. Alas, not me: June 2022

30 June 2022

Hjelm Dyb and Helm's Deep

photo of the Danish island of Hjelm taken from a boat in Hjelm Dyp
Hjelm Island from Hjelm Dyb, photo courtesy of Dr. B. A. Kaiser

I just learned that there is a small island off the coast of Denmark, called Hjelm, which is separated from the mainland by a body of water called Hjelm Dyb.*

And yes, Tolkien fans, Hjelm Dyb means exactly what you think it means, though obviously this is 'deep' in a different sense which Tolkien knew also quite well ('The love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea' [FR 2.vii.365]).

I don't know if Tolkien knew about Hjelm Dyn, but he did have Gimli say of Helm's Deep: "Give me a year and a hundred of my kin and I would make this a place armies would break upon like water" (TT 3.vii.532).

Elsewhere in the chapter Helm's Deep he continues to use sea related comparisons to describe this stronghold:
  • "the great stones of it were set with such skill that no foothold could be found at their joints, and at the top they hung over like a sea-delved cliff" (TT 3.vii.533); 
  • "But the Hornburg still held fast, like an island in the sea" (TT 3.vii.536).
He also compares the attacking forces to the sea three times.
  • "They wavered, broke, and fled back; and then charged again, broke and charged again; and each time, like the incoming sea, they halted at a higher point" (TT 3.vii.533).
  • "Against the Deeping Wall the hosts of Isengard roared like a sea" (TT 3.vii.535).
  • "Over the wall and under the wall the last assault came sweeping like a dark wave upon a hill of sand." 
So, this is all quite fun and fascinating and it certainly wasn't beyond Tolkien to take a phrase like 'Hjelm Dyb' and transform it. Whether he knew about the Danish island and the body of water is the question. It may well be unanswerable. I'd be interested to know if anybody else has any ideas. Obviously, Danish Tolkien fans would be most likely to see the words 'Helm's Deep' and recognize the echo, whether Tolkien intended it or whether it's coincidental. 

I have learned since first posting this that a Danish historian named Casper Clemmensen has just published a book on Tolkien and Jutland, Tolkien og det mytiske Jylland, which makes this and other similar observations. 

*I would like to thank my good friend, Dr. Brooks Kaiser of the University of Southern Denmark for letting me know about Hjelm and Hjelm Dyb. May the wind be ever at your back as you sail there.

28 June 2022

Hope Shall Come Again: 'The Choices of Master Samwise' and 'The Children of Húrin'

In 'The Choices of Master Samwise', when Sam believes Frodo to be dead, his anguish leads him to contemplate his own death, by suicide:
He looked on the bright point of the sword. He thought of the places behind where there was a black brink and an empty fall into nothingness. There was no escape that way. That was to do nothing, not even to grieve.

(TT 4.x.732)

When the orcs arrive in the pass and discover Frodo's dead body (as Sam still believes), Sam again imagines his own death:

How many can I kill before they get me? They’ll see the flame of the sword, as soon as I draw it, and they’ll get me sooner or later. I wonder if any song will ever mention it: How Samwise fell in the High Pass and made a wall of bodies round his master. No, no song. Of course not, for the Ring’ll be found, and there’ll be no more songs.

(TT 4.x.735)

In these moments one of the Great Tales of the First Age resonates within Sam's soul. Unlike the many explicit evocations of the Tale of Beren and Lúthien in The Lord of the Rings, the allusions here are far more obscure, to the Tale of the Children of Húrin, where Túrin fell upon his sword, where his sister, Nienor, leaped to her death; and where their father, Húrin, made the heroic last stand to end all heroic last stands. To catch these allusions, however, requires detailed knowledge of a Tale never mentioned at all in The Lord of the Rings. Its two chief figures, Húrin and his son Túrin are scarcely more than names on a list of elf-friends mentioned by Elrond (FR 2.ii.270). Until The Silmarillion was published in 1977, moreover, no other information was available. We don't even know that Húrin and Túrin are father and son. Húrin and his family might as well have been the cats of Queen Beruthiel. Their story seemed just as unknowable. 

What's more surprising is that, as far as I have been able to tell, no one spotted these allusions even after the publication of The Silmarillion. Despite multiple versions of the story appearing across the decades in Unfinished TalesThe Book of Lost Tales I, The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Lost RoadThe Children of Húrin, and elsewhere.

Part of what we see here is Tolkien's craft. He knows that he can draw on the mythic power of the Tale of the Children of Húrin without needing to draw our attention to the allusions by introducing explanations that would distract from the moment and the momentum of the story; and he can draw on this power in this way precisely because it is mythic and therefore transcends the particular details of the moment. What we see here is yet more evidence for how important these Great Tales are to the narrative and to the characters within it. The connection between the Tale of Frodo and Sam and the larger Tales of which theirs is a part does not need to be made explicit to be effective.

Part of it, finally, is that Sam is on the knife-edge of Tragedy here. If he makes a mistake in his choices, all is lost for him, and all is lost for Middle-earth. Sam, moreover, believing his master to be dead, already sees himself as in a story that has turned tragic. The Tale of the Children of Húrin is the tale for this crisis rather than the Tale of Beren and Lúthien because it is a Tragedy, and Beren and Lúthien, for all of its tragic moments, is a fairy-story that goes beyond sorrow into joy. We talk about Tolkien and fairy-stories far more often than we do about Tolkien and Tragedy. But in On Fairy-stories Tolkien speaks of the two types of story together. Each helps him define the other. He says:

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

(OFS ¶ 99)

And if the catastrophe that marks a Tragedy cleanses us or purges us by means of fear and pity, then we can see the parallel between Drama and Fairy-stories even more clearly. For the eucatastrophe that is the 'true form' and 'highest function' of a fairy tale cleanses us through Escape, Recovery, and Consolation. It includes the renewed clarity of 'vision' we gain through Recovery (OFS ¶ 83-84). but goes beyond it by allowing a 'vision' of a transcendent reality (OFS ¶ 103).

There is more to be explored here, which I don't have time for right now. For example, an essential aspect of the situation Sam finds himself in here is the battle he has with Shelob directly before he comes to believe Frodo dead. For the narrator there names both Beren, the fairy-tale hero who also fought giant spiderlike monsters, and Túrin, the tragic hero who slew a dragon by stabbing him from below only to learn terrible truths about his own life in doing so. Sam of course is neither of these great heroes, sons of the chieftains of their peoples, and further reflection on these passages may well help us more deeply understanding of On Fairy-stories, The Lord of the Rings, and how the dynamic balance of Tragedy and Eucatastrophe fundamentally shapes Tolkien's Secondary World.


If anybody knows of another discussion of these particular allusions to The Children of Húrin in The Choices of Master Samwise, please do let me know. I would be eager to see it.