30 December 2016

Goodbye, David. Goodbye, Carrie.




I first became aware of David Bowie when I was a fourteen year old in high school, in those endless battles we had across lunchroom tables over which band was great and which band, frankly, sucked. We were teenagers. We didn't know from shades of grey. To us, so incandescently young and so very cloistered by years and years of Catholic School, Catholic Nuns, and Catholic Mothers of WWII vintage (God bless them), and only beginning to realize there was something called FM, where they played whole album sides at a time, almost nothing in the Top 40, and talked about Rock and Roll like it was life itself, David Bowie was quite a shock. With his Diamond Dogs look of androgyny cultivated like pearls, he seemed a bit of a freak, and often got called far worse by children like us who scarcely knew the meaning of the insults we hurled at him because he didn't seem to fit in any of the categories we knew.

So a freak he seemed. And yet his blazing talent forced my eyes open, and compelled me to look into the heart of the sun that was his music. Whatever he looked like, whatever he played at, he could not be denied. One stunning, powerful performance after another, one masterful song after another flung into my uncomprehending, awestruck schoolboy face. Songs of beauty, works of art, anthems of raving youth. And they never stopped coming until last January.

So a freak he seemed. So what. He was Bowie. And in the end he was no more a freak than the rest of us. Much less so in fact. 



Everybody knows how they first saw Carrie Fisher. In the first scene she is ensuring that the all important plans to the Death Star escape her doomed ship, in the second she is shooting it out with the bad guys, in the third she stands fearlessly up to someone who could break her body like a twig. So, clever and determined, putting first things first, unflinching and intrepid, not just a pretty face (as pretty as she was). This was no window-dressing damsel in distress. This was no one's Disney Princess. 

Her own life was full of far more upheaval and turmoil than her most famous character's, though given her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder, there were surely days when it felt like someone had blown up her whole planet.  But her performance as Leia evidently drew on strengths she didn't know she had yet, and she fought her way through to the other side of her troubles. For the many in this world -- and of course there were thousands of Star Wars fans among them -- who shared the same troubles, Carrie Fisher was a success and a model. And if we looked at her from far away, paying attention in after years perhaps only because she had been that Princess, still we smiled and nodded and were glad. We took comfort in her winning through. For women she clearly meant far more than I could ever grasp. I wouldn't even dare try to express it. But I don't have to. Their voices are loud and clear enough. If you can't hear them, you're not listening. 

I am not sure if what I've written here explains, even to myself, why I will miss David Bowie and Carrie Fisher more than so many of the others.  He enabled me to see music differently, and see that differences of appearance, whether parts of the act or parts of the person, are essentially meaningless. She did not so much make me see women differently as she made me see that I was right to see them differently. I was already a bit of an oddity on that score: I was a teenage boy who actually wanted to talk to girls and hear what they had to say. 

There's a photo on my dresser of someone from those days. Every day when I sit down on the edge of my bed to take off my shoes, I look at it and sigh and miss her. That's the way I'm thinking of David Bowie and Carrie Fisher as this year goes down into shadow.  

They were heroes. 

28 December 2016

The Uncouth Name of Shire




At the Council of Elrond Gandalf recounts his meeting with Radagast near Bree:

'Gandalf!' [Radagast] cried. 'I was seeking you. But I am a stranger in these parts. All I knew was that you might be found in a wild region with the uncouth name of Shire.'
'Your information was correct,' I said. 'But do not put it that way, if you meet any of the inhabitants. You are near the borders of the Shire now.'
....
'I have been told that wherever they go the Riders ask for news of a land called Shire.'
'The Shire,' I said.... 
FR 2.ii.256-57, emphasis original)
Why is the name 'Shire' uncouth?  The OED shows nothing in the history of the word to suggest the least whiff of disapproval.  Even setting aside all thoughts of The Hobbit films, Radagast lives in Rhosgobel near southern Mirkwood, which hardly seems likely to be a hub of urbanity.  Be that as it may, it is the name Shire the wizard is commenting on. To be sure, Radagast also calls it a 'wild region,' but again he lives in the Wilderland, himself.  Gandalf does not seem to be offended by the description, and indeed he calls it correct, but cautions Radagast about the reaction hobbits might have to hearing the Shire called uncouth.  For, as the narrator (Frodo) tells us elsewhere '[t]he Shire-hobbits referred to those of Bree, and to any others that lived beyond the borders, as Outsiders, and took very little interest in them, considering them dull and uncouth' (FR 1.ix.150). Ironically, given that Buttebur calls Frodo and company 'Outsiders -- travellers from the Shire' and instantly apologizes for doing so, the Breelanders clearly have the same opinion of Shire hobbits as Shire hobbits have of everyone else (FR 1.ix.154)

Tolkien is here again having a bit of fun with words, as we've seen him do before.  Our word 'uncouth' descends from the Old English 'uncúþ', which literally means 'unknown', and therefore 'strange.'  The Shire being unknown to Radagast and the Black Riders, they omit the definite article, because the definite article is used for things that are known.  Gandalf of course knows The Shire very well, as do its inhabitants, and so they include the article. To them indeed it is the one and only.

So for Radagast and the Black Riders 'uncouth' has its original sense; for the hobbits it has the more modern sense. Gandalf knows them both.

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25 December 2016

I Hear the Tentacles Singing: Once More "A Wrinkle in Time" and "Babylon Five"

A Pak'ma'ra from Babylon 5


In chapter 11 of A Wrinkle in Time I came across what might be another link to Babylon 5. Having arrived on a new planet, Meg sees creatures like none she has ever seen before approaching her, her father, and Calvin:
They were the same dull gray color as the flowers. If they hadn't walked upright they would have seemed like animals. They moved directly toward the three human beings. They had four arms and far more than five fingers to each hand, and the fingers were not fingers, but long waving tentacles. They had heads, and they had faces. But where the faces of the creatures on Uriel had seemed far more than human faces, these seemed far less. Where the features would normally be there were several indentations, and in place of ears and hair were more tentacles. They were tall, Meg realized as they came closer, far taller than any man. They had no eyes. Just soft indentations. 
After Meg is healed by these beings, she quickly becomes quite attached to one whom she calls Aunt Beast:
"Please sing to me, Aunt Beast," said Meg. 
If it was impossible to describe sight to Aunt Beast, it would be even more impossible to describe the singing of Aunt Beast to a human being. It was a music even more glorious than the music of the singing creatures on Uriel. It was a music more tangible than form or sight. It had essence and structure. It supported Meg more firmly than the arms of Aunt Beast It seemed to travel with her, to sweep her aloft in the power of song, so that she was moving in glory among the stars, and for a moment she, too, felt that the words Darkness and Light had no meaning. and only this melody was real. 
The first passage made me think at first of the Ood from Doctor Who, and of course nothing prevents L'Engle's description from having an influence on Doctor Who, but I was also reminded of the Pak'ma'ra from Babylon 5. Both of these species have tentacles on their heads in front of their mouths. Now, admittedly this doesn't match the description of the unnamed beings in A Wrinkle in Time, creatures who also have tentacles instead of fingers. It is unclear to me whether their voice comes from the waving 'finger' tentacles or from the tentacles on their heads. 

