. Alas, not me: February 2022

27 February 2022

The true gift to the foes of Mordor

Here's just a wee bit from right near the very end of the conclusion of my book, To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power:

In 1945, however, after six years of a war for survival the horror and pity Tolkien felt at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was balanced against the recognition that the use of such power could end the war and that God ‘does not look kindly’ on such uses of power (Letters no. 102, p. 113). He knew well how easily one might hold such power to be ‘a gift to the foes of Mordor’ (FR 2.x.397), and how blandly one could assent to ‘deploring maybe evils done by the way’ in the name of doing good (FR 2.ii.259). Frodo came to pity both Boromir and Saruman, the characters who said the words just quoted, but only because Tolkien who wrote these words had pitied them first.

These* are but two examples of Tolkien seeing the applicability of the truths of his myth to the reality in which he lived. And pity is at the heart of the challenge these myths lay before us. Tolkien’s recollections of ‘being caught in youth by 1914’ (FR xxiv), his passions and fears about the war which came again in 1939, his concerns about its aftermath throughout the world as well as in his England, are as incandescent in his letters to his son, Christopher, as they are in the Dead Marshes, in the cataclysmic destruction of the enemy, and in the return of the Ringbearer to a land which no longer seemed his own and which needed a healing that only pity could bring. That pity is the true gift given to the foes of Mordor.


*Sorry, but if you want to know what 'these' refers to, you'll have to wait until the book comes out one of these days. I should be submitting it to a publisher within the next month or so. 


23 February 2022

Bilbo's 'Black Mark' (Letter no. 246)

In discussing Bilbo joining Frodo on the journey to Elvenhome, Tolkien comments in Letter 246 (p. 328):

But [Bilbo] also needed and deserved the favour on his own account. He bore still the mark of the Ring that needed to be finally erased: a trace of pride and personal possessiveness. Of course he was old and confused in mind, but it was still a revelation of the ‘black mark’ when he said in Rivendell (III 265 [ = RK 6.vi.987]) ‘What’s become of my ring, Frodo, that you took away?’; and when he was reminded of what had happened, his immediate reply was: ‘What a pity! I should have liked to see it again’.

Yet we find what is perhaps the most enduring evidence of the Ring's effect on him in the Prologue, where the Prologue's author points out the persistence of the lie Bilbo originally told about how he came by the Ring (FR  Pr. 12-13): 

This account Bilbo set down in his memoirs, and he seems never to have altered it himself, not even after the Council of Elrond. Evidently it still appeared in the original Red Book, as it did in several of the copies and abstracts. But many copies contain the true account (as an alternative), derived no doubt from notes by Frodo or Samwise, both of whom learned the truth, though they seem to have been unwilling to delete anything actually written by the old hobbit himself.

So, despite saying 'I understand now' after he saw Frodo's reaction to his reaching for the Ring the night before the Council (FR 2.i.213) and despite saying 'Perhaps I understand things a little better now' (FR 2.ii.249) when he apologized to Glóin for not having told him the truth nearly eighty years earlier, nevertheless Bilbo left the original account in place, the lie, in his memoirs, leaving Frodo and Sam the unenviable dilemma of whether they should change it for him. This means that the first edition of The Hobbit is, therefore, a direct consequence of the deceptions and self-deceptions caused by the power of the Ring over its bearers. It is far more important, however, and far less amusing to recognize how subtle, how nearly invisible, and how permanent an effect the Ring has. Bilbo's newfound understanding, his apology to Frodo, and the apology he offers to Glóin and the other dwarves with which he begins his true and public account of the lies he told, do not prevent him from maintaining the lie for posterity. Understanding, regret, and shame cannot overcome the lie. (In a culture that prizes honor, being revealed as a liar brings shame.) Bilbo could not, it seems, even bring himself to ask Frodo to make the change for him. 

