. Alas, not me: 2023

22 November 2023

Somme Rain, but More Starlight

A year ago in July I posted a note called "Somme Starlight" in which I discussed the likelihood that Tolkien had seen Venus in the early morning hours of later July or early August of 1916, and that if this did not give him hope in the moment it may well have formed the basis for a pair of later sightings of the star Eӓrendil in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, sightings that did inspire hope in those in darkness.

At the time I wrote the blogpost I had been able to ascertain that 1) Venus was indeed a morning star in July and August, 2) that it was exceptionally bright even for Venus (-4.7 magnitude) for the first half of August, and 3) that the weather seemed to be generally quite clear. This all seemed to fit, but I wanted more specific information on the weather, ideally from someone who was there.

Enter General Sir Henry Seymour Rawlinson, later 1st Baron Rawlinson GCB,  GCSI,  GCVOKCMGKStJ who commanded the British Fourth Army during the Battle of the Somme. Most importantly, he is an eye-witness who kept a diary with fairly detailed daily information on the weather, which I found reproduced online here. After some rain early in late June and early July, Rawlinson records only 19 mm, or about 3/4", from 9 July through 15 August, almost none of which fell when Venus was at its brightest in the first half of August. In July Rawlinson records the sky was frequently "overcast," but towards the end of the July and into the first half of August he says either that it was "clear" or remains silent. I don't want to push too hard on his silence by inferring that it means "not overcast" or "clear." But John Buchan's description of the weather in the first fortnight of August as "blazing summer weather" that made the soldiers' helmets rather hot certainly points towards the weather being clear. On Buchan, see here

So Rawlinson's information makes it seem much more likely that Tolkien would have had ample opportunity to look up from the trenches and see an image that he would later construe as hope. 

13 October 2023

Crown Shyness and the Fastness of Southern Mirkwood (FR 2.vi.351)

There is a phenomenon observed among trees called, among other things, "crown shyness." As the picture below shows, some trees will grow in a way that is not yet understood, but which results in the crowns of the trees giving each other room, growing to use the space available without encroaching on each other. It struck me this morning that we see the very opposite in Haldir's description of the trees in Southern Mirkwood, and he certainly seems to regard it as a sign that not all is well there.

‘There lies the fastness of Southern Mirkwood,’ said Haldir. ‘It is clad in a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither.

(FR 2.vi.351)

As Walter S. Judd and Graham A. Judd remark in their 2017 book, Flora of Middle-earth, p. 152: "under Sauron's evil influence the trees had become selfish, the forest perverted, in striking contrast to the forests of Lothlórien...."

Tolkien was knowledgeable about trees and quite observant, as his descriptions of the natural world make clear. While I have no idea whether he was aware of this phenomenon, first remarked on by scientists in the 1920s, he could have noticed it himself. I have to wonder.


River of Blue
(Dag Peak, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

29 September 2023

Wordplay in Colin Hardie's Latin Oration for Tolkien

In June 1972 Oxford University distinguished J. R. R. Tolkien by awarding him an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony Colin Hardie, the Classicist, Inkling, and offical Public Orator for the university delivered a speech he had composed in Latin to mark the occasion. He was after all the Public Orator. Though I had known about the speech, I had never read it until recently. I thought it might make an interesting post for my blog. The speech contains a remarkable amount of wordplay and humor, things visible in Latin but requiring an understanding of English, Greek, and Tolkien that a straighforward translation into fluent English might obscure. So I decided to prepare a translation that aimed to convey that humor and wordplay, either directly or through additional commentary. A simple translation just doesn't do this justice. While I am working on a translation and commentary for the entire speech, I wanted to share one amazing piece -- eleven words -- of a single sentence, which left me baffled until I came upon Hardie's English paraphrase (not translation) of the speech. Given the explaining required for this eleven words of wordplay, I understand why Hardie merely paraphrased in English the speech he composed in Latin. Had he tried to explain the joke in the speech itself, he would have killed it. I may kill it myself in my attempt to explain it in the commentary.

First the Latin: "... perpessus esse videatur non dicam apotheosin sed certe apodiphilosin vel apophidiosin."

Now for my English, which contains two words left untranslated for reasons that will become clear: "I won't say that Tolkien seems to have undergone apotheosis, but he has undergone apodiphilosis and apophidiosis."

Apotheosis is the standard Latin word for "deification," but the word itself is Greek in origin: ἀποθέωσις. The Romans borrowed it directly rather than making one of their own. To come up with a native Latin word would have been easy enough. "To deify" would be deificare and "deification" would be deificatio. But the earliest citation for the verb comes from the fifth and sixth centuries CE, from Saint Augustine and Cassidorus, and the earliest citation of the noun i can find is also from the early fifth century, a translation by a Christian theologian named Marius Mercator of a letter by Nestorius. In both Latin and Greek ἀποθέωσις/apotheosis is the standard word to describe the deification of a hero (Herakles) or an emperor (Augustus). Hardie knew well that the apotheosis of heroes and emperors came after death, which may be why he "won't say" (all blasphemy aside) that Tolkien, very much alive and sitting beside him, has undergone deification. But Hardy is just getting started with the wordplay here.

The word he says he can't use leads him to coin new words that he can use. He decides that Tolkien hasn't been deified, but Dphilified or PhDified. Once he made this realization, he was off, using apotheosis as his model. Since apotheosis comes originally from Greek, doing a proper job of the wordplay means going back to the source for the others. So he coins not one but two Greek words that did not previously exist, and then borrows them into Latin and transliterates them. His made-up Greek ἀποδιφίλωσις he turns into the made-up Latin apodiphilosis, and Greek ἀποφιδίωσις becomes Latin apophidiosis. And so the words he puts into his speech to describe in Latin what Tolkien has undergone are apodiphilosis and apophidiosis.

Now pity the poor translator who is not in on the joke from the start. Looking at these two words, which were coined for the occasion and exist nowhere else, the translator cannot look up their meanings. So the translator must work by analogy to try to discover it. If the native Latin for apotheosis would be deification, then apodiphilosis becomes diphilification, and apophidiosis becomes phidification. 

This is no closer to where the translator needs to go, however, because the words still have no readily discernible meaning. If you know Latin, you can look at the word deification and work out what it means. But looking at apodiphilosis and apophidiosis and trying to analyze the parts of the word to guess the meaning of the whole doesn't work very well at all.

For example, commenting in Vox Latina 57 (2021) 402 n. 17 on the Latin of Hardie's oration, Marcus Cristini looked at apodiphilosis and apophidiosis and ventured the guess that the diphil in apodiphilosis and the phidi in apophidiosis were references to Diphilus, a Greek comic poet of the fourth century BCE, and to Phidias, the Greek sculptor of the fifth century BCE. Now Diphilus, whose work has almost entirely perished, was a well known, well regarded, and influential writer of New Comedy (think sitcoms or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), but his work has perished almost entirely. Phidias was the renowned sculptor of the twelve meter tall chryselephantine statue of Zeus enthroned at Olympia, which was one of the seven wonders of the world. He also created the similarly tall but standing chryselephantine statue of Athena in the Parthenon. Cristini cautiously suggests that Hardie is joking that Tolkien has become a second Diphilus or a second Phidias.

What I found troubling about this suggestion was that, all wordplay aside, comparing Tolkien to Diphilus and Phidias made little or no sense. I just could not buy that Hardie would execute this amazingly complex multilingual pun only to have it fall flat on its face because he compared Tolkien to the wrong people. If Hardie had suggested that Tolkien was a second Homer or a second Sophocles, people could scoff -- Tolkien would be the first (Letters no. 201 p. 156) -- but they all compose myth and treat the subjects that myth treats. Homer and Sophocles are in the right category, but Phidias and Diphilus are not. 

