22 July 2017

The Problem with Tauriel




Unlike many fans of Tolkien I had no problem with Tauriel as a new character developed for the Hobbit films. My opinion of Jacksons' achievement with her is in general much higher than my opinion of his success overall. It was a series of films with moments I loved -- the unexpected party and riddles in the dark scenes in particular -- and one performance I thought was splendid -- Martin Freeman as Bilbo --  but which I thought wasted the assembled talent and the possibilities in the story.  Stephen Fry, a longtime favorite of mine, was dreadfully disappointing, and the scene with the goblins beneath the Misty Mountains was as ridiculous as the scene in the mines in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In fact my reaction to these three bloated movies is aptly summed up in the words of Dáin Ironfoot, as portrayed by Billy Connolly. When the were-worms burst out of the earth before the climactic battle, he cries out in exasperation: 'Oh, come on.'

From the start, however, Tauriel seemed competent, smart, and tough in herself regardless of others. Even in that cringing scene in which the contents of Kili's trousers (now there's a word Tolkien would have chosen to use) are the subject, if not the object, of banter, the goal seemed to be to portray that kind of cagey toughness and wit which Lauren Bacall played so well in To Have and Have Not. Sexy, poised, unafraid.




But she is more than that, too. She looks beyond the borders of her land to see the troubles of the larger world, just as the real Galadriel did before she diminished and went into New Zealand* and turned blue.  Tauriel grasps things that the inward looking males of Mirkwood do not wish to acknowledge. She see that her people may be able to fence themselves in, but cannot forever fence the world out. Like Éowyn she fights well and bravely and fearlessly, but unlike her she already knows how to heal. She understands her own heart.

Even so, despite Jackson's success with her character per se, her story went off the rails like an express train. The idea that she had to have some kind of love interest was a flaw from the beginning. It profoundly, almost contemptuously, underestimated the intelligence of the fans in general and women in particular. Still, an underplayed ending to her story might have approached success (faint praise, I know). Yet her preposterous exchange with Thranduil over Kili's body --- 'Why does it hurt so much?' 'Because it was real' -- exploded the credibility of her character, sacrificing all the good of it for one of the clumsiest weepy endings I can recall seeing. One need only compare Bilbo's scene with Thorin, and the silent witness he bears to the toll of the battle, to know how much better it could have been handled. But Bilbo's response to the losses around him has its origin in the pen of Tolkien, who could write and knew death on the battlefield too well.

So the problem with Tauriel is that creating a good character is not the same as writing a good story for her. Consider how much more firmly the makers of Wonder Woman reined in this aspect of her story, so that there even the banter about the needfulness of men to women subserves the larger tale of Diana's realization of her own heroic stature in a world both larger and lesser than her home, a world which the women of Themiscyra have long fenced out. Had Jackson resisted the temptation to follow the traditional cinematic playbook that requires female characters to have a love interest -- had he even asked himself what Tolkien would have done with her -- Tauriel's story might have proved meaningful instead of maudlin. 

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*No offense to the good folk of New Zealand, which seems a wonderful place. I very nearly moved there long ago.

21 July 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune





Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
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,
That ȝe will of ȝoure talkyng blyne.

Listen, lordings, both great and small,
And take good heed of what I will say:
I shall you tell as true a tale,
As ever was heard by night or day:
The most marvellous, there's no denying,
That ever was heard before or since.
And therefore readily I you pray,
That ye will of your talking cease.


I am about to embark on a task for which I am not particularly well qualified, being rather an expatriate Classicist than a native Medievalist. But I am going to try to provide some kind of text of the Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune. I am doing this because I find it an interesting work, of undoubted influence, and because no one, as far as I can see, has done so since 1875. I hope that what I come up with will at least be useful because of its accessibility, even if it might not be all that every Medievalist (and sometime Classicist) would want it to be. 
That hat, those shelves!

