12 November 2017

Legolas at Night -- C.S. Lewis and the Dreams of the Elves

The other day I was listening to one of Malcolm Guite's marvelous talks -- I say marvelous, as if, absurdly, there were talks of his that were not marvelous -- this one was on C. S. Lewis and part of a series on The Inklings. Right near the end, he read aloud Lewis' poem, The Adam at Night, to convey Lewis' sense of what the consciousness of an unfallen human being might be like. In this poem, first published in Punch in 1949, Lewis imagines Adam not sleeping, says Guite, but, 'as it were, entering into the consciousness of the world itself without losing his consciousness as a person':
Except at the making of Eve Adam slept
Not at all (as men now sleep) before the Fall;
Sin yet unborn, he was free from that dominion
04  Of the blind brother of death who occults the mind. 
Instead, when stars and twilight had him to bed
And the dutiful owl, whirring over Eden, had hooted
A warning to the other beasts to be hushed till morning
08  And curbed their plays that the Man should be undisturbed,

He would lie, relaxed, enormous, under a sky
Starry as never since; he would set ajar
The door of his mind. Into him thoughts would pour
12  Other than day's. He rejoined Earth, his mother.
He melted into her nature. Gradually he felt
As though through his own flesh the elusive growth,
The hardening and spreading of roots in the deep garden;
16  In his veins, the wells filling with silver rains, 
And, thrusting down far under his rock-crust,
Finger-like, rays from the heavens that probed, bringing
To bloom the gold and diamond in his dark womb.
20  The seething, central fires moved with his breathing. 
He guided his globe smoothly in the heaven, riding
At one with his planetary peers around the Sun;
Courteously he saluted the hard virtue of Mars
24  And Venus' liquid glory as he spun between them. 
Over Man and his mate the Hours like waters ran
Till darkness thinned in the east. The treble lark,
Carolling, awoke the common people of Paradise
28  To yawn and scratch, to bleat and whinny, in the dawn. 
Collected now in themselves, human and erect,
Lord and Lady walked on the dabbled sward,
As if two trees should arise dreadfully gifted
32  With speech and motion. The Earth's strength was in each.

The first three quatrains (lines 1-12) called at once to my mind Tolkien's characterization of the dreams of Elves:
With that [Aragorn] fell asleep. Legolas already lay motionless, his fair hands folded upon his breast, his eyes unclosed, blending living night and deep dream, as is the way with Elves.
(TT 3.ii.442)
Legolas can do the same thing, or something very like it, by day as well:
and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.  
(TT 3.ii.429)
While quatrains 4 through 7 (12-28) do not bear the same close resemblance to what we find in Tolkien, the essential closeness of Adam to the world and the creatures in it is reminiscent of how closely to Arda the Elves are bound. Even at death they do not leave it -- as do Men whose proper home is not in Arda, but somewhere beyond it -- but after a time live again. And this will be so for as long as Arda lasts. In keeping with this is their way with nature, ranging from Legolas' ability to hear the stones of Hollin and communicate with Arod, the horse loaned him by Éomer, to the Elves' power to enchant and to 'wake up' creatures and teach them to talk, as they did with the Ents. 

Even so, the reference to the 'common people of Paradise' in lines 27-28 seems far more Narnian, and it is hard not to think of Tor and Tinidril of Perelandra when Lewis calls Adam and Eve 'Lord and Lady' in line 30. Yet this also turns us back to Tolkien, since the names Tor and Tinidril are modelled on Tuor and Idril from The Silmarillion, and his Ents are very much trees 'dreadfully gifted with speech and motion'. But so, too, in a sense, are Ask and Embla, the first two humans of Norse Mythology, whom Odin, Vili, and Vé fashioned from tree-trunks they found on the seashore: '[o]ne of Bor's sons gives [them] spirit and life; the second, mind and movement; the third, appearance, speech, hearing, and vision' (Lindow, 62). Both Lewis and Tolkien of course knew this myth perfectly well.

Finally in this lovely web of influences we should not forget that Tolkien modeled the way Treebeard spoke 'on the booming voice of C. S. Lewis' (Carpenter, 1977, 194), just as Lewis drew on Tolkien to shape his hero, Ransom, the philologist and hero of his Space Trilogy.



09 November 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune V (25-72)

Image 1

Als j me wente þis endres daye,
ffull faste in mynd makand my mone
In a mery mornynge of Maye,
28   By huntle bankkes my self allone,
I herde þe jaye, & þe throstyll cokke,
The Mawys meynde hir of hir songe,
Þe wodewale beryde als a belle,
32   That alle þe wode abowte me ronge.
Allone in longynge thus als j laye,
Vndyre-nethe a semely tree,
[was] j whare a lady gaye
[36   Come rydyng] over a longe lee.
If j solde sytt to domesdaye,
With my tonge, to wrobbe and wrye,
Certanely þat lady gaye,
40   Never bese scho askryede for mee.

25 -- j: as previously noted 'j' alone  = 'I'.

It is important to note that the poem begins as a first person account, as if by Thomas himself, which continues until line 72. Thereafter the poet tells the tale in the third person, with one brief reversion to first at line 276.

25 -- endres: 'other'. The statement that this all started the other day conflicts with the later statement on line 286 that Thomas spent three years in Elfland.

26 -- 'ffull faste in mynd makand my mone': 'with every intention of voicing my complaint'. Most likely an unhappy lover's complaint, since that is a commonplace of Middle English poetry. Consider Chaucer, The House of Fame, where Dido laments her abandonment by Aeneas in lines 315-60, and the narrator comments (362-63): 'Al her compleynt ne al hir moone, / Certeyn, avayleth hir not a stre'. See also Troilus and Criseyde IV.950: 'Ful tendrely he preyde and made his mone'.

28 -- huntle bankkes: Huntley Bank, a hillside near Earlston (Ercledoune), also known as Huntley Brae. The naming of an actual place begins the story firmly in this world. The references to 'the other day' (25) and the Eildon Tree (80, 84) play the same role. Thus Faërie is very close to the world we know.

29-32 -- The singing of the birds, just  as one would expect in May, also helps to root the story in the ordinary world.

29 -- þrostyll cokke: a thrush, perhaps the missel thrush (turdus viscivorus). Swainson notes that throstle cock is the name for this bird in nearby Roxburgh (2).

30 -- Mawys: the mavis or song thrush (turdus musicus).

-- meynde hir:  'reminded herself', 'recalled'.

31 -- wodewale: the woodlark (alauda arborea), says Murray. While I do not doubt this, I have been unable to find corroboration. Swainson (98-99) does not include wodewale as a local variant for woodlark, but for the Great Spotted Woodpecker (dendrocopus major) and the Green Woodpecker (gecinus viridis) in far off Hampshire and Somerset, respectively.  The OED identifies the woodwall first as archaic name for the golden oriole (oriolus galbula, which seems to be the same as the oriolus oriolus, but I cannot yet confirm this).

