. Alas, not me: July 2022

31 July 2022

Hailing Frequencies Closed -- Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)

Lieutenant Uhura

Damn it. 

When I was a little boy, Uhura always struck me as so calm, so perfectly poised, and so completely on top of everything she had to do. Even in those episodes when they tried to make her act scared, that never seemed to fit her character. I never bought it. Now, when she had to play her part in Mirror, Mirror, fending off evil Sulu and tricking him, she did it with such sang froid and such charm -- that was Uhura all over. That was the Uhura I knew.

Yet there was more. Something seemed to emanate from her that I can only call beauty. I don't mean her looks -- though she certainly had the looks, and that silky voice -- but it was something that came from within which told you you were in the presence of someone very special and good. If anyone tries to tell me that this was just acting, I won't believe you. But if it was just acting, Nichelle Nichols was as stunning an actress as I have ever seen.

I didn't know anything about what she meant to others, to men and women of color in my own country and in other places. How could I? I was an eight year old white kid from a middle-class family. I had pretty much everything. Including hope. Maybe it was her cool competence playing itself out against the backdrop of the riotous  1960s in the United States that gave me this hope that we had somehow turned a corner, that what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature had prevailed, that the heart and words of Martin Luther King had rung in a new dream for us all. Lieutenant Uhura, I think, was one of those better angels to me.

I didn't know then, or learn for years afterwards, of the role Martin Luther King had played in keeping Nichelle Nichols from quitting Star Trek. That blew my mind as much he did and as Uhura did. It seemed to reaffirm what they stood for, and what I think I suspected even as a little boy watching Star Trek: that the future I saw every week on the bridge of the Enterprise was the promised land that King told us that we would all one day get to. Because it isn't the promised land unless every last one of us is there.

Lately all that hope seems so far away. I don't know that I believe in a promised land any more. I don't know that I can still sing that anthem of my youth in a land that is forgotten. Every day more of us seem to bear the mark of Cain. Every day more seem proud to wear it. Every day more seem proud to declare that we are not our brother's keeper. But the seed of Cain is monstrous. It can never do more than live in darkness and rail against the light.

When I saw that Nichelle Nichols had died, I wanted to weep, something I never do for people I don't know who have lived long, long lives. I keep choking up as I write this. But is it because there is no hope or because I have lost the courage to dare to hope in the face of darkness?

I don't know. The odds don't seem too good right now. But then I think of Uhura, so cool and brave and smart, and she reminds me of my favorite line by her, delivered as she sends Kirk and others off to rescue Spock from death itself: 'All my hopes.'


All our hopes, Ms. Nichols, all our hopes.

06 July 2022

Somme Starlight

This year on Tolkien Reading Day I discussed the well-known tale of the inception of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth in a couple of lines he read the Old English poem Crist in 1913, which refer to the morning-star as Earendel. Convinced that there was a lost story behind that name, in 1914 he showed his close friend Geoffrey Bache Smith a poem he had written about Earendel. When Smith asked him what it all meant, Tolkien declared he would try to find out. 

Over the course of decades Tolkien thought and wrote more about Earendel, although he never fully told his whole story. For so important a figure in his mythology to be most conspicuous by his absence is frustrating, but Verlyn Flieger has recently suggested that Tolkien may have left this story an 'untold tale' on purpose. In time he reshaped the name into Eärendil, 'the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope! Hail Eärendil, bearer of light before the Sun and Moon! Splendour of the Children of Earth, star in the darkness, jewel in the sunset, radiant in the morning!' (S 248-49). When he sailed his ship, Vingilot, into the sky, wearing the silmaril bound upon his brow, it shone as a star of hope for the Elves and Men of a Middle-earth devasted by a hopeless war against Morgoth. Even Maedhros and Maglor, the bloody-handed, last remaining sons of Fëanor, were moved when they saw it.

Now when first Vingilot was set to sail in the seas of heaven, it rose unlocked for, glittering and bright; and the people of Middle-earth beheld it from afar and wondered, and they took it for a sign, and called it Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope. And when this new star was seen at evening, Maedhros spoke to Maglor his brother, and he said: 'Surely that is a Silmaril that shines now in the West?' 

