. Alas, not me: October 2022

30 October 2022

Faramir and the Shards of Boromir's Horn

Quite a while back I came to the conclusion that Faramir doesn't actually see Boromir's funeral boat, as he is convinced he does, but a vision of it, as Frodo insists. It is of course impossible to prove either way; and that is probably as it should be. The mythic aspect of Faramir's vision is far more significant than whether it is factually true. I daresay even Faramir would have thought so, regardless of what he believed. His openness to the idea that the boat could have survived the Falls of Rauros because it came from Lothlórien is sufficient evidence of this notion.

Yet the other day I noticed a detail in The Chronology of The Lord of the Rings, edited by William Cloud Hicklin, and just published as a supplement to volume XIX of Tolkien Studies. In the entry under 28 February 3019, Tolkien wrote 'First shard of horn of Boromir found' (56), and under 30 February* 'Second shard of the horn of Boromir found' (58). Hicklin comments in a single footnote to both entries (57): 'The entries regarding Boromir's horn are in pencil'. Since the Chronology is otherwise written in ink of different colors, the pencil insertions would seem to be later additions. 

Now we already know from TT 4.v.667 that the two shards were found on two different days in two different places, and we know from The Tale of Years in Appendix B (1092) that Faramir saw the boat on 29* February. Thus the first shard was found on 28 February; Faramir saw the boat on 29 February; and the second shard was found 30 February. At some point before 7 March, when Faramir speaks of the shards to Frodo, word of their discovery reaches both Faramir and Denethor. 

What I find curious in all this is that only The Tale of Years gives us a date for Faramir's sight of the boat, and only the Chronology gives us dates for the shards. The Chronology says nothing of the boat after 'Boromir's funeral boat sent down over Rauros' in the entry for 26 February (54). It could be that each text is telling us something different here. 

The silence of the Chronology on Faramir's sighting of the boat may not prove that what he saw was a vision, but it is consistent with that interpretation. As Faramir himself tells Frodo: 'Tidings of death have many wings. Night oft brings news to near kindred, ’tis said' (TT 4.v.665).


* In the Shire Reckoning all months had 30 days, February included.

24 October 2022

The First Sentence of 'The Lay of the Children of Húrin'

Lo! the golden dragon   of the God of Hell, 

the gloom of the woods   of the world now gone, 

the woes of Men,   and weeping of Elves 

fading faintly   down forest pathways,

is now to tell,   and the name most tearful           5 

of Níniel the sorrowful,   and the name most sad

of Thalion’s son Túrin   o’erthrown by fate.

                (The Lays of Beleriand 5) 

What really got me to stop and look more closely at the first seven lines of The Lay of the Children of Húrin was a question: Does 'fading', the first word in line 4, modify 'weeping' or 'Elves'? Is it the sound of the Elves' weeping which is fading, or is it the Elves themselves who are fading? That, after all, is something they are known to do, an exceptionally important part of the Doom of the Elves. It's also true that the two other participles in these lines, 'gone' (2) and 'o'erthrown' (7) must be taken closely with the nouns, 'world' (2) and 'son Túrin (7), just before them, as 'Elves' is just before 'fading.' On the basis of these two points I am much more inclined to take 'fading' with 'Elves' than with 'weeping.'

But while I was considering this, I noticed something I find much more interesting in the structure of the sentence, which has six subjects, four before and two after the verb phrase -- 'is now to tell'. The first four are the dragon of Morgoth, the gloom of a lost world, and the sufferings of Men and Elves within that world. Having set forth the particular agents of the general misfortunes of the two kindreds in that lost world, the sentence then pivots on the verb, like a lever on a fulcrum, to name the particular victims, Níniel and Túrin, whose sorrows are the focus of this lay. Lines 1 and 7, moreover, enclose the whole, opposing the dragon and Túrin as well as the figures of Morgoth and Húrin whose conflict shapes the unfolding of the tale they watch from afar. The reference to fate and the description of Morgoth as 'the God of Hell' also serve to tie this tale into the larger themes of the problem of Evil and its relationship to the plan of Ilúvatar which Tolkien saw as fundamental from the beginning of his legendarium.