-- beryde: 'resounded'.

33 -- Allone in longyng: see note on line 26.

34 -- semely tree: not the same as the so-called Eildon Tree (80, 84), another landmark, whose location is commemorated by a monument. See image 1 above.

35 -- was] j whare: here and elsewhere below the Thornton MS has lacunae in the text, and I have used the other MSS to supplement. Cotton reads 'I was war', while Landsdowne has 'I saw where' and Cambridge 'Saw I where'.  Clearly there is also confusion between 'whare' (=  'aware') and 'whare' (= 'where'), and this has affected the verb. Since the lines preceding these detail the speaker's awareness of his surroundings, I am inclined to the far more vivid 'was j whare', i.e., 'I became aware', which also preserves the inverted word order suggested by the remains of this line in Thornton, and paralleled in Cambridge. 

36 -- Come rydyng]: Cotton: 'come rydyng'; Landsdowne: 'cam rydyng'; Cambridge: 'came ridand'.

-- lee: 'lea' denotes open land not currently under the plow, either used for pasturage or left fallow.  

38 -- to wrobbe and wrye: 'wrobben' means 'babble on, prattle'. 'Wry(e' means to 'move by twisting or turning', sometimes with connotations of misinterpretation or madness. 

40 -- scho: she.

-- askryede for mee: 'described by me'. True to his word, the poet spends virtually no time at all in what follows describing the Lady. Rather he focusses in detail on her horse and its saddle (42-46, 49-51, 57-64), with briefer comments on the Lady herself interspersed (47-48, 54-56).

Hir palfraye was a dapill graye,
[42 ........................................
Swylke one ne saghe j neuer none;
Also dose þe sonne on someres daye,
48   Þat faire lady hir selfe scho shone.
Hir selle it was of roelle bone,
ffull semely was þat syghte to see!
Stefly sett with precyous stones,
52   And compaste all with crapotee,
Stones of Oryente, grete plente;
Hir hare abowte hir hede it hange;
Scho rade over þat lange lee;
56   A whylle scho blewe, anoþer scho sange;
Hir garthes of nobyll sylke þay were,
The bukylls were of Berell stone,
Hir steraps were of crystalle clere,
60   And all with perell over-by-gone.
Hir  payettrelle was a of jrale fyne,
Hir cropoure was of Orpharë,
And als clere golde hir brydill it schone,
64   One aythir syde hange bellys three.
[She led iij grehoundis in a leeshe,
viij rachis be hir fete ran;
To speke with hir wold I not seesse;
68   Hir lire was white as any swan.
Fforsothe, lordyngs, as I yow tell,
Thus was þis lady fayre begon.]
Scho bare an horne abowte hir halse,
72   And under hir belte full many a flone;

42-45 Murray places a lacuna in his printing of the Thornton, Cotton, and Cambridge Manuscripts, yet he clearly believes something resembling the text of the Lansdowne once stood here, since his numbering of the lines takes the Lansdowne into account. Yet whatever memory of the original the Lansdowne preserves is an imperfect and troublesome one, which we cannot simply insert to fill the gap, since that would disrupt the rhyme scheme and the numbering. 

[The farest Molde that any myght be;
Here sadell bryght as any day.
*44   Set with pereles to þe kne.
And furthermore of hir Aray,
Divers clothing she had upon;]

41 -- palfrey: a riding horse of the Middle Ages, known for a smooth, quick gait that made it ideal for travelling long distances.

*42 -- Molde: type, nature, character.

*45 -- furthermore: in addition.

*45-46 -- Aray...clothing: it is difficult to be sure what is being described here, since aray can refer either to the furnishings of the saddle or the apparel of the Lady, and clothing can mean 'clothing' as well as the 'trappings' of a horse. 'And furthermore', however, seems to establish a connection to *43-44, and the descriptions of the horse's tack are more detailed than those of the Lady, whom the poet calls indescribable in line 40, or describes in vague or fulsome terms: she shines like the summer sun (47-480; wears her hair loose, blows a horn, or sings (54-56). This inclines me to believe that aray and clothing refer to the saddle and its trappings.

*46 -- clothing: the trappings or caparison. In image two we see two caparisoned horses, one in blue, the other in red.

 lmage Two, by Jean Fouquet ca 1450s 1455-60.

46 -- Swylke one: 'such a one'. See next note.

-- ne saghe j neuer none: the vaporish modern prohibition against multiple negatives does not apply in Middle English. It requires a bit of gymnastics to make them all fit in: ''Nor saw I never none such as this one.' It is obviously a very strongly negative statement.

-- 49: selle also means saddle, but here may refer specifically to the seat. Cf. the same line in the Lansdowne -- 'here sege was of ryall bone' -- where sege clearly means 'seat',

-- roelle bone: walrus ivory, or possibly narwhal (OED s.v. ruel-bone). The Lewis Chessmen are likely the most famous example of work in walrus ivory. For much of the Middle Ages, elephant ivory was in short supply in northern Europe.

52 -- compaste: 'compassed', or 'surrounded', i.e., a border of gemstones ran along the edges of the saddle.

-- crapote: either toadstone -- a greenish fossil gemstone believed to be found inside the heads of toads (cf. Fr. crapaud), which could serve as an antidote to poison --  or emerald as  'Stones of Oryente' may indicate. How often is 'emerald' the more prosaic choice?

56 -- a whylle...anoþer...: sometimes...sometimes....

57 -- garthes: the girth of the saddle.

58 -- berell stone: beryl, of which emerald and aquamarine are examples.

59 -- crystalle clere: quartz crystal. Cf. Sir Orfeo 357-58, on the wall of the fairy king's castle: 'Al þe vt-mast wal / Was clere & schine as cristal'.

60 -- perell: pearl or mother of pearl.

-- over-by-gone: 'ornamented all over'.

61 -- payetrelle: peitrel, a 'protective breastplate' or 'breast collar' for a horse. See image three.

-- jrale fyne: an unknown precious stone. Murray says: 'I can get no light on iral-stane; the scribes also seem not to have understood it, and hence their alterations, rial, alarane, &c'. He guesses that iral-stane was the original reading, since that would rhyme with schone in line 63, which fyne obviously cannot.

63 -- cropoure: crupper, today only a strap running the back of the saddle to the horse's tail to keep the saddle from shifting; in the Middle Ages, a covering for the horse's hind quarters, often armored. See image two.

-- Orpharë: probably signifying that the crupper has an ornamental band or fringe of gold, from orfevrie, 'goldsmith's work', from Latin 'aurifaber', goldsmith.

Image Three

*65-70 -- A second lacuna, this one posited by Murray. While there is no visible gap in Thornton, Lansdowne shows one. Cotton is damaged at this point, but enough remains to show that it did not continue as Thornton does, directly from 'bellys three' to 'And sevene raches...'. Cambridge supplies the text I've inserted. This, however, is also problematic. For, as Murray points out, these lines are not in the poem itself, but 'written at the side and foot with marks of insertion'.