(S 250)

Seven thousand years later in another war without hope, Sam Gamgee raised his eyes above the wastes of Mordor:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. 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.922)

Before continuing with Tolkien, let's take a moment to consider a quote which does not come from Tolkien at all, but from John Buchan's The Battle of the Somme (1916), a battle which he covered as a correspondent for The Times, while simultaneously holding an appointment at Wellington House, more transparently described as the British War Propaganda Bureau. Buchan, to be fair, does seem to have had a genuine interest in producing a work of History rather than a mere sham to be foisted on the British people. In this quote Buchan is not speaking in his own voice, but passing on the words of a witness whom he never identifies. He is describing the early morning hours of 14 July 1916:

“It was a thick night, the sky veiled in clouds, mottled and hurrying clouds, through which only one planet shone serene and steadily high up in the eastern sky. But the wonderful and appalling thing was the belt of flame which fringed a great arc of the horizon before us. It was not, of course, a steady flame, but it was one which never went out, rising and falling, flashing and flickering, half dimmed with its own smoke, against which the stabs and jets of fire from the bursting shells flared out intensely white or dully orange. Out of it all, now here, now there, rose like fountains the great balls of star shells and signal lights—theirs or ours—white and crimson and green. The noise of the shells was terrific, and when the guns near us spoke, not only the air but the earth beneath us shook. All the while, too, overhead, amid all the clamour and shock, in the darkness and no less as night paled to day, the larks sang. Only now and again would the song be audible, but whenever there was an interval between the roaring of the nearer guns, above all the distant tumult, it came down clear and very beautiful by contrast, Nor was the lark the only bird that was awake, for close by us, somewhere in the dark, a quail kept, constantly urging us—or the guns—to be Quick-be-quick.”

            (p. 33 Kindle edition)

The framing of this quote is marvelous. It begins with the planet shining high and steady and serene and ends with the beauty of larks' who sang above the trenches in the dawn (a constant of the poetry of this war) while the artillery barrage flashed and thundered, but who were heard only in the silent moments between detonations. In the planet and the larks, we see something of the remoteness of the beauty above the 'forsaken land' which we also find in Tolkien's accounts of Sam and Maglor and Maedhros gazing up at that same white star seven millennia distant from each other, but equally gazing up at it without hope until they see it. Fëanor's sons eschew a hope they recognize for a tragedy they have helped stage, being unable to let go of the hold their oath has on them; Sam takes the lesson of the selflessness of hope from the selfishness of his defiance. Like Maedhros and Maglor, however, the speaker of this quote finds the situation on the ground more complicated and less clear. The quail, sharing the darkness and the earth with the men in the trenches, call ambiguously. Are they encouraging the guns to be quick and done, or the soldiers to be quick rather than dead?

That planet, though. Shining high in the East before dawn in mid-July of 1916, it could be Jupiter or Venus. According to an astronomical almanac I found for 1916, Jupiter would have risen about 11:40 PM on 13 July, followed by Venus at roughly 3:30 AM on 14 July, and the sun at 4:13 AM. So Jupiter would have been much higher in the sky before dawn than Venus, though Venus would have been much brighter. So, I would guess that the planet Buchan's source was looking at was Jupiter. But Buchan's anonymous source was not the only British soldier who might have gazed up at the sky from the battlefields of the Somme. Buchan also tells us that the last week of July and the first fortnight of August had 'blazing summer weather', which he contrasts with the 'rain and fog' of the third week of July. Together with a remark about the heat on men wearing steel helmets, this gives us a picture of a hot sun beating down out of a clear sky (p. 38 Kindle edition). Again according to that almanac, Venus rose earlier and grew brighter each morning, peaking at a stunning apparent magnitude of -4.7 in early August. In technical terms that's really-damn-bright™.

Perhaps on one of those early mornings or towards the end of a duty shift at night, Tolkien looked up from the forsaken land of the Somme, and the high beauty of the morning star -- Venus, Earendel, Eärendil, call it what you will -- smote his heart and hope returned for a while. It's hard to believe he didn't see it, and that seeing it he wouldn't have thought of the lines from Crist with which his quest for Eärendil began. My incredulity proves nothing, of course. Yet Tolkien would have needed any glimpse of hope he could get during these weeks especially. For around 16 July he learned from Geoffrey Bache Smith that their other close TCBS friend, Christopher Quilter Gilson, who was also at the Somme, had been killed on the battle's first day. Perhaps, too, years later he remembered seeing the morning star above the Somme and wrote it into Maedhros and Maglor, but especially into Sam. 

Given the horrors of the battlefield and the loss of so beloved a friend, Tolkien might not have seen hope in the beauty of the morning star. It may well have been far too soon for hope, at least for himself. After all neither Maedhros and Maglor nor Sam take the sight of the morning star as a sign of hope for themselves, that they would succeed or survive, but only for the world at large. 

His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep. 

(RK 6.ii.922)

'I went out into the wood – we are out in camp again from our second bout of trenches still in the same old area as when I saw you – last night and also the night before and sat and thought.' 

Tolkien replying on 12 August 1916 to Geoffrey Bache Smith's letter about Christopher Quilter Gilson's death. (Letters #5, p. 9).