It's a very nice little package to introduce the Great Tale and link it intimately to what we might call the Great Themes, a unity further underscored by the six subjects with a singular verb.*


* An alternate reading would be to construe the six words I take as the collective subject of 'is' (in one big noun clause) as the objects of 'tell.' It may also simply be that 'is' takes its number from that of the nearest subject, which doesn't happen often in English of late, but Tolkien knew any number of languages in which it did.

12 October 2022

Haters Gonna Hate: Tolkien's 'Shakespeare (which I disliked cordially)'

In February 1977 Fleetwood Mac released their album Rumours, to huge acclaim and huger sales. At the time I was in high school and a fan of groups like The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen on the one hand, and Yes and Pink Floyd on the other. If you think such widely divergent tastes should have been able to take in so eminently talented and accomplished a band as Fleetwood Mac, you would be quite mistaken. Not even the fay charms of Stevie Nicks could win me over. I hated the band. I hated the album. You might even say I cordially disliked it.

Forty-five years later, I think it is an absolutely amazing piece of work in pretty much every way. But if all you saw were the words, 'I hated the band. I hated the album', you might not realize that I was talking about what my opinion was about something long, long ago. You might think that I still feel that way. In truth, those two sentences in the past tense reveal nothing one way or the other about how I feel now. The best understanding of those two sentences is as a simple statement about the past. With a bit more context, it's easier to see that I was talking about feelings I had in the youth of my world. Perhaps I still have them, perhaps not, but my focus was on how I felt at that time specifically, not any other.

In a 1955 letter to W. H. Auden Tolkien spoke of his time at King Edward's School in Birmingham, which he left in 1911, forty-four years earlier, to go up to Oxford. 

I went to King Edward's School and spent most of my time learning Latin and Greek; but I also learned English. Not English Literature! Except Shakespeare (which I disliked cordially), the chief contacts with poetry were when one was made to try and translate it into Latin. Not a bad mode of introduction, if a bit casual. I mean something of the English language and its history.

(Letters no. 163, p. 213)

The context is all important here, though often little or none of it is supplied. He is speaking, as I was above, about how he felt about something he encountered over four decades earlier. The tense of 'disliked' is the same as that of all the other verbs except 'mean' in the final sentence, which refers to what he 'means' now when he says he 'learned English' then

Tolkien's use of 'disliked cordially' should also call to mind his other even more famous use of this phrase in his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings:

Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.  

Contrast the present tense of 'dislike' here with the past tense used in the letter to Auden. Tolkien is speaking of his current feelings about allegory, and, as the next clause suggests, these feelings started a long time ago and have continued into the present. So, though it shouldn't need stating, the man clearly knew his business when it came to the tenses of English verbs.

This phrase 'cordially dislike' also merits scrutiny. The word 'cordially' has become rare (at least) in the United States except in the fossilized 'you are cordially invited', and those of us who know that it means 'with all one's heart', 'wholeheartedly' or 'with hearty friendliness and goodwill' might find its pairing by Tolkien with 'dislike' slightly jarring. That is precisely the point of the juxtaposition, however. It came to be used, as the OED tells us, 'chiefly as an ironic intensifier', a more striking alternative for 'thoroughly'. The two words together, moreover, were something of a pair for a while, becoming ever more frequently used until they reached a peak of popularity, perhaps not coincidentally, in the years just before Tolkien was at King Edward's School cordially disliking Shakespeare, and a second even higher peak in 1929 when Tolkien was 37. It's precisely the sort of turn of phrase that a young man as alive to language as Tolkien would have loved. His use of it in the middle of the 1950s and 1960s show that it stuck with him, becoming one of those words or phrases we pick up in youth by which younger generations can date us. Rather like the phrase 'haters gonna hate' will be some day. (See the charts below.)