The near invisibility of these details should also help us see Frodo's struggles after the Ring's destruction more clearly. Think of how surprised Sam is that Frodo is going to take ship at the Grey Havens (RK 6.ix.1029), and how Frodo 'concealed' his illnesses from Sam (RK 6.ix.1023, 1025). Who would understand Frodo's suffering better than Sam, and who would understand this better than Frodo? Yet understanding is not enough. To be sure Frodo is protecting Sam, but the deceits that come with the Ring don't go with the Ring when it is destroyed any more than the longing for it. It becomes more remote but remains potent.

19 February 2022

So what's a (Tolkien) scholar anyway?

Someone on the internet attacked Luke Baugher, a friend of mine, the other day because he disputed a claim about Tolkien made in connection with the upcoming series on Amazon. Actually I should say someone attacked my friend's credentials; the threat of personal physical violence came later, perhaps from another troll, but that's for the police to decide. I want to talk about the first attack, in which the attacker denounced 'self-proclaimed scholars', in this case of Tolkien. What is a scholar and when does a person get to call themselves one?

So what does the OED have to say about this word? The word first appears in Old English about a thousand years ago, meaning from early on both someone in school to receive an education and someone who has studied a subject at an advanced level at a university. Starting out as a reference to someone schooled in Latin and Greek, 'scholar' expanded to include Scripture and other disciplines within the Humanities as they appeared. 

Here's the definition most relevant to this discussion:

2a. A person who is highly educated and knowledgeable, usually as a result of studying at a university; (in early use) a person who has knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages and their literature. In later use chiefly: a person who pursues or is expert in a particular field of study, esp. in the humanities.

I will use myself as an example here to start with. I have a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in Classics. I spent twelve years as a full time student, taking classes, passing exams, writing papers and dissertations, sitting up all night reading many nights and spending school holidays in the cool quiet of the farthest reaches of the basement of the library studying. (Being found in one of these odd corners during a holiday by one of my professors, a rather grumpy Jesuit who was himself a scholar of Aristotle, was how I earned his respect at last.). I later spent as many years teaching at the University level, presenting papers at conferences, and publishing an article or more a year in peer-reviewed scholarly journals in Classics. Though I left Academia long ago, I have never ceased reading the primary texts which brought me there in the first place, like the works of Homer and Sophocles and Plato and Aristotle. All along the line my work and my credentials were vetted and approved by others who had similar knowledge and experience. In recent years I have spent my time writing and reading about Tolkien and his works. I have presented papers at conferences and published articles in scholarly journals on the subject. I am currently finishing up a book on Pity in Tolkien, which a couple of University Presses have expressed interest in. This book is as much the product of fifty years of reading Tolkien and books about Tolkien as it is of my more recent close focus on his works in print and online. 

I generally don't call myself a scholar any more than I insist that people address me as Doctor. That's my decision. I don't care about titles. I never have. Others do for various reasons. (The obnoxious habit some people have of omitting a title a woman has earned while including in the same breath a title a man has earned gives doctors who are women an excellent reason for insisting on the title.) Yet if I call myself a scholar, I am not proclaiming myself a scholar. The dictionary definition and the degrees I earned at the schools I attended proclaim me a scholar, as would the long years of diligent study if I lacked the degrees. The degrees themselves are not a prerequisite, but a formal recognition of achievement by one's peers. The study and the knowledge are a prerequisite. 

So when I saw that my friend, Luke Baugher, who, aside from being the editor of Mallorn, The Tolkien Society's peer-reviewed journal, had earned a doctorate from the University of Glasgow and had written a dissertation on Tolkien -- a fine dissertation which I was privileged to read -- was derided as a 'self-proclaimed' Tolkien scholar, I had to laugh at the ignorance and foolishness of the accusation. My friend has the credentials, he has the knowledge, and he has the experience. He did not proclaim himself a scholar. The University of Glasgow and his mentor, Dr Dimitra Fimi, proclaimed him a scholar. And only 'the heir to the throne of the kingdom of idiots'* would question her scholarship. 


*This was revealed to me in a dream by Londo Mollari, though I already knew it.