So I could not agree to Cristini's hesitant suggestion, but I had nothing better to offer. The problem is that he and I were both looking too hard and not listening closely enough. Allow me an illustration. 

Many years ago I was teaching Hamlet, and while I was writing something on the blackboard with my back to the class, one of my best students said she had a question about one of the footnotes.

"Which one, Lexie?" I asked, still writing.

"The one that says 'country matters' is a pun. I don't get it. What's the pun?"

I stopped writing, but did not turn around. I was concerned I might offend someone if I explained the pun.

"You have to hear it," I said after a long, silent pause.

Another long, silent pause followed.

"Ohhhh," she said at last. "Thank you."

Just as my student needed to hear Hamlet's pun to get that it, I needed to hear Hardie's. But I could not get to that point until I came upon Hardie's English paraphrase (not translation) of his speech published in Amon Hen 27 (1977) 11: "not by deification but by D.Phil. or (Ph.D) -ification." Ohhhh.

I wish I could have thought of a way to write this post without giving away the pun so quickly. It seemed best to just give you the pun in a form in which you could appreciate it in English and then explain how the pun works in Latin. I was trying not to kill the joke.

We're just not worthy. I am sure Tolkien loved it.

Chapter 5: "Pity, Power, and Tolkien's Ring: To Rule the Fate of Many"

15 August 2023

"What's all this about stock and stone?" -- Treebeard echoes Hesiod

"Wood and water, stock and stone, I can master."

--- Treebeard

The word "stock" here comes from Old English "stocc," meaning "trunk" or "log."

As a phrase "stocks and stones" also goes back to OE, where it refers to idols made out of wood and stone. 

"Ge þeouiað fremdum godum, stoccum and stanum."

"You are servants of strange gods, [made] of stocks and stones." (Deuteronomy 28)

We also find it in Middle English in Chaucer's Troilus & Criseyde (3.589-90):

"He swor hir, yis, by stokkes and by stones,
And by the goddes that in hevene dwelle"

"He swore to her, 'indeed, by stocks and by stones,
And by the gods that in heaven dwell'"

And in Early Modern English in Milton sonnet 18: 

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter'd saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev'n them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipp'd stocks and stones;

And in a 19th book Tolkien surely knew:

"There was a worship of nature instead of stocks and stones."

A. H. Sayce, Principles of Comparative Philology

Now when Treebeard uses it, he certainly isn't referring to idols or pagan gods. Yet by putting this phrase in Treebeard's mouth to cover the wide range of things in Nature Treebeard is saying he can master, Tolkien gives the phrase new life and meaning. This is something Tolkien does with his sources, whatever they may be, whether words or stories. Think of what he does with the world "mathom," which means "treasure" in OE, but is used ironically in LotR to mean a gift that is anything but. Or Plato's Atlantis myth which Tolkien turns into Numenor. 

Now this morning I was reading the Greek poet Hesiod, who in his Theogony (35) says:

ἀλλὰ τί ἦ μοι ταῦτα περὶ δρῦν ἢ περὶ πέτρην;

"But what's all this about oak and stone?"

Another way to translate this would be 

"what's all this about tree and stone?" 

The Greek word here (δρῦν -- dryn) does mean "oak," but it also means just "tree" -- and so we're back to stock and stone.

But wait there's more. The word is also related to the word δρυάς, from which we get "dryad," a tree nymph, a word Tolkien uses in one of his best phrases, describing Ithlien as possessing "a dishevelled dryad loveliness."

And even more because, as Tolkien knew, the word used in Old English to translate "dryad" was "ælfen," and I'll give you one guess what that means. 

It always comes back to the elves. It's "ælfen" all the way down.

25 July 2023

C. S. Lewis and William Shakespeare on Vergil


Several years back I published a post on echoes of Vergil in Shakespeare and Tolkien. I noted that I had always associated Sonnet 130's line -- "I grant I never saw a goddess go" -- with Aeneid 1.405 -- "et vera incessu patuit dea." The Latin may be seviceably rendered as "And by her gait was revealed a true goddess."

Today I was doing some work involving Aeneid book 1, and it occurred to me to check a book I've had for several years but had barely cracked it open: C. S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile. As the title suggests, Lewis worked on a translation, though he never came near finishing it. I thought, "I bet Lewis heard Vergil in that Shakespeare, too."

Sure enough, Lewis translates the line: "... and all / The goddess in her going was revealed."

Being fond of Lewis for various reasons, I was pleased to find that we had the same take on Vergil and Shakespeare here. Of course, he does more than notice. Lewis turns the echo back again, so that now Vergil echoes Shakespeare.

23 July 2023

The Death of Melkor and the Life of the Elves

Thus spake Mandos in prophecy, when the Gods sat in judgement in Valinor, and the rumour of his words was whispered among all the Elves of the West. When the world is old and the Powers grow weary, then Morgoth, seeing that the guard sleepeth, shall come back through the Door of Night out of the Timeless Void; and he shall destroy the Sun and Moon. But Eärendel shall descend upon him as a white and searing flame and drive him from the airs. Then shall the Last Battle be gathered on the fields of Valinor. In that day Tulkas shall strive with Morgoth, and on his right hand shall be Fionwë, and on his left Túrin Turambar, son of Húrin, coming from the halls of Mandos; and the black sword of Túrin shall deal unto Morgoth his death and final end; and so shall the children of Húrin and all Men be avenged.

            (The Lost Road 333) 

I have always taken great pleasure in the story that in the final battle at the end of time Túrin will return from Death to kill Melkor, avenging his family and all Men. Nor am I alone in this. The prophecy of Túrin's return rings so true with so many because in it we hear the Final Chord of Ilúvatar resounding on the Fields of Time. Yet when composing The Silmarillion for publication, Christopher Tolkien chose to leave it out because he felt that, when writing the Valaquenta in 1958, his father had abandoned the so-called 'Second Prophecy of Mandos' in which this claim appeared (LR 333; Morgoth 204). He points out that his father had crossed it out in the manuscript. For this decision Douglas Charles Kane in his book Arda Reconstructed has faulted him (236-238). Kane argues, quite reasonably, that Tolkien did not cross out the entire Second Prophecy, and that he left the part which pertains to Túrin. Thus, Kane believes, the story of his returing and killing Melkor should have been preserved and printed in The Silmarillion

I can't really disagree with Kane's argument, but I believe there may be another, more metaphysical, reason for why Tolkien might have chosen to shelve the Second Prophecy. A letter of Tolkien's, which also comes from 1958, provides a clue:

That Sauron was not himself destroyed in the anger of the One [at the drowning of Númenor] is not my fault: the problem of evil, and its apparent toleration, is a permanent one for all who concern themselves with our world. The indestructibility of spirits with free wills, even by the Creator of them, is also an inevitable feature, if one either believes in their existence, or feigns it in a story.

            Letters no. 158 p. 280

This is consistent with something Tolkien wrote in The Book of Lost Tales a generation earlier. There the narrator explains that, when Melko (as he's called early in the legendarium) was taken captive by the Valar to protect the newly awakened Elves from him, he could not be put to death because "the great Gods may not yet be slain" (LT I 104). Notice that word "yet," which seems to suggest that a time may come when they might be slain? Well, that word wasn't there in the original text (LT I 104 n. 4). Tolkien added it, perhaps because he was anticipating the story that in the final battle Melko would in fact be slain. Not by Túrin, however, though he is present (LT I 219; LT II 281-282). So, it seems that Tolkien initially had an opnion resembling what he says in the 1958 letter, but changed his mind. Killing Melko was just too appealing an idea at the time, and even more so when Tolkien decided that Túrin really ought to be the one to do it. 

