. Alas, not me: August 2022

27 August 2022

A Reasonable Question about Amazon's Rings of Power Show

Over on twitter I was sharing some first impressions on the first two episodes of The Rings of Power, which I had the chance to see in New York City last Tuesday. A guy asked me whether 'people who are super obsessed with lore accuracy [are] going to be happy or sad' after they see the show. So I answered it with a thread there, and I've put it all together here in a more coherent form. I haven't really changed anything, but some typos and punctuation and paragraphing, to make it a bit easier to read. So here's my reply:

Okay, that's a reasonable question. There's a couple of things to consider. 

  1. Compared to the First Age and the Third Age there is precious little for the Second Age, which Tolkien basically invented as backdrop to LotR as he wrote it. 
  2. That means that any extended narrative of the Second Age - and 50 hours is a very extended narrative - is going to have a lot of gaps to fill, and filling those gaps is going to require inventing all sorts of things. 
  3. The show also has to deal with any extremely long timeframe. The Second Age is 3441 years long. 
  4. The are two basic storylines: The Elves and Sauron, and Númenor, which really don't even begin to head converge until Númenor comes to the rescue of the Elves in SA 1700, and don't fully converge until Númenor is destroyed, and the Faithful escape to Middle-earth. 
  5. Some of the characters are in effect immortal and others aren't. 
  6. So you have this colossal story, covering three and a half millennia, the elvish strand of which is very sketchily told, and the mortal part of which is very focused on a few centuries towards the end. This is the task these guys at Amazon have set for themselves. This is the playing field they and we are on. 

In view of all this, here's a question -- how do I feel about there being hobbits in the story? Because I am a big lore guy, and a big book lore guy. I haven't even watched the PJ films in years because I don't want my understanding of the books influenced by what PJ did in the films (good or ill, he changed things). There's no mention of hobbits anywhere before TA 1050. As Merry & Pippin told Treebeard, they got left out of all the old tales. So any inclusion of hobbits before that time is unsupported by the lore, and the show is starting a couple of thousand years before that. It's all completely fabricated from what we know of hobbits much later and then retrojected thousands of years. [Note: they aren't even called hobbits in the show, but Harfoots.]

Does that bother me as a lore guy? A whole lot less than Denethor being turned into a flaming nitwit (pun intended) in PJ's films. Or Elrond heading for the Grey Havens when everyone's back is turned. Or hobbits feet always being done wrong because One hobbit has exceptionally large and furry feet which he proudly displays on tables at parties.* Or, finally a whole lot less than if they had turned the show into game of thrones, a fantasy series which on both page and screen shares none of the heart of Tolkien's legendarium (and to be fair, that doesn't seem to be its goal). 

Did I see anything in those first two episodes, which seemed to contradict established canon? Yes. Do I wish they had done it differently? Yes. Actually I saw more than one thing. Will I keep watching? Yes. But you know what I wouldn't watch? A show that got every last detail of lore 100% right, (as if that were even possible given what they are attempting) but missed the tragedy and joy and sorrow and pity that are at the heart of the legendarium from the Music of the Ainur to the Dagor Dagorath. So, there's my answer. Sorry it's so long, but, as a lore guy, you must have made it through the Council of Elrond, right? This isn't anywhere near that long. Hope it helps. 

* I'll be putting up a post on hobbit feet soon, to follow up on this burning issue.

23 August 2022

The Wheel of Fire: Between Thought and Expression

'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.'

(RK 6.i.919)

'I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.

(RK 6.iii.937-38)

Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.

.... Then the vision passed and Sam saw Frodo Frodo standing, hand on breast, his breath coming in great gasps, and Gollum at his feet, resting on his knees with his wide-splayed hands upon the ground.

(RK 6.iii.943-44)

Mentioned only three times, twice by Frodo and once by Sam, the wheel of fire remains a fascinating, perplexing image. Unlike the Eye of Sauron, the purport of which the narrative makes clear, why Frodo sees the Ring as a wheel of fire receives no discussion and has no self-evident explanation. To the readers in the Primary World, that is, to us, the wheel offers several possibilities. From Greek Mythology we may know that Ixion was bound to a flaming wheel in Tartarus as punishment for his crimes against the gods, and Tolkien was surely alive to what his readers might make of such an image. In a 1944 letter to his son, Christopher, while discussing the power legends hold he expresses his astonishment that someone would choose 'Ixion' as the name for a brand of motorcycles: 'How could a maker of motorbikes name his product Ixion cycles! Ixion, who was bound for ever in hell on a perpetually revolving wheel!' (Letters no. 75, p. 88). From Shakespeare we may know the wheel as one of the tormenting visions of Lear's madness (King Lear 4.v:43-46)

You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like moulten lead.