But it was the astonishing and uplifting beauty of their singing that struck me, and made me think more of Babylon 5, in the last episode of which the main characters are conversing over a meal:
"You know, Londo never liked the Pak'ma'ra. I mean, they're stubborn, lazy, obnoxious, greedy--" said Vir.
"They kinda look like an octopus that got run over by a truck," said Garibaldi. 
"That too, but .. one day Londo and I were walking past their quarters .. and we heard them .. singing."  
"Singing? They can sing?" asked Sheridan. 
"There's nothing about that in the literature,"said Dr Franklin. 
"Apparently," Vir continued, "it's something they only do certain times of the year as part of their religious ceremonies. You may not believe this, but .. it was the most beautiful sound I've ever heard. I couldn't make out the words, but I knew it was full of sadness and .. hope and wonder and .. terrible .. sense of loss. I looked at Londo and -- this is the amazing part -- there was a .. tear running down his face. I said: 'Londo, we should leave.' And 'This is upsetting you.' He just stood there and .. listened. And when it was over he turned to me and he said: 'There are 49 gods in our pantheon, Vir. To tell you the truth I never believed in any of them. But if only one of them exists, .. then god sings with that voice.' "
The additional detail of the sadness and the terrible sense of loss with which the Pak'ma'ra sing may also point to the influence of Tolkien and the third theme of the Music of the Ainur, whose beauty comes from its sorrow. 

But it's not every day you can point to tentacles and singing in support of an argument. This may be axiomatic.

Madeleine L'Engle on Predestination, Free Will, and the Sonnet



In the last chapter of A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit (a supernatural being, if you don't know) and Calvin, a young boy, argue about knowing the future.

"I do not believe it. And the Happy Medium doesn't believe it, either."
"Can't she see what's going to happen?" Calvin asked. 
"Oh, not in this kind of thing." Mrs. Whatsit sounded surprised at his question. "If we knew ahead of time what was going to happen we'd be—we'd be like the people on Camazotz, with no lives of our own, with everything all planned and done for us. How can I explain it to you? Oh, I know. In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet." 
"Yes, yes," Calvin said impatiently. "What's that got to do with the Happy Medium?"
"Kindly pay me the courtesy of listening to me." Mrs. Whatsit's voice was stern, and for a moment Calvin stopped pawing the ground like a nervous colt. "It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?"  
"Yes." 
"There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That's a very strict rhythm or meter, yes?" 
"Yes." Calvin nodded. "And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?" 
"No." 
"But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn't he?" 
"Yes." Calvin nodded again. 
"So," Mrs. Whatsit said.  
"So what?" 
"Oh, do not be stupid, boy!" Mrs. Whatsit scolded. "You know perfectly well what I am driving at!"  
"You mean you're comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?" 
"Yes." Mrs. Whatsit said. "You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you." 

In addition to being an amusing approach to examining the question of free will and predestination, there is the added bonus of one of the speakers being called Calvin.


21 December 2016

'Mary had a little lamb' from "A Wrinkle in Time" to "Babylon 5"




When I was a little boy, my aunt Sally (sit terra tibi levis) gave me A Wrinkle in Time for my birthday. At the time I was too grown up for children's books, and so I smiled, thanked her, and put it on the shelf, where it has always been ever since.  Being younger than that now, and having run across a series of quotes by Madeleine L'Engle that I found interesting, I decided to read it.

This morning, as I lay in bed reading chapter 7, I arrived at the following passage, in which the three children encounter a menacing stranger with red eyes who can communicate telepathically and who has, it seems, dominated the minds of the men, women, and children on this world. As he attempts to control the children's minds, too, Charles Wallace, the youngest, a preternaturally clever and creepy five year old, whom for the life of me I can only hear speaking in the voice of Stewie Griffin, resists.

'...For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burden of thought and decision.' 
'We will make our own decisions, thank you,' Charles Wallace said. 
'But of course. And our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don't you see how much better, how much easier for you that is? Let me show you. Let us say the multiplication table together.' 
'No,' Charles Wallace said. 
'Once one is one. Once two is two. Once three is three.' 
'Mary had a little lamb!' Charles Wallace shouted. 'Its fleece was white as snow!'
'Once for is four. Once five is five. Once six is six.'
'And everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.'

J MS
The instant I read this, I sat up in bed. I had seen it before. In J. Michael Straczynski's brilliant SF series Babylon 5, a group of human telepaths have run away from Psi Corps, which is about as evil as it sounds. ('The Corps is mother; the Corps is father.') Now in the episode, A Race through Dark Places, they find themselves hunted by a Psi Cop, Alfred Bester -- that's right, Alfred Bester, and played magnificently by Walter Koenig -- who is strong enough to read their minds whether they want him to or not. Since they refuse to go back, they fear he will kill them. And so they prepare to resist both physically and mentally. To keep him out of their minds, they, too, recite 'Mary had a little lamb' over and over. 




Alfred Bester,  SF Author
Given the context in each scene, as well as how allusive and literary Babylon 5 is, I have little doubt this allusion to Madeleine L'Engle is intentional.  Nicely done, JMS. Nicely done.

Allusions are one of the ways in which reading, or, in this case, reading and watching teach us that we are not all alone in the night. And A Wrinkle in Time and Babylon 5 are both rich in allusions to, and quotations from, literature and poetry. That's why I've worked several allusions of my own into this note: to a C. S. Lewis essay, to an apocryphal C. S. Lewis quote, to Bob Dylan, three times to Babylon 5. I didn't do so (merely) to be clever, or because, if you get them, then we'll both be clever, but because they will reveal a fellowship between us as reader and writer, between us as readers, and between us and the texts from which the allusions derive. Because it's this kind of connection that makes us human in a higher and better way that links us through past, present, and future.

Alfred Bester, SF Monster
The world's been looking pretty bleak in recent times. Whichever side of the issues that are dividing us each of us may be on, I don't think many of us are feeling too hopeful; and some of us are downright scared.  To compare small things with great, I just wrote a testimonial for Mythmoot, which aimed to convey just how wonderful it was to be with all those people who understood each other's allusions and got each other's jokes. Allusions let me in. They let us all in. That's why reading glitters with hope. For it tells me that the connections we need to make can be made. Not only that, but the irony of this allusion is so sweet: it connects two sets of people, a writer and readers, to two sets of characters who are using 'Mary had a little lamb' to prevent a connection from being made at all. Which in turn makes me laugh, a proof of intelligent life according to the Minbari. I think I like that. I think I like that a lot.