The 1875 edition, published by the Early English Text Society (reprinted 2008), and edited by the James Murray, is also available at archive.org. The online edition is hard to work with because of the formatting, and the EETS reprint is bit dear. This led me to a mistake. I purchased (though not from EETS) what turned out to be a criminally overpriced, abominably bad scan of Murray's edition. I can only concede that I got what I paid for. It was so poor, blurry, and faint that I found it nearly impossible to read. Had I lashed it to a brick and hurled it through the manufacturer's window, a jury would have called us even. 

I then inquired of the good folk at the Middle English Texts Series whether anyone had an edition in the works for them. They said no, but declared themselves always willing to consider proposals. Though I backed slowly away, I nevertheless kept thinking that this work should be available and readable. So recently I bit the bullet and bought a library rebinding of the actual first edition. It's a wonderful little book, with the library hard covers bound over the original soft covers, and the marvelous ragged edges of a book whose pages came uncut. (If you've never cut pages, it is both thrilling and a little scary. The Collection Budé series of Latin and Greek authors still came with uncut pages as recently as the 1990s.)

What did I mean above when I said I meant to provide 'some kind of text' of this work? Well, nothing as ambitious as a critical edition. I haven't the time or the ability to go see the manuscripts themselves, of which there are five, nor do I have the expertise in Middle English, its northern dialects, or its paleography to establish or emend a text. Murray gives the texts of all five mss. I shall give only the text of the oldest, Thornton (Lincoln MS 91), which was made in the 1430s, a generation or so after the Romance was composed (Murray, xxiii), and about a century and a half after the historical Thomas the Rhymer lived (ca. 1220 - ca. 1298). For this I give two reasons. The oldest ms is often (though not always) the best, since it is closest to the source.  And simplicity: Murray supplies all five mss, as nearly side by side as can be managed on a small page, but this makes following the tale from one page to the next more difficult and at times confusing. At least this was so for me. By restricting myself to the Thornton MS, I aim to provide a text of the story that is easier to follow. In the end, that's what it's all about.

Wherever the other mss offer interesting details or readings of note, I will of course bring them in. Any scholarship more recent than 1875 that I find and can get my hands on will also find a place here along with my own comments on the text. I imagine that in time I will bring in the later material from the ballads, though I am still undecided about what to do, if anything, with the prophecies. But obviously the place to start will be with the Romance itself, which I will begin putting up soon. Any questions and suggestions will as always be welcome. Just be kind: in the fine tradition of Harlan Ellison, I am working without a net here.



14 July 2017

Who Says Middlemarch is Outdated?

The Statue of George Eliot in Nuneaton, Warwickshire




Every now and then at the shop we receive spectacular news. Today a notice came in that a certain edition of Middlemarch contained a printing error, and that, if we had copies containing this error, we had to pull them from the shelves and destroy them. A few words had been dropped from the following sentence:

'Ladislaw had made up his mind that she must be an unpleasant girl, since she was going to marry Casaubon....'

Which produced what can only be considered a major revision:

'Ladislaw had made up his mind to marry Casaubon'

This could work out rather nicely, since it makes possible the ending I found myself wishing for, in which Dorothea ended up with the doctor. Not being at all fond of Casaubon and Ladislaw, I am perfectly content that they should be miserable together.

(It occurs to me, not without some trepidation, that I have just written a blog post on Middlemarch at 1 o'clock in the morning. I may have to adopt several cats.)

10 July 2017

Ava Gardner, Robert Graves, and J.R.R. Tolkien Walk into a room....

Ava Gardner in "55 Days at Peking" (1963)



