. Alas, not me: March 2021

23 March 2021

Hope and Courage in Memory -- Tolkien Reading Day 2021

After rescuing the hobbits from the Barrow-wight, Tom Bombadil, in a moment I have always found unforgettable, conjures an elegiac memory of a woman long dead:

He chose for himself from the pile a brooch set with blue stones, many-shaded like flax-flowers or the wings of blue butterflies. He looked long at it, as if stirred by some memory, shaking his head, and saying at last:

'Here is a pretty toy for Tom and for his lady! Fair was she who long ago wore this on her shoulder. Goldberry shall wear it now, and we will not forget her!'

For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold. They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.

'Old knives are long enough as swords for hobbit-people,' he said. 'Sharp blades are good to have, if Shire-folk go walking, east, south, or far away into dark and danger.' Then he told them that these blades were forged many long years ago by Men of Westernesse: they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dum in the Land of Angmar. 

          (FR 1.viii.145)

Old Tom's recollection of this otherwise vanished woman reveals the sorrow innate in memories as long as his, but his statement that he and Goldberry will continue to remember her verges on hope. For how fair she was is only the beginning of what he recalls about her and her people. And though by calling the daggers with which he arms the hobbits 'old knives' he seems to dismiss them, the description of them makes clear that they are not ordinary, but as remarkable and as full of memory as the brooch. Undulled, unstained by the centuries, the blades are as ready to serve the purpose for which they were made as they were when newly forged, as if the memory of that time and that purpose dwelt in them even now. In telling their history Old Tom suggests a new hope to the hobbits, who glimpse the flow of past into present and even present into future. For the hobbits have no idea that the man with the star upon his brow is in their future and that one of the names he bears is Hope (Estel).

'Few now remember them,' Tom murmured, 'yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.'

The hobbits did not understand his words, but as he spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow. Then the vision faded, and they were back in the sunlit world. It was time to start again. 

          (FR 1.viii.145-46)

Just as Tom picks up the woman's memory with the brooch, which leads the hobbits to a hope they do not yet recognize, and to a courage they do not yet know, so too the vision of the man with a star upon his brow brings us to Aragorn, to the sword that was broken, and to Arwen Evenstar. We hear her voice so seldom, it is almost no surprise that her first words come to us through another, relayed to Aragorn by his kinsman, Halbarad:

'The days now are short. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. Therefore, I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!' 

(RK 5.ii.775)

Indeed Arwen's voice is so full of hope and grace the few times we do hear it -- whether she is renouncing both the Shadow and the Twilight (RK App. A 1060) for the love of Aragorn, or ceding her place beyond the sea to Frodo in the hope that he might find healing there (RK 6.vi.974) -- that it is stunning when in the face of Aragorn's death she is 'overborne by her grief' (RK App. A 1062):

'"But I say to you, King of the Númenóreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive."

'"So it seems," he said. "But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!"

'"Estel, Estel!" she cried, and with that even as he took her hand and kissed it, he fell into sleep.'

(RK App. A 1062-63)

The faltering of Arwen at the last, now no longer immortal nor, it seems, elven-wise, is such an eloquent counterpoint to Aragorn’s faith. She puts on Men's knowledge when she puts on their sorrow. Yet the last words we hear her speak – ‘Estel, Estel!’ – testify ironically to the surety of the hope she does not recognize.


22 March 2021

Review of Holly Ordway -- "Tolkien's Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages"

In this well made, thoroughly researched, and clearly written book, Holly Ordway has at long last rid us of the false notion that Tolkien neither read nor liked anything written after the Middle Ages. The specific suggestions she has made that a given author influenced Tolkien in a given way will be met with approving nods as well as eyebrows cocked in disbelief. That is the way of things. There were moments I did both in quick succession, within the same paragraph. Nevertheless, Ordway has proved her overall point quite persuasively and finally. Tolkien unquestionably read modern books, enjoyed them, and was influenced by them. 

Of equal or perhaps greater importance than the many positive proofs Ordway offers of Tolkien's engagement with modern books are her investigations in the book's first and last chapters into the sources of this common misunderstanding of Tolkien: it arose from a combination of the job Humphrey Carpenter did in his biography of Tolkien and Tolkien's own ways of expressing himself. One can only hope that Ordway's reassessment will lead the Tolkien Estate to authorize a new and more scholarly biography by a writer worthy of the task, someone like John Garth, whose 'Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth' has set a high professional standard.

05 March 2021

Wile E. Coyote and the One Ring

 What does Wile E. Coyote have to do with the One Ring? Consider the words of Gandalf in The Shadow of the Past:

It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him....

The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
Thus Gandalf provides us with the strongest argument for the supposed agency and sentience of the One Ring. Let us review, however, the events the old wizard is summarizing:
  1. The Ring leaves Isildur as he is swimming across a great river, at the bottom of which it remains lost for 2,500 years.
  2. Discovered by Déagol, it is taken from him by his murderer, Gollum, who hides in the dark beneath the Misty Mountains with it for another 500 years.
  3. Finding Gollum no longer useful -- after 500 years in the dark beneath the Misty Mountains -- it fell out of his pocket to lie on the ground in the same dark beneath those same Misty Mountains, until someone should happen by to pick it up.
If we believe that the Ring consciously chose to leave Isildur, consciously chose Sméagol over Déagol as more apt, and consciously chose to fall out of Gollum's pocket, then the Ring is an idiot on a par with Wile E. Coyote. Every choice the Ring makes ends like one of the Coyote's plans to catch the Road Runner. 

 More to come.

And, yes, Wile E. Coyote does look like he's holding onto a finger.