Yet by the 1950s, right about when Tolkien crossed out some, but not all, of the Second Prophecy of Mandos, Tolkien appears to hold an opinion that clashes with the part of the Second Prophecy he did not cross out. But if even God cannot destroy spirits possessing free will, what does that mean for the Elves, whose lives are said to end when Arda ends? One way out is to argue, as some have done, that Elves do not have free will. Or perhaps it means, as Finrod speculates -- prophesies even -- in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth that the Elves will somehow survive the end of Arda. He also foresees that Eru himself will one day enter Arda to heal its hurts, which at least at first glance does not harmonize well with the vengeance of Túrin. The Athrabeth is of course also a work of the mid to late 1950s, when Tolkien wrote the letter quoted above and crossed out some of the Second Prophecy. Did he cross out all he meant to at that moment? Or did he allow metaphysics to trump myth hereafter?

08 June 2023

Boethius and the Unman in Perelandra

I have been spending a fair bit of time with Boethius and Saint Augustine lately. No, really that's okay. My next book will begin with quite a lengthy analysis of "The Music of the Ainur" from Tolkien's The Book of Lost Tales. Having walked carefully through the text and studied, among other things, how it shows Melko's descent into evil, I am now looking into Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, and Augustine's The City of God and On Free Will. The connections of these authors and works to evil as portrayed in Tolkien has long been discussed by scholars, but those discussion have focussed largely on evil in The Lord of the Rings

"The Music of the Ainur" and The Lord of the Rings, however, are two very different kinds of text. The one is creation myth, told by Rúmil, the elf, to Eriol, the man, and based upon an account which Manwë, the Vala, gave to Rúmil's ancestors (LT I 52). The other, as the text itself claims, is the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo and what hobbits did in the War of the Ring (RK 6.ix.1027). From its own perspective then, The Lord of the Rings is a work of history, not mythology. So what these two works have to say about evil will be said differently. 

Not only that. When he wrote The Book of Lost Tales Tolkien was a young man trying to use fairy-stories to make sense of how he felt about the fair and foul of the Great War, a task he began while the war was still going on. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was a middle-aged man with sons of his own facing the evils of their own great war. Indeed, citing his own experience, he told his son, Christopher, in 1944 that maybe he should also try writing as a way to understand his own experience (Letters no. 66 p. 78). We can't assume that the younger Tolkien thought exactly the same thing as the older Tolkien. Anyone who has gone from youth to middle age without changing his opinions any number of times has not been paying attention.

Be that as it may, I have also been re-reading Perelandra by C. S. Lewis, just because it's been too long. While there are many passages in Lewis's works which jump up and down and shout "Boethius" at me, I ran across one this morning that not only shouted, but pointed quite obviously to a specific passage in The Consolation of Philosophy. First, here's the passage from Book Four, chapter Two of Boethius in the original and my translation. The italics in the translation are mine:

Nam uti cadaver hominem mortuum dixeris, simpliciter vero hominem appellare non possis, ita vitiosos malos quidem esse concesserim, sed esse absolute nequeam confiteri. Est enim, quod ordinem retinet servatque naturam; quod vero ab hac deficit, esse etiam, quod in sua natura situm est, derelinquit.

For just as you might say that a corpse is a dead man, but you could not simply call it a man, so I would grant that the wicked are evil indeed, but I could not allow that they are in absolute terms. For a thing which does not let go of its place and preserves its nature is. But a thing which forsakes its nature has also abandoned the being which depends on its nature.

 Another passage further on explains what he means when he says that evil is nothing, that is, that evil has no independent existence of its own:

hoc igitur modo quicquid a bono deficit esse desistit. quo fit ut mali desinant esse quod fuerant. sed fuisse homines adhuc ipsa humani corporis reliqua species ostentat: quare uersi in malitiam humanam quoque amisere naturam.

Therefore anything which abandons the good in this manner ceases to be. Because of which it comes about that the evil cease to be what they had been – but their appearance, their human body, still remains and shows that they had been humans – and so when they turned to wickedness they also let go of their human nature.


Now here's what Lewis writes in chapter 9 of Perelandra:

Ransom kept his eyes fixed upon the enemy, but it took no notice of him. Its eyes moved like the eyes of a living man but it was hard to be sure what it was looking at, or whether it really used the eyes as organs of vision at all. One got the impression of a force that cleverly kept the pupils of those eyes fixed in a suitable direction while the mouth talked but which, for its own purpose, used wholly different modes of perception. The thing sat down close to the Lady’s head on the far side of her from Ransom. If you could call it sitting down. The body did not reach its squatting position by the normal movements of a man: it was more as if some external force maneuvered it into the right position and then let it drop. It was impossible to point to any particular motion which was definitely nonhuman. Ransom had the sense of watching an imitation of living motions which had been very well studied and was technically correct: but somehow it lacked the master touch. And he was chilled with an inarticulate, night-nursery horror of the thing he had to deal with— the managed corpse, the bogey, the Unman.

Lewis, Perelandra, chapter 9, pp. 104-05 

Now the analogy is by no means perfect, but its imperfection makes it that much more illustrative, as the following quote from the same chapter of Perelandra shows. Here the corpse of Weston (Ransom's human enemy) has been possessed and reanimated by a demon, but the descent from Weston to Unman is summed up eloquently in that last sentence. Weston 'did not defy goodness,' he 'ignored it to the point of annihilation.' His own. He has ceased to be what he was and has become the Unman. What Weston's possession and reanimation by the demon allows us to see more clearly is how both Weston and the demon have become non-existent in the way Boethius described.

[Ransom] saw a man who was certainly not ill .... He saw a man who was certainly Weston, to judge from his height and build and coloring and features. In that sense he was quite recognizable. But the terror was that he was also unrecognizable. He did not look like a sick man: but he looked very like a dead one. [His] face ... had that terrible power which the face of a corpse sometimes has of simply rebuffing every conceivable human attitude one can adopt towards it. The expressionless mouth, the unwinking stare of the eyes, something heavy and inorganic in the very folds of the cheek, said clearly: “I have features as you have, but there is nothing in common between you and me.” It was this that kept Ransom speechless. What could you say— what appeal or threat could have any meaning— to that? And now, forcing its way up into consciousness, thrusting aside every mental habit and every longing not to believe, came the conviction that this, in fact, was not a man: that Weston’s body was kept, walking and undecaying, in Perelandra by some wholly different kind of life, and that Weston himself was gone. 

It looked at Ransom in silence and at last began to smile. We have all often spoken— Ransom himself had often spoken— of a devilish smile. Now he realized that he had never taken the words seriously. The smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with a horrible naïveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation.

Lewis, Perelandra, chapter 9, p. 95

I would be surprised if no one else had noticed this Boethian moment in Perelandra, but I wanted to share it. It makes such perfect sense that Lewis would have found the animation of Boethius' image of the dead man, which you could no longer call simply a man, to be just what he needed to convey what is at stake at this moment as the Unman tempts the Green Lady to defy the good.

23 May 2023

Frodo, Too, Tips His Hand -- The Threat Outside the Black Gate (TT 4.iii.640)

When Frodo, Sam, and Gollum reach the Black Gate and Frodo declares that he must try to enter Mordor that way, a panic-stricken Gollum slips up and tells Frodo to give him the Ring rather than do anything so foolish. Frodo does not respond to Gollum's suggestion at first, not until he has learned that Gollum knows another way in. After grilling Gollum about it, he decides to trust him once again. Then and only then does he return to the suggestion Gollum had made about the Ring.

‘But I warn you, Sméagol, you are in danger.’