So the context and the phrasing of Tolkien's remark to Auden about Shakespeare encourages us to be circumspect in assessing Tolkien's opinion of Shakespeare and in deciding if his views as a teenager bore much resemblance to his views as a mature scholar and author decades later. So what can we say about young Tolkien's response to Shakespeare? What evidence do we actually have about his feelings as a very young man and later? 

Most famously, perhaps, he found the manner in which Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane rather disappointing and unimaginative, and I have to say it is a rather prosaic way for a prophecy to be fulfilled. But not every prophecy is punctuated by a cockcrow. In the very letter to Auden quoted above Tolkien also says:

Their part [i.e., the Ents] in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of 'Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill': I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war.
In On Fairy-stories(¶ 07) and elsewhere in the Letters Tolkien also denounces Shakespeare along with Michael Drayton for the part they played in making the elves into 'a long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested.' While we might find it tempting to associate his 'dislike' here with the 'dislike' he felt as a schoolboy, on the evidence we would be wrong to do so. For, aside from the decades separating the schoolboy from the scholar, we have evidence that young Tolkien did not find diminutive fairies as objectionable as mature Tolkien did. 

For example, he was apparently quite taken with a performance of Peter Pan he attended in April 1910 and very much wished that Edith could have seen it with him (Scull and Hammond, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide 2017 vol. 1, p. 23). Then there is his poem Goblin Feet, written in 1915 while an undergraduate at Oxford, a poem which very much partakes of the Victorian fairy genre for which he later blames Shakespeare (Letters no. 131, p. 143; no. 151, p. 185). In 1971 he said of Goblin Feet that he 'wished the unhappy little thing, representing all that I came (so soon after) to fervently dislike, could be buried for ever.' Finally, the first fairies whom Eriol meets in the Book of Lost Tales (ca. 1918) are tiny beings who live in a tiny cottage, which he must grow smaller to enter (I.14, 235; II.25-27). 

The evidence from his youth is thus consistent with the testimony of his old age (from 1971), and not with his statement in On Fairy-stories which he might have made for rhetorical effect. Note how the citation here of his children's dislike of these fairies serves to confirm the correctness of his own. Note, too, how again in ¶ 107 Tolkien uses the opinion of his children to corroborate his assessment, citing the 'nausea' his children felt at the opening of the play Toad of Toad Hall as proof that the attempt to dramatize this fairy-story was misguided. So when we read in On Fairy-stories that he 'so disliked' fairies of this sort 'as a child' OFS ¶ 07), we may doubt that he is remembering the details correctly. It is also true and only fair to both Shakespeare and Tolkien to point out that in the sentence in which Tolkien avows this dislike since childhood, he is speaking specifically of Michael Drayton's Nymphidia, though Shakespeare is paired with Drayton in the previous sentence.

There is one other moment in Tolkien's days at King Edward's School I want to look at before moving on. In April of 1911, his last spring before going up to Oxford, Tolkien took part in the school's annual Open Debate, the topic of which was a motion that Shakespeare's plays were written, not by Shakespeare, but by Francis Bacon. Tolkien argued in favor of the motion. We need to bear two things in mind here. First, in debating societies debaters often argue positions they don't personally agree with as a means of strengthening their skills, so his arguing for the authorship of Francis Bacon tells us little or nothing. The topics of the debate, moreover, were often chosen precisely because they were controversial. At King Edward's in Tolkien's time the Debating Society considered subjects variously serious, ridiculous, and offensive: slavery vs freedom; whether school holidays should be abolished; whether the Norman Conquest was a good thing; freedom of the press; war vs international arbitration; private vs public support of drama; tennis vs cricket; whether the Chinese and Japanese were a threat to Europe; women's suffrage; public corporal punishment; whether 'the vulgar are the really happy'; whether 'the heroes of antiquity have been much overrated; or even whether 'the Debating Society does more harm than good' (Scull and Hammond, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide 2017 vol. 1, pp. 18-30 passim).