17 February 2022

The Passing of Evenstar (with Homer on the side)

Since the early part of the fourteenth century, to say that someone has 'passed away' has often meant that they have died. (OED pass away c). That is certainly the normal understanding of the phrase today. There is also another meaning, of much the same vintage, though increasingly unfamiliar and all but obsolete, namely 'to leave' or 'to depart' (OED pass away b). At some point in the thirteenth century both of these meanings crossed from Anglo-Norman French into Middle English and appeared in written form soon after 1300. The related noun 'passing' arose in English by ca. 1350. It was used first to describe the death of a person and later the ceasing to exist of other things (OED passing).

No one in my audience will find it in the least surprising that I learned that 'pass away' can mean 'depart' from reading Tolkien. Nor will they fail to be amused that the last use of the word in this sense documented by the OED dates to 1879, seventy-five years before the publication of The Lord of the Rings. His first use of it in fact seems to play on both meanings, as well as to suggest the secondary connotation of pass away/depart, which the OED gives as 'to break away, to escape as from restraint.' At Weathertop, where Tolkien may have felt all the connotations of 'pass away' were in play, Aragorn uses it to sing of Beren and Lúthien:

Long was the way that fate them bore,
    O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of iron and darkling door,
    And woods of nightshade morrowless.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
    And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
    In the forest singing sorrowless.

        (FR 1.xi.193)

Since Beren and Lúthien both died and were restored to life before they departed into the forest singing sorrowless, their tale plays on all three of the meanings I mentioned above, death, departure, and escape from restraint. They of course die again in the end, but it is again mysterious, since in dying the death of Men, Lúthien breaks free from the world all other Elves are bound to remain within. Small wonder their tale is the Lay of Leithian, or the lay of 'release from bondage'. The more the reader knows of the history of the phrase and the backstory of Beren and Lúthien, the more the reader sees, but at the same time it becomes no easier to pin the phrase down to one meaning here. 

As this first instance suggests, we shall often find the phrase used in mythic contexts. It next appears in Bilbo's poem about Eärendil ('from east to west he passed away' -- FR 2.i.235) and Gimli's poem about Khazad-dûm (in Elder Days before the fall / of mighty kings in Nargothrond / and Gondolin, who now beyond / the Western Sea have passed away' -- FR 2.iv.316). In Lothlórien come the first entries in prose, but even so an air of enchantment attaches to 'the gentle rain that fell at times, and passed away leaving all things fresh and clean' (FR 2.vii.358), and in Frodo's vision in Galadriel's mirror 'a small ship passed away into the mist' in the west (FR 2.vii.364). That the next reference is merely lyrical and in prose, not mythic or poetic, comes as a surprise, until we realize that an east wind, in passing away, would pass away westward (FR 2.ix.385). And in his lament for his fallen comrade it is of the West Wind that Aragorn imagines someone asking for tidings of Boromir who, the West Wind replies, 'passed away / Into the shadows of the North. I saw him then no more' (TT 3.i.417). Only a few pages later Aragorn's epic chase of the orcs begins, redirecting the poem's search for news of Boromir to a pursuit of those who slew him and abducted those he was defending. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, the Three Hunters disappear into the dusk (TT 3.i.420): 'They passed away, grey shadows in a stony land'.

Treebeard's two uses of the phrase are grim, once using it of the Elves fleeing the Great Darkness west across the Sea, which for him marks a dividing line between the 'old Elves', who 'wished to talk to everything' (TT 3.iv.468), and the Elves who took refuge in the West or in hidden valleys and sang only of the past. He then draws a sharp line both between the Ents and their own future and between the Elves who 'passed away'. The Ents will emerge from their hidden lives to challenge the darkness and help others before they 'pass away'. So unlike the Elves who 'departed' long ago, the Ents will 'die', in part because they have no offspring and in part because they will no longer hide from the enemy. Instead of composing songs about a lost past, they will attempt deeds worthy of song (TT 3.iv.486). Through the different senses of 'passing away' -- hiding versus marching, singing the 'glorious deeds of heroes'* versus performing deeds fit to be sung, departing versus dying -- Tolkien so aptly reveals what Treebeard feels about his world, the Elves, and his own people.

