. Alas, not me: January 2022

30 January 2022

Guests, ghosts, and other creatures: Men as 'Guests' in Arda.

If you look up the word gyst -- 'guest, visitor, stranger, outsider, outlandish creature, enemy' -- in the Dictionary of Old English, you will find the following note: 

Wordplay on the senses of gyst1;‘visitor, stranger’, and gāst‘spirit, soul; demon’ is common in poetry; some poetic examples spelled gæst(-) may alternatively be read as forms of gāst

Turning to the entry for gāst/gǣst -- 'breath, air, wind, spirit, soul, person, ghost, angel, demon', etc. -- you will find the same note. This observation is by no means new. Tolkien was well aware of it. He spoke of it in an appendix to Beowulf: The Monsters and Critics (1983: 35). 

Which all makes me wonder about the use of the 'guests' to describe Men, as seen by the Elves who quickly came to believe that the fëa of Men, that is, their souls or spirits, did not have Arda as their proper home. They were strangers in Arda, guests (S 42; Morgoth 315). The fëa of Men are at once gyst and gāst.

I want to explore this more later, but I am trying to finish my darn book. 

28 January 2022

Shakespeare's Silmarillion

Shakespeare's Silmarillion:

Melkor: do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will - Eru: Mine. Melkor: I do not well understand that. Eru: I can fret you, I can play upon you. Mine instrument.


I just wanted to add that it took me the longest time to see Eru's use of the word 'instrument' as a musical reference, despite that the entire metaphor of the Ainulindalë is musical. I had always seen 'instrument' as 'tool.' Once I made the connection, as blindingly obvious as things always are in hindsight, my mind leapt to Hamlet.

22 January 2022

The Rules of Engagement: Scholars and Texts

These days it is not unusual to hear that scholars must engage with the scholarship of other scholars. This is as it should be. We are not writing in a vacuum. There is quite a lot out there that merits our diligence and will repay our scrutiny. I have been reading scholarship in several different fields for many years now and have learned so much from it. There have been other occasions, however, when I have read scholars that seem to be paying more attention to agreeing or disagreeing with the opinions of other scholars than they pay to the texts or events they claim to be writing about. However weighty the opinion of, say, Harold Bloom might be, I have a hard time regarding any opinion he uttered as evidence of anything but his own opinion. No opinion is evidence of anything but itself and the process by which it is reached. In the scales of argument it cannot have the same weight as the text.

I have also seen scholars create paragraphs of argument by stringing together quotation after quotation from the writings of other scholars. As long as it's all properly cited and quoted of course and done with restraint, there's nothing wrong with it. I have done it myself, but I try to keep it to a minimum. Sometimes, though, it seems like an box labelled 'scholarly engagement' is being lazily checked, and I wonder if the scholar whose name is on the work even has an opinion of their own on the text or events they are writing about. 

Laziness (if that is what this is and I am not being unkind) is one fault. Inattention is another. Today I was reading a particular article on Tolkien for the third or fourth time -- an article with more than a few thoughtful observations -- and found my eye drawn to a quotation from a very important passage for understanding the evolving relationship of Frodo and the Ring. The context here is crucial. I can't see how we can hope to understand without both of these paragraphs. Below I give those paragraphs. The parts presented in orange are the only words quoted in the article I was reading, with ellipses judiciously inserted so as not to distract us from the point the scholar was trying to make. 

All that host was clad in sable, dark as the night. Against the wan walls and the luminous pavement of the road Frodo could see them, small black figures in rank upon rank, marching swiftly and silently, passing outwards in an endless stream. Before them went a great cavalry of horsemen moving like ordered shadows, and at their head was one greater than all the rest: a Rider, all black, save that on his hooded head he had a helm like a crown that flickered with a perilous light. Now he was drawing near the bridge below, and Frodo’s staring eyes followed him, unable to wink or to withdraw. Surely there was the Lord of the Nine Riders returned to earth to lead his ghastly host to battle? Here, yes here indeed was the haggard king whose cold hand had smitten down the Ring-bearer with his deadly knife. The old wound throbbed with pain and a great chill spread towards Frodo’s heart.

