitiable. Frodo addresses him as Sméagol, but refers to him as Gollum. The Tale of Years in Appendix B, moreover, cleverly signals the changes in him by referring to him differently at different times. He is Sméagol until he murders Déagol for the Ring; then Sméagol-Gollum until he loses the Ring to Bilbo; and always Gollum thereafter.

2463: About this time Déagol the Stoor finds the One Ring, and is murdered by Sméagol.

2470. About this time Sméagol-Gollum hides in the Misty Mountains.

2941: Bilbo meets Sméagol-Gollum and finds the Ring. 

2944: Gollum leaves the Mountains and begins his search for the 'thief' of the Ring

2951: Gollum turns towards Mordor. 

2980: About this time Gollum reaches the confines of Mordor and becomes acquainted with Shelob. 

3001. Bilbo's farewell feast. Gandalf suspects his ring to be the One Ring. The guard on the Shire is doubled. Gandalf seeks for news of Gollum and calls on the help of Aragorn.

3009: Gandalf and Aragorn renew their hunt for Gollum at intervals during the next eight years, searching in the vales of Anduin, Mirkwood, and Rhovanion to the confines of Mordor. At some time during these years Gollum himself ventured into Mordor, and was captured by Sauron. 

3017: Gollum is released from Mordor. He is taken by Aragorn in the Dead Marshes, and brought to Thranduil in Mirkwood. 

About 20 June 3018: Gollum escapes [captivity in Thranduil's realm]

August 3018: All trace of Gollum is lost. It is thought that at about this time, being hunted both by the Elves and Sauron's servants, he took refuge in Moria; but when he had at last discovered the way to the West-gate he could not get out

13 January 3019: Gollum begins to trail the Ring-bearer.

16 February 3019: Gollum in hiding on the west bank observes the departure.

29 February 3019: Frodo descends from the Emyn Muil and meets Gollum.

11 March 3019: Gollum visits Shelob, but seeing Frodo asleep nearly repents.

12 March 3019: Gollum leads Frodo into Shelob's lair.

25 March 3019: Gollum seizes the Ring and falls in the Cracks of Doom. 

Note that from the first his identity as a Hobbit, and in particular a Stoor, like Déagol, is suggested. Note also the reference to his near repentance. Details like these disclose the hand of an author who, so far from merely portraying him as a villain, recognized his humanity, his kinship as a Hobbit, and agreed with Gandalf that Gollum's was a sad story. As the use of the different terms indicates, this author gave some thought to the journey from Hobbit to monster; and sees  the moment of final transition from Sméagol-Gollum to Gollum in his loss of the Ring to Bilbo. Even if the Prologue (14) did not inform us that the appendices were added in Westmarch in the Shire, it would be easy to guess that the author was a Hobbit with some personal connection to the story, likely a Fairbairn and a descendant of Master Samwise, who awoke at the crucial moment on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol and 'blighted' (as Tolkien himself said) Gollum's last chance for repentance. Even in that instant Sam knew he had been wrong to be as harsh as he was to Gollum. 

What the presence of these various descriptions of Gollum in Appendix B tells us is quite moving. It tells us that the pity which Frodo and even Sam came to feel for Gollum was handed down as an enduring legacy to Sam's descendants, and that among them it continued to be thought meaningful. It speaks to the forgiveness Frodo told Sam they should show Gollum since the quest could not have been achieved without him. Even if Gollum remained the villain of the story, some would remember that the sad story of Sméagol lurked behind that of Gollum.

Fear, Desire, and 'The Ring is mine.'


The Ring plays on fear as much as desire. To be sure Boromir and Denethor desire to save Gondor, but both share a desperate fear that they cannot succeed. Even Faramir says of his people ‘What hope have we? …. It is long since we have had any hope’ (TT 4.v.677); and even Faramir sees the temptation the power of the Ring would hold, for his brother in particular (TT. 4.v.681). For it seems a gift that will allow Gondor to survive. Frodo sets out to destroy the Ring because he fears the Shire will not survive otherwise. For all three the desire to save their homeland and their fear that they cannot will merge without their knowing it into a desire for the one weapon that seems capable of defeating Sauron. The idea of victory in battle may not come to Frodo’s mind as readily as it does to Boromir’s (and Sam’s, don’t forget.), but 'the Ring is mine' is no less of a challenge because of that. The ‘Captain-General of Gondor’ and ‘the Mister Baggins of Bag End’ are far less different than bearing and size suggest.