‘Yes, yes, master!’ said Gollum. ‘Dreadful danger! Sméagol’s bones shake to think of it, but he doesn’t run away. He must help nice master.’ 

‘I did not mean the danger that we all share,’ said Frodo. ‘I mean a danger to yourself alone. You swore a promise by what you call the Precious. Remember that! It will hold you to it; but it will seek a way to twist it to your own undoing. Already you are being twisted. You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol you said. Do not say that again! Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire of it may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back. In the last need, Sméagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command. So have a care, Sméagol!’

(TT 4.iii.640, italics mine)

Since Gollum is almost the last person Frodo would want to know that he was planning to throw the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, neither he nor Sam have told Gollum why they must get into Mordor. In fact earlier in this very scene Sam reflects on just this: "‘And it’s a good thing neither half of the old villain don’t know what master means to do,’ he thought. ‘If he knew that Mr. Frodo is trying to put an end to his Precious for good and all, there’d be trouble pretty quick, I bet'" (TT 4.iii.639). It was only the night before Sam had overheard Gollum's two sides talking to each other about, among other things, 'what's the hobbit going to do with it, we wonders, yes, we wonders' (TT 4.ii.633).

Somehow it never crossed my mind until yesterday that Frodo reveals himself here just as much as Gollum had by suggesting Frodo give him the Ring back. His threat about commanding him to leap from a precipice might well pass unnoticed, but 'cast yourself into the fire' draws attention to itself. What fire? What fire large enough to cast oneself into? Gollum doesn't reply, doesn't ask. Frodo's taunting and threatening him and invoking the power of the Ring thoroughly cows him for the moment. He'll figure it out, however, as he follows Frodo and Sam across Mordor towards the fire of Mount Doom. There, on the road to the Sammath Naur, Gollum will grasp what fire his wicked master had been talking about.


*It's interesting to note that the phrase, 'we wonders ... we wonders' pops up twice before this moment. 

When Gollum first meets the hobbits, he says 'And where are they going in these cold hard lands. We wonders, yes, we wonders' (TT 4.i.615).

After Gollum attempts to escape, Sam hurls the words back at him: 'And where were you off to in these cold hard lands, Mr. Gollum.... We wonders, aye, wonders' (TT 4.i.617).

20 May 2023

Detecting the Hand of the 'Translator' in The Lord of the Rings

Yesterday in my effort to catch up to Corey Olsen in Exploring the Lord of the Rings, I was listening to him talk about detecting the hand of the translator in The Lord of the Rings. Not the translator who turns Tolkien's English into German or French or Japanese, but the one who took the "original" Westron text and rendered it into English. According to the runes and tengwar on the title page, this is Tolkien himself of course. 

Corey was rightly noting that certain touches are obvious. For example, in Gandalf's pyrotechnic dragon which passes overhead 'like an express train' at Bilbo's party (FR 1.i.28), we encounter a simile that would have no meaning whatsoever to the inhabitants of Middle-earth. So clearly it is meant to communicate with us by the translator who is trying to get the meaning of the original across the language gap in a way in which a more 'faithful' and direct translation could not do.

I would like to suggest a few other types of clues. 

  1. If you hear an echo of the Bible, that reveals the hand of the translator. 
  2. If you hear an echo of Shakespeare or Chaucer or any writer of the Primary World, that reveals the hand of the translator.
  3. If you meet an image or symbol that has meaning in the Primary World, but for which none can be discerned in the Secondary World, that reveals the hand of the translator. 
Let's take a quick look at a few examples. 

In Shelob's Lair we learn of Gollum's relationship with Shelob in a phrase that seems to evoke the words of the 23rd psalm, in a nightmarish antithesis:
  • '...and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and regret...' (TT 4.ix.723).
  •  'yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou are with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.'
In The Shadow of the Past the allusion to Chaucer is obvious:
  • 'there were several meals at which it snowed food and rained drink, as hobbits say.' (FR 1.ii.42)
  • 'It snewed in his hous of mete and drink' (Cantebury Tales, General Prologue line 345).
'Mete' in Chaucer just means 'food.' Tolkien also adds to the humor by claiming the phrase as the hobbits' own. (Of course Chaucer may have been a hobbit. Do we have any idea how tall he was?)

In The Stairs of Cirith Ungol a nod to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar warns us (as if we needed the warning at this point) that Gollum is no one to be trusted even in the moment in which he comes closest to repenting of his plan to betray Frodo and Sam.
  • 'A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face' (TT 4.viii.714).
  • 'Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look' (Julius Caesar 1.ii.195).
Anyone who knows Macbeth will easily think of quite a few others which I won't detail here.

The two references Frodo makes to 'the wheel of fire' he sees in his mind I have discussed at length elsewhere. The image has many connections in the Primary World, but none at all in the legendarium.

There's a lot of ground to be explored here.

19 May 2023

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Textual Clues to How Much of The Lord of the Rings Bilbo Wrote


This essay first appeared back in November and December of 2021 as five separate posts, which I have now decided to combine into one, while adding a sixth part with some conclusions in it. When I first got the idea for this post, my idea was to write it up quickly. The more I looked at the evidence I had gathered (with the welcome support and feedback of Joe Hoffman1), the clearer it became that a longer post was in order. The divisions reflect the original posts.

Part One

For some years now I have been inclined to believe that Bilbo is the narrator of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings. But how far he carried on with the story remains hard to say. I had also heard that Michael Drout had a similar opinion, which he was kind enough to confirm for me, but we didn't have the chance to discuss details. Recently, however, I noticed something about the text that looks very much like it might be a clue. First let's look at what we know.

Bilbo's conversation with Frodo and Sam in Rivendell in Many Partings makes clear that he didn't get very far.

The evening deepened in the room, and the firelight burned brighter; and they looked at Bilbo as he slept and saw that his face was smiling. For some time they sat in silence; and then Sam looking round at the room and the shadows flickering on the walls, said softly:

'I don't think, Mr. Frodo, that he's done much writing while we've been away. He won't ever write our story now.' 

At that Bilbo opened an eye, almost as if he had heard. Then he roused himself. 'You see, I am getting so sleepy,' he said. 'And when I have time to write, I only really like writing poetry. I wonder, Frodo my dear fellow, if you would very much mind tidying things up a bit before you go? Collect all my notes and papers, and my diary too, and take them with you, if you will. You see, I haven't much time for the selection and the arrangement and all that. Get Sam to help, and when you've knocked things into shape, come back, and I'll run over it. I won't be too critical.'

        (RK 6.vi.988)

It has also been long observed that the narrator of the earliest chapters of The Lord of the Rings starts out sounding much like the narrator of The Hobbit, but that changes before too long. Further, we have Tolkien's remarks in letter 151 of September 1954.

Frodo is not intended to be another Bilbo. Though his opening style is not wholly un-kin. But he is rather a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror — broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. None of the hobbits come out of it in pure Shire-fashion. They wouldn't. But you have got Samwise Gamwichy (or Gamgee).

In the Letters Tolkien uses 'style' many times, but almost invariably he is speaking of words -- of narrative, diction, and language -- when he does so. It's little likely then that his reference to Frodo's 'opening style' refers to anything but his writing style, a remark he offers as a concession of some regard in which they were a bit alike. We might expect Frodo, then, to begin in a style similar to Bilbo's, but to develop his own reasonably soon. But when does his portion of the narrative 'open'? And when does his style begin to diverge from Bilbo's?

I would suggest that the punctuation gives us a clue. During a recent reading of A Long-expected Party I noticed, not for the first time, that the narrator made an awful lot of parenthetical remarks. I found myself relishing the marvelous running social commentary the narrator was offering on his fellow hobbits. 'For what do we live', we might almost hear him ask, 'but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?' That so much of this commentary is nested in and around parentheses made me wonder. On reflection I could not recall it as a conspicuous feature of the entire work. 