From history we may know of the medieval torture device sometimes called the 'Catherine wheel', or, more recently, of the wheel to which soldiers were once tied for punishment in a pose that reminded many of crucifixion. It was called Field Punishment No. 1, and, as John Garth has pointed out(1), Tolkien likely witnessed it during the Great War. From the Bible we may know of the wheels and fire appearing in the visions in Ezekiel, though these are associated with cherubim and the glory of God. We may even be familiar with the firework called a Catherine Wheel (evidently not in Gandalf's repertoire), whose swift turning and bright ring of fire creates the illusion of black emptiness rimmed with fire (curious, that). So torment, fire, and otherworldly visions are what the wheel can most readily convey to us, which accords perfectly with what we see of Frodo's experience. 

So much for us, but none of this would have the least meaning for anyone in Middle-earth, and it is for readers within the Secondary World that Frodo supposedly wrote the book. It seems too important and potent an image to think that it is simply a passing artefact of translation(2), like 'express train' in A Long-expected Party (FR 1.i.28), or 'all aboard, Sam'(3) in Three is Company (FR 1.iii.70). Rather, the cluster of associations that the wheel of fire can have for us, the reader in the Primary World, signals the importance of this image for understanding Frodo's relationship with the Ring. That Sam also sees the Ring as a wheel of fire when he looks upon Frodo 'with other vision' on the slopes of Mount Doom (RK 6.iii.943) confirms that it is more than just a vision of torment or madness or divine revelation, but a manifestation of the Ring's irresistible power. To understand this better, we must return to Lothlórien and what Frodo sees in the Mirror of Galadriel.

For the first such image appearing in Frodo's mind is not the wheel of fire, but the Eye of Sauron. After the Mirror shows him a succession of glimpses into the past and possibly the future, an image more real than realistic suddenly commandeers his vision. Catlike, cyclopean, disembodied, bound in flame, empty within and without, the Eye is looking for the Ring, and for him. Although Galadriel does not know all that was visible in the mirror, she knows he saw the Eye. So it is a manifestation of Sauron she is aware of herself, even if it is not his incarnate form, which was recognizably male and presumably Elven to judge by the words of Pippin and Aragorn, who saw Sauron in the palantír (TT 3.xi.592-93; RK 5.ii.780), and of Gollum, who saw him in person (TT 4.iii.641).  

In his next encounter with the Eye, upon Amon Hen, Frodo feels its attention rather than seeing an image of it. At the same time he perceives the 'fierce eager will' behind the Eye, of which he then says 'almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him' (FR 2.x.401). This collocation of eye, will, and finger ought to make clear the metaphorical territory into which Frodo the narrator has strayed as he tries to communicate his experience. That he soon hears a 'Voice', which no one would mistake for a real voice, and which contends with the Eye, only confirms the metaphorical nature of the bodily attributes 'eye' and 'finger'. To be sure, the Voice is Gandalf's, but it is not the voice of Gandalf sitting on a mountaintop shouting out loud.

This approach to the Eye continues in The Passage of the Marshes, where in a single paragraph the narrator all but declares how much of the language used to describe his perception of the Ring and Sauron is metaphorical. The burden of the Ring may grow, but its weight does not actually change as Sam's experience carrying Frodo proves (RK 6.iii.941). The 'Eye' is what he calls 'that horrible growing sense of a hostile will', which seeks to 'pierce all shadows' and 'veils' and 'pin you'. And the metaphor of how he can sense the location of its 'heart' is fine and apt, but it is nevertheless a metaphor. Sauron's Eye is nothing like the sun, not even an invisible sun.

In fact with every step towards the gates of Mordor Frodo felt the Ring on its chain about his neck grow more burdensome. He was now beginning to feel it as an actual weight dragging him earthwards. But far more he was troubled by the Eye: so he called it to himself. It was that more than the drag of the Ring that made him cower and stoop as he walked. The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable. So thin, so frail and thin, the veils were become that still warded it off. Frodo knew just where the present habitation and heart of that will now was: as certainly as a man can tell the direction of the sun with his eyes shut. He was facing it, and its potency beat upon his brow.