12 September 2021

'Perhaps', 'Not yet', and 'almost' -- Rereading The Lord of the Rings Fifty Years On

Nowadays I hear people say they are waiting for their Hogwarts letter, which usually is already quite overdue since their eleventh birthday is long gone. I didn't miss my Hogwarts letter. At eleven I got The Lord of the Rings, which suits me far better. 

In The Shadow of the Past we encounter two very telling passages about Frodo just as we begin to get to know him as Bilbo's heir and the Mr. Baggins of Bag End.

For some years he was quite happy and did not worry much about the future. But half unknown to himself the regret that he had not gone with Bilbo was steadily growing. He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself: ‘Perhaps I shall cross the River myself one day.’ To which the other half of his mind always replied: ‘Not yet.’

            FR 1.ii.42 (emphasis mine)


He did not tell Gandalf, but as he was speaking a great desire to follow Bilbo flamed up in his heart– to follow Bilbo, and even perhaps to find him again. It was so strong that it overcame his fear: he could almost have run out there and then down the road without his hat, as Bilbo had done on a similar morning long ago.

            FR 1.ii.62 (emphasis mine)

''Perhaps', 'Not yet' and 'almost'. He thinks of crossing the river and going in search of adventures some day, but doesn't. He burns to follow Bilbo at once, but doesn't. This is Frodo all over, at least to start with. Bilbo knew full well that Frodo's love for the Shire outweighed even his love for him or whatever fantasies of adventure he had cherished at uncle Bilbo's side. In the end it is not -- as we see -- the desire to follow Bilbo, but the desire to save the Shire that moves Frodo to cross that river. When he finally does so, given the mythological resonance of 'crossing the river on a ferry' and given that his parents drowned in this very river, Frodo in a sense dies there and then. For he dies to the Shire. It may be Sam who gazes back across the Brandywine as if leaving 'his old life behind in the mists' (FR 1.v.99), but he will return and reclaim that life. Frodo will not. 

04 September 2021

'To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power' -- Perhaps a part of an Introduction


‘the burden of a large story’


‘They wanted a sequel. But I wanted heroic legends and high romance. The result was The Lord of the Rings. ....

‘The magic ring was the one obvious thing in The Hobbit that could be connected with my mythology. To be the burden of a large story it had to be of supreme importance.’

Letters no. 257, p. 346

‘Tolkien was his own best critic’, writes Anna Vaninskaya (2020: 156). Not only did revising his works release a torrent of new ideas, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, but reading and thinking about them revealed depths he had not fathomed before.[1] We can see this in his letters as well as in every phase of the creation of his legendarium, so masterfully laid out by Christopher Tolkien in The History of Middle-earth. An essential part of being his own best critic was being his own best reader. To call the Ring ‘the burden of a large story’ is to perceive that it is as much the burden the story has to bear as it is the burden Frodo has to bear. It is at once supremely important in and to the story. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings he saw the blending of the Elvish perspective found in the ‘high Legends of the beginning’ and the ‘human point of view’ which first arose in The Hobbit (Letters no. 131, p. 145). At the same time he knew, more abstractly, that the tales of his mythology ‘must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error)’ (Letters no. 131, p. 144). What is reflected is seen indirectly, if not darkly; what is in solution is seen barely, if at all.  

The Lord of the Rings embodies the synthesis of each of these three theses – the burden of the story and the burden of Frodo, the perspectives of Elves and Men, the reflection and solution in a secondary world of truths fundamental to the primary world – not just individually but into a greater whole, which, presented mythically and realized artistically, creates and shares the significance of these truths, perspectives, and burdens metaphorically. ‘Tolkien is thinking in story,’ Simon Cook tells us in The Apprenticeship of J. R. R. Tolkien (2018) in which he argues forcefully that the ‘allegory of the tower’ which Tolkien told as a means to understanding Beowulf is also of vital importance for understanding Tolkien’s own writing. In employing this allegory Tolkien ‘is exploring a metaphor and making meaning, yet we remain on the surface and have not the key to his intentions.’