Even as these thoughts pierced him with dread and held him bound as with a spell, the Rider halted suddenly, right before the entrance of the bridge, and behind him all the host stood still. There was a pause, a dead silence. Maybe it was the Ring that called to the Wraith-lord, and for a moment he was troubled, sensing some other power within his valley. This way and that turned the dark head helmed and crowned with fear, sweeping the shadows with its unseen eyes. Frodo waited, like a bird at the approach of a snake, unable to move. And as he waited, he felt, more urgent than ever before, the command that he should put on the Ring. But great as the pressure was, he felt no inclination now to yield to it. He knew that the Ring would only betray him, and that he had not, even if he put it on, the power to face the Morgul-king – not yet. There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast. Cold and hard it seemed as his grip closed on it: the phial of Galadriel, so long treasured, and almost forgotten till that hour. As he touched it, for a while all thought of the Ring was banished from his mind. He sighed and bent his head. At that moment the Wraith-king turned and spurred his horse and rode across the bridge, and all his dark host followed him. Maybe the elven-hoods defied his unseen eyes, and the mind of his small enemy, being strengthened, had turned aside his thought. But he was in haste. Already the hour had struck, and at his great Master’s bidding he must march with war into the West.

(TT 4.viii.706)

The scholar here sees Frodo responding with assurance to the 'command that he should put on the Ring' and offers this up as evidence that Frodo can tell the difference between his will and that of the Ring. This of course assumes that the Ring is conscious and has a will, and at the very least that assumption needs to be questioned, which the scholar never does at any point. If, however, the Ring is calling out to the Witch-king as the text suggests it may be, does that not support the scholar's contention that it is the Ring commanding Frodo to reveal himself? If so, why not include it? Of course, that would mean the Witch-king actually knows the Ring is present, and it beggars belief that he and the other Ringwraiths would have marched on if they had known that. Surely, merely grasping the phial cannot have communicated that 'These are not the hobbits you're looking for. Move along.' The suggestion is absurd, and is meant to be. But assuming that the Ring is conscious and calling out raises questions here that should not be skirted.

There is also more going on here than the selections chosen by this scholar disclose, none of which is irrelevant to Frodo's experience. What of Frodo's assumption that he may not yet be ready to face the Witch-king, but that, as the words 'not yet' make clear, one day he will be? One does not think what Frodo thinks otherwise. What of his having forgotten that he had the phial? What of the spell his own thoughts and dread of the Witch-king impose upon him? Is there no connection between the movement of his thoughts from his foe to the Ring? Is he really saying that the Ring is responsible for the 'command' he feels while, though pinned like a bird fascinated by a snake, he contemplates not flight but fight? All of the descriptions of Frodo's reaction to seeing the Witch-king -- his dread, the chill throbbing of his old wound, his inability to move, and his realistic understanding that the Ring would only betray him by revealing him and that he could not defeat the Witch-king -- make it much harder to see Frodo's slow struggle to force his hand away from the Ring as something he accomplished with anything approaching self-assurance. 

What I think the answers to these questions may be is a matter for another day. What I find myself wondering is just what degree of engagement with a scholar is needed when that scholar's engagement with the text they are writing about raises questions of its own. The identity of this scholar is not my concern here. I have no interest in savaging someone as if I were the great and terrible Housman. I am not the guardian of truth I thought I was when a young man. If in the course of making an argument of my own about this text I discover a need to engage with this scholar, I shall. However, I think the text is what I should be engaging with. The evidence I need to make my case is there, not in any other scholar's opinion, whether weighty or slight.

19 January 2022

'So that they are its life and it is theirs' (Silm. 20)

Many readers will no doubt recall this fascinating passage in The Silmarillion (20) which draws an equivalency between the life of the Valar and the life of Arda. I have always wanted more of an explanation than we find here.

Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar beyond the confines of the World; but others, and among them many of the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

A comment in the recently published The Nature of Middle-earth (2021: 14) presents an even more interesting comment along similar lines, suggesting a likeness (parallel? analogy?) between the spirits and bodies of Incarnates and between the Valar and Arda itself:

The Valar having entered Arda, and being therein confined within its life, must also suffer (while therein and being as it were its spirit, as the fëa is to the hröa of the Incarnate) its slow ageing.