No, this isn't the beginning of a joke. But it is funny to hear Tolkien tell the story in a letter written January 1965:
I am neither disturbed (nor surprised) at the limitations of my 'fame'. There are lots of people in Oxford who have never heard of me, let alone of my books. But I can repay many of them with equal ignorance: neither wilful nor contemptuous, simply accidental. An amusing incident occurred in November, when I went as a courtesy to hear the last lecture of this series of his given by the Professor of Poetry: Robert Graves. (A remarkable creature, entertaining, likeable, odd, bonnet full of wild bees, half-German, half-Irish, very tall, must have looked like Siegfried/Sigurd in his youth, but an Ass.) It was the most ludicrously bad lecture I have ever heard. After it he introduced me to a pleasant young woman who had attended it: well but quietly dressed, easy and agreeable, and we got on quite well. But Graves started to laugh; and he said: 'it is obvious neither of you has ever heard of the other before'. Quite true. And I had not supposed that the lady would ever have heard of me. Her name was Ava Gardner, but it still meant nothing, till people more aware of the world informed me that she was a film-star of some magnitude, and that the press of pressmen and storm of flash-bulbs on the steps of the Schools were not directed at Graves (and cert. not at me) but at her. ....
Just so you know, the ellipsis at the end is not mine. Whether it was Humphrey Carpenter or Christopher Tolkien who edited out what immediately followed, I don't know. But the omission makes me wonder what came next.  Oddly, I had long remembered the letter for Tolkien's characterization of Graves and his lecture (the italics and the capital A are his), but had entirely forgotten the presence of Ava Gardner.  I really must get out more. 



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And his feet are faster -- Old Tom's Trochees (FR 1.viii.142)

copyright Alan Lee


Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster. 
(FR 1.viii.142)

So I was driving down the road thinking of Tom Bombadil, as one does. The bit about the feet had long seemed to me to be only one of the many odd things Old Tom says. But now it occurred to me that there may be more here than eccentricity. For virtually every word out of Bombadil's mouth is poetry. Whether singing or speaking, his words are rhythmic and predominantly trochaic, though not perfectly regular. We can see this clearly in the lines I quoted, three out of four begin with slow and heavy spondees, but then suddenly switch to trochees and rush off to the end of the line. The other line is entirely trochaic:

Óld Tóm Bómbadíl ís a mérry féllow.
Bríght blúe his jácket ís, ánd his boóts are yéllow.
Nóne has éver caúght him yét, for Tóm, he ís the Máster:
Hís sóngs are strónger sóngs, ánd his feét are fáster.


A trochee is a metrical foot which in English consists of two syllables, the first stressed and the second unstressed. The English noun trochee comes from the Ancient Greek adjective τροχαῖος (trochaios). This in turn derives from the verb τρέχω (trecho), meaning 'run'. Τροχαῖος, moreover, is shorthand for τροχαῖος πούς (trochaios pous), which means 'running foot'. Trochees thus run. They are much swifter than their opposite, iambs (unstressed, stressed), which in poetry both Greek and English have long been used to represent the rhythm of normal speech. All of this will have been well known to Tolkien, who, like many educated Englishmen of his day, had learnt a great deal of Latin and Greek at school. It was this, he said, that helped him discover his love of poetry:

'[As a child] I was, for instance, insensitive to poetry, and skipped it if it came in tales. Poetry I discovered much later in Latin and Greek, and especially through being made to try and translate English verse into classical verse.'
(OFS ¶ 56)

In this connection it is also intriguing that most other poetry in The Lord of the Rings is iambic, though the lengths of the lines vary.  Hobbit poetry tends to be in iambic tetrameter, Elvish in iambic heptameter, or alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter. Two things make this noteworthy. First, the first elf poem we encounter in The Lord of the Rings is in iambic tetrameter, which we normally associate with hobbits, but we are hearing this poem, which the Elves are singing in Elvish, as it is understood and represented by a hobbit (FR 1.iii.79). Second. Bombadil's songs are also in heptameter, but a largely trochaic heptameter. Thus their seven trochaic beats counterbalance the seven iambic beats of the 'elf meter.' Clearly Tolkien devoted thought to details of this kind, and one wonders what might lie behind this metrical opposition. When the poet is also a philologist who professes that '[t]he incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval' (OFS ¶ 27), there is certainly room for further inquiry.

So the faster feet of which Tom spoke may not be the feet we thought they were.