*66 -- rachis: a rache or ratch was a hunting dog that tracked its prey by scent, unlike greyhounds, which rely on sight.

*67 -- To speke with hir wold I not seesse: Since he has not spoken with her yet, this sentence seems unlikely to mean, 'to speak with her I would not cease'. Here 'with hir' makes more sense taken to mean 'regarding her'. He can't stop talking about her.

*68 -- lire: cheek.

*70 -- fayre begon: 'beautifully turned-out'.

71 -- halse: neck.

72 -- flone: arrows. Together with the horn and the dogs, the arrows suggest that she is hunting, but what, or whom? Arrows of course had long been associated with the god of Love. Does the poet's failure to mention a bow make it more conspicuous? Does her appearance as a huntress hark back to Venus' appearing to Aeneas as a huntress in Book One of The Aeneid? (1.379-497 Fagles). There Aeneas mistakes her for a human at first, recognizing her as his goddess mother only as she turns to go. Thomas will also mistake the Fairy Queen for someone else when he sees her (lines 85-96).


Note to the Reader:

I am not a Medievalist by training, though I've read a fair amount of Old and Middle English for someone who isn't. My goal is to make this fascinating text more readily available and more easily read than it has been so far. The text Murray published in 1875 is available from the Early English Text Society for a reasonable price. (Beware of scanned reprints put out by others.) I have also lately discovered that Ingeborg Nixon published a text and commentary in Denmark in the early 1980s, but I have not been able to find a copy of it for sale at anything like a reasonable price ($300+). For that much I should get to meet the Queen of Elfland herself. One of these days I will make a pilgrimage to consult it at the New York University library, which seems to have a copy. So, pardon any mistakes I make, and help me to correct them. I will gladly publish any comment that is civil and signed. Anything rude or anonymous I shall delete.


Works Consulted

Burnham, Josephine M, A Study of Thomas of Erceldoune, PMLA 23.3 (1908) 375-420.

Lyle, E.B., Thomas of Erceldoune: The Prophet and the Prophesied, Folklore 79 (1968) 111-121.

________, The Relationship between Thomas the Rhymer and Thomas of  Erceldoune, Leeds Studies in English 4 (1970) 23-30.

________, The Visions in St Patrick's Purgatory, Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas the Rhymer, and The Demon Lover, Neuphilologishe Mitteilungen 72 (1971) 716-722.

Paton, Lucy Alan, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance, Boston (1903).

Swainson, Charles, Provincial Names and Folklore of British Birds, London (1885).


⇦Thomas of Erceldoune IV || Thomas of Erceldoune VI⇨

26 October 2017

The More You Read, The More Jokes You Get

Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948)

A friend of mine once told me that the more you read, the more jokes you get.

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Lying down at OPHELIA's feet. 
No, my lord. 
I mean, my head upon your lap? 
Ay, my lord. 
Do you think I meant country matters? 
I think nothing, my lord. 
That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs. 
What is, my lord? 
You are merry, my lord. 
Who, I? 
Ay, my lord.

Once I was teaching Hamlet, and one of my exceptional, fun students, stopped me when we were discussing Act III Scene ii. There was an editor's note in the text, she said, which pointed out that 'country matters' was an obscene pun. She didn't get it. For a moment I stopped, trying to think of a way to suggest it to her without saying too much. You have to hear it to get it, I told her, and turned away to write on the board. A few seconds passed, in which the tap and scratch of chalk on slate seemed to fill the room. Then I heard her: "Oh..OH!" Recognition murmured its way across the room.

This morning, twenty years after, I was reading Thomas of Erceldoune, and came across an obscene joke that was almost certainly not there, but which I got but because I had read Shakespeare.

'Come lygge thyne hede downe on my knee,
And [þou] sall se þe fayreste syghte,
þat euer sawe mane of thi contree.' (1.194-96) 
Come lie thine head down on my knee,
And thou shalt see the fairest sight
That ever saw a man of thy country.

I don't think this is what my friend meant, but in a November of the soul you take what you can get.

Sad Songs They Say So Much, or, Northrop Frye Explains It All

Northrop Frye statue outside the Moncton Public Library, not yet defaced by adherents of subsequent critical schools

In this miraculous paragraph Northrop Frye explains not only why sad songs are always the best, but also how Tolkien could write both The Hobbit and The Children of Húrin:

In literature there are two great organizing patterns. One is the natural cycle itself; the other, a final separation between an idealized and happy world and a horrifying or miserable one.  Comedy moves in the direction of the former, and traditionally closes in some traditional formula as "They lived happily ever after." Tragedy moves in the opposite direction, and towards the complementary formula "Count no man happy until he is dead."  The moral effect of literature is normally bound up with its assumption that we prefer to identify ourselves with the happy world and detach ourselves from the wretched one. The record of history, in itself, does not indicate this: it indicates that man is quite as enthusiastic about living in hell as in heaven.  To see misery as tragic, as a destroyed and perverted form of greatness and splendor, is a primary achievement of Greek literature. The Bible's vision of misery is ironic rather than tragic, but the same dialectical separation of the two worlds is quite as strongly marked. 
The Great Code, 73
It would also make a terrific passage to set for an examination essay, followed by the single word: discuss.

22 October 2017

Guest Post -- Meredith McEwen on Goldberry

Some weeks ago, following up on discussions in the class Meredith McEwen refers to below, I posted some observations on Goldberry. Soon thereafter Meredith had some astute remarks of her own to add to the conversation, and she has been gracious enough to allow me to share them with everyone. My thanks to her for allowing me to post them here. 


While discussing Goldberry and Tom Bombadil in Corey Olson’s intrepid Exploring the Lord of the Rings class, several of my fellow readers commented that “Goldberry” doesn’t sound at all like an appropriate name for a water-spirit. I wholeheartedly agree and got to thinking about who the River-woman’s daughter might truly be. What does the river nourish? Many things along its course: the flora and fauna surrounding the Withywindle. Perhaps “berry” is metaphorical for the “fruit” of the river plants- a golden flower among the reeds and lilypads. In particular, water-lilies can produce a yellow flower and the yellow iris grows in reed beds (reeds and water-lilies being the two plants explicitly named in connection with Goldberry). If you came across such a flower in the woods, might it look like a golden berry floating upon the river or swaying along the riverbank?

Goldberry’s role in Middle-Earth has always been a mystery to me, but I now strongly suspect she’s the spirit of the river flowers (the “daughters” of the river). The comparisons to a “reed by a pool” and a queen “clothed in living flowers” or wearing a gown “green as young reeds” create an undeniable connection to flowers and plant life. Tom recounts to the hobbits that he first met Goldberry “sitting in the rushes” by the pool of the Withywindle where water-lilies first bloom in the spring and “linger latest” in the autumn. The longevity of the lilies may be due to her influence as a flower spirit. Tom’s errand to collect lilies is more than the simple act of a husband bringing flowers to his wife: he uniting her home with his.