I am sure there's more to think about and say here, and I want to take a look at the other versions of the Ainulindalë. For now, though, I just wanted to toss the two passages into the cauldron and let them simmer. 

17 January 2022

Chaucer's Troilus and Tolkien's Fool of a Took: Troilus and Criseyde V.1800-25 and The Return of the King 5.x.892-93

 Almost five years back (2 March 2017) I wrote a post about what I took -- and still take -- to be Tolkien having a bit of fun with Chaucer and everyone's favorite fool of a Took. Recently I came across another bit of evidence that convinces me even further that Tolkien had medievalist mischief in mind when he wrote the scene quoted below. The new evidence comes from a summary of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien included in the well-known 1951 letter to Milton Waldman, but which Humphrey Carpenter left out when he published many of Tolkien' s letters in 1981 (Letters, no. 131). Fortunately Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull have made this summary available in an appendix to their The Lord of the Rings: a Reader's Companion (2014: 747). I shall insert the relevant part of the letter directly after the passage from The Return of the King upon which it comments. 

First RK 5.x.892-93:
Then Pippin stabbed upwards, and the written blade of Westernesse pierced through the hide and went deep into the vitals of the troll, and his black blood came gushing out. He toppled forward and came crashing down like a falling rock, burying those beneath him. Blackness and stench and crushing pain came upon Pippin and his mind fell away into a great darkness.  
'So it ends as I guessed it would,' his thought said, even as it fluttered away, and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And even then as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above: 
'The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!' 
For one moment more Pippin's thought hovered. 'Bilbo!' it said. 'But no! That came in his tale, long, long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!' And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more. 

And now Tolkien's letter to Milton Waldman as quoted in Hammond and Scull:
In the last pages of this Book [i.e., Book 5] we see the hopeless defeat of the forlorn hope. The hobbit among them (Peregrin) falls under the weight of the slain, and as consciousness fails and he passes into forgetfulness, he seems to hear the cry of 'The Eagles'. But he knows that was the turning point of Bilbo's story, which he knew well, and laughing at his fancy his spirit flies away, and he remembers no more.

What first drew my attention in this scene of The Return of the King is the peculiar use of 'thought' in the second and fourth paragraphs, which is quite similar to its use in the famous scene in which Gollum's two 'thoughts' struggle with each other while Sam listens, fascinated and appalled (TT 4.ii.632-34). While there 'thought' seems very close to what we would call 'personality,' here 'consciousness' is a better fit, which is fact what Tolkien calls it in his letter. The word 'consciousness', however, did not enter English before the 17th Century, and the meaning in question here -- 'the totality of the impressions, thoughts, and feelings, which make up a person's conscious being. In pl. = conscious personalities' (OED sv. 5, emphasis original) -- seems to have awaited the invention of Locke. Given Tolkien's linguistic predilections, it is not hard to see why he would have preferred 'thought', since MED þoht (3c, d) offered the requisite meanings.  

I am as yet, however, unaware of any use of þoht to describe situations similar to those we see in these two passages of Tolkien.  (If any reader knows of one, please, do let me know.)  So I began to think that perhaps I should look for passages with similar elements.  Almost immediately Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde came into my mind, specifically the scene in which Troilus dies:

1800   The wraththe, as I began yow for to seye,
       Of Troilus, the Grekes boughten dere;
       For thousandes his hondes maden deye,
       As he that was with-outen any pere,
       Save Ector, in his tyme, as I can here.
1805   But weylawey, save only goddes wille,
       Dispitously him slough the fiers Achille.

       And whan that he was slayn in this manere,
       His lighte goost ful blisfully is went
       Up to the holownesse of the seventh spere,
1810   In convers letinge every element;
       And ther he saugh, with ful avysement,
       The erratik sterres, herkeninge armonye
       With sownes fulle of hevenish melodye.