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04 July 2017

There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days -- Jakob Grimm's 'Teutonic Mythology'

Jakob Grimm



Teutonic Mythology 
Chapter I. 
Introduction.1
From the westernmost shore of Asia, Christianity had turned at once to the opposite one of Europe. The wide soil of the continent which had given it birth could not supply it long with nourishment; neither did it strike deep root in the north of Africa. Europe soon became, and remained, its proper dwelling-place and home.
It is worthy of notice, that the direction in which the new faith worked its way, from South to North, is contrary to the current of migration which was then driving the nations from the East and North to the West and South. As spiritual light penetrated from the one quarter, life itself was to be reinvigorated from the other. 
The worn out empire of the Romans saw both its interior convulsed, and its frontier overstept. Yet, by the same weighty doctrine which had just overthrown her ancient gods, subjugated Rome was able to subdue her conquerors anew. By this means the flood-tide of invasion was gradually checked, the newly converted lands began to gather strength and to turn their arms against the heathen left in their rear. 
Slowly, step by step, Heathendom gave way to Christendom. Five hundred years after Christ, but few nations of Europe believed in him; after a thousand years the majority did, and those the most important, yet not all.


In a book that deals so much with Heathenism, the meaning of the term ought not to be passed over. The Greeks and Romans had no special name for nations of another faith (for ἑτερόδοξοι, βάρβαροι were not used in that sense); but with the Jews and Christians of the N.T. are contrasted ἔθνος, ἔθνεα, ἐθνικοί, Lat. gentes, gentiles; Ulphilas uses the pl. thiudós, and by preference in the gen[itive] after a pronoun, thái thiudó, sumái thiudó (gramm. 4, 441, 457), while thiudiskó translates ἐθνικῶς Gal. 2, 14. As it was mainly Greek religion that stood opposed to the Judæo-Christian, the word Ἕλλην also assumed the meaning ἐθνικός, and we meet with ἑλλενικώς = ἐθνικῶς, which the Goth would still have rendered thiudiskós, as he does render Ἕλληνες thiudós, John 7, 35. 12,20. 1 Cor. 1, 24. 12, 13; only in 1 Cor. 1, 22 he prefers Krêkôs. This Ἕλλην = gentilis bears also the meaning of giant, which has developed itself out of more than one national name (Hun, Avar, Tchudi); so the Hellenic walls came to be heathenish, gigantic (see ch. XVIII). In Old High German, Notker still uses the pl. diete for gentiles (Graff. 5, 128). In the meanwhile pagus had expanded its narrow meaning of κώμη into the wider one of ager, campus, in which sense it still lives in It. paese, Fr. pays; while paganus began to push out gentilis, which was lapsing into the sense of nobilis. All the Romance languages have their pagano, payen, &c., nay, it has penetrated into the Bohem. pohan, Pol. paganin, Lith. pagonas [but Russ. pagan = unclean]. The Gothic háithi campus early developed an adj háithns agrestis, campestris = paganus (Ulph. in Mark 7, 26 renders ἑλληνίς by háithnô;), the Old H.G. heida as adj heidan, Mid. H.G. and Dutch heide heiden, A.S. hæð hæðin, Engl. heath heathen, Old Norse heið heiðinn; Swed. and Dan. use hedning. The O.H.G. word retains its adj. nature and forms its gen. pl. heidanêro. Our present heide, gen. heiden (for heiden, gen. heidens) is erroneous, but current ever since Luther. Full confirmation is afforded by Mid. Lat agrestis = paganus, e.g. in the passage quoted in ch. IV from Vita S. Agili; and the 'wilde heiden' in our Heldenbuch is an evident pleonasm (see Supplement).
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I can only start at the end here: '(see Supplement)'. See Supplement! And in a parenthesis, forsooth. I can only laugh, not in mockery but wonder. Or awe, if one can be said to laugh in awe. We have here the first footnote, not attached to the text but to the title of the first chapter. Grimm hasn't even said anything yet, and he is already providing footnotes more packed with learning and meaning than whole scholarly books I have read within these lonesome, latter years. (The second chapter is titled 'God'. What if there's a similar footnote on that? Reading it might have the same effect as seeing God face to face.) And Grimm with a wave of his hand tells me, merely, that there's more where this came from: 'see supplement.'