(TT 4.ii.630, emphasis mine)

So powerfully has the Eye been imagined in these three scenes in Lothlórien, upon Amon Hen, and in the Dead Marshes that it comes as something of a surprise to recognize that we get very little of Frodo's perception of it from here on. Frodo the narrator presently comments that Gollum has 'probably' also been feeling 'the pressure of the Eye' (TT 4.ii.630-31), though he also points out, perhaps in belated self-reproach, that Frodo the character didn't give a thought to what Gollum might have been suffering. Twice later on while Sam is wearing the Ring he feels anything but invisible to the Eye he knows is 'searching for him' (TT 4.x.734) and he perceives 'now more strong and urgent than ever, the malice of the Eye of Mordor, searching, trying to pierce the shadows' (RK 6.i.898). Sam's perceptions, however, lack the vividness of Frodo's. As receptive as Sam is to seeing things with 'other vision' -- like the clear light he thinks he sees shining from Frodo sometimes (TT 4.iv.652; cf. FR 2.i.223), or like the, as it were, transfigurations of Frodo he views in the Emyn Muil and on Mount Doom (TT 4.i.618; RK 6.iii.944) -- he never sees the Eye as Frodo does.

At the same time direct and indirect reminders of the Eye abound in mentions of the Red Eye as the livery of Mordor (TT 3.i.416; iii.451; RK 6.i.903) or the red lights like eyes in the Towers of the Teeth and the tower at Cirith Ungol (TT 4.iv.649; x.733-34; RK 6.i.898. 908). Even the flies of Mordor are 'marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch (RK 6.ii.921).(4) Yet like the rest of the eyes, including that of Sauron himself, they fail to see what they most need to see. Instead the buzzing and stinging of the flies and the 'clouds of hungry midges' serve as a grimly humorous parallel to Sam's suffering in the Midgewater Marshes, where he had quipped 'What do they live on when they can't get hobbit?' (FR 1.xi.182-83). The red-eyed orc-gear he and Frodo had been wearing to conceal their identity now seems less important than having skin as thick as an orc's.

Once the hobbits have entered Mordor, however, Frodo the character never speaks of the Eye again, though there are two moments which merit our attention. In the first moment Sam observes his master's behavior, much of which will be familiar.

Sam guessed that among all their pains [Frodo] bore the worst, the growing weight of the Ring, a burden on the body and a torment to his mind. Anxiously Sam had noted how his master’s left hand would often be raised as if to ward off a blow, or to screen his shrinking eyes from a dreadful Eye that sought to look in them. And sometimes his right hand would creep to his breast, clutching, and then slowly, as the will recovered mastery, it would be withdrawn. 

(RK 6.iii.935) 

Again, as in The Dead Marshes, we start with a reference to the burden of the Ring and its seeming change in weight, which will soon be shown to be merely a delusion of the bearer (RK 6.iii.941). So, not everything the Ringbearer experiences or describes as if it were a physical effect or object has physical existence. That's a thought we should hold on to. 

Next Sam's speculations on Frodo's left hand recall his master's perceptions of the Eye back in The Dead Marshes. Only he is actually watching from the outside in, and cautiously describing, the 'potency' of that unseen sun which 'beat upon [Frodo's] brow. This transition from Frodo's internal perceptions in The Dead Marshes to the strictly external perceptions of an excluded Sam in Mount Doom emphasizes the distance between the one experience and the other, with its 'as if' and its 'a dreadful Eye' rather than 'the dreadful Eye.' In view of the phrasing it may be worth recalling here that Sam has not seen, and never will see, the Eye, though he has felt its attention, just as he has felt the burden of the Ring.

The shift in attention then from Frodo's left hand to his right offers a counterbalance more than opposition. In the Dead Marshes we glimpse (TT 4.ii.630), through Sam's anxious eyes, Frodo trying to hide from the gaze of Sauron, but Sam is at a remove, able only to guess at what Frodo sees, and still under the false impression that the physical weight of the Ring grows along with the spiritual burden. In Mordor (RK 6.iii.935), we and Sam are still farther off, shut out entirely from the struggle between the desire that moves Frodo's hand towards the Ring and the will that forces it back again. If in his mind here Frodo sees the Eye or senses its hunting gaze, and raises his left hand to shield himself against it, what does he see or perceive in his mind when he lifts his right hand to reach for the Ring?