19 December 2016

The Price of Ilúvatar's Gift?




… fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.

(OFS, 32, ¶ 10, emphasis original)
As interesting and lovely as this section of On Fairy-stories is, we seldom note its implication that mortal men are the only parts of creation not by nature a part of the 'realm or state' of Faërie. Enchantment alone brings us within its borders. But when we recall another passage in Tolkien where mortal men are also singled out as unique, the two together become truly fascinating.
‘But to the Atani I will give a new gift’ [said Ilúvatar]. Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else; and of their operation everything should be, in form and deed, completed, and the world fulfilled unto the last and smallest.

(S, 41-42, emphasis mine)
So without the benefit of enchantment Men cannot inhabit Faërie, but for all those things and creatures that do, the Music of the Ainur is 'as fate.'  There is thus a dimension to the existence of Arda and everything in it that Men do not ordinarily perceive and in which they have no part. The 'being' of Men is not in Faërie, just as the being of the Elves is not beyond it. The existence of each has an element which the other does not share. Faërie lies parallel to whatever awaits Men 'beyond the world,'

It will be interesting to see where this might lead.

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17 December 2016

A. E. Housman, Fragment of a Greek Tragedy



A. E. Housman, by  Francis Dodd


If you're not familiar with Housman's parody of Greek Tragedy, you don't know what you been missing. If you've ever read Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides in the original, this will be an amazing treat.

FRAGMENT OF A GREEK TRAGEDY

by A. E. Housman

                CHORUS:  O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
          Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
          Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
          To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
          My object in inquiring is to know.
          But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
          And do not understand a word I say,
          Then wave your hand, to signify as much.

                ALCMAEON: I journeyed hither a Boetian road.
                CHORUS: Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?
                ALCMAEON: Plying with speed my partnership of legs.
                CHORUS: Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
                ALCMAEON: Mud's sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.
                CHORUS: To learn your name would not displease me much.
                ALCMAEON: Not all that men desire do they obtain.
                CHORUS: Might I then hear at what thy presence shoots.
                ALCMAEON: A shepherd's questioned mouth informed me that--
                CHORUS: What? for I know not yet what you will say.
                ALCMAEON: Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
                CHORUS: Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
                ALCMAEON: This house was Eriphyle's, no one else's.
                CHORUS: Nor did he shame his throat with shameful lies.
                ALCMAEON: May I then enter, passing through the door?
                CHORUS: Go chase into the house a lucky foot.
          And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
          And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
          For that is very much the safest plan.
                ALCMAEON: I go into the house with heels and speed.

                CHORUS

                         Strophe

          In speculation
          I would not willingly acquire a name
                For ill-digested thought;
                But after pondering much
          To this conclusion I at last have come:
                LIFE IS UNCERTAIN.
                This truth I have written deep
                In my reflective midriff
                On tablets not of wax,
          Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there,
          For many reasons:  LIFE, I say, IS NOT
                A STRANGER TO UNCERTAINTY.
          Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
                This fact did I discover,
          Nor did the Delphine tripod bark it out,
                Nor yet Dodona.
          Its native ingenuity sufficed
                My self-taught diaphragm.

                       Antistrophe

                Why should I mention
          The Inachean daughter, loved of Zeus?
                Her whom of old the gods,
                More provident than kind,
          Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
                A gift not asked for,
                And sent her forth to learn
                The unfamiliar science
                Of how to chew the cud.
          She therefore, all about the Argive fields,
          Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
                Nor did they disagree with her.
          But yet, howe'er nutritious, such repasts
                I do not hanker after:
          Never may Cypris for her seat select
                My dappled liver!
          Why should I mention Io?  Why indeed?
                I have no notion why.

                      Epode

                But now does my boding heart,
                Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
                A strain not meet for the dance.
                Yes even the palace appears
                To my yoke of circular eyes
                (The right, nor omit I the left)
                Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
                Garnished with woolly deaths
                And many sphipwrecks of cows.
          I therefore in a Cissian strain lament:
                And to the rapid
                Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
                Resounds in concert
          The battering of my unlucky head.

                ERIPHYLE (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet's jaw;
          And that in deed and not in word alone.
                CHORUS: I thought I heard a sound within the house
          Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
                ERIPHYLE: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
          Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.
                CHORUS: I would not be reputed rash, but yet
          I doubt if all be gay within the house.
                ERIPHYLE: O! O! another stroke! that makes the third.
          He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
                CHORUS:  If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
          But thine arithmetic is quite correct.

07 December 2016

'And I'll bear no weapon, fair or foul' (RK 6.iii.937-38)


'There, I'll be an orc no more,' he cried, 'and I'll bear no weapon, fair or foul. Let them take me, if they will!' 
Sam did likewise, and put aside his orc-gear; and he took out all the things in his pack. Somehow each of them had become dear to him, if only because he had borne them so far with so much toil. Hardest of all it was to part with his cooking-gear. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought of casting it away.
...
With that he carried all the gear away to one of the many gaping fissures that scored the land and threw them in. The clatter of his precious pans as they fell down into the dark was like a death-knell to his heart.
(RK 6.iii.937-38)

Three quick remarks:

1) As Frodo utters these words, the most powerful weapon in the history of Middle-earth is hanging around his neck. He's heard it described as such by Boromir (FR 2.ii.267) and also, though unwittingly, by Faramir (TT 4.v.671). He has already used it himself to daunt and threaten Gollum (TT 4.i.618; iii.640; vi.687).

2) The words I have omitted contain Frodo's famous 'no taste of food, no feel of water' remarks in which he states that all else but the Ring is fading away for him. So he is keenly and painfully aware of it at all times.

3) Sam is the only one who can throw his precious into the pit, just as he was the only one who could give up the Ring with little or no hesitation (RK 6.i.911-12).

No irony in Tolkien?

02 December 2016

In the Realm of Useless Footnotes, Part Two


'I have had v. little time for general reading. I began Moby Dick [footnote] on the weekend when term ended, and thought, despite its obvious defects of rhetoric & un-dramatic dialogue, that I liked it: but somehow I feel no inclination to go on.'

C S Lewis

Letter of 3 April 1930

And yes, the footnote informs us that Moby Dick is indeed Moby Dick, and that its author is Herman Melville.

Is it conceivable that a reader inclined to read Lewis's correspondence would not know that Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick?

But wait. I live in the United States and we have just had a presidential election. The concept of the conceivable has been re-conceived.

Sudden Gleams of Fugitive Association



“No pupils on Monday morning. Spent the whole time till lunch answering letters and setting examination papers. A dull job, rewarded by those sudden gleams of fugitive association that have the habit of starting up only when the intellect is fully engaged on something else.”