A quick search revealed my impression was correct. The entire Lord of the Rings (removing the appendices) contains 158 parenthetical remarks, 20 percent of which (32/158 = 20.25%) occur in A Long-expected Party. If we discount the 25 instances in the Prologue, which we know was written by a Man rather than a Hobbit, the portion in A Long-expected Party approaches a quarter (32/133 = 24%). Numbers aren't everything of course, but this compares rather well with An Unexpected Party, which contains 25 parenthetical remarks out The Hobbit's total of 120 (25/120 = 20.08%) in The Hobbit as a whole.2

Two thirds (22/32) of the parentheses in A Long-expected Party occur before or during the party up to the reactions of the guests to Bilbo's disappearance (FR 1.i.31: 'with a few exceptions'). Of these 22, 14 are funny per se or in their context, and eight simply add information (e.g., 1.i.22: 'the Old Took himself had only reached 130'). There is, however, not a single parenthesis in all of Bilbo's argument with Gandalf about the Ring or in Frodo's brief conversation with Gandalf after Bilbo has gone. The remarks resume again the following morning in very much the same generally humorous vein. Only two of these ten comments are strictly informational ('two Boffins and a Bolger' and 'old Odo Proudfoot's grandson', both at 1.i.39).

Surely it is noteworthy that a long (5+/21 pages), centrally located, and thematically crucial section of this chapter has none of the types of comments we find on almost every other page of it. True, the two scenes found in these pages (31-36) are much more dramatic, more dialogue than narrative, which leaves less scope for parenthetical remarks; but it is also true that there is nothing that either the characters in these scenes or their narrator found in the least amusing. It is a bitter, uneasy darkness at the heart of the chapter, bracketed, as it were, by the far brighter sections on either side (pp 21-31, 36-42).

Part Two

After the 32 parentheses in A Long-expected Party, the number in The Shadow of the Past plunges to five. Of these one occurs in direct speech (Gandalf: 1.ii.53). Three present genealogical information, always of interest to hobbits (all on 1.iii.42). A fifth wryly signals that Frodo had a bad feeling about the 'significant (or ominous)' approach of his fiftieth birthday (1.ii.43), the age at which 'adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo.' Since Tolkien always uses 'befall' of evil or at least strange and unpleasant events, this explains the rather proleptic 'ominous' as well as pointing to Frodo as the author of this comment. For Bilbo did not regard his adventure as an evil, even when he came to understand that the Ring was; and Frodo, whatever he may have genuinely felt about 'adventures' before Gandalf told him about the Ring, certainly did not want the 'adventure' he got. It would be no surprise then, though it need not be so, if as narrator Frodo took his disquiet as he neared fifty as ominous.

Three is Company contains seven parenthetical statements, of which four are purely informational (1.iii.65, 68, 70, 81), two are humorous comments on Hobbits (1.iii.71, 77) and one again suggests uncertainty in Frodo's attitude towards something that made him uncomfortable (1.iii.70), namely the conversation he overhears between the Gaffer and a stranger later discovered to be one of the Black Riders.

In A Shortcut to Mushrooms one pokes fun at Sam's disappointment about missing the beer at The Golden Perch (1.iv.88) and the other at the way farmers complain about their prospects (1.iv.92).

A Conspiracy Unmasked provides five, three informational (all at 1.v.98), one showing Sam's mixed emotions about leaving the Shire (1.v.99), and one Frodo's about seeing his and Bilbo's things in the house at Crickhollow (1.v.100).

All three in The Old Forest suggest uncertainty. Merry isn't confident that it is the bonfire glade ahead of them (1.vi.111); Frodo doubts it's even possible to turn back (1.vi.113); and Frodo and Sam think the words Old Tom is singing are 'nonsense', but they aren't entirely sure (1.vi.119).

While the first parenthesis In the House of Tom Bombadil conveys details about the house itself (i.vii.124), the other three highlight Frodo's ambivalence regarding the Ring. Indeed these three seem to work together to accomplish precisely that in the scene with Bombadil and the Ring (all at 1.vii.133). When Old Tom returns it, Frodo suspects trickery '(like one who has lent a trinket to a juggler)'. Having put the Ring to the test by donning it, he is 'delighted (in a way)' and 'laugh[s] '(trying to feel pleased)'. It is as if on some level Frodo wished it were not his Ring, even though compelled to prove that it was. Bombadil's imperviousness to the effects of the Ring seems important to Frodo only in so far as it makes him doubt the Ring.

Fog on the Barrow-Downs is reminiscent of A Long-expected Party, which lacks parenthetical statements in the parts in which no one would find anything amusing. Here the scenes telling of the hobbits' capture by the Barrow-wight have no parenthetical remarks until the narrator reaches the moment when he recounts the awakening of Frodo's courage, a virtue 'hidden (often deeply it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit', and informs the reader that 'though [Frodo] did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) thought him the best hobbit in the Shire' (both at 1.viii.140). There is a gentle humor in the humble concession of the first and the citation of Gandalf as an authority in the second, which suggests a resolution in Frodo we have not seen before, and the narrator's faith in that resolution. As such it marks a strong contrast with the uncertainty we've seen before. 

Once Old Tom appears to rescue them the more broadly humorous commentary returns. just as it does in A Long-expected Party once Bilbo has let go of the Ring and left it to Frodo. The next five parenthetical comments, including one in direct speech by Bombadil (1.viii.144), are either amusing themselves or embedded in an amusing context (1.viii.142, 144, 145). Yet as the hobbits are about to return to the road, ending the passage through Faërie they had begun when they entered The Old Forest, even Bombadil makes a remark parenthetically that could be taken to express uncertainty (1.viii.147): 'Tom will give you good advice, till this day is over (after that your own luck must go with you and guide you)'. As always with Tolkien, however, what is called luck or chance is often far more. Bombadil's mention of luck here nicely balances his answer to Frodo's question upon their first meeting (1.vi.126) and thus bookends their acquaintance:

‘Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?’

Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering.'

Consider also consider that even as Old Tom tells them they must trust to their luck, Strider -- unbeknownst to the reader and the hobbits (and Bombadil?) -- is on the other side of the hedge dividing the Downlands from the road (1.x.163-64): Strider, whose role and arrival had been foreshadowed that very afternoon outside the barrow in Bombadil's conjuring of visions of the 'sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless' (1.viii.146). He, too, had heard news and was waiting for them, though it was no plan of his to find them here (1.x.163-64). 

When Frodo steps out into the larger world and takes on the task of saving the Shire, he leaves behind the place which defined him, where he was 'the Mr. Baggins of Bag End'; and he does so on the very night when it becomes clear -- to the reader if not immediately to Frodo the character -- that this identity is not quite the advantage it had long seemed to be, even within the Shire. Farmer Maggot's attitudes towards Hobbiton show this, as do those of most of the hobbits who discuss the 'queerness' of the Bagginses in the evening at The Ivy Bush and The Green Dragon. Mr. Baggins may find them 'too stupid and dull for words' at times, but behind their deference they have their own opinions of how strange he and Mr. Bilbo are. When Maggot links Frodo's present troubles to Bilbo's adventures, he is doing no more than voicing to Frodo's face the longstanding common opinion that no good could come of adventures to the 'queer' folk who went on them. 