Second, Tolkien's arguments, like the arguments of most who believe that someone other than William Shakespeare wrote the plays published under his name, rest on the assumption that the plays are much too good to have been written by someone with Shakespeare's education and background. In fact, people who dispute Shakespeare's authorship commonly love the plays themselves. Sir Derek Jacobi, for example, one of the great Shakespearean actors of our time, has prominently rejected Shakespeare's authorship of the plays. So, too, in the debate Tolkien criticized the quality of the man, not of the plays, and if he had seriously espoused this position, far from suggesting a cordial dislike of Shakespeare, it would argue that he admired the plays. His participation in the Debating Society at King Edward's and the position he argued in this debate tells us little or nothing about his opinion of Shakespeare and his works in 1911.

As we saw above, in On Fairy-stories Tolkien held Shakespeare partly responsible for the pixification of the Elves, which led him to wish 'a murrain on Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs' in a footnote to his letter to Milton Waldman in 1951 (Letters no. 131, p. 143) and which in a 1954 letter he called a 'disastrous debasement' and 'unforgiveable' (Letters no. 151, p. 185). While there seems no reason to doubt or fault his frustration with Shakespeare on this subject, we might wonder whether his use of 'unforgiveable' suggests that the idea of forgiveness had been weighed and rejected. Do we call something 'unforgiveable' otherwise? There is also reason to note that it is a very narrow criticism of Shakespeare on a matter that became more important to Tolkien as the years passed, by which I mean the representation of the fantastic in literature or drama.

This of course brings us back to On Fairy-stories, where he argues that drama is the wrong vehicle for fantasy. Taking the witches in Macbeth as his example, he points out that they are 'tolerable' on the page, but 'almost intolerable' on the stage.

[71] In Macbeth, when it is read, I find the witches tolerable: they have a narrative function and some hint of dark significance; though they are vulgarized, poor things of their kind. They are almost intolerable in the play. They would be quite intolerable, if I were not fortified by some memory of them as they are in the story as read. I am told that I should feel differently if I had the mind of the period, with its witch-hunts and witch-trials. But that is to say: if I regarded the witches as possible, indeed likely, in the Primary World; in other words, if they ceased to be “Fantasy.” That argument concedes the point. To be dissolved, or to be degraded, is the likely fate of Fantasy when a dramatist tries to use it, even such a dramatist as Shakespeare. Macbeth is indeed a work by a playwright who ought, at least on this occasion, to have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for that art.

This is no criticism of Shakespeare at all. Tolkien's whole point here is that 'even such a dramatist as Shakespeare' was 'likely' to fail to represent fantasy successfully on the stage. Who could succeed, if he could not? The proper mode for fantasy is narrative, i.e., a story, not drama. Tolkien's perspective here is also consistent with, and may well follow ultimately from, his boyhood dissatisfaction with Shakespeare's handling of Birnam Wood.

If we turn now to a letter Tolkien wrote to his son, Christopher, in July 1944, we shall see more of his reflections on Shakespeare and the difference between the bard on the page and the bard on the stage (Letters no. 76, p. 88; italics added). 

Plain news is on the airgraph; but the only event worthy of talk was the performance of Hamlet which I had been to just before I wrote last. I was full of it then, but the cares of the world have soon wiped away the impression. But it emphasised more strongly than anything I have ever seen the folly of reading Shakespeare (and annotating him in the study), except as a concomitant of seeing his plays acted. It was a very good performance, with a young rather fierce Hamlet; it was played fast without cuts; and came out as a very exciting play. Could one only have seen it without ever having read it or knowing the plot, it would have been terrific. It was well produced except for a bit of bungling over the killing of Polonius. But to my surprise the part that came out as the most moving, almost intolerably so, was the one that in reading I always found a bore: the scene of mad Ophelia singing her snatches.