A work ‘so multifarious and so true’ (Lewis, Letters, 4 December 1953) as The Lord of the Rings will contain many essential elements besides those introduced above. Some of these Tolkien employed consciously, but there were others the extent of whose presence he recognized only subsequently. He knew well that there is far more to be found in a work, even by its author, than any author intends, as the candor and open-mindedness of these responses to his readers in 1956 and 1958 make clear.  

Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for domination)…. I do not think that even Power or Domination is the real centre of my story. It provides the theme of a War, about something dark and threatening enough to seem at that time of supreme importance, but that is mainly ‘a setting’ for characters to show themselves. The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race 'doomed' to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race 'doomed' not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete.

(Letters no. 186, p. 246, italics original)

As for 'message': I have none really, if by that is meant the conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of preaching, or of delivering myself of a vision of truth specially revealed to me! I was primarily writing an exciting story in an atmosphere and background such as I find personally attractive. But in such a process inevitably one's own taste, ideas, and beliefs get taken up. Though it is only in reading the work myself (with criticisms in mind) that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death.

(Letters no. 208, p. 267)

In his essay Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics Tolkien talks about the Beowulf poet writing his poem without full awareness or understanding of the theme he had set himself, and this, Tolkien avers, was a good thing: ‘Had the matter been so explicit to him, his poem would certainly have been worse’ (BMC 18). This remark follows from his earlier comment that myth is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and  geography, as our poet has done’ (BMC 16). Whether the Beowulf poet ever looked back and saw more clearly what he had ‘felt’ when composing the poem, no one can say. But Tolkien did. By far the greater part of his fascinating, insightful, and expansive commentary upon The Lord of the Rings comes from the letters he wrote in the years after he had finished it. To be sure, his published letters are only a selection, but the principle of that selection was to make available the material that would be of the greatest interest to readers of The Lord of the Rings and his other published works (Letters, 1).[2] It is reasonable then to see the letters we get before and after Tolkien declared the work finished as representative of his chief concerns in each period.

Letter 131, the ever cited ‘Waldman letter’ of late 1951 (Letters, 167), marks a terminus before which Tolkien’s comments to his correspondents almost invariably addressed the practical challenges of finishing the work, and after which theological, philosophical, and thematic reflections, often in response to questions or criticisms of readers and critics alike, became increasingly common. Wishing to see The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion published together, a desire which Allen and Unwin seemed reluctant to gratify, Tolkien set out to persuade Milton Waldman of Collins to take on both works. To accomplish this end Tolkien had to step back and think through his legendarium as a whole just as he had done with Beowulf in his 1936 lecture and as he had done with Faërie in On Fairy-stories in 1939.[3] So many of the larger questions he weighs in his later correspondence find their first expression here.

Clearly The Lord of the Rings reflects its author’s mind and meditations from beginning to end. Such themes as Death and Immortality, Power realized in Art versus Power realized in domination, the role small hands play while the eyes of the great are elsewhere, and the essential relationship between high and low, great and small, which gives meaning to the lives and efforts of both, are present throughout, but in telling his story the elements of the metaphor remained largely in solution. With the Waldman letter he begins to precipitate those long meditated elements out of solution.

Indeed important texts he composed in the 1950s, such as Laws and Customs among the Eldar and the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth may well owe their existence to the shift away from narrative to philosophical and theological concerns that we first see in Letter 131. The much lamented failure to complete the tale Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin at all or The Silmarillion to his satisfaction probably finds some of its explanation here, alongside the profound disappointment inflicted by Collins’s unwillingness to publish The Silmarillion, which was so severe that for some time he stopped working on it entirely (S&H C 405-06). Much as Lewis might have predicted, Tolkien explored so many thoughts in the process of reviewing his entire legendarium that it led him to produce new works and to reexamine and reformulate the metaphysical foundations of his world more directly.