And why, pray, need we see the Supplement? To be filled in on the 'evident pleonasm' of 'wilde heiden' of course. If 'pleonasm' gives you pause, and small wonder if it does, it means 'the use of more words than necessary to convey meaning (e.g., to see with one's eyes), either as a fault of style or for emphasis', as Google tells us. And if we glance at the usage graph for pleonasm -- Google was kind enough to include with its definition -- we will see that this word was in its heyday when Grimm (1785-1863) was employing it to indicate that saying 'wild heathens' ('wilde heiden') was redundant.


So if 'pleonasm' isn't quite as current as 'woke', it also isn't as played out by the poseurs. Now you might well find 'pleonasm' pedantic, or indeed all of this splendid Goliath of a footnote, which is much longer than the first four paragraphs of the book itself -- the first volume of four, mind you. True enough, pedantry can also be a pose, but not here, I think. The immensity of the learning we discover in this footnote, deeply and firmly rooted in languages, fifteen different languages all related to each other, is not just here for display. It provides the philological underpinnings of so much of the grand sweep of history Grimm is about to set before us in those first four amazing introductory paragraphs: the transformative coming together of the Christian and the Heathen in Europe.

The all-knowing panoramic eye that takes in a thousand years of history at a glance seems godlike in a way that writers of the 19th century excelled at, and surely a part of the reason they did so was the view they embodied that Europe and Christianity were of course superior. The soil of Asia was not fertile enough for Christianity to flourish there, and in Africa, well, it could barely get roots down in Africa. But Europe now, Europe had just what Christianity needed. It had the vigor and courage of the onrushing northern invaders, so many of whom were Teutonic. And even if these Germanic peoples possessed in their heathendom one of the two elements that would make Europe "exceptional", and that would be used to "justify" its exceptionalism -- and, therefore, much else that was not admirable -- vis à vis the rest of the world, nevertheless the rediscovery of who those heathens were through their myths and their language was surely also a worthy object of study. And it remains worthy. Wrong again, Alcuin.


28 June 2017

Down here in Cuiviénen! -- A Musical Guest-post by Richard Rohlin


At Lake Cuiviénen - copyright Ted Nasmith


Recently at Mythmoot IV I my friend, Richard Rohlin and I were bantering nerdily, as one does, and I challenged him to write a song about Cuiviénen set to the tune of "Deep in the Heart of Texas." As is his wont, Richard took up that challenge and responded brilliantly. 

For those of us born on the wrong side of the Red River, here's a link to the song, so you can read Richard's rendering with the tune in your head:





The stars at night
Are big and bright
clap clap clap clap
Down here in Cuiviénen!
And Varda's sky
Is wide and high
clap clap clap clap
Down here in Cuiviénen!

The hounds that bay
With Orome
clap clap clap clap
Down here in Cuiviénen!
Go hunting fiends
With leathery wings
clap clap clap clap
Away from Cuiviénen!

The Trees in Bloom
Are bright as Noon
clap clap clap clap
But not in Cuiviénen!
The Valar keep
The world asleep
clap clap clap clap
Down here in Cuiviénen!

The Valar say
We should not stay
clap clap clap clap
Down here in Cuiviénen!
They bid us ride
Towards the light
clap clap clap clap
Away from Cuiviénen!

Teleri stay,
Or long delay
clap clap clap clap
Down here in Cuiviénen! 
Or lose the path
In Doriath
clap clap clap clap
Away from in Cuiviénen!

The Elven tribes
Recall the sight
clap clap clap clap
Of fairest Cuiviénen!
But go no more
Unto its shore
clap clap clap clap
Way back in Cuiviénen!

 And if this isn't enough to spark wonder, I don't know what is. 