In the second moment, we may observe a curious turn. For by chance Frodo 'sees' the Eye when its attention is entirely elsewhere, on the battle outside the Black Gate. It is neither looking for him nor, as at Amon Hen, does it become aware of his gaze: 'but Frodo at that dreadful glimpse fell as one stricken mortally. His hand sought the chain about his neck' (RK 6.iii.942). What Frodo glimpses even for an instant is so powerful, full of such malice and terror, that the mere sight of it strikes him down and his hand reaches for the Ring. Sam has to stop it. Frodo has to beg him. 

There is no hint whatsoever here that Frodo feels any pressure to put on the Ring, as he often tells the reader elsewhere that he did. On some of those occasions the urge clearly comes from outside him, as at Weathertop or with the Black Riders in the Shire. On others it is fear and a desire to escape, as in the Barrow, or fear that Bombadil has not given him back the real Ring and a desire to prove that it is 'his Ring'. Sometimes it is merely that most Bagginsish of desires, to avoid an awkward situation. And course these motives can overlap, as when Frodo wants to disappear in The Prancing Pony, feeling embarrassed as much as compelled. 

Frodo's most recent claim that he felt such an external pressure to put on the Ring, in the Morgul Vale as the Witch-king passed by, is harder to credit. For if the Witch-king had perceived that the Ring was close by and sent out a command to its bearer to put it on, as he had done successfully at Weathertop, it's impossible to believe he would have just marched away. The desire Frodo feels there to put on the Ring is also clearly connected to his desire to defy the Witch-king, as he had done unsuccessfully at the Ford of Bruinen, but he has since grown wise enough to know he does not have the strength, 'not yet' (TT 4.viii.706). These last two words, however, not only reveal his desire to put on the Ring and issue the challenge, but also that he is gauging his and the Witch-king's strengths. 

While Sam has the Ring, he twice finds his hand reaching for it. The only external pressure he feels upon himself is the terror of his situation. In the first instance he is surprised in the pass by the arrival of the orcs, and he takes the Ring in his hand before he realizes it and puts it on without a second thought. His mind is on how its now too late for him to escape and 'save the Ring'. Likewise, once he's inside the tower looking for Frodo, he is again surprised by an orc and reaches for the Ring. Sam, however, is under no illusions about his strength. Previously, when he had the Ring on and was tempted by the fantasy of being 'Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age', he recognized at once that it was a delusion. He may feel the temptation to claim the Ring and challenge Sauron, but he knows how that would end. He knows also that there is a price in torment to be paid for rejecting the fantasy of power so alluring that he can do nothing but want it. He has watched that torment in Frodo, and even in Gollum for some time now.

What Frodo sees in his mind as his hand reaches for the Ring is the wheel of fire, which he has already told Sam he has begun to see in his 'mind all the time, like a great wheel of fire' (RK 6.i.919), and of which he will soon say: 'I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades' (RK 6.iii.938)

The simile in his mind's eye in his first statement about the wheel becomes the much more vivid metaphor of the second. It proves in fact to be far more than metaphor. For, now that it is visible to his 'waking eyes', it is no longer a description or a comparison that aims to convey meaning by juxtaposing less and more familiar things. It is a vision or a hallucination. 

But the final report on the wheel of fire belongs to Sam, and what he sees the narrator twice calls a 'vision'. Again, keep in mind that the narrator is Frodo who must have relied on Sam to know what Sam saw. When Sam sees with 'other vision', as he does here, what he sees always touches upon Frodo's moral or spiritual state. Such a vision can be simple, as in the clear light which Sam and Gandalf saw shining through Frodo at Rivendell and which Sam and perhaps even Gollum saw again later in Ithilien. The interpretation of this even so may vary. Sam sees it as indicative of what Frodo is, but to Gandalf that light promises much, yet offers no guarantee against the darkness. Or the vision may be far more complex, as in Frodo's vision of Galadriel in Lothlórien where he saw light and darkness, beauty and terror, love and despair combined into a mixture in which the evil elements subvert the good even though the image of the good never entirely vanishes from sight.

