. Alas, not me: February 2023

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. ;-)

10 February 2023

The Avoidance of 'Sin' in Tolkien

        In my forthcoming book, Pity, Power, and Tolkien's Ring: To Rule the Fate of Many, I discuss Tolkien's use of the Greek word ἁμαρτία (hamartia) in his essay Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics (17). He mentions the word there in connection with 'doom' as alternative factors effecting the tragedy we often see in human life and portray in stories. He is clearly thinking about Aristotle's use of ἁμαρτία in The Poetics, where it refers to the 'mistake' or 'flaw' in action, understanding, or both that causes the reversal of fortune and downfall of tragic protagonists like Oedipus. As the many mistakes and flawed choices made by characters such as the doomed character Túrin show, Tolkien saw both fate and choice as significant questions in the mythic world he created. 

        Of course Tolkien was also quite well aware that ἁμαρτία had another meaning, a Christian meaning, namely 'sin.' So I took the time to investigate places in his works where we find the word 'sin', and I thought some about what it might have to tell us. I found the time interesting and well spent, but for various reasons I decided not to include my discussion of it in the final copy of my book. But I still think what I found is interesting, and thought that some others might, too. I may yet spend more time on it and write it up as an article, but for now I'll just share it here. No doubt in some places the discussion will seem to refer to a larger discussion, which will (surprise) be found in my book when it appears later this year.


        In view of the spiritual harm mortal Ring-bearers suffer from possessing and using the Rings of Power, and the significance we have already attached to how they begin their possession of it, both of which have a bearing on pity especially in this wider context, we should recall that another meaning of hamartia was available to Tolkien’s mind. For in the writings of early Christianity hamartia commonly means ‘sin.’[i] Yet in recalling this particular meaning we must not ignore that, though mistakes and misdeeds abound within the legendarium, Tolkien eschews the word sin in telling of them. It never appears in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, or in any of the original texts published in the eleven volumes of The History of Middle-earth. The three occasions in The History of Middle-earth where we find ‘sin’ used are editorial – once Christopher Tolkien, once C. S. Lewis, and once Tolkien himself – and serve only to emphasize how far from direct contact with his legendarium Tolkien kept the word and the concept.[ii]

        Similarly, in The Nature of Middle-earth three of the four uses of ‘sin’ are also editorial. In his appendix on the Metaphysical and Theological Themes found within the legendarium, Carl F. Hostetter discusses Death and the Fall of Man as related by Andreth in connection with the Roman Catholic view on ‘original sin (Nature 408-09). Tolkien himself, in a note from the 1970s speculating on life-cycles of the Elves, comments that it was ‘uncertain’ whether the fading of the Eldar was always a part of their nature or a ‘“punishment” for the sins of the Eldar’ (Nature 156). Finally, however, in a text written in the mid-1950s from the perspective of someone within the legendarium the unnamed author states that the Eldar did not regard eating the flesh of animals as ‘sinful or against the will of Eru’ (Nature 271). Indeed the closest engagement with ‘sin’ comes in his translations of the Hail Mary and the Our Father into his Elven tongues, a feat which blends his ‘secret vice’ with this personal devotion and gives it expression through the once widespread practice of translating English verse into ancient tongues, whether as a lark or a lesson.[iii] Tolkien’s contemporary, Maurice Bowra, may have produced a brilliant rendering of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan into Ancient Greek verse, but he didn’t have to invent Greek, too.[iv]

        From what we can see, Tolkien generally avoided categorizing the misdeeds and mistakes of characters as ‘sins,’ despite ample opportunities across decades of writing; or, if he did so name them, as we have seen him do on rare occasions after he finished The Lord of the Rings his practice resembles the editorial comments of his editors, like Christopher Tolkien and Carl F. Hostetter, or the mock editorial engagement of C. S. Lewis with The Lay of Leithian. Morgoth and Sauron, for example, and their works may be called evil, but neither narrator nor character within the legendarium calls them sinful or their deeds sins. So much for what we find in Tolkien’s writings in or on the legendarium. What of ‘sin’ in his letters, which are likely the single most important source for the legendarium that is not itself a part of it?