'As it was told of old' -- Two observations on FR 1.xi.191

'Beren and Luthien in the Court of Thingol and Melian.' copyright 2017 Donato Giancola


'I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,' said Strider, 'in brief – for it is a long tale of which the end is not known; and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old. It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.'
(FR 1.xi.191)

Aragorn's words here indicate that the Tale of Beren and Lúthien was not remembered and told 'aright' in places other than Rivendell. Given the multiple, unfinished or abbreviated versions of the Tale Tolkien wrote, he may well be poking fun at himself here.

To say that the end of the Tale is 'not known' is not the same as to say that the lay is unfinished. Indeed the hobbits later hear it sung 'in full' at Rivendell (FR 2.iii.277). What Strider says here, at Weathertop, shows that he fully understands what Sam grasps only later on, that they're 'in the same tale still.  It's going on', because the 'great tales never end' (TT 4.viii.712). 


23 June 2017

Sand of Pearls in Elvenland, or, Boethius on the Shore

Being a lifelong lover of the Sea and the shore, I have always found Tolkien's evocation of the home of the Teleri beyond the Sea appealing. So the moment in The Silmarillion in which Finrod conjures this place in song, only to have it turned against him by Sauron in his song has always been for me, not surprisingly, one of great enchantment and dismay:

Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.
     Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn --
And Finrod fell before the throne. 
                                                                 (Silm. 171)

In these lines the most striking have always been the turning point: 
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls on Elvenland. 
Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea...
The sound of the water sighing as it slides up the beach is one well known and well loved by me. And there's always this instant, this caesura if you will, when the water pauses ever so briefly as it reaches its highest point before slipping away down the slope.  The words 'on sand, / On sand of pearls in Elvenland' mark that instant of nature and peripety, both for the Sea as Finrod conjures it and for Finrod in his battle against Sauron. The cunning of Sauron turns the memory of Finrod against itself by recalling the Kinslaying.

It is a sweeping moment and the image of 'sand of pearls' is vivid and powerful not only in itself, but more importantly in its contrast to the gloom and 'red blood flowing' which is the next wave, as it were. The very images that Finrod conjures to combat the darkness themselves end in darkness. They do so now because they did so then. Paradoxically, Sauron is here the Undeceiver. He will not allow Finrod to see the pearls shining on the jeweled strand, but forget the blood which stains them. That it was the quest to regain other jewels that led to their staining only increases the irony, and the force of what may be an implicit lesson.

For in one of the poems in The Consolation of Philosophy Lady Philosophy bids all those taken prisoner by the desire to possess (libido) to come to her (Book 3, poem 10):

huc omnes pariter venite capti,
quos fallax ligat improbis catenis,
terrenas habitans libido mentes:
haec erit vobis requies laborum
05    hic portus placida manens quiete
hoc patens unum miseris asylum.
non quicquid Tagus aureis harenis
donat aut Hermus rutilante ripa
aut Indus calido propinquus orbi
10    candidis miscens virides lapillos*
inlustrent aciem magisque caecos
in suas condunt animos tenebras.
hoc, quicquid placet excitatque mentes,
infimis tellus aluit cavernis;
15    splendor quo regitur vigetque caelum**
vitat obscuras animae ruinas;
hanc quisqe poterit notare lucem
candidos Phoebi radios negabit.

Which I render:

Come here all you prisoners,
Whom deceitful lust, which dwells in earthbound minds,
Binds in chains of wickedness.
Here you will find rest from labors,
05   Here a haven waiting in gentle peace,
Here a single refuge open to all the wretched.
No gift which the Tagus bestows with its sands of gold,
Or the Hermus with its red-gold banks,
Or the Indus which, at the edge of the Torrid Zone,***
10  Mixes emeralds with shining white pearls --
None of these gifts could illuminate your vision rather than
fixing your blind minds in a darkness of their own.
Whatever pleases and stirs our minds,
This the earth nurtures in its deepest caverns;
15  But the splendor by which the heavens** are ruled and flourish
Shuns the dark ruins of our minds;
Whoever takes note of this light,
Will deny that Phoebus' rays shine bright. 