Just so here. The white in which the figure is cloaked too easily deceives because it is so often associated with goodness, with Gandalf, with Elbereth, with the White Tree. Saruman, too was cloaked in white , was called the White, and was leader of the White Council. Yet his treachery was not new, just newly revealed, and 'long years of death' will soon be revealed in him (RK 6.viii.1020). Saruman's orcs wear the White Hand as their token. Whatever he may once have been, Saruman has become a walking, talking whited sepulcher. And when Frodo sees beneath the black robes of the undead Ringwraiths, their clothes and faces and hair are white and grey. In the same way neither the 'simple white' worn by Galadriel nor the shining beauty of 'the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the mountain' which she would have put on if she had accepted the Ring would have made her less evil in the end (FR 2.vii.366).

What Sam sees with his 'other vision' is also not described as Frodo, but as a 'figure', which becomes Frodo once again only after the vision passes. This 'figure', moreover, is 'untouchable now by pity.' Now as everybody knows, Gandalf stressed at the outset the crucial role that the pity Bilbo showed Gollum might play (FR 1.ii.59). Despite rejecting Gandalf's argument for pity, Frodo, too, finally came to pity Gollum when they met at last, a scene in which Frodo not only remembered Gandalf's words to him about pity, but in which Frodo actually continued their conversation, speaking aloud to someone he believed to be dead (TT 4.i.615). Sam, moreover, will also pity Gollum and spare his life mere moments after the 'figure' 'untouchable by pity' turns away, presumably to destroy the Ring, so Sam believes, but, as it turns out, to claim the Ring (RK 6.iii.944-47). Without these three moments of pity by Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam, for someone who does not deserve pity, but death, the Ring does not go into the fire. Divine Pity does not intervene. There is no eucatastrophe on Mount Doom. So, for Frodo to have 'now' become, or to be 'now' seen as, a 'figure' 'untouchable now by pity' cannot be good. 

A remark Gandalf makes to Denethor has a bearing here. Rejecting Denethor's claim that Boromir would have brought him the Ring (RK 5.iv.813), Gandalf tells him that Boromir would not have done so, but 'would have stretched out his hand to this thing, and taking it he would have fallen. He would have kept it for his own, and when he returned you would not have known your son.' So, too, Frodo, 'having stretched out his hand to this thing' and having taken it, is for the moment no longer recognizable. (Remember also how Bilbo and Sam were both suddenly unrecognizable, when Frodo felt they were after his Ring?)

Finally, the 'figure' has the wheel of fire in its hand, the same hand which has repeatedly reached for the Ring, the same hand which Frodo has had increasing difficulty stopping, and the same hand which Sam sees on Frodo's breast clutching the Ring through his shirt (TT 4.viii.706; 6.iii.935, 943-44). And the voice which speaks from the wheel of fire clearly speaks as Frodo: 'You cannot betray me or slay me now' and 'Begone and trouble me no more. If you ever touch me again ....' At least in and for this moment, Frodo and the wheel of fire seem to be one, as if the wheel of fire is to Frodo as the Eye is to Sauron. In the struggle within Frodo between what I shall call the 'Ring-bearer-will' -- that is, 'the Ring is my burden' -- and the 'Ringlord-will' -- that is, 'the Ring is mine' -- the wheel represents Frodo's understanding of what he will become when his will breaks and he claims the Ring for his own, as he presently shall in Sammath Naur. Had Frodo prevailed in his challenge to Sauron -- as he could not have done -- the livery of his Dark Tower would have been the wheel of fire.


John Garth, 'Frodo and the Great War', in The Lord of the Rings 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, edd. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. Marquette 2006, p. 50 with no. 51. Garth draws on Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford 1975, pp. 118-19. 

2 Artifact of translation -- In translated works, as The Lord of the Rings claims to be, a translator will at times err in allowing an anachronism or other error to creep into the text because the words chosen to represent the original excel at communicating the idea or image in terms better suited to the reader than to the text. To say that the dragon firework at Bilbo's party passed overhead with a sound like an express train makes perfectly clear to the reader, but makes no sense regarded in context since there were no trains, express or otherwise, in Middle-earth. A perfect example is in Aubrey De Selincourt's translation of book 2, chapter 56 of Livy's History of Rome, where the consul is said to have 'stuck to his guns.' Perfectly clear to the reader, but absurd since guns did not exist in 471 B.C.E.