        Of the ten letters which speak of ‘sin,’ six use the word wholly in connection with Tolkien’s personal faith and his life in this world, with no mention at all of his writings.[v] Of the remaining four, one is a bit of a joke to his son, Christopher, about the RAF planes, called ‘Mordor-gadgets,’ whose destructive power and purpose Tolkien detested as an actualization of the desire to dominate others (no. 75, p. 88). In the other three, he is pondering certain actions or possibilities within the Secondary World in terms of the Christian understanding of ‘sin,’ but he is once again cautious in the application of Primary World Christian terminology to the theology of the Secondary World. In Letter 153 (p.195) in answering a fellow Catholic’s theological queries and objections about The Lord of the Rings he accepts that some acts within the legendarium can be viewed as ‘sinful,’ but at the same time he makes clear that in doing so he is undertaking a characterization in Primary World terms of what would be the case within the Secondary World if Morgoth or the Valar took certain actions contrary to the will of Eru.[vi] In Letter 181 (p. 237) he speaks of the Istari being susceptible to ‘the possibility of “fall”, of sin, if you will.’ Lastly, in Letter 212 (p. 285) he points out that the Elvish view of Death as the Gift of Ilúvatar to Men ‘does not necessarily have anything to say for or against such beliefs as the Christian that “death” is not part of human nature, but a punishment for sin (rebellion).’ His caution signals that he sees the applicability of the terminology of one world to the other, but that he resists going further. ‘Mistake’ and ‘sin’ both exist along the continuum of meaning inhabited by the word hamartia, but within Arda Marred the mistakes the characters make or avoid making determine whether they are in a tragedy of some sort or a fairy-story. In the same way the truth of myth partakes of the truth of the evangelium (OFS ¶ 103), but that does not make them the same.

        The avoidance of ‘sin’ suits the focus on pity and the problematic nature of justice being imposed by anyone who cannot provide justice for those who die but do not deserve to die as much as for those who do deserve death. Healing is another concern Gandalf has for both Gollum and Bilbo, but the death Gandalf admits that Gollum deserves perforce denies all possibility of the healing he hopes against hope that Gollum might find. The avoidance of ‘sin’ also better suits the pagan world of the Third Age of Middle-earth and better allows pity to span the divide between the hope of Christians and the hopelessness of Heathens. Just as the vision of the Beowulf-poet looks back from the Christian day into the Heathen night, so does Tolkien.

[i] In Romans 5:13, Saint Paul writes: ‘Before the Law sin existed in the world, but sin is not counted [against us] if there is no Law.’ (‘ἄχρι γὰρ νόμου ἁμαρτία ἦν ἐν κόσμῳ, ἁμαρτία δὲ οὐκ ἐλλογεῖται μὴ ὄντος νόμου’.). That an accounting was not made of sins before the law existed might possibly have some bearing on why Tolkien almost never uses the various forms of the word sin within the legendarium.

[ii] Christopher Tolkien states that ‘suicide is declared a sin’ in his father’s description of why Túrin chose against it at LT II 125, but this is rather the son’s characterization than the father’s words. At Lays 379 ‘sin’ occurs in one of C. S. Lewis’ mock commentaries on The Lay of Leithian. Finally, in Morgoth’s Ring (392) Tolkien himself comments that ‘Manwë must be shown to have his own inherent faults (though not sin)’ which he follows directly with a footnote, pointing out that such a ‘weakness’ or ‘inadequacy’ ‘is not sinful when not willed, and when the creature does his best…as he sees it – with the conscious intent of serving Eru.’ So, in his one mention of ‘sin’ Tolkien mentions it only to deny it would be right to describe the fault in question as sin.

[iii] On the prayers, see J. R. R. Tolkien, Vinyar Tengwar 43 (2002) 5-39; 44 (2002) 5-38. On Tolkien’s ‘secret vice’ of language invention, see Tolkien, D. Fimi and A. Higgins.

[iv] C. M. Bowra’s rendering has the added charm of translating the cultural references into meaningful Greek equivalents. Kubla Khan becomes Minos, and Xanadu become Knossos. Such translations were something of a college industry at the time. Thus, Bowra’s Greek could be published alongside Coleridge’s original without explanation. See S.T. Coleridge, C.M. Bowra, et al. (178-82). Tolkien and Bowra were acquainted, if not always friendly. Tolkien once claimed to have poured melted butter over Bowra’s head and Bowra wrote a letter opposing honors proposed for Tolkien. Any link between the events is speculative. See Scull and Hammond (“C&G”) 2.195-96.

[v] Letters no. 43, p. 48 (to Michael Tolkien); no. 89, p. 101 (to Christopher Tolkien); no. 113, p. 127 (to C. S. Lewis); no. 213, p. 288 (to Deborah Webster[Rogers]); no. 250, p. 337 (to Michael Tolkien); no. 306, p. 395 (to Michael Tolkien).

[vi] Tolkien’s correspondent here was the manager of a Catholic bookshop in Oxford. In the passage, Tolkien’s is careful in his wording, as he imagines what ‘would’ or ‘could’ or ‘might’ come about, ‘if [the Valar or Maiar] fell.’

I also cite:
  • The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (978-0261102637)
  • Tolkien of Fairy-stories (978-0007582914)
  • The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, vol 2 (978-0008214524)
  • S. T. Coleridge, Maurice Bowra, et al. 'Versions' in Greece and Rome 3 (1934) 178-82.