One important element we do not find reflected upon in Letter 131, or anywhere before Letter 153 of 1954 in fact, is pity. A part of Gandalf’s exchange with Frodo on pity is present from the very first draft of The Lord of the Rings. Crucially, however, the effect of Bilbo’s pity is solely to save him from becoming another Gollum, or worse: ‘he would not have had the ring, the ring would have had him at once. He might have become a wraith on the spot’ (Shadow 81). There is not the least hint that ‘the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many’ (FR 1.ii.59) as in the published text, or, as in Letter 153, that ‘it is the Pity of Bilbo and later Frodo that ultimately allows the Quest to be achieved’ (Letters, 191). Consider, too, Letter 181 of 1956 in which Tolkien states that ‘the “salvation” of the world and Frodo’s own “salvation” is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury’ (Letters, 234, italics original). Letters 191 and 192, both of 1956, also emphasize the importance of pity, mercy, and forgiveness in this context (Letters, 251-53); and in letter 246 of 1963 Tolkien again calls out ‘that strange element in the World that we call Pity and Mercy’ (326).[4]

Parallel with the limited scope of pity in the first draft of The Lord of the Rings is the limited conception of the power of the Ring. It is not yet the One Ruling Ring. Until Bilbo’s magic ring becomes the ‘one Ring to rule them all’, Bilbo’s pity cannot play the role Gandalf suggests it may well play in the fate of the world. Indeed it has no need to do so. Once the conception of the Ring changes, the two are woven together, with each other as well as with the themes of Death and Immortality. For the Power of the Ring encourages mortals to think they can cheat death, and immortals that they can preserve the world from the fading which is a part of its nature, and their own. Mortals with Rings of Power like the Nazgûl end up undead; immortals like the Elves ‘embalm’ what they would save.[5] Against the Ring pity offers the only real defense, but in the end the pity of this world cannot withstand the enticements of such power. Frodo will fail.

Pity thus plays an essential and paradoxical role in the lives of the characters and in the fate of all Middle-earth, and is a key to understanding The Lord of the Rings and seeing more deeply into Tolkien’s legendarium as a whole. If pity does not rule the fate of many, the Ring of Power will. For that is what Sauron made it to do. In this book I shall trace the long arc of pity and the Ring from the moment Bilbo stood poised in the darkness behind Gollum until Frodo, hurt beyond healing by the burden of the Ring, gazed upon Saruman’s corpse in the morning of the Shire and watched his fallen spirit scattered on the wind, the both of them unable to return home.


‘The Ring left him.’

(FR 1.ii.55, italics original)

If the ‘real theme’ of The Lord of the Rings is Death and Immortality, and if the Power of the Ring seems to offer Men and Elves the means to challenge these ‘dooms’ of their nature in addition to attaining more worldly ends, we must also question the nature of the Ring itself. The answer will affect our understanding both of the ‘temptations’ offered by the power of the Ring, and of the interplay of pity and the Ring. Does the Ring then possesses a consciousness and agency of its own? Scholars and fans alike commonly speak as if it does. Gandalf does so himself when he tells Frodo that the Ring left Gollum, a statement which gives by far the strongest evidence for consciousness and agency, but only if Gandalf means it to be taken literally. That Frodo mocks Gandalf’s assertion, I would argue, leaves room for us to doubt this, especially since Gandalf does not reply with a reaffirmation that the Ring made a conscious decision to leave Gollum and acted upon it, a point not to be neglected or passed over if true, but hammered home. Who would need to understand this more than Frodo?

Yet Gandalf does pass over it, and moves immediately on to another point which he considers more important and which he admits he cannot state ‘more plainly’, that Bilbo was ‘meant to have the Ring and not by its maker’ (FR 1.ii.55, italics original). Gandalf, moreover, has used metaphor earlier in this conversation to describe the Ring devouring its possessor (FR 1.ii.47, 55, 57). He has even employed outright deception, withholding as long as he can the truth that the hobbit Sméagol is in fact the creature Gollum, because he believes it to be of the utmost importance to the world that Frodo, who is also ‘meant to have the Ring’, pity Gollum as Bilbo had done.

This combination of reticence, deception, and metaphor warns against making any easy judgement about the Ring and its effect on its possessor. While Frodo reasonably and (I believe) rightly scoffs at Gandalf’s assertions about the Ring’s consciousness and agency, he is nevertheless rarely sure whether the urge to put on the Ring comes from the Ring, from within himself, or from elsewhere. This makes the distinction between the possibilities integral to the power of the Ring and the desires of those who possess or might possess the Ring inherently difficult to maintain, increasingly so as the Ring comes closer to its source. This is challenging for the reader as well as for the Ringbearer owing to the psychological, moral, and spiritual complexity of the struggle between ‘the Ring is my burden’ and ‘the Ring is mine’.