Tolkien quite clearly enjoyed the play itself immensely. His comments on the performances of Hamlet and Ophelia make clear the emotional impact 'seeing his plays acted' had on him. Even his minor criticism of the killing of Polonius addresses the production of the scene, not Shakespeare's handling of it. It should be entirely obvious from the sentence I've put in italics, however, that what Tolkien disliked was not Shakespeare the playwright or his works, but rather an approach to studying his plays, namely reading them without also watching them. I daresay that many, or perhaps most of us, know this approach well from our own school days, and may have, at the time, disliked it cordially.

We also know that Tolkien attended other performances of Shakespeare. Besides this Hamlet (with John Gielgud in the title role, by the way), we can reasonably infer from his comments, contrasting the witches in Macbeth on the page versus on the stage, that he saw that as well at some point before he wrote On Fairy-stories. His attendance is also attested at Henry VIII, Twelfth Night, and, accompanied by C. S. Lewis, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Scull and Hammond, The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide 2017 vol. 1, pp. 252, 397, 426). Writing to his brother, Warnie, on 18 February 1940, Lewis tells him about 'the really excellent performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream which Tolkien and I saw at the Playhouse.' He says nothing about Tolkien's opinion, but would Tolkien have been shy about sharing it with Lewis (or Lewis with his brother), had it been greatly different?

Finally comes a passage in one of Tolkien's letters in which he places Shakespeare in the most exalted company (no. 156, p. 201):

There are, I suppose, always defects in any large-scale work of art; and especially in those of literary form that are founded on an earlier matter which is put to new uses – like Homer, or Beowulf, or Virgil, or Greek or Shakespearean tragedy! In which class, as a class not as a competitor, The Lord of the Rings really falls though it is only founded on the author's own first draft! I think the way in which Gandalf's return is presented is a defect.
Note here the two exclamation points. The very idea that the works of these authors can be represented as having defects is to be punctuated with raised eyebrows, as is his denial that he has the cheek to consider The Lord of the Rings in competition with their works. Yes, even Homer and Shakespeare nod, and can err in their treatment of earlier material (the witches in Macbeth, for example), but they are still among the very great and the only way in which his work can compare to theirs is in its reuse of 'earlier matter.'

So it seems fairly clear that Tolkien's attitude towards Shakespeare is not what many often take it to be on the basis of his 'cordial dislike' or his frustration with the coming of Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill. Drama, Tolkien felt, was not well suited to fantasy, since it was already something of a fantasy to begin with; and the study of Shakespeare on the page alone is folly. Proper study of the plays requires both reading and viewing. Tom Shippey has said in Author of the Century that Tolkien was 'guardedly respectful' of Shakespeare. That is the least of it.

For further reading, see, e.g, 

  • Michael D. C. Drout's article in Tolkien Studies 1 (2004) Tolkien's Prose Style and its Literary and Rhetorical Effects 137-63
  • Janet Croft's Tolkien and Shakespeare: essays on shared themes and language (McFarland) 2007.


11 October 2022

'Light as leaf of linden-tree': Chaucer, Langland, and Elven Poetry

I was browsing in the OED and MED the other day, as one does, and I decided, unsurprisingly, to see just how many times the OED quoted Tolkien. The search yielded 386 results distributed across 320 separate entries. So, for example, under 'orc' we find five quotes for 'orc' and its derivatives ('orc-guards', 'orc-speech', 'orc-host', 'orc-like'). I was scrolling through the list of entries to see where the quotes came from. As you would expect, The Lord of the Rings, The Letters, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion provide the most quotations.

One OED entry in particular caught my eye as it moved down the page:
c. (as) light as leaf on lind (also linden, tree, etc.)and variants: as light or weightless as a leaf; (hence) cheerful, merry; (also, in negative sense) heedless, unthinking. Now archaic and rare.
Readers of Tolkien will recognize this phrase of course from several places. The first is the song about Beren and Lúthien which Aragorn sings to the hobbits at Weathertop (FR 1.x.192):
He heard there oft the flying sound
   Of feet as light as linden-leaves,
Or music welling underground,
   In hidden hollows quavering.