C. S. Lewis

Letter of 17 October 1929

He would have a term for it. And it is the perfect term.

This happens to me a lot in the car. An idea comes, which I can only repeat over and over to myself until I get to a traffic light, where I can scrawl it hastily down in my notebook.

In the Realm of Useless Footnotes


On 10 October 1929 C. S. Lewis wrote in a letter to his brother:

"I also glanced through A. E. Houseman's 'Shropshire Lad' [footnote] for the hundredth time. What a terrible little book it is -- perfect and deadly, the beauty of the gorgon."

The footnote in his published letters reads: “A. E. Houseman, ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (1896).”

Oh, that A.E. Houseman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad.’

But isn’t Lewis’s characterization of the book brilliant? 'Perfect and deadly, the beauty of the gorgon.'

21 November 2016

The Fairy King's Honor and the Elven King's Shame




Corot, 'Orpheus leidt Eurydice de Onderwereld uit', 1861

The Middle English Romance Sir Orfeo presents us with a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which, as Kenneth Sisam says in his Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose, 'the Greek myth is almost lost in a tale of fairyland' (13).  Tolkien, of course, knew both versions of the story quite well. Not only did he call his tale of Beren and Lúthien, 'a kind of Orpheus-legend in reverse' (Letters, no. 153), but he translated Sir Orfeo into modern English as well as producing his own edition of the original text (Hostetter 2004).

Among the many points of contact between the fairies of Sir Orfeo and the Elves of Tolkien, some of which I discuss here, is a connection between the behavior of the Fairy King and Thingol in The Silmarillion.  Once Orfeo has performed before the Fairy King, the King promises to grant him any favor he wishes. Orfeo asks for Heroudis (Eurydice). Here is the scene as Tolkien rendered it:
At last when he his harping stayed,
this speech the king to him then made:
'Minstrel, thy music pleaseth me.
Come, ask of me whate'er it be,
and rich reward I will thee pay.
Come, speak, and prove now what I say!'
'Good sir,' he said, 'I beg of thee
that this thing thou wouldst give to me,
that very lady fair to see
who sleeps beneath the grafted tree.'
'Nay,' said the king, 'that would not do!'
A sorry pair ye'd make, ye two;
for thou are black, and rough, and lean,
and she is faultless, fair, and clean.
A monstrous thing then would it be
to see her in thy company.' 
'O sir,' he said, 'O gracious king,
but it would be a fouler thing
from mouth of thine to hear a lie.
Thy vow, sir, thou canst not deny.
Whate'er I asked, that should I gain,
and thou must needs thy word maintain.'
The king then said: 'Since that is so,
now take her hand in thine, and go;
I wish thee joy of her, my friend!'
(447-476)
In The Tale of Beren and Lúthien the contrast between the two lovers is also extreme. Lúthien is the 'the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar' (Silm 165), while Beren, after years of living rough in the forest, has come 'stumbling into Doriath grey and bowed as with many years of woe, so great had been the torment of the road' (165). And Thingol also finds the idea of Beren (or any man) with his daughter monstrous: 'Unhappy Men, children of little lords and brief kings, shall such as these lay hands on you, and yet live?' (167). The price for Lúthien's hand, he tells him, is one of the Silmarils: '[a]nd those that heard these words perceived that Thingol would save his oath, and yet send Beren to his death' (167). Now setting suitors impossible tasks is at least as old as The Odyssey, and the cleverness of the challenge, here as there, often has unexpected consequences. What is noteworthy in the context of Sir Orfeo is what follows:
Then at last Melian spoke, and she said to Thingol: 'O King, you have devised cunning counsel. But if my eyes have not lost their sight, it is ill for you, whether Beren fail in his errand, or achieve it. For you have doomed either your daughter, or yourself. And now is Doriath drawn within the fate of a mightier realm.' But Thingol answered: 'I sell not to Elves or Men those whom I love and cherish above all treasure. And if there were hope or fear that Beren should come ever back alive to Menegroth, he should not have looked again upon the light of heaven, though I had sworn it.' 
But Lúthien was silent, and from that hour she sang not again in Doriath. A brooding silence fell upon the woods, and the shadows lengthened in the kingdom of Thingol.
(168)
Unlike the Fairy King, who accepts Orfeo's reproof without demur and calls him 'friend' as he sets Heroudis free, Thingol disregards the warnings of his farseeing wife, and scorns the obligations imposed upon him by his own oath. Instead, he openly avows oath-breaking and murder. Moreover, there's a progression from 'Melian spoke' through 'Thingol answered' to '[b]ut Lúthien was silent', which tightly binds Thingol's 'cunning counsel' and his appalling willingness to break his oath to Lúthien's songless silence and the shadows grown long in Doriath. 

Thus both the taking of the oath by a fairy king and his willingness to be forsworn have consequences far beyond anything we moderns might at first suspect in Sir Orfeo, where it seems 'only' the Fairy King's honor is at stake. Yet the honor of the King of Faërie in a medieval Romance, or something modelled on one like The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, must be a serious matter. The Fairy King in Sir Orfeo certainly seems to think so, since his reluctance to keep his promise is overcome by a mere reminder of how 'foul' it would be for him to fail to do so. There is no question that he would shame himself if he denied his vow, and so he fulfills it. In Thingol, however, we see a character of greater moral complexity, but less intergrity, than the character on whom he is based. Of course, having children will do that to you.

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28 October 2016

'For some the only glimpse. For some the awaking.'


Titania, Queen of the Fairies -- C. Wilhelm

'It's a trap!' said Sam, and he laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword; and as he did so, he thought of the darkness of the barrow whence it came. 'I wish old Tom was near us now!' he thought. Then as he stood, darkness about him and a blackness of despair and anger in his heart, it seemed to him that he saw a light: a light in his mind, almost unbearably bright at first, as a sun-ray to the eyes of one long hidden in a windowless pit. Then the light became colour: green, gold, silver, white. Far off, as in a little picture drawn by elven-fingers, he saw the Lady Galadriel standing on the grass in Lórien, and gifts were in her hands. And you, Ring-bearer, he heard her say, remote but clear, for you I have prepared this.

(TT 4.ix.719-20)
This passage has always stuck in my mind for what seems to me a rather odd detail, the likening of Sam's vision of Galadriel to 'a little picture drawn by elven-fingers'. If not for the context of the scene and the sentences surrounding it, this image could well fit a description of one of those fairies, the tiny ones with dragonfly wings. What makes it more interesting is the way the whole passage develops around it and elevates it by pointing to a very different kind of Faërie. The touch of his sword brings him back to his first encounter with that perilous land in 'Tom's country', which in turn causes him to recall his second. And just as Bombadil's breaking open the barrow let the light of day dispel the darkness of the wight, so now the memory of that moment opens the 'blackness of despair and anger in his heart' to the light of Lórien and the star of Eärendil. 