3 The phrase 'all aboard', like 'express train', has no place in Middle-earth, since it evokes the boarding call used to warn passengers that their boat or train was about to depart. While it fits nicely with 'express train', Tolkien may well have associated the phrase with boats. According to the OED, the phrase's link with trains is far more American than British. If so, that is intriguing since hobbits dislike boats and travel by water and the Sea is symbolic of death to them.

4 All other references to the Eye or uses of the word that invoke it, even proleptically: FR 1.i.34; vii.132-33; 2.ii.274; TT 3.i.414; iii.451, 452; v.499; ix.564; x.582; xi.589; 4.i.605; ii.625, 631, 632; iii.642, 648; iv.651; vii.702; x.733, 738; RK 5.iv.821; ix.879; x.885; 6.i.898 (twice), 903, 907-08; ii.921, 923, 924; iii.935-36, 942 (twice), 946.

22 August 2022

The Pity of Théoden (TT 3.vi.519-20)

Gandalf and Frodo's argument over Bilbo's pity and mercy and the death which they agree Gollum deserves versus the healing the wizard hopes Gollum may yet find inform the entire moral structure of The Lord of the Rings (FR 1.ii.59-60). And the moment in which Bilbo showed that mercy is echoed over and over in decisions we see characters make.

We don't often think of Théoden in this connection, however, even though once you see it, it seems so obvious. (The italics are mine.)

'Mercy, lord!' whined Wormtongue, grovelling on the ground. 'Have pity on one worn out in your service. Send me not from your side! I at least will stand by you when all others have gone. Do not send your faithful Gríma away!'

'You have my pity,' said Théoden. 'And I do not send you from my side. I go myself to war with my men. I bid you come with me and prove your faith.'


'.... See, Théoden,[said Gandalf] here is a snake! With safety you cannot take it with you, nor can you leave it behind. To slay it would be just. But it was not always as it now is. Once it was a man, and did you service in its fashion. Give him a horse and let him go at once, wherever he chooses. By his choice you shall judge him.'

'Do you hear this, Wormtongue?' said Théoden. 'This is your choice: to ride with me to war, and let us see in battle whether you are true; or to go now, whither you will. But then, if ever we meet again, I shall not be merciful.' 

(TT 3.vi.519-20)     

The King, who has the right to deal out death in judgement (as Frodo did not), now healed by Gandalf, does not need his teaching to show pity and mercy. He does not strike without need, even if Wormtongue's just punishment for his treason should be death. Rather he offers him a chance for healing, a chance to redeem himself. Gandalf affirms the correctness of what would be just as well as the correctness of the mercy the King offers. 

Wormtongue of course rejects Théoden's mercy, only to end up dead months later at the feet of Frodo, who has just once again offered pity and mercy to both Wormtongue and Saruman (RK 6.viii.1019-20).


My thanks to Matthew DeForrest, whose article, Pity, Malice and Agency in Tolkien's Subcreation, in Critical Insights: The Lord of the Rings, ed. Robert C. Evans, Salem (2022) 227-40, brought Théoden's pity and mercy to my notice in his discussion of those qualities in Tolkien, and in this mirror I saw reflected the scene with Gandalf and Frodo.

05 August 2022

Of Kubla Khan in Greek, Tolkien in his Cups, and a Boat of Melted Butter.

In Tolkien's youth it was nothing unusual for Latin and Greek students to be told to translate a piece of English verse into verse in Latin or Greek. This is even more daunting than it sounds since Greek and Latin prosody has very different rules. When Tolkien says to W. H. Auden that his 'chief contacts with [English] poetry were when one was made to try and translate it into Latin' (Letters, no. 163, p. 213), this is what he is talking about, as Auden likely knew from his own experience. Some people were actually quite good at this, and kept it up long after they had finished school themselves. In Oxford and Cambridge of Tolkien's day it was something of a college industry.

I remember one day when I was an undergraduate studying Greek one of my more terrifying professors showed us a version of Coleridge's Kubla Khan translated into Greek by an Oxford don named Maurice Bowra. It was really quite good and a lot of fun, too. Aside from the Greek being neatly turned and the versification skillfully handled, Bowra had also rendered the cultural references into something a Greek 2,500 years ago would have understood. The names 'Kubla Khan' and 'Xanadu' would have meant nothing to Sophocles, for example, but Minos and Knossos would have conveyed just the necessary air of power both mythic and exotic. So 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan' became 'In Knossos did King Minos' (ἐν Κνωσῷ βασιλεὺς Μίνως).(1) As mere American undergraduates of a decidedly less heroic age, my classmates and I were as awed to read this as we were grateful that no one was going to ask us to do anything similar.