The larger world in which such adventures take place is far more dangerous in fact than even the most parochial hobbit imagines. Even the more broadminded Mr. Baggins of Bag End fails to grasp that not only is he 'quite a little fellow in the wide world after all', but that the wider world, whether it is the Faërie of The Old Forest, Bombadil, and the Barrow-wights, the world of History, or that blending of both in which a man might walk, will not be fenced out forever. The Ring, which threatens Frodo's identity because he already cannot do with it as he wishes, compels him to leave the place that helps define that identity. 

Part Three

As we saw in Part One and Part Two, the number of parenthetical comments rapidly declines from the first chapter onwards. Thirty-two parentheses in A Long-expected Party alone are followed by thirty-four all told in chapters 2 through 8 of Book 1, from 1.5 parentheses per page (32/21) in chapter one to 1 every three pages (34/107) in the next seven chapters. 

In the section of text I will be discussing here in Part Three, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony starts us off with fifteen in thirteen pages, but from Strider through Flight to the Ford we find only eight in the next fifty-two pages. After At the Sign of the Prancing Pony we find only one more chapter that has a comparable number of parentheses, namely Treebeard, with fourteen. But these two chapters are aberrations. For in the balance of the book only once more do we find as many as five (Window on the West), and only three times do we encounter as many as four (A Knife in the DarkThe Ring Goes South, and The Grey Havens). By contrast there are thirty-four chapters with none at all, and seven with only one. At this point a simple chart (not a single logarithm, Joe) makes all perfectly clear: 

The fifteen parentheses in At the Sign of the Prancing Pony are indeed anomalous as far as the trend of the numbers goes, but not without an explanation as far as Hobbits go. As we saw in A Long-expected Party, the comments are good humored until something unpleasant happens, in this case, until Frodo puts on the Ring. Of the fourteen parentheses in the body of this chapter,3 only one is strictly informational -- 1.ix.151: '(mostly dwarves)'. The rest smile upon the various characteristics of hobbits, touching upon their love of food, drink, genealogy and song as well on their peculiar relationship with the Men of Bree and those who pass through the town. If we bear in mind that the lighthearted parentheticals in Fog on the Barrow-Downs follow the horror of the barrow and round out the chapter on a (generally) much more positive vibe than it had at the start, we can see that At the Sign of the Prancing Pony begins emotionally where the previous chapter ended. This provides us with a story that sweeps more or less happily along from the moment when Frodo does precisely the right thing in the barrow to a moment when he does absolutely the wrong thing at the inn, leading to the rescue of his friends from the wight in the former, and plunging them into grievous danger in the latter.

These two moments help define his relationship with the Ring for Frodo as well as the reader. The decision Frodo faces in the barrow mirrors Bilbo's beneath the Misty Mountains, where he had Gollum's life in his hands. For Bilbo the choice to use the Ring to escape was correct, but for Frodo it would have been wrong; for Bilbo the choice to strike would have been wrong, but for Frodo it was right. Each passed the test. To choose otherwise was to become another Gollum. This is why Gandalf considered the experience in the barrow so crucial. Frodo's situation at Bree also mirrors that of Bilbo at his party. Bilbo, however, put the Ring on intentionally and meant to cause the consternation his disappearance provoked. How the Ring came to be on Frodo's finger in Bree is unclear in the moment, even to Frodo, and draws precisely the sort of comment and attention that Frodo had most wished to avoid. In both cases dark, unpleasant conversations follow, with friends suspected of being enemies. By disappearing, however, Frodo has revealed himself to friends and enemies alike. In fact the two parenthetical comments in the following chapter, Strider, occur in the context of Gandalf's letter, which serves to demonstrate that Strider is a friend despite his rascally looks and Sam's wariness (FR 1.x.167, 169). Once the hobbits have survived the night thanks to Strider, a bit of humor returns with the parentheses in A Knife in the Dark, which smile wanly at Butterbur's insistence that he hadn't slept, Pippin's declaration that he can carry as much as he must, and the hobbits' leaving the 'evil relatives of the cricket' behind in the Midgewater Marshes (FR 1.xi.177, 178, 183). A fourth comment, recounting the happy fate of Merry's ponies who found their way back to Bombadil and thence to Butterbur, hints at a broader happy ending while reminding the reader that the ponies were more sensible when it came to danger than the hobbits (1.xi.179 ; cf. 1.viii.144), a truth which makes quite clear how lucky the hobbits were to meet Strider, just as they had been to meet Bombadil earlier. Strider, as Gandalf and Frodo will both say, is the one who saved [them] from disaster (FR 2.i.220).

Earlier the parentheses helped us see the ambivalence with which Frodo looks down the road ahead of him. We will do well to recall here Bilbo's own inability to make up his mind about the Ring and then to stick to the decision he had made to give the Ring to Frodo, and which he had at least in part arranged his party to enforce. Now they help to illuminate a range of behaviors seen in Frodo and Bilbo alike. These behaviors are at times intentional, at times accidental, at times even heroic. Yet a bad ending is not far off, as we see when Bilbo threatens Gandalf with his sword the night of the party, and when Frodo by betraying his identity and location to the Black Riders endangers the lives of the very friends his courage had saved only the day before. 

The inconsistencies of Frodo's behavior are of a piece with the ambivalence of his feelings, and in these the earliest days of his quest the two give the measure of his burden. What comes next at Weathertop, at the Ford, and in Rivendell will take Frodo further down this road while adding new dimensions to his struggle. He will show courage and insight, hatred of his road and of his enemy, defiance and a wish to dominate those who would dominate him, a willingness to take on the quest to save Middle-earth and the desire to strike even his dearest kin when he reaches for the Ring.

Part Four

Unsurprisingly, given what we've seen in Parts One, Two, and Three of this post, the narrator includes no lighthearted parenthetical comments once the Witch-king stabs Frodo on Weathertop. The only such remark in Flight to the Ford describes the rather grim state, doubly grim for Hobbits, of their provisions by the time they met Glorfindel: 'stale bread and dried fruit (which was now all they had left)' (FR 1.xii.211, emphasis mine). Once Frodo is recovering safely in Rivendell, the commentary picks up again slightly, with one parenthetical in direct speech (Gandalf: FR 2.i.221, sourcing an idiom), one strictly informational (the age of Dáin: 2.i.229), and one in which Frodo, himself just out of his sick bed, curiously wonders whether anyone is 'ever ill in Rivendell'(FR 2.i.230). Again unsurprisingly the serious matters of The Council of Elrond leave no room for such commentary, but once more in The Ring Goes South we find four hobbitish asides of a humorous bent (FR 2.iii.277, 280 twice, 288). Once the fellowship sets out, however, another 48 pages pass before the next such item appears, in Lothlórien (FR 2.vi.346), which notes the hobbits' approval of the food shared with them by the elves on their first night in the Golden Wood. Two hundred and twenty pages then pass before we come to another, in the chapter Treebeard, to which we now turn.

Here we encounter the last significant spike upwards, with fourteen parenthetical remarks. No chapter after Treebeard has more than five. Now Joe Hoffman over at Idiosophy has made several excellent observations and -- what is not necessarily the same thing -- has been quite complimentary of my analyses of these texts. Treebeard does sound like an old hobbit dispensing advice to the young, and Merry and Pippin must have been Frodo's sources for this chapter as well as the preceding chapter, The Uruk-hai (where regrettably neither Uglúk nor Grishnákh sounds like the gaffer or even Ted Sandyman). That eleven of the fourteen parentheses annotate descriptions of Treebeard and the other ents bears out Joe's observation (TT 3.iv.465, 470, 471, 472, 478, 480 five times, 483), which receives further support from the three such comments Treebeard makes himself (TT 3.iv.465, 473 , 476). So, too, and more directly does Pippin's quoted reminiscence about Treebeard's eyes, which the narrator makes clear derives from a later time (TT 3.iv.463): 'often afterwards Pippin tried to describe his first impression of them.'