[1] Thus Lewis in Tolkien’s obituary in The Times (3 September 1973): ‘His standard of self-criticism was high, and the mere suggestion of publication usually set him upon a revision, in the course of which so many new ideas occurred to him that where his friends had hoped for the final text of an old work they actually got the first draft of a new one.’ The Tolkien Society reprinted the obituary in full in Mallorn 8 (1974) 40-43. Lewis’s comment appears unsourced in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien (1977: 138).

[2] Larger thematic concerns do not of course go unmentioned beforehand. Gollum’s near repentance touches upon pity: Letters, no. 96, p. 110. Letter no. 66, p. 78 addresses power: ‘For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs. Not that in real life things are as clear cut as in a story, and we started out with a great many Orcs on our side.’ For more on Power and the Machine: no. 75, p. 87; no 109, p. 121.

[3] On the Beowulf lecture, see S. Cook (2018), and Tolkien and M. Drout (2011). For On Fairy-stories, see V. Flieger and D. Anderson (2014).

[4] To the distinction between pity and Pity we shall return below.

[5] For Elves’ attempts to preserve the world from ‘fading’ as ‘embalming’, see Letters, no. 131, p. 151, and no. 154, p. 196. 

02 September 2021

The small hands of Beren and the smaller hands of Frodo

When we encounter Elrond's words at the council -- 'Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere' (FR 2.ii.269) -- we naturally think of the 'small hands' of the hobbits, of Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam who find and bear the Ring. And we are quite right to do so, but Elrond's proverbial 'oft' suggests that he has more than just the hobbits in mind. When we learn whose hands he means, it comes as quite a surprise. 

Here [i.e., in the story of Beren and Lúthien] we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, 'the wheels of the world', are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown. Thus he wins the hand of Lúthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved.

Letters, no. 131, p. 149

It is only by stepping back from the tale of Beren and Lúthien itself and viewing it in its vast mythological context that we can see the hands of this 'outlawed mortal' and 'mere elf maiden' (!) as 'small'. How many comments by Tolkien could better illustrate the difference in perspective between the First Age mythology of the Silmarillion and the Third Age history of The Lord of the Rings? How many at the same time could reveal the essence of the continuing Tale that Beren and Lúthien and Frodo and Sam find themselves in over six thousand years apart? Or the all but inconceivable role of 'the Children of God in the Drama'?

As Elrond says, 'Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it?' (FR 2.ii.270).

19 August 2021

Review: 'The Apprenticeship of J. R. R. Tolkien' by Simon J. Cook


Simon Cook is one of the most thoughtful and perceptive Tolkien scholars of this generation. His insights into Tolkien's relationship with his text, with Beowulf, and with the Beowulf poet inform his understanding of what Tolkien was doing when he set out to write what he at first called 'the new Hobbit', but which we know as The Lord of the Rings. Like most books worth actually reading once, The Apprenticeship of J. R. R. Tolkien is worth reading twice. I thought it terrific when I first read it three years ago. Now after three years spent reading, thinking, and writing about Tolkien myself, I have reread it and am now even more convinced of this work's value than I was then.

08 August 2021

Frodo and Bilbo in the Hall of Fire (FR 2.i.230-33, 236-38) -- A Managed Meeting?

It is easily forgotten that Sam must have witnessed the moment when Frodo wished to strike Bilbo for reaching for the Ring. He arrived just after Elrond left the two of them alone. Whether Sam had any part in the conversation before Bilbo asked about the Ring is unclear,* but as soon as Frodo's reaction prompts Bilbo to change the subject to news of the Shire Sam chimes in. This continues until Strider arrives and takes Bilbo away to confer on poetry. 

If we look back at this sequence from the perspective of Sam’s arrival later that evening to prompt Frodo to go to bed, we may reasonably wonder if Frodo and Bilbo are here being ‘managed’ by Gandalf and Elrond. In this Bilbo may be complicit to some degree, and Sam of course has played the spy more than once already. It is also true that Gandalf and Elrond had already 'managed' Bilbo's volunteering to go back and collect the Ring. 


*Consider the following sentences, in which 'they' at the beginning of the second sentence might include Sam, or exclude him as 'them' at the end of the first does:

'In the meanwhile Frodo and Bilbo sat side by side, and Sam came quickly and placed himself near them. They talked together in soft voices, oblivious of the mirth and music in the hall about them.'