Tolkien and Bowra knew each other. In the preface (p. viii) to the 1938 Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, edited by Bowra and T. F. Higham, Tolkien receives thanks for his 'valuable help' with the seventy-four page essay Higham wrote on Greek Poetry in Translation.(2) What help Tolkien gave seems unknown, however. Both Tolkien (1945-1955) and Bowra (1951-?) were later members of the Oxford Dante Society, and it is perhaps at the meetings of this society, which seem to have always included a dinner, that the rest of our story begins.

For C. S. Lewis' brother, Warnie, ran into Tolkien one summer evening in 1966 at gathering in Wadham College of those who had known C. S. Lewis. Warnie's diary entry for 22 July 1966 tells an intriguing tale:

'in company with Tollers, who struck me as having had as much sherry as was good for him, and he told me some fantastic story about how he had once emptied a sauce boat of melted butter over [Maurice] Bowra's head.'(3)

We do not know why Tolkien did this to Bowra, though the reputation of Bowra's sharp tongue lives on even today. But again, I emphasize, we do not know. We also cannot say when it happened. It is tempting, however, to suspect a link between the buttering of Bowra and the meeting of the Oxford Dante Society on 15 February 1955 at which Tolkien's resignation was 'accepted with regret'.(4) That Warnie didn't already know the tale suggests that Tolkien didn't talk about it, at least not without a tongue-loosening amount of sherry in him. It's also true that he had run into Warnie at a gathering in Wadham College, of which Bowra had long been the warden (head). So he may well have been there, and seeing him would certainly have called that previous meeting to mind, whenever it may have happened. 

Such memories might also have inspired Bowra five years later to write a letter attacking Tolkien's qualifications for government honors for which both he and Tolkien were then under consideration. Bowra disparaged Tolkien's academic output and dismissed the idea that someone who wrote 'only children's tales' merited recognition as a Companion of Honour.(5) (Tolkien in the end received the lesser distinction of Commander of the Order of the British Empire.)

It's worth noting that Tolkien had already felt the sting of such criticism long before. In letter 211, dated to 14 October 1958, Tolkien writes (p. 278):

I have only just returned from a year’s leave, one object of which was to enable me to complete some of the ‘learned’ works neglected during my preoccupation with unprofessional trifles (such as The Lord of the Rings): I record the tone of many of my colleagues.

And in letter 182 from sometime in 1956, he says (p. 238):

Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years’. So the screw is on for many things of a more professional kind long overdue.

The similarity of these criticisms voiced at Oxford following the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring on 29 July 1954 and The Two Towers on 11 November 1954, to the comments in Bowra's 1971 letter invite us once again to wonder if a connection might exist between the butter boat incident and Tolkien's resignation from the Oxford Dante Society on 15 February 1955. Perhaps at table that evening Bowra unleashed his caustic wit at Tolkien, who was already sore from the criticism of his colleagues, but was not to be intimidated either. Perhaps not. We may never know, but it's a fine and fantastic image to cherish for a moment. 


Lee Smith has suggested to me the perfect instance of provocation for the butter boat incident. Bowra makes some suitably witty and acid remark about there not being enough butter to scrape over their bread as he asks Tolkien to pass the butter. Which Tolkien does. 

I dedicate this post to my good friend, Shawn Marchese, who is leaving the Prancing Pony Podcast, but not (probably) because he has poured a sauce boat of melted butter over Alan's head. 


(1) For Kubla Khan, see S. T. Coleridge, C. M. Bowra, et al. in Greece & Rome 3 (1934) 178-82. https://www.jstor.org/stable/641030.

(2) I owe my discovery of the acknowledgement of Tolkien in The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation to Cristina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader's Guide, Part I (2017: 195). 

(3) Warnie's diary entry is quoted in Cristina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader's Guide, Part I (2017: 195) and in Chronology (2017:703). They draw the quote from Warnie's papers at the Marion E. Wade Center, at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Charles E. Noad in Maurice Bowra and the Inklings, Amon Hen 227 (2011: 12-17) notes Warnie's story, but does not speculate (as I do) about the story behind it.

(4) Cristina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology (2017: 47). 

(5) Cristina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader's Guide, Part I (2017: 195-96) and Chronology (2017: 789-90, 863)