I also have to note that Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book contains an Estonian story called “The Water-lily, the Gold-Spinners”. The story is of a maiden who, after escaping a wicked witch’s cottage where she was forced to spin gold thread, is transformed by that witch into a yellow water-lily. The Prince who helped her escape asks a Finnish wizard how to rescue the maiden. The wizard explains that the Prince must transform into a crab, swim down into the river to where he can reach the water-lily’s roots, and cut the roots to remove the flower from the river. Then the prince will be able to transform both himself and maiden back into their natural forms and live happily ever after.

While it’s a tenuous connection, we know that Tolkien read Lang’s collections as a child. In Tolkien’s original Adventures of Tom Bombadil, the hero’s plunge into the river is involuntary, however he does succeed in “uprooting” Goldberry from the river bottom when they marry and she moves into his house. Perhaps the seeds of their relationship were planted in the Estonian fairy tale.

15 October 2017

Review: Ragnarok

Ragnarok Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

More complete and profound a retelling of Norse myths and their power than other less accomplished authors have recently published. Framed by the story of 'a thin child in wartime', Byatt's work illuminates both myth and the tottering world in which we now dwell.

View all my reviews

Iliad 1.1-52 Mythgard 2017 Webathon Recording

I make no pretense of being great at reading Homer aloud.  I am well aware I made a number of mistakes in this recording. There were times I stuttered, syllables I slurred, and a couple of rough breathings (a mark /ʽ/ before an initial vowel indicating an /h/) I just plain missed. At least once I jumbled two syllables, saying θυμῷ (''thymo' -- 'heart') at the end of line 33, when I should have said μύθῳ ('mytho' -- 'word'). Homer said that Chryses obeyed Agamemnon's 'word', which I by spontaneous metathesis corrupted into 'obeyed his heart.' I don't know whether that counts as evidence of something for the oral transmission of poetry or not. I am still amazed I made it through ἤϊε -- three vowels, three syllables, not a consonant in sight -- without hurting myself. I risked redefining hiatal hernia right there. But the cause was a good one.

However that may be, Corey Olsen at Signum University asked me for a recording of some Homer for the webathon for this year's annual fund. I obliged. For those who may be curious, or who, living in glassless houses, might want to throw stones, here it is. On the page below are Homer's Greek and Fagles' translation of these lines (1.1-52). I have divided both the Greek and English into new matching paragraphs, in the hope that it might help those with little or no Greek have some idea of how what they are hearing corresponds to what they are seeing. However, beyond the first few lines the line numbers of the Greek and the English do not match. 

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
5    οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

τίς τ᾽ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι;
Λητοῦς καὶ Διὸς υἱός: ὃ γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθεὶς
10    νοῦσον ἀνὰ στρατὸν ὄρσε κακήν, ὀλέκοντο δὲ λαοί,
οὕνεκα τὸν Χρύσην ἠτίμασεν ἀρητῆρα
Ἀτρεΐδης: ὃ γὰρ ἦλθε θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν
λυσόμενός τε θύγατρα φέρων τ᾽ ἀπερείσι᾽ ἄποινα,
στέμματ᾽ ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος
15    χρυσέῳ ἀνὰ σκήπτρῳ, καὶ λίσσετο πάντας Ἀχαιούς,
Ἀτρεΐδα δὲ μάλιστα δύω, κοσμήτορε λαῶν: 

"Ἀτρεΐδαι τε καὶ ἄλλοι ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί,
ὑμῖν μὲν θεοὶ δοῖεν Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχοντες
ἐκπέρσαι Πριάμοιο πόλιν, εὖ δ᾽ οἴκαδ᾽ ἱκέσθαι:
20    παῖδα δ᾽ ἐμοὶ λύσαιτε φίλην, τὰ δ᾽ ἄποινα δέχεσθαι,
ἁζόμενοι Διὸς υἱὸν ἑκηβόλον Ἀπόλλωνα."

ἔνθ᾽ ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες ἐπευφήμησαν Ἀχαιοὶ
αἰδεῖσθαί θ᾽ ἱερῆα καὶ ἀγλαὰ δέχθαι ἄποινα:
ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ Ἀτρεΐδῃ Ἀγαμέμνονι ἥνδανε θυμῷ,
25    ἀλλὰ κακῶς ἀφίει, κρατερὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε:

"μή σε γέρον κοίλῃσιν ἐγὼ παρὰ νηυσὶ κιχείω
ἢ νῦν δηθύνοντ᾽ ἢ ὕστερον αὖτις ἰόντα,
μή νύ τοι οὐ χραίσμῃ σκῆπτρον καὶ στέμμα θεοῖο:
τὴν δ᾽ ἐγὼ οὐ λύσω: πρίν μιν καὶ γῆρας ἔπεισιν
30    ἡμετέρῳ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ ἐν Ἄργεϊ τηλόθι πάτρης
ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένην καὶ ἐμὸν λέχος ἀντιόωσαν:
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι."

ὣς ἔφατ᾽, ἔδεισεν δ᾽ ὃ γέρων καὶ ἐπείθετο μύθῳ:
βῆ δ᾽ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης:
35    πολλὰ δ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε κιὼν ἠρᾶθ᾽ ὃ γεραιὸς
Ἀπόλλωνι ἄνακτι, τὸν ἠΰκομος τέκε Λητώ:

"κλῦθί μευ ἀργυρότοξ᾽, ὃς Χρύσην ἀμφιβέβηκας
Κίλλάν τε ζαθέην Τενέδοιό τε ἶφι ἀνάσσεις,
Σμινθεῦ εἴ ποτέ τοι χαρίεντ᾽ ἐπὶ νηὸν ἔρεψα,
40    ἢ εἰ δή ποτέ τοι κατὰ πίονα μηρί᾽ ἔκηα
ταύρων ἠδ᾽ αἰγῶν, τὸ δέ μοι κρήηνον ἐέλδωρ:
τίσειαν Δαναοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσιν."

ὣς ἔφατ᾽ εὐχόμενος, τοῦ δ᾽ ἔκλυε Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
βῆ δὲ κατ᾽ Οὐλύμποιο καρήνων χωόμενος κῆρ,
45    τόξ᾽ ὤμοισιν ἔχων ἀμφηρεφέα τε φαρέτρην:
ἔκλαγξαν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὀϊστοὶ ἐπ᾽ ὤμων χωομένοιο,
αὐτοῦ κινηθέντος: ὃ δ᾽ ἤϊε νυκτὶ ἐοικώς.
ἕζετ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε νεῶν, μετὰ δ᾽ ἰὸν ἕηκε:
δεινὴ δὲ κλαγγὴ γένετ᾽ ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο:
50     οὐρῆας μὲν πρῶτον ἐπῴχετο καὶ κύνας ἀργούς,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ᾽ αὐτοῖσι βέλος ἐχεπευκὲς ἐφιεὶς
βάλλ᾽: αἰεὶ δὲ πυραὶ νεκύων καίοντο θαμειαί.