With Merry and Pippin in these two chapters we see again much the same as we have previously seen with Bilbo and Frodo. Painful and frightening experiences close down the good humor on display in the parentheses. The quarrel with Gandalf, the horror in the barrow, the terrible mistake with the Ring at the Prancing Pony, the abduction by the orcs shows that the Hobbit tendency to make jokes even in serious situations has it limits (RK 5.viii.870). Some experiences are too dreadful for asides. But we can also see their resilience. Once they have left the barrow behind once they have escaped the orcs, their spirits quickly revive. 

As with Frodo in the barrow, the seeds of Pippin's courage begin to grow when things looks darkest for him and Merry as captives of the Uruk-hai. Pippin here started to be less the 'fool of a Took' Gandalf had called him (FR 2.iv.313), just as Frodo there became less one of the 'ridiculous Bagginses' (FR 1.ii.49). We also learn from Pippin that Merry had displayed exceptional bravery when the orcs first attacked them (TT 3.iii.444), though he had not had so far to go. The parallel between Frodo and Pippin here, and through Pippin's recollection to Merry, is maintained by the resumption of parenthetical comments once the danger is behind them. The emergence of Pippin and Merry in book three will be followed by Sam's in book four where he begins to carry the narrative burden, i.e., the tale is told increasingly from his perspective as Frodo becomes more isolated in his lonely struggle with the Ring. The parallel thus signals a shift which I shall follow up on in my next post. 

Part Five

Previously we have noted that parenthetical commentary appears and disappears as the story grows lighter and darker by turns, and that this in general follows the relationship of Bilbo and then Frodo with the Ring. We have also just seen a very similar dynamic occur with Merry and Pippin in Book Three. Though neither of them ever possesses the Ring, it is nevertheless Saruman's lust to acquire it and Sauron's to regain it that motivates their kidnapping by the orcs, thus directly causing the darker and lighter turns the narrative takes in The Uruk-hai and Treebeard. Indeed Merry and Pippin perceive the role the Ring is playing in their captivity, and with desperate audacity play upon Grishnákh's mistaken belief that they have it, wagering their lives for a chance at escape. So here, too, the Ring is intimately connected to the dynamic at work and the parentheses. Since it transfers so smoothly from Bilbo and Frodo to Merry and Pippin, and, as we shall presently see, to Sam, it should also be evident just how closely concerned with the hobbit voice these asides are. 

After the cluster of parentheses in Treebeard a long gap of 155 pages follows (TT 3.iv.483-4.iii.638), empty except for the somewhat knowing comment on the sinister multiple meanings of Orthanc (TT 3.viii.555). An even longer gap of 177 pages before Treebeard (3.iv.465) extends back to The Ring Goes South (FR 2.iii.288), also interrupted only once (2.vi.344). This lack of parenthetical comments elsewhere in Book Three coincides with the general absence of the hobbits from this book despite the crucial role played by Merry and Pippin, a dynamic to be repeated in Book Five. Something similar holds true also in Book Two, where the narrative attends more to the Company as a whole than to the hobbits or Frodo specifically. So darker turns in the narrative connected to the Ring may be the most striking reason for the absence of parentheses, but not the only reason.

In Book 4 parentheses reappear in The Black Gate Is Closed. As I noted in Part 4, in this book Sam begins to carry the burden of the narrative as Frodo becomes increasingly preoccupied by his struggle against the Ring. It is Sam to whom the three parenthesis in The Black Gate Is Closed refer, at least two of which give us Sam's commentary on his own thoughts at the time (TT 4.iii.638, 640), and the third almost certainly does, too (4.iii.647). This last is perhaps the most remarkable since Sam's behavior in the tale here is as lighthearted as his comment on it, recalling Frodo from the darkness of his cares and purpose by this recitation of 'the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt' outside the Black Gate of Mordor, and recalling for the reader an earlier such moment where Sam did the same thing in the same way, hands behind his back and all (FR 1.xii.206-208). Consider also the comment in Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit where we learn that Sam is 'a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning' (TT 4.v.653), an art hobbits 'begin to learn before their letters (which many never reach)'. Here we must remember that Sam was called out by name a full chapter and seventeen years before we met him as a hobbit who had learned his letters. As with his pose while 'speaking poetry', the narrator is using the parentheses to remind the reader of how special Sam is. Not only could he cook the cabbages and potatoes which his Gaffer thought he'd be better off minding, but he knew his letters and poetry and great tales, which repeatedly helped to sustain him on the long road into darkness he and Frodo had to walk. His sense of mission comes from his learning his letters. Sam Gamgee had read all the right books.

These parentheses also further mark the shift we saw earlier with Merry and Pippin, a shift away from Frodo as his hobbit comrades step forward and begin to take up the roles they will play until the end of the book. This is not to say that Frodo is becoming less important. Far from it. But his are now not the only small hands that turn the wheels of the world while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. Sam in particular becomes critically important, and increasingly the story of Frodo's journey is seen through his eyes because Frodo's eyes are elsewhere.

Part Six

It seem quite clear then that parenthetical asides are an essential element of hobbitry. When the narrative grows more serious or the hobbits are less central, the down-home folksiness of virtually disappears. This is consistent with the much greater density -- roughly 4 times as much -- of parenthetical comments in The Hobbit, which either is or is based on the memoir written by Bilbo alone. (See note 2 below.) It is also consistent with Tolkien's remark, quoted in part one, that Frodo's style was at first somewhat like Bilbo's, but as the Quest took its toll on the spirits of all the hobbits, the similarity to Bilbo and his style fades.

So how much did Bilbo write? In view of all we've seen above a piece of evidence from the Prologue is quite suggestive (FR 12-13). There we are told that even after Bilbo had admitted to Gandalf, Frodo, and all the Council of Elrond, that story he had put about winning the Ring from Gollum was a lie, he never went back and changed it in his memoirs. The true story was preserved by Frodo and Sam and included as an alternative to Bilbo's original tale, but they did not rewrite his story either. Considering this together with the sudden stop in humorous parenthetical comments as A Long-expected Party shifts from the lightheartedness of the leadup to the party to the darkness and anger of Bilbo's argument with Gandalf about the Ring, it's not unreasonable to conclude that Bilbo got no farther than the moment he put on the Ring at the party and vanished. Consider also that Bilbo suddenly came to a new and painful understanding of the Ring in the moment he looked into Frodo's face at their first meeting in Rivendell. For he saw the look in Frodo's eyes when Frodo wished to strike him for reaching for the Ring. He confesses as much:

The music and singing round them seemed to falter, and a silence fell. Bilbo looked quickly at Frodo’s face and passed his hand across his eyes. ‘I understand now,’ he said. ‘Put it away! I am sorry: sorry you have come in for this burden; sorry about everything. Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story. Well, it can’t be helped. I wonder if it’s any good trying to finish my book? But don’t let’s worry about it now – let’s have some real News! Tell me all about the Shire!’
            (FR 2.i.232)

And even if he tries here to change the subject with a joke, as hobbits do, the next morning at the Council he again says he understands when he disavows and apologizes for having lied about the Ring before:

But I will now tell the true story, and if some here have heard me tell it otherwise’ – he looked sidelong at Glóin – ‘I ask them to forget it and forgive me. I only wished to claim the treasure as my very own in those days, and to be rid of the name of thief that was put on me. But perhaps I understand things a little better now. Anyway, this is what happened.’