With the light of the star-glass, moreover, yet another encounter is hinted at, since it was the light of the Silmaril that lit the way through the Shadowy Seas to Valinor. It is surely no accident that it is Sam, the character who is arguably the most alive to the power of Story, who makes these connections, or who, seeing the star of Eärendil itself, grasps what is perhaps the gist of all the great tales, that 'in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach' (RK 6.ii.922). 

Years later Tolkien wrote in Smith of Wootton Major of the doll like figure of the Fairy Queen on the Great Cake (Smith, 14), and Smith himself upon knowingly meeting the Queen for the first time thinks back through his life as he converses in thought with her,
... until he came to the day of the Children's Feast and the coming of the star, and suddenly he saw again the little dancing figure with its wand, and in shame he lowered his eyes from the Queen's beauty. 
But she laughed again as she had laughed in the Vale of Evermorn. "Do not be grieved for me, Starbrow," she said. "Nor too much ashamed of you own folk. Better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all. For some the only glimpse. For some the awaking. 
(Smith, 37-38)
The star, the small figure seen in the mind, the Queen -- so like Sam's description of Galadriel (TT 4.v.680; Smith 31-32, 36-38) --  and the link to Faërie, are all here again, in a very different context, which is to be sure less dramatic, but no less suggestive of the power and importance of enchantment, of Faërie itself. We may also see, I think, a moment late in Tolkien's life when he could look back beyond the dislike he had acquired for the cowslip fairies of his youth to an evening in April 1910 when he saw Peter Pan and wrote in his diary: 'Indescribable but shall never forget it as long as I live. Wish E[dith] had been with me' (Carpenter, 47-48).1 


See also Dimitra Fimi here:
'Tolkien might be reflecting upon his own route as a writer, and especially on the evolution of his Elves from the tiny winged creatures of his early poems. Using the voice of the Queen of Faery, he seems to be fully accepting that the fairy creatures found in his early work are not worthy predecessors of his later Elves, but he also acknowledges that they triggered his interest and eventually led him to discover the real Land of Faery.'

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18 October 2016

C S Lewis Not Quite Discussing Neil Gaiman's American Gods




"Because the 18th century was fond of personifying abstractions ('Corruption has seized the provinces' etc.) and because Carlyle carried that further and gave us a tinge of poetry in his French Revolution, whence it passed into every writer who wants to write impressively on poetical and historical subjects, we have now reached a stage at which causes, movements, tendencies etc are talked of as if they were real things who did things: as if it were Bolshevism, not Bolsheviks, who fomented revolutions, and the revolutionary spirit, instead of the revolutionary spirits, which made men drunk.  The natural corollary is that the world is managed by beings such as 'Woman' or 'The Locarne Spirit' and real human beings are pawns in their hands. Now a days you can resist a given spirit or tendency only by hitching yourself to its equally spirituous or tendentious opponent -- much like an Egyptian who, helpless himself against the name of a god, can put it across it by means of the name of a higher god. I was just going to describe this as the return to polytheism. But the polytheists were more sensible for they accepted their positions as pawns because they believed in their gods. And if the wiseacre really believed in the beings to whom he attributes all public events (as I would be quite prepared to do with certain reservations) I could forgive him. But he is the first man to denounce you for a mystic if you hint that there might really be an entity such as the 'spirit of the age' over and above the human beings acting in the age. He is thus in the remarkable position of suspending everything on a peg which (he believes) isn't there, and preaching the uselessness of human endeavour because we are helpless in the hands of -- Nobody. However, the subject seems to be carrying me further than I foresaw."

from a letter to his brother on 9 July 1927.

16 October 2016

As One That Returneth from the Dead (The Lost Road V.283)



Recently I was listening to Mythgard's podcast on The Lost Road and I was struck by the following passage:
Maidros the chief of Fëanor's sons did deeds of surpassing valour, and the Orcs could not endure the light of his face; for since his torment upon Thangorodrim his spirit burned like a white fire within, and he was as one that returneth from the dead, keen and terrible; and they fled before him.
(Lost Road V.283)
While the podcast engaged in a very interesting discussion of the effect of 'returneth' here versus 'returns' in the parallel passage of The Silmarillion (152; podcast time index 1:07:00), it's actually the two comparisons together -- of Maedhros' spirit burning 'like a a white fire within' and of Maedhros himself to someone returned from death -- added to the result 'that the Orcs could not endure the light of his face' and 'fled before him' that led me to think of another character who in fact had died and come back. 

Not Gandalf, as one might first guess, but Glorfindel:
With his last failing senses Frodo heard cries, and it seemed to him that he saw, beyond the Riders that hesitated on the shore, a shining figure of white light; and behind it ran small shadowy forms waving flames, that flared red in the grey mist that was falling over the world. 
The black horses were filled with madness, and leaping forward in terror they bore their riders into the rushing flood. Their piercing cries were drowned in the roaring of the river as it carried them away.
(FR 1.xii.214-215)
Clearly, in describing Maedhros, Tolkien has a very definite idea of what 'one that returneth from the dead' would be like, and Glorfindel seems to fit that bill. Not only do the Ringwraiths flee before him here, but they did so even when he met them alone (FR 1.xii.210; RK App. A 1051).

The natural objection to this is that it wasn't until much later that Tolkien settled the question of whether the Glorfindel of Rivendell was Glorfindel of Gondolin reincarnated  (Yes, he is.) Indeed he discussed the matter in two separate essays composed over thirty years after he had written of Glorfindel of Rivendell (Peoples XII.377-382). Yet, as Christopher Tolkien points out, in 1938 Tolkien certainly regarded them as the same (Return VI.214-15; Peoples XII.377), and that's what is relevant here. Tolkien's portrayal of Glorfindel in The Lord of the Rings comes out of a period in which he was working on and giving great thought to the Quenta Silmarillion, where the passage on Maedhros appears. So in the comparisons he makes for Maedhros we may see well  some of the reality he imagined for Glorfindel in particular and perhaps for reincarnated Elves in general.