Rage -- Goddess sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
05   feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving towards it end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

What god drove them to fight with such a fury?
10   Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king
he swept a fatal plague through the arm -- men were dying
all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo's priest.
Yes, Chryses approached the Achaeans' fast ships
to win his daughter back, bringing a priceless ransom,
15   and bearing high in hand, wound on a golden staff
the wreaths of the god, the deadly distant Archer.
He begged the whole Achaean army, but most of all
the two supreme commanders, Atreus' two sons,

"Agamemnon, Menelaus, all Argives geared for war!
20   May the gods who hold the halls of Olympus give you
Priam's city to plunder, then safe passage home.
Just set my daughter free, my dear one ... here
accept these gifts, this ransom. Honor the god
who strikes from worlds away, the son of Zeus, Apollo!

25   And all the ranks of Achaeans cried out their assent:
"Respect the priest! Accept the shining ransom!"
But it brought no joy to the heart of Agamemnon.
The king dismissed the priest with a brutal order
ringing in his ears:

                               "Never again, old man
30   let me catch sight of you by the hollow ships!
Not loitering now, not slinking back tomorrow.
The staff and the wreaths of the god will never save you then.
The girl -- I won't give up the girl. Long before that
old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,
35   far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth
at the loom, forced to share my bed! Now go,
don't tempt my wrath -- and you may depart alive."

The old man was terrified. He obeyed the order,
turning, trailing away in silence down the shore
40   where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag.
And moving off to a safe distance, over and over
the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,
lord Apollo:

                    "Hear me, Apollo, god of the silver bow
who strides the walls of Chryse and Cilla sacrosanct --
45   lord in power of Tenedos, Smintheus, god of the plague!
If I ever roofed a shrine to please your heart,
ever burned the long, rich bones of bulls and goats
on your holy altar, now, now, bring my prayers to pass.
Pay the Danaans back -- your arrows for my tears!"

50   His prayer went up and Phoebus Apollo heard him.
Down he strode from Olympus' peaks, storming at heart
with his bow and hooded quiver slung across his shoulders.
The arrows clanged at his back as the god quaked with rage,
the god himself on the march and down he came like night.
55   Over against the ships he dropped to a knee, let fly a shaft
and a terrifying clash rang out from the silver bow.
First he went for the mules and the circling dogs, but then,
launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves,
he cut them down in droves --
60   and the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight.


14 October 2017

The Wonder of the Unexplained (TT 3.v.498)

Carl Emil Doepler

From early on, people have wondered if Tom Bombadil is really Eru Ilúvatar in disguise. As early as September 1954, within weeks of the first volume's publication on 29 July, Tolkien was answering the question of whether Old Tom was God (No: Letter 153). Even at the stage of page-proofs, the question of who Tom seems to have arisen. Naomi Mitchison, who had been reading them early that year, had written to Tolkien with a number of inquiries to which Tolkien responds, but does not answer. At one point he writes:

There is of course a clash between 'literary' technique, and the fascination of elaborating in detail an imaginary mythical Age (mythical, not allegorical: my mind does not work allegorically). As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); and I have perhaps from this point of view erred in trying to explain too much, and give too much past history. Many readers have, for instance, rather stuck at the Council of Elrond. And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally). 
(Letter 144, 25 April 1954)

Other mysteries remain as well, and always will I hope. The Watcher in the Water (FR 2.iv.308-09), the 'fell voices on the air' in the night on Caradhras (FR 2.iii.289), the 'nameless things' that gnaw the world 'far, far below the deepest delving of the dwarves' (TT 3.v.501) make up an intriguing set, centered on the Misty Mountains around Moria. Why did Galadriel marry such a dolt? The man Brego and Baldor met at the Door to the Paths of the Dead (RK 5.iii.797-98). Who is that guy? Where does the locked door lead outside which Aragorn found Baldor dead (RK 5.ii.787)? Was that an Entwife Sam's cousin Hal saw up on the North Moors, or was Hal as daft as everybody but Sam seems to think he is (FR 1.ii.xx.44-45). And whose voice was speaking to Sam as he debated what to do when Frodo seemed dead (TT 4.x.731-32). These are only a few of the mysteries we encounter that unexplained make our experience all the richer.  But there's one that seems to have an explanation, but is it the explanation that is suggested to us?

Recall the the night Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas spend beneath the eaves of Fangorn. They briefly see an old man, cloaked and leaning on a staff, wearing a hat pulled down over his eyes (TT 3.ii.442-43). They assume that is Saruman, but the next day they meet Gandalf the White, and Gimli wonders whether they had seen Saruman or Gandalf: "'You certainly did not see me,'answered Gandalf, 'therefore I must guess that you saw Saruman.'" (TT 3.v.498).

But must we guess the same? We never receive a definitive answer, never see a bit of evidence that it was Saruman. Saruman certainly never tells. Who then? In Letter 107 says that he thinks of Gandalf as 'an Odinic wanderer', since Odin sometimes appeared as a wanderer cloaked and in a broad-brimmed hat, much the same garb as Gandalf and (it seems) Saruman wear. He was also called 'All-father' (Alföðr), not unlike Ilúvatar, literally 'the father of the universe', which has il 'all' as one of its roots (Lost Road, 361).

Carl Emil Doepler

Do I really think it's Ilúvatar they see? No. That's not very likely, but it's fun to speculate (so idly) that a visit from god himself might lie hidden in plain sight.  Wouldn't be the first time, I imagine.

06 October 2017

Review: Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology

Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology by Dimitra Fimi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was with a learned touch and a clear, precise voice that Dimitra Fimi gave us Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. This essential work she followed up, in splendid alliance with Andrew Higgins, with J. R. R. Tolkien: A Secret Vice. Now she devotes that same scholarship and persuasive clarity to Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology.

Calling out this intriguing partnership of myth and genre, Dr Fimi analyzes the ways in which today’s writers have drawn upon primary texts, centuries old folklore, 19th and 20th century scholarship (some of it problematic if not downright loony), as well as the fantasy of earlier writers (e.g., Alan Garner), and transformed these sources into stories of their own that resonate with their own times and concerns. In this regard they have much in common with Celtic writers, both Irish and Welsh, as far back as the Middle Ages.

Whether the young protagonists of these tales travel themselves to the past or to the Otherworld, or whether the past and the Otherworld come to them, these fantasies combine education and pleasure, utile dulci: family, culture, nationality, and growing up blend with enchantment, adventure, and wonder. They all take place within a continuum of ‘Celticity’, which sometimes seems best understood as a portmanteau of ‘Celtic’ and ‘elasticity’. If the writers Dimitra Fimi has studied here – Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Mary Tannen, Pat O’Shea, Lloyd Alexander, Kate Thompson, Henry Neff, Jenny Nimmo, and Catherine Fisher – have not told tales as up to date as they might have been from the perspective of contemporary scholarly understanding of the Celts, they have succeeded in telling tales that will inform and delight the young of all kinds, and spur them onward to learn both more and better. Thanks to Dr Fimi’s fine synthesis, the readers of the present volume will also go forward, informed and delighted, about these works in particular and about the writing of Children’s fantasy in general.