It is with the image of just such a haven (portus) or refuge (asylum) that Finrod, the exile and prisoner, seeks to combat the darkness in which he finds himself. But he is as deceived as those whom the brightness of jewels deludes. Their splendor does not illuminate the mind but darkens it, because they themselves come from the lowest deeps of the earth (line 14: infimis tellus aluit cavernis). Even the pearls found on the banks of the Indus at the far side of the world lead only to darkness, as Finrod, mutatis mutandis, finds to his cost. In the context of Finrod's tragic failure it is surely worth pointing out that of all the princes of the Noldor in exile he was the one who 'had brought more treasures out of Tirion' (Silm. 114). Wise and noble, kind and generous he may have been, but also not without fault.

The sand, the pearls, the water, the farthest shores of the inhabited world, the false promise of shiny things that offer neither refuge nor enlightenment, all find themselves transformed in Tolkien's hands from philosophy into the setting for tragedy. Through Fëanor's greedy love of the Silmarils and Morgoth's lust to possess them solely (Silm. 67, 69) -- or libido as Lady Philosophy would call it -- moral and physical darkness come first to Valinor, and then to Middle-earth.  Conversely, it is also not until Beren and Lúthien seek a silmaril out of love, not in order to possess it, but only to give it away, that it begins to become something whose splendor will bring hope to the world and illuminate, however briefly, even the oath-blind minds of the sons of Fëanor (Silm. 250).  And this, too, fits, because in an earlier poem, Lady Philosophy had pointed out that love (amor) binds (ligat) the world together properly (Book 2, poem 8.1-15), and that without love the very mechanism by which the world is moved would be destroyed (16-21). Moreover, she concludes (28-30) in words that line 15 of Book 3, poem 10 echoes:

O felix hominum genus,
Si vestros animos amor,
Quo caelum** regitur, regat. 
O fortunate human race,
If the love, by which the heavens** are ruled,
Also ruled your minds!
It is nothing new of course to note that Tolkien knew his Boethius, but he also seems to have drawn on him for one of his most vivid and exotic images in such away that it allowed him to give dramatic life to the ideas expressed by Lady Philosophy in her dialogue with Boethius.
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*  This line appears to be an allusion to Horace Serm. 1.2.80, where he refers to a woman 'inter niveos viridesque lapillos', that is, ‘amid her pearls and emeralds’. 'Niveos' -- 'white as snow' -- emphasizes the shining brightness of the color, just as 'candidis' does in Boethius. Roman politicians would wear a specially whitened toga, the toga candidata, to make themselves more visible. 

Given Tolkien's extensive reading in Classics, it is quite possible, even likely, that he will have read this satire of Horace, and so recognized Boethius' allusion.

** 'Caelum' is singular in Latin, but I have translated it as plural to avoid the suggestion that Boethius is talking about Heaven.

*** The Torrid Zone was the area nearest the equator which was commonly thought too hot to sustain life.



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My Bentley's Horace



16 June 2017

'Our king, we call him' -- The Identity of the Speaker at RK App. A 1043-44




In the section of Appendix A called The North Kingdom and the Dúnedain an anonymous speaker tells something of the return of King Elessar to the North:

There were fourteen Chieftains, before the fifteenth and last was born, Aragorn II, who became again King of both Gondor and Arnor. 'Our King, we call him; and when he comes north to his house in Annúminas restored and stays for a while by Lake Evendim, then everyone in the Shire is glad. But he does not enter this land and binds himself by the law that he has made, that none of the Big People shall pass its borders. But he rides often with many fair people to the Great Bridge, and there he welcomes his friends, and any others who wish to see him; and some ride away with him and stay in his house as long as they have a mind. Thain Peregrin has been there many times; and so has Master Samwise the Mayor. His daughter Elanor the Fair is one of the maids of Queen Evenstar.' 

(RK App A 1043-44)
Let's look at the facts of this quote and see if we can make an educated guess about the identity of the speaker here.