[* I interrupt this blogpost with a massively intrusive authorial aside, because I can:  
When the embassy comes to Achilles in Book 9 of the Iliad (9.189), they find him playing a lyre he had taken as plunder, 'with which he was delighting his heart and singing the glorious deeds of heroes' (κλὲα άνδρῶν). It's got nothing to do with Tolkien, but I love the phrase. So there.
On the other hand it is also true that singing such songs on a lyre he had plundered from a defeated enemy underlines the fact that Achilles is sitting in his tent singing songs about the past while his fellow Achaeans desperately need him to be performing such acts instead. By having Treebeard make references to songs the Elves who have 'passed away' make and songs which the deeds of the Ents before they 'pass way' will merit, Tolkien illustrates the character of Treebeard and his situation much as Homer did with Achilles and his situation.

End of aside. Move along.] 

The phrase can be just as poignant and revealing in connection with things that have not passed way, but where its use suggests something disheartening and unnatural. Hearing the trumpets ring out from the Black Gate lifts Frodo's heart for a moment, which sinks once he recognizes that the call portends 'no assault upon the Dark Lord by the men of Gondor, risen like avenging ghosts from the graves of valour long passed away' (TT 4.iii.639). Not only were the soldiers fit to make such an assault long gone to their graves, but so, it seemed to Frodo, was the necessary valor. While 'passed away' here strictly applies only to the 'valor' which has departed, as a transferred epithet it covers the ghosts of the men of Gondor in its shade. If, looking back from the end of this story, we know that Frodo's despair is premature, we should also know that it is not wholly unreasonable. For we must also look back with Frodo from this moment to the dead faces he saw in the marshes, illusions conjured by Sauron of the dead buried there long before. As the attack on the Black Gate in books Five and Six shows, such valor has not entirely passed away, but it is insufficient to defeat the armies of Mordor as the Men and Elves who lie buried in the Dead Marshes did. The world behind seems more and more an illusion, and soon to be forgotten, as they head towards Mordor, with no army at their backs or distracting the enemy, and ahead of them a land where night once fallen never seems to 'pass away' (TT 4.vii.699).

At Dunharrow the next day, Théoden takes the same darkness Frodo had seen flowing out of Mordor the day before as harbinger of 'the great battle of our time, in which many things shall pass away' (RK 5..iii.801). Unsurprisingly, light is closely associated with the departure or passing of Sauron's greatest weapons, the Ringwraiths, whose leader is twice called a 'shadow of despair' (RK 5.iv.818; vi.841). Sometimes the effect is direct and causal, as when Gandalf drives off the Nazgûl who are pursuing Faramir and his men (RK 5.iv.810). When Éowyn kills the fell beast ridden by the Witch-king, the shadow which had descended on the field with its arrival 'passed away; a light fell about her ....' (RK 5.vi.839-40, 842), but this shadow is at least as spiritual as it is physical. For its departure seems to free Merry from his terror of even being noticed by the Witch-king, so that he can stab him, saving Éowyn and enabling her to kill this 'shadow of despair.' Confronted with his own destiny, understanding too late the words of the prophecy of his downfall, the Witch-king, who could strike Frodo dumb and shatter his sword with a wave of his hand and with a word break the gates of Minas Tirith, has his words of power, the terror of his presence, and his threats of spiritual torture stripped from him. He is reduced to a merely physical assault and the cry of hatred he utters as he attacks Éowyn becomes a wailing cry that 'pass[es] with the wind' as he finally dies (RK 5.vi.842). 