View all my reviews

02 October 2017

Faërian Drama: the Final Curtain? (FR 2.viii.377-78)

The singing drew nearer. One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood. This was the song as Frodo heard it.... 
(FR 1.iii.79)

If the power of Elvish song is such that those who do not know Elvish still understand it, as Frodo, Sam, and Pippin do when they encounter Gildor's troop in the woods of the Shire, why don't they also understand the lament of the Elves of Lothlórien for Gandalf, which Legolas refused to translate because it was too difficult and too painful (FR 2.vii.359); and why does Legolas feel the need to translate the song of Nimrodel (FR 2.vi.339)?

Or is it only poetry in Quenya and Sindarin that have this power? Legolas makes clear that the poem about Nimrodel is 'in the woodland tongue', by which he means the Silvan Elvish descended from Nandorin. Since the Elves of Lothlórien were of the same folk, their lament for Gandalf, which Legolas alone of the Company understood, was also in Silvan, or so it would seem. For, had it been in Sindarin, Aragorn and Boromir at least would have understood it.

This raises the intriguing and likely unanswerable question of why only song in Quenya and Sindarin might be capable of this effect. At first I thought that the power might be proper only to the High Elves, or Calaquendi, like Gildor or the minstrels in Rivendell, who are Noldorin. It would make a certain sense if singers who had dwelt in Valinor and seen the Light of the Trees possessed this ability, except that song the hobbits hear in the Shire is in Sindarin, and Daeron of Doriath, is said to have been 'the greatest of all the minstrels of the Elves east of the Sea, named even before Maglor son of Fëanor' (S. 183). It is perhaps not irrelevant here that Doriath had a twofold connection with Valinor, namely Thingol and Melian; and in the time of Daeron and Maglor, the fading of the Elves had scarcely begun. Still what we seem to be seeing is a clear distinction in powers of enchantment between different kinds of Elves.

We also should not ignore the two songs Galadriel sings before the departure of the company from Lothlórien.  The first, 'I sang of leaves' (FR 2.viii.372-73), they apparently understand at once, just as they did the hymn to Elbereth in the Shire and the songs at Rivendell. The narrator makes no comment to draw the reader's attention to their understanding of the language. Nor does he have any need to do so because of the continuity with these passages. On the contrary, it is precisely the failure to understand the songs of the woodland Elves that the narrator considers worthy of note.

In the case of 'Namarië', however, we find something strange and rather different, something which has had me wondering for decades and which I now believe I understand at last.  After Galadriel sings in Quenya, the narrator calls out the fact that Frodo has not understood her song, though he remembers the words and translates them, with difficulty, 'long afterwards'. Suddenly, the song of this most powerful and majestic of all the Elves in The Lord of the Rings, a lament to Varda herself in the language of Elven song, fails to convey its meaning to its audience, just as the songs of the woodland Elves did. 

The translation, moreover, is also into prose, not verse, which is odd in itself, given the power of Elven song to come to life, as it were, in the minds of its audience (FR 2.i.233; S. 140-41, 171). Finally -- and perhaps this is just a matter of taste --  that prose rendering, while sturdy and serviceable, has always seemed rather bookish and not the masterful elegy Galadriel's lament calls for. The rather intrusive 'scholarly' gloss on 'Varda', which we are probably meant to regard as the work of a later hand, only reinforces the lack of enchantment we find here. The answer, I would argue, lies in the introduction to the poem:

On the green bank near to the very point of the Tongue the Lady Galadriel stood alone and silent. As they passed her they turned and their eyes watched her slowly floating away from them. For so it seemed to them: Lórien was slipping backward, like a bright ship masted with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they sat helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world. 
Even as they gazed, the Silverlode passed out into the currents of the Great River, and their boats turned and began to speed southwards. Soon the white form of the Lady was small and distant. She shone like a window of glass upon a far hill in the westering sun, or as a remote lake seen from a mountain: a crystal fallen in the lap of the land. Then it seemed to Frodo that she lifted her arms in a final farewell, and far but piercing-clear on the following wind came the sound of her voice singing. But now she sang in the ancient tongue of the Elves beyond the Sea, and he did not understand the words: fair was the music, but it did not comfort him. 
Yet as is the way of Elvish words, they remained graven in his memory, and long afterwards he interpreted them, as well as he could: the language was that of Elven-song and spoke of things little known on Middle-earth.
(FR 2.viii.377)
Lothlórien, as Verlyn Flieger has argued (1997: 89-115, 192-97), is the supreme example of Faërian Drama, where, to use Tolkien's words  'you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp' (OFS ¶ 74). Galadriel has already told us that Spring and Summer will never again come to Lothlórien (FR 2.viii.375). This song is over. Frodo does not understand 'Namarië' because the spell is broken. The curtain has come down on Faërian Drama, and Frodo must parse out his Quenya like the rest of us, huddled beneath our midnight lamps.

'Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.'
(FR 2.vii.365)
Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad. 
'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.'  
(FR 2.vii.366)



23 September 2017

Impossible Dates, in Greece, Rome and the Shire.

Today (23 September) is the birthday of Augustus Caesar, and yesterday was the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. So it is entirely meet, fitting, and proper to write about a little known parallel between the Rome and the Shire. 

cum aliquos numquam soluturos significare uult, 'ad K(a)l(endas) Graecas soluturos' ait. 

When [Augustus] wished to indicate that some people would never pay their debts, he said that they would pay them 'on the Greek Kalends.' 
Suetonius, Augustus, 87.1

The first day of every Roman month was known as 'the Kalends' of that month (hence our 'calendar'). Since Greeks did not use the Roman calendar, there could be no 'Greek Kalends'. 

Meanwhile in the Shire the first day of a non-existent month also gave rise to a joke:

It will be noted if one glances at a Shire Calendar, that the only weekday on which no month began was Friday. It thus became a jesting idiom in the Shire to speak of 'on Friday the first' when referring to a day that did not exist. or to a day on which very unlikely events such as the flying of pigs or (in the Shire) the walking of trees might occur. In full the expression was 'on Friday the first of Summerfilth'.
(RK App. D 1109 n. 2)

The month 'Summerfilth' does not exist. It is a play on 'Winterfilth', which is roughly equivalent with October, a name Tolkien derived, Winterfylleþ, the first month of Winter among the Anglo-Saxons.



A Low Place in the Hedge -- FR 1.i.36

'The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water' -- © The Tolkien Estate

He paused, silent for a moment. Then without another word he turned away from the lights and voices in the fields and tents, and followed by his three companions went round into his garden, and trotted down the long sloping path. He jumped over a low place in the hedge at the bottom, and took to the meadows, passing into the night like a rustle of wind in the grass.