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13 October 2016

Hob Hayward, Robin Smallburrow, and the Words of Gildor Inglorion



In her preface to The Vanishing People Katherine M. Briggs writes:

Theological differences sometimes entered into fairylore. For instance, the word Hobgoblin may puzzle many people. Goblins are generally taken to be evil and malicious spirits, hostile to mankind. Hobs [...] are on the whole friendly towards men and ready to be kind to those who treat them civilly. The prefix Hob suggests a helpful spirit. Thus Hobthrust is a North Country Brownie and Hobgoblins are the great class of spirits who perform helpful labours for the country people. To most of the Puritans, however, all fairies were evil creatures, servants of the Devil, and Bunyan's 'Hobgoblin nor foul Fiend' has made a deep impression on our vocabulary.
(Briggs, 8)
As I was reading this, aside from the obvious reflections to be made on the word hobbit, another stood out, which was to me more interesting and amusing. For I think Tolkien may once again be having a bit of fun as he shapes the story. Who is the first hobbit Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin meet on their return to The Shire? Hob Hayward, whose very name sounds like that of a spirit who helps the country people with their labors (Hay-Ward). But here he is on the wrong side, helping the enemies of the Shire among whom we might expect to find a goblin rather than a hob; and though he seems quite glad to learn that 'Master Merry' isn't dead, he will not help Merry and his friends at all until they have driven off Bill Ferny. Thereupon he becomes a source of information, though he still has to fear that some of his fellow gatekeepers will inform on him (RK 6.viii.998-1,000).

Another hobbit in a similar position, and likewise bearing a suggestive name, is Robin Smallburrow, one of the Shirriffs who 'arrest' Frodo and his party the evening after they arrive in the Shire (RK 6.viii.1,001-1,003). His name is reminiscent of another spirit or fairy sometimes identified as a hobgoblin, the inimitable Robin Goodfellow. And while Robin Goodfellow was often mischievous, he can also be helpful, for which he is commonly repaid in food and drink. We may well see these traits combined in Robin Smallburrow's habit of stopping at inns for a pint whether on duty or not, Indeed a significant motive of his for becoming a Shirriff in the first place was 'knowing where the good beer was'. The position as he described it when he took it made it seem a bit of a lark. Sam also addresses him as 'Cock-robin', a name recalling a nursery rhyme which goes back to the eighteenth century and is perhaps derived from material that is much older.

The changes that have come to the Shire since Frodo and the others left are first made real in these two hobbits, whose jobs have been redefined in troubling ways. Beforehand, Robin Smallburrow travelled about the countryside visiting inns and hearing the 'news' of the Shire, much of which we would likely consider gossip if the pub conversations we witnessed in A Long-expected Party (FR 1.i.22-24) and The Shadow of the Past (FR 1.ii.44-45) are any guide. Hob Hayward worked at the Hay Gate, precisely the gate of which Merry says 'it is possible that in the morning even a Black Rider that rode up and asked for Mr Baggins would be let through' (FR 1.v.107). Which raises the question unasked at the beginning of A Knife in the Dark (FR 1.xi.176-77): just how did the Black Riders get into Buckland? And, now that we know of Hob Hayward, was he one of the guards ridden down by the Black Riders when they reached the gate?

Less than a week before the Black Riders attacked the house at Crickhollow Frodo met Gildor Inglorion, and expressed his dismay at hobbits finding themselves unsafe 'in their own Shire.' While sympathetic, Gildor tells him an important truth:
'But it is not your own Shire,’ said Gildor. ‘Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.’
(FR 1.iii.83)
While it may be tempting to see prophecy in Gildor's words, especially in view of what Sam sees in Galadriel's mirror (FR 2.vii.362-363)), the reality is that no one knew better than the Elves did the transience of the mortal world around them. His words simply anticipate what will happen, because it is what has always happened. The fact that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, raise the Shire against its enemies and drive them out, does not change what will happen in the end, as we shall see if we recall the Prologue and its long perspective on Hobbits. According to the narrator of the Prologue, who expects that his audience will know little or nothing of them, they are rare in his day, even smaller now than they once were, and elusive to the point of seeming magical because they possessed the 'art of disappearing swiftly and silently' (FR Pr. 1-2). Can it be an accident then that the names Hob Hayward and Robin Smallburrow are suggestive of fairies? The end of The Lord of the Rings of course marks the beginning of the Fourth Age, the time of the Dominion of Men (RK 6.v.971).  Thus even the names of these two passing, minor characters signal the changes to the Shire and the world that have already begun.

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26 September 2016

These Are Not The Elves You're Looking For. (I)

Cover Image © John Howe


Last year several friends asked me to join them in writing an article for a festschrift to honor the scholarly achievements of Verlyn Flieger. What emerged from our collaboration builds upon Professor Flieger's work, further exploring dreams and enchantment and how they expand the perception of time and the world in The Lord of the Rings. Like every other study, this one suggested new lines of inquiry. For one of us that meant investigating more deeply the relationship between forests and Faërie; for another a continuing effort to understand how On Fairy-stories relates to the legendarium as it unfolded.[1]  As for me, I turned to the study of the Elves themselves, who, as Tolkien said, 'have their being' in Faërie (OFS para. 10).[2]  Through scrutiny of 'their being' I hope to grope my way to a better understanding of Faërie itself.  The question is where to begin.

For we all know that Tolkien came to scorn the cowslip fairies of his Victorian youth. Nevertheless, they left their mark on him, a mark clearly visible not only in early poems like Goblin Feet (1915),[3]  but also in his more mature works.  It is, for example, quite prominent in Errantry (1933) and in the 'tra-la-la-lally' Elves of The Hobbit (1937).[4]  We may even catch the vanishing echo of their song in the laughter of Gildor's troop in the woods of the Shire (FR 1.iii.78-85).  But by the time Tolkien was writing the first chapters of his 'new Hobbit' and preparing his essay On Fairy-stories,[5] he had also seen that the 'business [of rationalization and literary fashion that led to the debasement of the fairies] began ... long before the nineteenth century, and long ago achieved tiresomeness, certainly the tiresomeness of trying to be funny and failing' (OFS para. 8-9).[6]  Much of the blame for this he laid at the feet of Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream and of Michael Drayton (especially) in Nymphidia.

The matter is of course by no means pat, with a clear division between works in which we find fairies in the Victorian mold and works in which we do not.  For even in an early poem like You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play (1915), which is contemporary with Goblin Feet, there abides a more sober sense of loss and a longing which we find even more strongly in Kortirion among the Trees (1915).[7]  And if in The Book of Lost Tales Tinúviel can be a bit silly and hide under flowers like a proper Victorian fairy, Turgon and Fëanor are made of more dangerous and tragic stuff.[8]  But it is also clear from the narrative perspective of The Book of Lost Tales that a breach we cannot mend has opened between us and fairies, and between what the fairies were and what they have become. The fairies who tell Eriol the tales have diminished and gone into the West, but whether they have remained who they were before is not as certain.