Even the Witch-king's passing, however, does not lift every shadow. '[Y]our enemy has passed away', Aragorn says to her as he tries to heal her of her wounds, and not without effect, but as Aragorn knows her wounds are far deeper than any she could have suffered in battle (RK 5.viii.867). In Mordor, Sam finds his spirits lifted by the 'woe and dismay' which he hears in the voice of the Nazgûl bringing word of the Witch-king's destruction, but Frodo does not (RK 6.ii.919): 

‘Well no, not much, Sam,’ Frodo sighed. ‘That’s away beyond the mountains. We’re going east not west. And I’m so tired. And the Ring is so heavy, Sam. And I begin to see it in my mind all the time, like a great wheel of fire.’
The valor Frodo had hopelessly assumed was long passed away has not forgotten him, however. For a few days later Merry 'despondently' watches Aragorn's forces 'pass away out of sight down the great road', on their hopeless way to attack the Black Gate, in order to draw Sauron's attention away from Mordor and Frodo (RK 5.x.883). That the valor of this forlorn hope proved sufficient for its task helped save it in the end because it gave the Ring-bearer the chance to fulfill his quest (even if not in the way anyone might have guessed). 

Nevertheless, the passing of the One Ring is the passing of them all, and as Gandalf tells Aragorn, 'though much has been saved, much must now pass away' (RK 6.v.970). Some of what will pass away, however, is no bad thing. For Arwen arrives to marry Aragorn (RK 6.v.972):

And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!’

That Frodo speaks these words of the imminent marriage of two whose fate is closely woven with his own is surely significant -- Frodo who had been impatient to leave and who at Rivendell had been oblivious to the clues of Aragorn and Arwen's involvement. Gandalf had told him when he was eager to leave that Bilbo was waiting for the same day as they were (xxxxx), the day when all the night's fear should pass away. 'This is the ending' -- the happy ending for Aragorn and Arwen, who will live happily ever after till the end of their days.

But the passing away of the fear of the night for some is accompanied by the passing away of much else for others. Arwen herself says, when Frodo expresses his desire to see Bilbo and disappointment that he had not come to the wedding, that 'all that was done by that power [i.e., of the Ring] is now passing away' (RK 6.vi.974), which includes Bilbo's preservation to his vast age. When she further says that 'he awaits you, for he will not again make any long journey save one', she means that Frodo and Bilbo will make that journey together. And if Frodo does not understand her, as it seems by his reply he might not, she tells him that he may 'pass into the West' in her stead to find the healing that may (and will) elude him in Middle-earth (RK 6.vi.974). 

Frodo makes no reply to Arwen's offer, but silently accepts the jewel she says will bring him comfort 'when the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles' him'. More open and telling is the scene between Gimli and Éomer which follows at once. There with chivalrous courtesy they settle the matter of Éomer's 'rash words concerning the Lady in the Golden Wood', but end on a note of loss, since Gimli's 'heart forebodes fears that soon [the Morning, i.e., Galadriel] will pass away for ever'. What neither of them mentions, however, or perhaps even grasps is that the Evening, too will before long also pass away. Nor might the first time reader, since much is implicit in the phrase 'the Choice of Lúthien' which those who have not yet read the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen in Appendix A, or 'Of Beren and Lúthien' in The Silmarillion could well miss. The shift in scene from Aragorn, Arwen, and Frodo, to Gimli and Éomer underscores the larger perspective of what the world will lose when all that is to be lost will have passed away. 

As if to confirm this change in perspective the final appearance of the phrase within The Lord of the Rings proper comes in the famous scene Gandalf and Elrond, Galadriel and Celeborn converse telepathically far into the night after everyone else has gone to sleep. Like 'grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands', their near invisibility here prefigures their later disappearance into the West where they shall soon 'pass away'. Their silent conversations about times past and a future that they will not be present to see recall the image of the old hobbit Bilbo conjures in I sit beside the fire and think:

I sit beside the fire and think 

of people long ago, 

and people who will see a world

that I shall never know.

The next time we encounter the phrase is in Appendix A, where it is not dramatic, but historiographic, referring first to the dating of the end of the Third Age, 'when the Three Rings passed away in September 3021' (RK App. A 1033), and similarly to the persistent memory among Arvedui's descendants of the claim he had made to the throne of Gondor 'even when their kingship had passed away' (RK App. A, 1, iv, 1049-50). Though not without some poignancy, these references look back from a later time with a more detached perspective. 