Frodo and Pippin jump over the same low spot seventeen years later (FR 1.iii.70).  Now I had never really thought about this until now, but we're talking hobbits here. That must have been a very low spot indeed for Bilbo and the others to jump over it. 

Think about it.

Like a foot tall.

More of a shrubbery, really.

With Tolkien's eye for detail it is no surprise to find just such a low spot () in the hedge in his painting of the Hill.  I would like to thank Kate Neville and her eagle eye for pointing me to the correct "low spot" when I had initially believed it was another. (see Kate's comments below.)



21 September 2017

ἄειδε δ’ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν, or not

By the time the Iliad reaches Book 9 the war is going so badly for the Achaeans without Achilles that even Agamemnon is willing to beg him to come back. Since great kings do not generally do their own begging -- see Book 24, however -- Agamemnon sends Aias, Odysseus, and Phoenix, Achilles' old tutor, with promises of vast amends, to win Achilles over. When the three emissaries reach the tent of Achilles, they find him preoccupied with the very sort of heroics they hope for from him:
Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ᾽ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν Ἠετίωνος ὀλέσσας:
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ᾽ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν
They came to the huts and ships of the Myrmidons,
And found him taking pleasure in a clear toned lyre,
both fair and ingenious, and upon it was a silver bridge.
He chose it from the spoils when he took the city of Eëtion;
With this he delighted his heart, and sang the glorious deeds of men.
(Iliad ix.185-89)
Over a thousand years later another poet far from Troy was singing of men's glory, but not only that. In The Battle of Maldon the anonymous poet takes a moment to make sure that others remembered the names and lineage of three brothers who ran away:
Hi bugon þa fram beaduwe þe þær beon noldon.
þær wearð Oddan bearn ærest on fleame,
Godric fram guþe, and þone godan forlet
þe him mænigne oft mear gesealde;
he gehleop þone eoh þe ahte his hlaford,
on þam gerædum þe hit riht ne wæs,
and his broðru mid him begen ærndon,
Godwine and Godwig, guþe ne gymdon,
ac wendon fram þam wige and þone wudu sohton,
flugon on þæt fæsten and hyra feore burgon,
and manna ma þonne hit ænig mæð wære,
gyf hi þa geearnunga ealle gemundon
þe he him to duguþe gedon hæfde.
Swa him Offa on dæg ær asæde
on þam meþelstede, þa he gemot hæfde,
þæt þær modiglice manega spræcon
þe eft æt þearfe þolian noldon. 
Then those who had no wish to be there turned from the battle.
There, Godric, the son of Odda, proved first in flight
From battle, and forsook the good man
Who had often given him many a horse;
Godric leaped on the horse which his lord owned,
Onto the saddle which it was not his right to mount,
And both his brothers galloped off with him:
Godwin and Godwig, of battle they took no heed,
And went from the conflict and headed for the woods;
They fled to its fastness and saved their lives,
And more men than was at all right followed,
Had they kept in mind all gracious acts
Which their lord had done for them and their benefit.
So Offa had told Byrthnoth one day
At the meeting place, when he held an assembly,
That many would speak boldly there
Words they would not live up to at need.

Nor was this the poet's last word on the feckless sons of Odda. He returned to them twice more in the extant text. At lines 237-42 he points out that Godric's flight on his lord's horse had misled his men into thinking that it was Byrtnoth himself who was deserting them. This caused the shield-wall to break. And he later mentioned another man named Godric, son of Æþelgar, whom he hastens to identify as 'not the Godric who avoided the battle' (325).

My first reaction as I read about the feckless sons of Odda was amusement. I thought of 'Brave Sir Robin' in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and of the scene in the Star Trek (TOS) episode, 'Bread and Circuses', where the master of ceremonies threatens a gladiator who will not fight with 'You bring this networks ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you.' But as I read on, one warrior after another, old and young, stepped forward and was named with his lineage. Each vowed to avenge his lord, then plunged into the battle and died. The more I read of these men, the more hostile and personal the lines directed at Godric, Godwin, and Godwig seemed. The author of Maldon is unknown, and the poem's date disputed, but anger at treachery can linger for generations. And it can linger even longer in the memory of a people that feels disinherited and oppressed. Whenever the poet wrote it, his wrath at Odda's sons seems keen. He tried to make sure that the evil these men did lived after them, as surely as he sang the glorious deeds of the other men who died that day. For today at least he has done both. 

15 September 2017

The Silmarillion, published 15 September 1977

That is my Silmarillion pictured above, the one I bought forty years ago today. I took an hour and a half bus trip that day after school to go get it. The anticipation on that endless, meandering local bus trip, in which the bus stopped every two blocks whether it needed to or not, would likely have been a lot worse had not my best friend of those days, Tricia, been along for the ride (the bookstore was right down the way from her house). I talked to her all the way there about books and school and school friends, as one does at seventeen. As the bus pulled up on the corner where the bookstore was, it was like seeing a far green country under a swift sunrise. The trip back -- if there was one -- I didn't notice, because I had a new book by Tolkien, the last anyone (except perhaps Christopher Tolkien and Rayner Unwin) thought there would ever be. 

I stayed up all night reading it because here at last were those tales alluded to in The Lord of the Rings, most importantly Beren and Lúthien, but which till now I could only hunger for, and try to puzzle out from the text I had. I think I started reading it again the moment I finished it, scrawling notes in the margins and inside the covers, thrilled to see the names Olórin and Galadriel, trying to figure out the metaphysics and theology of The Ainulindalë, and weeping more times than I ever would have admitted then at the beauties and sorrows of Arda Marred. Nothing I had gleaned from Carpenter's biography or Clyde Kilby's Tolkien and the Silmarillion had prepared me for the full impact. And I was lucky. I only had to wait six years from the time I first read The Lord of the Rings. Others had to wait over twenty. And it exceeded all my hopes. I was fortunate not to be put off as some were by its very different style and almost total want of hobbits.

So that is my Silmarillion. We have gotten older and shabbier together, and equally unappealing to collectors. Do I wish I'd been more careful with the wrapper? No doubt. Not because that would increase its value today -- nothing could increase its value to me -- but because it deserved a better fate than tatters. And yet:
From a locked drawer, smelling of moth-balls, he took out an old cloak and hood. They had been locked up as if they were very precious, but they were so patched and weatherstained that their original colour could hardly be guessed: it might have been dark green. 
(FR 1.i.31)

11 September 2017

The evolution of a commonplace

I discovered Tolkien when I was eleven and, as you've probably gathered, I rather liked his work. From then until I went to college seven years later, I read The Lord of the Rings probably three times a year. When I got to college I meant to study English as well as Classics, but to go to graduate school and write a dissertation on Tolkien. I must have mentioned this to someone on the English Faculty because somebody, I no longer remember whom, made it clear to me how very little chance there was that I would be allowed to write such a dissertation, and how doing so would be academic suicide. As I said, I don't recall who told me this or whether it was meant kindly or contemptuously, but it was enough to decide not to be an English Major.