       And doun from thennes faste he gan* avyse
1815   This litel spot of erthe, that with the see
       Embraced is, and fully gan* despyse
       This wrecched world, and held al vanitee
       To respect of the pleyn felicitee
       That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
1820   Ther he was slayn, his loking doun he caste;

       And in him-self he lough right at the wo
       Of hem that wepten for his deeth so faste;
       And dampned al our werk that folweth so
       The blinde lust, the which that may not laste,
1825   And sholden al our herte on hevene caste.
(Troilus and Criseyde, V.1800-1825)

(*gon (11a) = 'proceed to', 'set about', 'go to', as in 'go to sleep'.)

Now clearly Pippin's experience here is meant to remind us first of all of Bilbo's at the Battle of Five Armies, when the Eagles came and Bilbo was knocked unconscious, but woke to find himself 'not yet one of the fallen heroes' (Hobbit 298-99). But there's more to it than that. Bilbo has no 'thought' as he loses consciousness. His reflections come after he revives. 

What happens to Pippin's 'thought' is far more like the experience of Troilus' 'goost': both of them laugh and undergo a profound change in attitude towards the troubles of the world of which they are letting go. Each of them believes his tale is over. True, Pippin is not in fact dying, but he thinks he is. So, the contrast between him and Troilus is also noteworthy. His 'thought' flies 'away', but Troilus' 'goost' rises heavenward. Troilus looks back down at the 'woe / of hem that wepten for his deeth so faste' and dismisses it; Pippin hears the 'voices...crying from some forgotten world above' (emphasis added) and dismisses them and the hope the coming of the Eagles should offer. These directions reflect the differences in worldview in each work. Chaucer's Troy is Medieval and Christian, whereas Tolkien's Middle-earth is pre-Christian and without any concept of a heaven above. Hence also Tolkien drew on a word like þoht rather than 'goost'. What notion Hobbits have may have of their continued existence after death is uncertain beyond their awareness of the existence of ghosts. As an offshoot of Men, however, they are doomed to leave the world after death, and go no one knows where. So it makes sense that Pippin's 'thought' has no expressed destination. And perhaps as a final bit of the absurdity that has often attended this once 'fool of a Took', Pippin is ignominiously squashed by a troll he has killed himself, while Troilus, a great warrior, is killed by the greatest of all warriors. In both cases, however, the dignified serenity both Troilus and Pippin attain with their last thoughts is remarkable. For neither of them could be said to have possessed that before. 

Finally, that Tolkien saw fit to point out Pippin's seemingly final thought in his letter to Milton Waldman seems quite curious, since in a letter attempting to persuade Collins to publish both The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion together the reference to Pippin serves no rhetorical purpose. In the entire letter to Waldman, a letter of over 10,000 words, Tolkien mentions Pippin by name but once, in the paragraph directly preceding this one, and mentions him parenthetically at that: 'The Fifth Book returns to the precise point at which Book Three ended. Gandalf on his great horse (with the Hobbit Peregrin Took) passing along the great "north-road", South to Gondor.' In the hierarchy of this sentence Pippin comes last. He seems just such 'a passenger, a piece of luggage' as he had imagined himself to be in his darkest hour when a prisoner of the Orcs (TT 3.ii.445). And even when Tolkien alludes to that hour in this letter, he denies him a name. One has to have already read The Lord of the Rings to know that he is one of 'the two hobbits that have been captured by Orcs' (Hammond and Scull: 745). 

So for Tolkien to include a detailed description of this hobbit's amused 'final' thoughts at the culmination of Book Five is quite curious indeed. Yet clearly Tolkien felt it worth doing so. I suggest that the hierarchy of the sentence comes to our rescue here. (Dare I say 'The parentheses are coming! The parentheses are coming!) For in the description of this scene, too, Pippin is also named only in a parenthesis. His name is an aside, an afterthought. His identify is less important to Tolkien here than the near-death experience which parallels the experience of Troilus, and the humorous parallel is briefly of greater import than the rhetorical purpose of this letter or even of Pippin himself to the action of the story at this point. Tolkien was simply too pleased with this parallel to omit it.