Wholly unlike these are the uses of 'pass away' in The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, with its return to dramatic narrative and the theme of Death and Immortality immanent in The Lord of the Rings and the legendarium as a whole. As in The Lord of the Rings proper, we first meet the phrase in connection with the tale of Beren and Lúthien. Here again, as in A Knife in the Dark, Aragorn is singing the lay aloud, but suddenly seeing Arwen for the first time, he believes he is seeing Lúthien herself and 'fearing that she would pass away and never be seen again, he called to her crying, Tinúviel, Tinúviel! even as Beren had done in the Elder Days long ago' (RK App. A 1, v, 1058).

The fear that she will 'depart' or even 'escape', in short, that he will lose her for ever, spurs him to cry out the name Beren had cried out, unknowingly but correctly, as he tried to keep Lúthien from fleeing him. This meeting of course does not just set up Arwen's making the Choice of Lúthien. It adds depth to Aragorn's singing this song to the hobbits at Weathertop. Most importantly of all, perhaps, it foreshadows Arwen's calling Aragorn by his Elvish name when she faces his death, his passing away in the other sense: 

‘“Estel, Estel!” she cried, and with that even as he took her hand and kissed it, he fell into sleep. Then a great beauty was revealed in him, so that all who after came there looked on him in wonder; for they saw that the grace of his youth, and the valour of his manhood, and the wisdom and majesty of his age were blended together. And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world. 

‘But Arwen went forth from the House, and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star. Then she said farewell to Eldarion, and to her daughters, and to all whom she had loved; and she went out from the city of Minas Tirith and passed away to the land of Lórien, and dwelt there alone under the fading trees until winter came. Galadriel had passed away and Celeborn also was gone, and the land was silent.

‘There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come,1 she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea. 

‘Here ends this tale, as it has come to us from the South; and with the passing of Evenstar no more is said in this book of the days of old.’

(RK App. 1, v, 1063, emphasis added)

Aragorn does not stay because she has called him by his Elvish name, but the miraculous preservation of his body is a sign, a promise, that his Hope that there is something beyond the Death and that it is not merely memory is correct. As Beren waited for Lúthien, Aragorn will wait for Arwen. How else could we read this description of what happens when he returns the gift? So, too, Arwen, in sorrow but not despair, returns to Cerin Amroth where she and Aragorn had pledged themselves to each other and she had made the Choice of Lúthien, and just as he gave back the gift in the land of his ancestors, she gives back the gift in the land of hers, at the same time affirming the choice the Elves had made, which we see in the passing of Galadriel, to 'cast away all' rather than submit to Sauron. The enduring greenness of her grave, like the preservation of Aragorn's body, confirms that their Hope, the naked Estel of Elves and Men is correct, even if Men who come afterwards forget. The gift of memory is a belongs to the Elves, not to Men. 

Over and over we have seen Tolkien play on the different senses of 'pass away' to accentuate the sorrow and the loss of the world, but even when the good seem to pass into darkness, it is the evil and the darkness that are truly empty and transient, as Sam (and Tolkien) saw so clearly: 

For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

(RK 6.ii.921) 



07 February 2022

On the Beauty of the Ring

In reading Lisa Coutras' fascinating 2016 book, Tolkien's Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth (9781137553447) last night, I came upon an interesting passage in which she states that 'while beauty illuminates goodness and truth, it carries an inherent danger. Beauty can easily deceive by nature of its attractiveness' (15). Coutras goes on to illustrate this essential observation by the beauty of Galadriel in her moment of temptation and by the beauty of Saruman's voice. As a counter example, she gives us Aragorn looking foul and feeling fair. 

To support her point here,* I can only point to the beauty of the Ring as the supreme example of such perilous and deceptive beauty. The allure of its beauty captivates Bilbo (FR 1.ii.47), Frodo (FR 1.ii.60), Sméagol who kills for it (FR 1.ii.53. 56), Déagol (FR 1.ii.53), and Isildur who will do nothing to endanger the Ring because of its beauty: 'of all the works of Sauron, the only fair' (FR 2.ii.253). Sauron, too, had once been deceptively and dangerously fair, but once he had transferred much of his native strength into the Ring he found that he could not recreate a fair form to mask his evil after he perished in the Downfall of Númenor. This was true even while he still had the Ring in his possession as he did in the years between his return from Númenor and his second death at the hands of Gil-galad and Elendil. 