The second comes from the song of Nimrodel sung by Legolas in Lothlórien (FR 2.vi.339):

Her hair was long, her limbs were white,
   And fair she was and free;
And in the wind she went as light   
   As leaf of linden-tree.
The third comes from The Lay of the Children of Húrin (Lays 104), where Tolkien describes the movements of Lúthien as 'light as leaf on linden tree'. The phrase also serves as the title of a poem Tolkien published in 1925 in The Gryphon, a magazine put out by the University of Leeds, where he had been teaching since 1920. An early version of the song Aragorn sings in The Fellowship of the Ring, it was also inserted into The Lay of the Children of Húrin (Lays 108-110), which puts it in the remarkable position of being 72 lines of rhyming iambic tetrameter embedded within over 2,100 lines of unrhymed alliterative verse as in Beowulf. While in Beowulf and long before that in The Odyssey we encounter bards singing songs about the exploits of heroes, we don't get to hear the songs themselves. At best we are told what they sang about and how it affected those who heard it. So, 'Light as Leaf on Lindentree', indented, rhyming, and in an entirely different kind of verse from the surrounding lay really calls attention to itself. 

That Tolkien used variations of this phrase repeatedly, in different poems sung in different places by different characters, is even more striking because it seems to offer up this image as part of the poetic vocabulary of Middle-earth, and more specifically perhaps as part of the Elven poetic vocabulary. For the songs of Aragorn and Legolas are clearly identified as such, and 'Light as Leaf on Lindentree' is in the same meter as Aragorn's.

What's just as cool is that, in making the phrase part of the Elven poetic vocabulary, Tolkien is drawing on the Middle English poetic vocabulary of the 14th through the 16th Centuries. Not only does Chaucer use it in The Clerk's Tale and Langland in Piers Plowman, but it appears in works less well known, such as the Harley Lyrics and one of the Robin Hood ballads. The phrase then vanishes from the record in the 1500s, becoming archaic and rare as the OED tells us. I have to wonder if Tolkien's resurrection of this lovely simile after 400 years is the sole reason why the phrase is described as rare rather than obsolete. It may also be the sole recorded instance of the poetry of mortals influencing the poetry of Faërie.

See the quotes, links, and translations below, with approximate date, author if known, and title of work.


a1350 In may hit murgeþ (Harley Lyrics 2253) In May hit murgeþ when hit dawes in dounes wiþ þis dueres plawes ent lef is lyght on lynde.

'In May it is merry when it dawns. So on the downs the animals play, And leaf is light on linden.'

c1390 (?c1350) Joseph of Arimathie 585: Þer nas no lynde so liht as þise two leodes, whon þei blencheden a-boue and eiþer seiʒ oþer. 

'There was no linden as light as these two people, when they grew pale and saw each other.

(c1395) Chaucer The Canterbury Tales, The Clerk's Tale E.1211: Be ay of cheere as light as leef on lynde.

'Be always of cheer as light as leaf on linden.'

c1400 (c1378) William Langland, Piers Plowman B 1.154: Whan it [love] haued of þis folde flesshe & blode taken, Was neuere leef vpon lynde liʒter þer-after. 

'When [love] had taken part of the flesh and blood of this world, never again was a leaf lighter upon linden after that.'

a1450 The Castle of Perseverance 3596: Lo here Mankynde, lyter þanne lef is on lynde!

'Behold mankind here, lighter than leaf is on linden!

c1450 The Chance of the Dice 104: So fers ys youre corage, Y russhen forthe as lyght as leefe on lynde. 

'So fierce is your courage, you rush forth as light as leaf on linden.'

?a1475 Lessons of the Dirige (2) 395: Than were I glad and lyght as lynde To haue Parce michi, domine. 

'Then were I glad and light as linden to have "Parce michi, domine."'

a1500(a1460) The Towneley Plays 97/368: A, what I am light as lynde! 

'Ah! I am as light as linden!'

a1500 Robin Hood & the Monk st.76: Robyn was in mery Scherwode, As liʒt as lef on lynde.

'Robin was in merry Sherwood, As light as leaf on linden.'