        FR 2.i.231

I think that on balance 'they' does not include Sam, directly following 'them' as it does, but that might not be correct.

29 July 2021

Eleventy-One: Re-reading The Lord of the Rings 50 years on -- part four


Book One, Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past

Indeed, [Frodo] at once began to carry on Bilbo’s reputation for oddity. He refused to go into mourning; and the next year he gave a party in honour of Bilbo’s hundred-and-twelfth birthday, which he called Hundred-weight Feast. But that was short of the mark, for twenty guests were invited and there were several meals at which it snowed food and rained drink, as hobbits say.

Always having felt a bit odd myself, as if on the outside looking in, I relished Frodo's wholehearted embrace of eccentricity. Part of the oddity for me was always being fascinated by words and languages. My mother taught me bits of Latin and French, my grandmother Irish, my father German, my brother Spanish. So, words like 'hundred-weight' were a delight to me. (I recognized it from the tables of 'useful information' on the back of my composition books, though I seem to recall some brief confusion since a hundred-weight in the US and a hundred-weight in the UK are not the same number of pounds.) 

I adopted the phrase 'it snowed food and rained drink, as hobbits say' at once. Some years later I read the following verses in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales (343-48): 

Without bake mete was nevere his hous, 
Of fissh and flessh, and that so plentvous
It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke;
Of all deyntees that men koude thynke,
After the sondry sesons of the yeer,
So chaunged he his mete and his soper.

I was in high school when I first read these lines, and I recall gasping aloud in delight in class and having to explain my amusement to everyone: 'Thomas, would you share what's so funny with the rest of us.' 

Today what's catching my eye is the spelling of 'fissh' and 'flessh', and the variety of food reminds me of how well stocked Bilbo's larder had been before his adventures began. Chaucer has even more to say about the Franklin's table, and Tolkien has more to say of the 'high reputation' of Bilbo's. I am beginning to think that looking at The Franklin's Tale in this context would be very interesting.

And of course both Bilbo and Frodo leave unwashed dishes behind them when they leave. Bilbo was being hurried out the door by Gandalf. Frodo was being rather pettily spiteful towards the Sackville-Bagginses.

28 July 2021

'work they may accomplish once, and once only' -- Silmarillion, p. 78

In a single chapter of The Silmarillion we learn that some creative acts require so much of their makers that they can perform them only once. 

Yavanna says she cannot repeat the creation of the Two Trees -- 'Even for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar there is some work they may accomplish once, and once only' --  but that she could use the light of the Trees locked within the silmarils to revive them, if only Fëanor would break them (78).

Fëanor replies that  'for the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest' (78). His creation of the silmarils is of the same order as hers of the Trees, and, 'if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain' (78).

When Fëanor demands that the Teleri give up their ships so that the Noldor can pursue Morgoth to Middle-earth, the Teleri respond that '[our] ships are to us as are the gems of the Noldor: the work of our hearts, whose like we shall never make again' (86).

Today I was discussing these passages with my friend, Richard Rohlin, of the Amon-Sûl podcast at www.ancientfaith.com. As we were talking it occurred to me that, while it might seem odd to think of Sauron as having a heart, especially one that ever rests, he did put so much of his power into making the One Ring that its destruction was virtually his own. So there is a certain analogy here. 

17 July 2021

Eleventy-one: Re-reading The Lord of the Rings 50 years on -- part three

Book One, Chapter One: A Long-expected Party

Perhaps the most charming and moving aspect of the culture of The Shire is the practice of giving gifts to others on one's own birthday. The world would be a better place if we all did this, I thought. There was a time some years back when I decided that I was going to try it. I gathered more than a few strange looks from friends and co-workers -- as if I was only confirming their impression of me as a bit strange --  but I could see that it pleased them to receive the gift, however small and odd, and that felt good to all of us. As with Bilbo, the generosity made up for the weirdness. For a while I felt like a 'child of the kindly West', with more of good in me than I knew.

I resisted the urge to include snarky notes. 