This breach has two inseparable aspects, the one literary, the other mythological. The English literary tradition turned away from what Tolkien called the 'true tradition' of  Faërie that we find still alive in The Faërie Queene of Edmund Spenser, in which fairies were powerful and perilous and fair.[9] A contemporary of Shakespeare like Drayton, Spenser shares in a mythology of Faërie descended from named poets like Gower, Chaucer, and Thomas the Rhymer, as well as from the unnamed poets of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and of Sir Orfeo. Much farther back, though unremembered in Spenser's day, was Beowulf, which for centuries lay lost in the streams of time, like the One Ring beneath the waters of Anduin, forgotten yet waiting only for the right hand to wield it.[10] 

But it's a long road from the ylfe of Beowulf to the elves of Spenser.  The Beowulf poet traces the lineage of his elves to Cain himself (111-114),
Þanon untydras ealle onwocon,
eotenas 7 ylfe 7 orcneas,
swylce gi|[ga](ntas), þa wið Gode wunnon
lange þrag(e).(He) him ðæs lean forgeald!
From whom all monstrous creatures descend,
the ettens and elves and hellish undead,
the giants, too, who fought against God
for a long season; for that he repaid them.
By contrast Redcrosse, the first of Spenser's 'Faerie Knights' (FQ 1 proem 14), is called 'a valiant Elfe' (FQ 1.i.xvii.1 = Book 1, Canto 1, Stanza xvii, Line 1, for example) and described as very much a Christian:
And on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as living ever him ador'd.

(FQ 1.i.ii.1-4)
And though not an elf by blood, but a child stolen in infancy, Redcrosse was raised to believe he was of fairy race (FQ 1.i.lx.1-lxvi.9). Learning that he is a human changes nothing for him or his role. He still stands allegorically for Holiness, and still slays the dragon that laid Eden waste. The sort of divide we see between humans and elves in Beowulf does not exist in The Faerie Queene. They are not part of that monstrous race of Cain.  It's as if we begin with the Beowulf poet, who straddled the worlds of Northern and Christian myth, and confronted a question like that posed by Alcuin: 'What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?'; and then end with Spenser, who lived in a day when Reason and the Reformation were displacing Medieval views of the world and enchantment,[11] and reducing fairies to 'a rustic folk of dell and cave' (FR 2.vii.365).  Yet Spenser's reply to Alcuin's question would seem to be 'everything.'

So, just as Tolkien's own presentation of fairies and elves over time admits of no pat distinctions, neither does the tradition on which he draws. As James Wade has recently argued in his Fairies in Medieval Romance, the fairies -- or perhaps we might say the 'being' of the fairies -- vary from work to work depending on the subcreative goals of the author. There was no canonical portrayal of fairies to which the writers of Romance had to adhere, no 'straightforward chronological process' in which the fairies evolved.[12]  Even Morgan le Fay, who between the 12th and 16th centuries tended to grow increasingly human, never shakes the dust of Faërie off herself once and for all: she remains forever 'le Fay'; she must take Arthur to Avalon even when healing no longer awaits him there; and in some 16th century Romances like Huon de Bordeaux and Mervine son of Ogier, she fully reverts to her otherworldly state.[13] Indeed, as Tolkien already knew, this indeterminacy is part of the essence of Faërie (OFS, para 12):
The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole.
As a philologist and a writer of fairy stories, Tolkien was in a rare position that few before him could have justly claimed, both to survey the entirety of the English literary tradition of the Otherworld, from Beowulf to Peter Pan, and in consequence to seek out the lost road to a truer and more perilous Faërie, where the Green Knight might take the head you came with quicker than Robin Goodfellow could give you another. Mending the literary aspect of the breach -- or at least stitching it up in the hope that it might heal -- would also repair the mythological, and reconnect England and its literary tradition to a lost mythology. That Tolkien said he had once hoped to do precisely this scarcely needs repeating,[14] and we should not forget that directly before he began The Lord of the Rings and On Fairy-stories Tolkien had been working on The Lost Road and the Beowulfian King Sheave with their explicit connection of England, Men, and Elves. So a desire to mend that breach in the literary and mythological tradition is very much in evidence precisely as he begins to compose his great work and to articulate his notion of fairy stories.[15] 

Now Tom Shippey has called Sir Orfeo ' "the master-text" for Tolkien's portrayal of the elves.'[16]  Consider for just a moment how appropriate this is if true. The 'master-text' of Tolkien's own mythic figures draws on another tale with the deepest of roots, a remote and ancient myth that Tolkien found compelling (Letters, no. 153).[17] Not only that but Sir Orfeo is a text that transforms important aspects of what it finds in Orpheus and Eurydice. Orfeo succeeds where Orpheus fails, and Faërie stands in for Hades. Otherworld replaces Underworld. To mend the literary-mythological breach, Tolkien draws on both Sir Orfeo and Orpheus and Eurydice to construct the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, which is so fundamental to his own legendarium and which has transformations of his own. Here a female elf sings to win back her dead mortal love. Since the Halls of Mandos are in the Undying Lands, moreover, we find the Underworld and Otherworld also combined. Most importantly Lúthien's success comes with a price. In reclaiming Beren from death she willingly sacrifices her own immortality, a choice whose effects will ripple through the entire history of Middle-earth. Thus, Tolkien uses myth to repair and refashion myth.  On this showing, Sir Orfeo would seem a very good place to start.

The first thing we see is that the 'being' of the fairies is different with respect to the world than the 'being' of men is. The world which they inhabit is larger. It spans the border between what we mortals see as the waking and dreaming worlds.  They come to Heurodis as she sleeps beneath the ympe-tree, first the two fairy knights, then the fairy king himself who abducts her, shows her his realm, and returns her, promising that he will take her away for good the next day and woe betide any attempt at resistance.  The following day, despite all Orfeo's preparations to fight for his wife, she vanishes without a trace from the midst of the troops surrounding her (57-194).[18]

Now no one, not the two maids of Heurodis who watched while she slept, nor Orfeo her husband ever questions her experience or suggests that 'it was just a dream.' Not even the narrator calls it a dream (sweven). Everyone (including the reader) simply accepts that the world contains both seen and unseen, both ordinary mortals and fairies, of whom Heurodis can say 'I saw not ever anywhere / a folk so peerless and so fair' (147-48).  And though Orfeo marshals his troops to defend his wife, it is all for nothing:
And yet from the midst of that array
the queen was sudden snatched away;
by magic was she from them caught,
and none knew whither she was brought.