As I have suggested before, I think it is reasonable to believe that what went into the Ring that made it so beautiful that characters as varied as Isildur and Sméagol fell prey to its allure at once was the very power which had made Sauron able to assume so pleasing a guise in the first place. Like Morgoth, the transference of power permanently outside himself left him unable to restore his appearance. Since Sauron had begun his existence as a transcendent being, it makes sense that the beauty which was originally his would be manifested in the form he took within the world, but as time went on and he grew more corrupt and evil only the appearance of beauty remained.


* To which she may return later. I haven't gotten very far. It's one of those marvelous books whose footnotes and bibliography send one off on equally fascinating expeditions into the rabbit-holes of Academe.

03 February 2022

I have wept like Stoner

Sloane had no family; only his colleagues and a few people from town gathered around the narrow pit and listened in awe, embarrassment, and respect as the minister said his words. And because he had no family and loved ones to mourn his passing, it was Stoner who wept when the casket was lowered, as if that weeping might reduce the loneliness of the last descent. Whether he wept for himself, for the part of his history and youth that went down into the earth, or whether for the poor thin figure that had once kept the man he loved, he did not know.

John Williams, Stoner, p. 89,

Many years ago now, on the day I was signing my first contract to teach full time at a small liberal arts college somewhere north of New York City, my father died. In truth he died before I left the city that morning. Strangely enough, I had woken up almost an hour before my alarm was set to go off. The time, 6:17 AM, later proved to be the time he died. That morning I thought it strange to wake up so spontaneously and so early when I usually needed more than one alarm to reach me. But I did not know as I set out for my glorious day that there was this shadow behind me. 

At the college I met the members of the department, and sat down to have a good conversation with its senior member, a wonderful, brilliant, funny, strange and somewhat mad Socratic figure of a man named James Day. We hit it off at once and I returned to the city somewhat triumphantly. On the way home from the train station I stopped at my local pub for a celebratory pint. Unasked, the bartender poured me a shot of whiskey, then stood in front of me to pour a second, and a third. I looked at him.

'Call your mother,' he said.

The only grieving I knew then was to mourn outwardly, grim-faced and inky-cloaked. I was, so I thought, the one who had to be strong for everyone else. We had a wake for my father, and then buried him funeral in the fitting, cold, pouring rain of early March. We went on. In the fall I went off to begin teaching. James Day, though nothing like my father, became a surrogate. He was so much that my father was not. To begin with, we could talk about Greek together, and did at great length in the campus cafe, in the pub, at his home, in restaurants over a meal. We spent a great many hours together, and I came to love him very much. 

A few years later I moved on to another small liberal arts college even further north. One day that winter a phone call came -- I am no longer sure from whom -- to tell me that James had died. His health had long been terrible, and he refused to change the way he lived. Perhaps he thought it would have made no difference, but I don't think he wanted it to. The news brought down a terrible silence within me. I went outside to split some firewood for the woodstove, since it seemed I needed something to do. 

In time I realized I was weeping as I set up the wood and let the axe fall, and set up the next piece and let the axe fall again. I did not know who I was weeping for, whether for James or for my father, for myself or for us all. The tears all flowed together. I don't think I have ever wept so long.

A year or so later I met one of James' sons, and from what James had once told me I believed there had been some estrangement between them. Yet one night in his house James had shown me videos of this son performing various impressive feats on a skateboard. Never had I heard James so purely delighted for so long. He laughed and he smiled and he beamed. I made a point of telling his son that because I knew James never could, or at least that he never had. To me it seemed that his son was moved to hear of his father's delight and pride. I was moved to tell him. Because we too often say what we shouldn't to those we love and too seldom say what we should. But mostly it becomes too late to say anything and we can only weep without knowing who we are weeping for.