(FR 2.ii.249)

Given this, I would suggest that Bilbo either wrote nothing at all, or he stopped with his disappearance from the party. If he couldn't bring himself to change his memoir to reflect the truth he had now admitted and apologized for, that he could write an honest account of his ugly confrontation with Gandalf that night is hard to imagine. If either of these suggestions of mine is correct, then his only written contribution to Frodo's story would be his poems and the snarky notes he left with the gifts for his friends and relatives. 

I have found Joe's friendship, humor, and commentary invaluable for some years now. He is also my second if I am challenged to any duels. 

The Hobbit is also far more densely packed with parentheses: 120 in 95356 vs 158 in 481,103. The Hobbit also raises its own questions about narrators, which we shall examine elsewhere in connection with the narrators of The Lord of the Rings. The interested reader should look to Paul Edmund Thomas' 'Some of Tolkien's Narrators' in Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth, edd. V. Flieger and C. Hostetter (2000).

3 The one parenthesis not in the body of the text is in a footnote on 1.ix.160 which explains that 'Elves (and Hobbits) always refer to the Sun as She.'

25 March 2023

Tolkien Reading Day 2023


Here's my contribution for this year's Tolkien Reading Day. I hope you enjoy it.

24 March 2023

Beren One-Hand, Bruce the Shark, and Homer

It's fairly common knowledge that, when Tolkien has the werewolf Carcharoth bite off Beren's hand in The Silmarillion, he is drawing on Norse mythology, in which the wolf Fenrir did the same to the god Týr. What many don't recognize is that Tolkien is also drawing on Homer here, not for the story itself, but for the name of the wolf. In The Silmarillion Tolkien translates Carcharoth as 'the Red Maw', but his original name in The Tale of Tinúviel was Karkaras/Carcaras, which meant 'knife-fang.'

In Ancient Greek κάρχαρος, karkharos, meant 'saw-like, jagged, so with saw-like jagged teeth.' One word deriving from this is καρχαρίας, karkharias, defined as 'a kind of shark, so called from its saw-like teeth'. Also connected are the adjectives καρχαρόδους, karkharodous, and καρχαρόδων, karkharodon, both of which mean 'with saw-like teeth.' 

These words may also seem familiar from the scientific name of The Great White Shark, carcharodon carcharias (to use the Latin spelling of the words), or 'the shark with the saw-like teeth.'

Whether Tolkien knew anything about Great White Sharks, I don't know. But he certainly knew his Homer, and twice in the Iliad Homer uses different forms of καρχαρόδους to describe dogs. At line 360 of book 10, he speaks of καρχαρόδοντε δύω κύνε, karkharodonte dyo kyne, 'two saw-toothed dogs', and at line 198 of book 13 we again find κυνῶν ... καρχαροδόντων, kynon ... karkharodonton, 'dogs ... [with] saw-like teeth.' 

I'll leave it to you to decide, gentle reader, how many degrees of separation there are between Tolkien and Bruce the Shark.

No, not that 'Red Maw.'

20 February 2023

Pre-order 'Pity, Power, and Tolkien's Ring: To Rule the Fate of Many'

Pity, Power, and Tolkien's Ring: To Rule the Fate of Many now has a publication date -- 12/12/2023 -- and an ISBN: 9781606354711.

A feature of special note is that the book will be published in paperback, in order to make it more readily available to readers.

It is available for pre-order from most of the usual suspects. As more are rounded up, I will add links here. But to begin with:


Book Depository

Barnes and Noble










'The Faun's Bookshelf' by Emily Austin Design.

14 February 2023

Was Tolkien riffing on Genesis A 36-38 at RK 5.vi.841? From the houses of lamentation to the House of Mirth.

While reading the Old English poem Genesis A this Monday evening (as one does) I came across the word helleheafas in the following passage (lines 36-38):

                                 sceop þam werlogan 
            wræclicne ham    weorce to leane,
            helleheafas,   hearde niðas

        [God] appointed for the faithbreakers
a miserable home    in repayment for their deed,
the lamentations of hell,      hard troubles.

The context here is the war in heaven imagined to have taken place before creation began, that is, before Genesis1. So, despite the title of the poem, it begins before the beginning, which for the early medieval English was an even better place to start. (It wasn't much of a war either. God swatted them into Hell without the least ado.)

Now, while I recognized 'hell' in the first half of the word, I didn't immediately scan the second part as 'lamentation, mourning, wailing'. Checking the Dictionary of Old English the word helleheaf seems to occur only here in extant Old English. There isn't even an entry for it in the older Bosworth-Toller Old English Dictionary. When a word appears only once, scholars have a term for that, and like all 'proper' scholarly terms originating before the 20th Century, that term comes from Latin or in this case Greek: hapax legomenon (ἅπαξ λεγόμενον). It means 'said once.' A. N. Doane, the editor of my text of Genesis A, points out that there are some odd marks in the manuscript which make helleheafas hard to make out at first. It looks like it says helleheaftas, the second part of which -- heaftas -- doesn't seem to exist in Old English. 

This is precisely the sort of thing that would have made an old-school bold philologist like Tolkien cock an eyebrow. Hold that thought a moment.

Two things resonated in my head as a I read these lines. First, given the association of 'misery' and 'home' in the phrase wrætlicne ham in line 37, the retribution for the angels' rebellion in weorce to leane ('in repayment for their deed'), and the 'lamentations of hell' of helleheafas, I was reminded of RK 5.vi.841, where the Witch-king threatens Éowyn with ghastly payback for trying to hinder him:

‘Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’

Second, the juxtaposition of the vowels in helleheafas made me think of a simliar juxtaposition in line 101 of Beowulf, which calls Grendel a feond in helle, 'a devil in hell.' Now some scholars have argued from time to time since the 1880s that, since Grendel is quite alive at this moment in the poem and thus is clearly not in hell, we should emend the words feond in helle to feond in healle. In this case Grendel is not 'a devil in hell', but a 'devil in the hall,' that is, in Heorot, Hrothgar's hall in Beowulf. Tolkien certainly knew of this suggested emendation, but appears to have discounted it. In his translation and commentary he uses 'devil in hell,' though he signals his awareness that Grendel's place in hell is at least metaphorical to start with (Beowulf T&C 158-59).

What I am wondering in view of all of this, is if Tolkien might have looked at helleheafas, 'lamentations of hell' and thought healleheafas, 'hall of lamentations' or 'halls of lamentation'? Not as a proposed emendation to the text of Genesis A, but simply as a word that might have existed and been an apt description of the house of misery where retribution is meted out. 

Consider also that the Witch-king immediately afterwards calls Éowyn a fool because 'no living man can hinder' him' and she laughs at him because she is 'no living man,' and the text underlines her laughter by noting that to Merry it seemed 'of all the sounds in that hour the strangest.' So we have a reference to 'the houses of lamentation' and someone laughing and being called a fool. This brings to mind Ecclesiastes 7:4 (KJV): 'The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

In Tolkien's day this verse would have been quite well known, a popularity made even greater by the widespread fame of Edith Wharton's splendid and successful 1905 novel, The House of Mirth. Whether Tolkien read Wharton's novel is anybody's guess -- don't count him out -- but the title would have been familiar to him and its allusion would at any rate have been entirely clear. The Old English word heaf, which we find in helleheaf, may also be translated as 'mourning.' So the houses of lamentation to which the Witch-king refers are also the houses of mourning. And, as we all know, it is he who is really the fool here, not Éowyn. For him the house of mirth and the house of lamentation are one. So Tolkien is not simply retasking Macbeth in this particular scene, but also Ecclesiastes, maybe Edith Wharton, and just perhaps, with truly magnificent philological obscurity, Genesis A as well. 


I'd like to thank my good friend, Simon Cook, for quoting a bit of Beowulf which reminded me of a bit of Genesis A, which sent me down a delightful rabbit-hole at 2 AM. ;-)