(191-94)
Even considering so little of Sir Orfeo as this, we can already see points of contact with Tolkien. The fairies' peerless beauty, a given, is merely the easiest to spot. For Ilúvatar made the Elves to be 'the fairest of all earthly creatures' (Silm. 41). That the Elves perceive and dwell in a larger world is clear in the ability of Gildor and Glorfindel to sense and recognize others concealed and at a distance (FR 1.iii.80; xii.209); in the power of Galadriel and Elrond to communicate directly and silently with the minds of others (FR 2.vii.356-58; RK 6.vi.985); and in the truth that Gandalf tells Frodo, that 'those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live in both worlds at once, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power' (FR 2.i.222-23). We may also detect something of that larger world in Frodo's ability to see both the Black Riders themselves and the Elf lord 'as he is on the other side' only after the sorcery of the Morgul-blade has begun to alienate him from his own (FR 1.xii.222). Orfeo, too, cannot see the fairies until he has lost his own world and become a wildman in the forest, playing his harp and singing for the beasts who disregard him once his song is over (195-280).

But, as the studies of both Wade and Tolkien caution, we should not expect a direct and simple correspondence between the fairies of Sir Orfeo and the Elves of  Middle-earth. Tolkien borrows, chooses, and transforms what he finds. In Tolkien, for example, it is the Elves who have the power to stir up visions through song (Silm. 140-41, 170-71; FR 2.ii.233; RK A 1058); in Sir Orfeo, however, it is to a mortal man, Orfeo himself, that this power belongs:
no man hath in this world been born
who would not, hearing him, have sworn
that as before him Orfeo played
to joy of Paradise he had strayed
and sound of harpers heavenly,
such joy there was and melody. 
(41-46)
Moreover, the arbitrary and cruel exercise of the Fairy King's power in abducting Heurodis has no true parallel in Tolkien, only the very limited similarity found in Eöl's capture of Aredhel (Silm. 132-33), both of whom are Elves. The Elves of Tolkien are Good People, after all (Hobbit 60, 179). Yet, while they do not arbitrarily carry mortals off against their will, and while they may know some of them from afar -- Gildor recognizes Frodo, and two of the Elves at Rivendell seem to know Bilbo (Hobbit 59) -- they themselves remain mysterious, elusive, and inscrutable, just like the Fairy King in Sir Orfeo.

This has been only the briefest beginning on this project of mine, to examine closely the primary sources which Tolkien drew on to sub-create his Elves. The point is not source-hunting per se, but the far more important goal of seeing how Tolkien uses those sources to compose the 'heroic legends and high romance' that he so desired (Letters no. 163), and to create Elves of his own whose keen eyes never lose sight of the ‘starlight on the western seas’ (FR 1.iii.79), just as the feet of the hobbits never lose touch with the soil of the Shire.[19] That he appears to do so as eclectically as his models did should surprise no one.


I presented a version of this post on 25 September 2016 at the 3rd Mythgard Midatlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium in College Park, MD.  A more complete analysis of the entirety of Sir Orfeo and the relationship of its fairies to Tolkien's Elves will appear in Tolkien Studies 16.


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[1] See Simon John Cook, How to Do Things with Words: Tolkien’s Theory of Fantasy in Practice, Journal of Tolkien Research: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 6. Now available for download from: http://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienresearch/vol3/iss1/6


[2] Nor of course does it just contain Elves: 'Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted'(OFS para. 10).


[3] Compare the impact which attending a performance of Peter Pan in April 1910 had on him: 'Indescribable but shall never forget it as long as I live. Wish E[dith] had been with me.' Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (1977) 47-48, quoting from Tolkien's (unpublished) diary.

[4] Though published in 1937 of course, The Hobbit had been completed by the beginning of 1933, and so therefore dates to about the same period as Errantry.  On the chronology of composition, see Rateliff, History (2011) xiii-xxii.

[5]  See Cook, above n. 1.

[6] OFS para. 7:
The diminutive being, elf or fairy, is (I guess) in England largely a sophisticated product of literary fancy. It is perhaps not unnatural that in England, the land where the love of the delicate and fine has often reappeared in art, fancy should in this matter turn towards the dainty and diminutive, as in France it went to court and put on powder and diamonds. Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of “rationalization,” which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood. In any case it was largely a literary business in which William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton played a part. Drayton's Nymphidia is one ancestor of that 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. 
The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in England experienced a decline in the belief in magic, ghosts, and fairies. See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth Century England, Penguin (1991) 724-34 on fairies in particular.

[7]  On Tolkien and Warwick, Lynn Forest-Hill, 'Elves on the Avon,' TLS 8.7.05, is good, though she might give too much weight to the influence of biographical details.

[8] As Rateliff, 119-21, notes, Tolkien at times 'blends two different traditions' and the sillier fairies are more often found in his poetry than his prose. On Lúthien, see The Book of Lost Tales 2.11-13;  on Turgon 2.160-62; on Fëanor 1.149-51, 162-68.

[9] But are in most cases visually and, it would seem, physically indistinguishable from humans, like Spenser's Redcrosse.

[10] On the loss and rediscovery of Old English, see John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Wiley Blackwell (2015), especially 49-108 on the 16th and 17th centuries. A visual clue to how thoroughly Beowulf was forgotten may be gleaned from the Google Ngram I have embedded at the end of this post.

[11] See Thomas, above n. 6.

[12] The phrase, which strictly refers to the transformation of Morgan le Fay only, is from James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance Palgrave MacMillan (2011) 18.

[13] See the excellent discussion of these matters in Wade (2011) 1-21.

[14] In late 1951 Tolkien wrote:
 'Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story-the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country'
(Letters, no. 131)

[14] For recent discussion of Tolkien’s writing of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings and On Fairy-stories, and of the effect these had on each other, see Cook, above n. 1.

[16] Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (2003) 62. To be fair, Shippey focuses his claim more precisely on 'the description of the hunting king in Sir Orfeo', lines 281-302.

[17] As did Lewis. See An Experiment in Criticism, chapter 5, 'Myth'; and Barfield, who wrote Orpheus: a Poetic Drama (1983), a pdf of which is available from Barfield's literary estate.

[18] The translation and line numbers of Sir Orfeo offered throughout are Tolkien's, since it is his perspective on and understanding of this poem that is at issue. Tolkien himself prepared an edition of the poem, upon which he based his translation, but it was not published until 2004. See Carl Hostetter, Sir Orfeo: A Middle English Version by J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien Studies 1 (2004) 85-123. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/laskaya-and-salisbury-middle-english-breton-lays-sir-orfeo offers an easily accessible version of the standard text with notes and introduction.

[19] Both the ‘being’ of the Elves and the ‘being’ of the hobbits are essential to The Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien suggests in his letter to Auden (no. 163):
Since The Hobbit was a success, a sequel was called for; and the remote Elvish Legends were turned down. A publisher's reader said they were too full of the kind of Celtic beauty that maddened Anglo-Saxons in a large dose. Very likely quite right. Anyway I myself saw the value of Hobbits, in putting earth under the feet of 'romance', and in providing subjects for 'ennoblement' and heroes more praiseworthy than the professionals: nolo heroizari is of course as good a start for a hero, as nolo episcopari for a bishop.