13 July 2021

Eleventy-one: Re-reading The Lord of the Rings 50 years on -- part two

Book One, Chapter One: A Long-expected Party



When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

I loved this from the start. I hadn't read The Hobbit, didn't know Bilbo, and I had come to read The Lord of the Rings from reading Robert E. Howard. So I must have been expecting something very different. Conan never had birthday parties.

But I remember reading this first sentence and a smile creeping onto my face. There was just something about it that was so promising of a good story. Looking back it reminds me of the way the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice opens wide a door to a world. Both sentences are steeped in a similar wry and parenthetical humor. 

I had always loved words, and eleventy-first was a fine new one to me, funny and wrong of course, but perfectly clear in its meaning. Perhaps it was especially amusing because I was eleven myself. Another word that soon popped up was queer, as in strange or outlandish and so not quite right, but I knew that one. My Irish grandmother used it in the same way the hobbits did, and she used grand just as they did, too, to describe something wonderful rather than large. She would also tell me stories about fairies and fairy mounds in the Ireland of her youth. Being the same age as Tolkien's wife, she knew a world far more like the one he knew than the one I was growing up in.* I begin to think that my images of the Shire and County Cavan overlapped each other pretty quickly. For me this was a good thing.


*I could argue that growing up in New York City in the 1960s after the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants had passed into the West bears a certain analogy to growing up in the Shire at the end of the Third Age when the Elves were going into the West. But let that pass.

02 July 2021

Eleventy-one: Re-reading The Lord of the Rings 50 years on -- part one

Right about now in 1971 I am beginning to read The Lord of the Rings for the very first time. I had not read The Hobbit or even heard of it before I plucked the old Ballantine Books The Fellowship of the Ring, the one with the oddly fascinating cover illustration by Barbara Remington, from the spinner rack outside Ruth's Stationery store on Main Avenue in Ocean Grove, NJ, a seaside town much like the Shire would have been, had the Shire been settled by Methodists. That is, there were no pubs, and the older folks would have viewed Gandalf with as much suspicion as they would a Papist Papal Nuncio in a VW Bus with a Peace sign on the back.* We children, barefoot and oh so tan, would have loved him just as madly as the Hobbit children do. Beyond the borders of the town there were white spaces, with labels like 'beyond this be Pagans'** (on the Asbury Park side) and 'beyond this be Papists' (on the Bradley Beach side).

I loved the book at once, and re-read it at once. I cannot tell you how many times I have read it all told, but it has to be over fifty times, not counting extensive study and browsing. I would be lying if I said that it was not the most important book in my life. I still have those old Ballantine mass markets, yellow and brittle with the years, one of them even gnawed by a mouse. If I tried to read them, they would disintegrate entirely. There is always a copy of The Lord of the Rings open on my desk, however, and on laptop and on my tablet.

As many have done, I learned Old English (and so much else) because of J. R. R. Tolkien, though I wouldn't advise anyone learning it as I did, working my way through a couple of grammars on my own and plunging straight into Beowulf. The first time through was like wrestling with Grendel and his mother at once. But the second time through was much easier, and the third. I am looking forward to the fourth. I like to think Tolkien would have approved. 

To be brief, I am beginning to read The Lord of the Rings again in celebration of what I shall call my 'eleventy-first' reading. I will try to recall how I felt that first time I went through it and write about it.  Although I have been planning to do this for some time, I have taken added inspiration from my current reading, Katherine Langrish's From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my Nine Year-old Self, a book I recommend while on my feet applauding. It's not out in the States just yet, but I hope it soon will be. 

I hope to put up the first post soon.


* Really, I have nothing against Methodists, and I love Ocean Grove from the bottom of my heart. I was married by a Methodist minister whom I looked upon as my surrogate grandfather. 'One of my best friends' is a Methodist minister. But as a Catholic kid in Ocean Grove in those days, I got a lot of teasing for being a Papist. Yes, they used that word. And not just teasing. I once broke up with a girl I had started dating because, not knowing I was Catholic, she began making disparaging remarks about Papists. After letting her go on for about 20 minutes, I said 'I am a Catholic'. A silence most profound followed, which was broken by 'Oh, I didn't mean you, Tom.' This actually didn't annoy me as much as the assumption that I must root for Notre Dame.

**Aside from being a general den of iniquity and Rock and Roll, Asbury Park had a bar called Mrs Jays which often had a row of motorcycles belonging to the Pagans motorcycle gang out front.