Fifteen or so years later, with a doctorate in Classics firmly stitched into the lining of my then spiffy ego, I was sitting in a paper session at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (then called The American Philological Association) listening to another young scholar answer questions about his paper. He was doing fine. His paper had been good, and he had handled the questions deftly. Then he chose to illustrate a point he was making by reference to an episode of Star Trek. Again, I don't recall the particulars, but I remember recognizing (as a lifelong Trekker) that the allusion he was making was absolutely appropriate to his subject, but utterly wrong for this audience. As I was thinking "No, no, no, don't pick that", I felt the room slip away from him.

Another twenty-five years down the line, popular culture has a much wider acceptance within the academic world. Indeed the flowering of disciplines unheard of as little as three decades ago astonishes me. Some of them speak to me, and some don't. Some I don't understand at all, but understanding is not necessary. Not everyone that speaks, speaks to me. Not every message is meant for me. That's okay. I try not to be so arrogant as to think that something has no value if I don't understand it or like it. 

But recently I was chatting with someone about a forthcoming article on Tolkien I had written, the main title of which is 'These Are Not the Elves You're Looking For', a rather obvious allusion to the famous line in Star Wars: Episode IV: 'These are not the droids you're looking for.' The person I was speaking to suggested that I would be wise to change it, since an allusion to Star Wars might put some people off. 

09 September 2017

Saturday 9 AM, too little coffee, too many languages, but friends.

So I was thinking of the old hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,"* as one does, but without enough coffee (clearly) and too many languages in my head, all my mind kept supplying for a title to the hymn was "Ein zauber Berg is unser Gott."** 

I mentioned to my friend, +Richard Rohlin, that I was okay with this, although Elijah would probably point out that God is no more in the mountain than he is in the earthquake or the whirlwind. 

Richard replied, “no more and no less.”

* “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,”
** “A Magic Mountain Is Our God.”

08 September 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune IV -- The Prologue (lines 1-24)

The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Ercledoune is divided into three 'fitts', a word used in Middle-English to describe a canto or large section of a poem. Of the five MSS containing all or part of this poem, the oldest, the Thornton Manuscript, stands alone in beginning with a 24 line prologue in which a minstrel addresses his audience. Fitt I then tells of Thomas' experience with the elf queen, and Fitts II and III record his prophecies. As I mentioned in outlining Murray's Introduction to his edition, Thomas was famous as a prophet in Scotland and Northern England well into the 19th Century.

The prologue provides a good example of the poetic form used throughout.  What we have is basically an iambic meter with some variations. So four beats per line.  Murray calls this 'long measure'. This might lead us to expect eight syllables per line, but that is not what our eyes or ears find. There are extra unstressed syllables. Now some of these syllables get lost 'as you articulate the line out loud', as Jenni Nuttall tells us at her marvelous blog on Middle English verse:
A vowel at the end of one word can run together with the vowel at the beginning of the next word (this is called elision).   An unstressed syllable can be slurred over within a word (i.e. deliv’ren rather than deliveren).
If we take the first four lines and mark out the elisions and slurred syllables, and compare the text with and without these marks, we can see that the rhythm tightens up considerably. Yet there are still 'extra' syllables, which, as Jenni Nuttall has pointed out to me, suggest that this is more of a 'dolnik verse', in which the four beats are the main thing, but which is rather footloose when it comes to the number of unstressed syllables.  Another variation is also visible in the first half of the first line, which is trochaic rather than iambic. I have also added marks to the second sample to show the beat.
Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
04 Als ever was herde by nyghte or daye:

Lýstyns, lórdyngs, bothe grét' & smál',
And tákis gude tént what í will sáy':
I sáll ȝow téll' als tréw' a tál',
04 Als é'er was hérde by nýght' or dáy':
  letter key: þ = a voiced th, as in this; ȝ = y as in you; j alone = I, the pronoun.

In considering the rhyme scheme -- ABAB -- we need to bear in mind that the pronunciation of English 600 years ago was rather different than now, even leaving aside any distinctions between northern and southern dialects. Thus smale in line 1 and tale in line 3, done in line 10 and schone in line 12, rhymed as much in the ear as the eye.  Even though Murray printed the text without any kind of breaks, the rhyme scheme allows us to see that it falls naturally into quatrains. Murray, however, did number the verses just so -- the line numbers in red are his -- and I will take the liberty of setting it down this way. Doing so will, I hope, aid those (like me) whose understanding of Middle English isn't perfect or immediate.

Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
04 Als ever was herde by nyghte or daye: 
And þe maste meruelle ffor owttyne naye,
That euer was herde by-fore or syene,
And þer-fore pristly j ȝow praye,
08 That ȝe will of ȝoure talkyng blyne
It es an harde thyng for to saye,
Of doghty dedis þat hase bene done;
Of felle feghtyngs & battells sere;
12 And how þat þir knyghtis has wonne þair schone
Bot jhesu crist þat syttis in trone,
Safe ynglische mene bothe ferre & nere;
And j sall telle ȝow tyte and sone,
16 Of Battels donne sythene many a ȝere
And of Batells þat don sall bee;
In what place, and howe, and whare;
And wha sall hafe þe heghere gree,
20 And whethir partye sall hafe þe werre;
Wha sall takk þe flyghte and flee,
And wha sall dye and by-leve thare;
Bot jhesu crist, þat dyed on tre,
24 Saue jnglische men whare-so þay fare.

tent -- heed, attention
meruelle -- a marvel, a wonder
ffor owttyne naye -- forouten naye = without a no, undeniably
syene -- since
pristly -- eagerly
blyne -- cease
wonne þair schone -- won their shoes, i.e., proved themselves
tyte -- quickly, soon
sythene many a ȝere -- many a year ago/since
gree -- victory

There is probably no way of telling whether the prologue was added to the poem by Robert Thornton, the English scribe responsible for the oldest manuscript, or whether it was a part of the poem he received and copied, but which later scribes omitted. (The scribe of Sloane MS 2578, for example, left out the first fitt entirely, and copied only the prophecies.) To be sure, the two prayers to Christ to save Englishmen (13-14, 23-24) suggest an English rather than a Scottish audience, but Murray rightly points out in his notes that Thornton could have easily substituted 'ynglische' for an original 'Scottismen' (lxix).*

The two prayers are also carefully placed at the beginning (13-14) and end (23-24) of the second half of the prologue. We may thus see it as a separate unit, which expands upon the briefer battle references in lines 9-12 of the first half and shifts the focus of the prologue more to the prophecies of fitts two and three.  So no matter how true and wondrous the fairy story of the first fitt may be, it appears to have less of the attention of the prologue's author, whoever that may be.


* I am also reminded, however, of the irony in Peadar Kearney's 'Whack Fol the Diddle' (recorded by The Clancy Brothers and many others), but that seems unlikely to be in play here.