  • 'Our King, we call him' establishes the speaker as a hobbit, likely addressing an audience from outside the Shire.
  • 'Our King, we call him' is also quite informal in tone, suggesting that the speaker is addressing someone he or she knows.
  • The need to identify Sam as the Mayor, and Peregrin as the Thain, also indicates an external audience. Hobbits would know these facts.
  • The reference to the Brandywine Bridge as the Great Bridge also points to an external audience, since the evidence from within the Tale indicates that amongst themselves the hobbits tended to call it the Brandywine Bridge, or just the Bridge (FR Pr. 5; 1.i.24; iii.71; iv.88; v.99 twice, 100, 107 twice, 108; viii.137; ix.150; RK 6.vii.996; viii.998 twice, 999, 1000, 1001, 1003; App A 1044; App B 1,096, 1097).
  • 'Thain Peregrin has been there many times' dates this comment after S.R. 1434 (FA 13), when Pippin became the Thain, perhaps much later (thus, 'many times').
  • Since Elanor became a maid of the Queen in S.R. 1436 (FA 15), we can bring forward the terminus post quem to that year.
  • 'So has Master Samwise' shows that Sam has not yet crossed the Sea, as he did in S.R. 1482 (FA 61). This fixes the terminus ante quem.
  • The speaker speaks as one explaining to an outsider, pointing out that Sam is the Mayor, that Elanor is his daughter, and that Peregrin is the Thain.
  • Identifying Elanor as the Fair and as one of Arwen's maids seems a point of local pride, like 'Our King', but claims no kinship with her.
  • The speaker seems to be none of the hobbits mentioned in the statement. 
So who is the most likely candidate in the years S.R. 1436-1482 (FA 15-61) to be familiar with these matters and addressing a known audience outside the Shire in an informal tone? By far the most obvious choice would be Merry Brandybuck, who, as friend of the King -- and after S.R.  1432 (FA 11) himself the Master of Buckland -- must have been at the Brandywine Bridge to meet the King. Whom he is addressing is impossible to say, but we might guess, not unreasonably, that he was writing to Éowyn, to Éomer, or to them both, since they never forgot their friendship with him (RK App B. 1097 twice).

14 June 2017

The Filial Piety of 'Master Samwise'



I noticed some time ago that Sam is called Master Samwise in interesting places. There is of course the chapter title, The Choices of Master Samwise, and the uniquely and curiously named Longfather Tree of Master Samwise in Appendix C. It became even more intriguing when I noticed that in Appendix B, The Tale of Years, Sam is always called 'Master Samwise' after Aragorn makes him an official Counsellor of the North-kingdom in S.R. 1434. While this might be thought to suggest the origin of the title, it isn't as easy as that. In the entries under 1436 and 1442 we read, respectively: 

King Elessar rides north, and dwells for a while by Lake Evendim. He comes to the Brandywine Bridge, and there greets his friends. He gives the Star of the Dúnedain to Master Samwise, and Elanor is made a maid of honour to Queen Arwen.
  
Master Samwise and his wife and Elanor ride to Gondor and stay there for a year. Master Tolman Cotton acts as deputy Mayor.

Master Tolman Cotton is Elanor's grandfather, the father of Sam's beloved wife, Rose. That he, too, is named 'Master' while serving as deputy Mayor, might suggest that the title was associated with the Office.  And it may be, but there is another detail we need here.

The first time Sam is called Master Samwise is by Mablung, one of the two Rangers of Ithilien who guard him and Frodo while Faramir and his other men are attacking the Haradrim. He does so as part of a jocular exchange between them.

'Go quietly when you must!' said Sam. 'No need to disturb my sleep. I was walking all night.' 
Mablung laughed. 'I do not think the Captain will leave you here, Master Samwise,' he said. 'But you shall see.'
(TT 4.iv.662)

Faramir of course does not leave Sam and Frodo behind, and in their discussions he calls Sam 'Master Samwise' no fewer than four times (TT 4.v.669 twice, 679, 682). Of the nine times altogether in which Faramir addresses him by name, he always calls him Samwise (4.v,668, 677. 681; vi.684; vii.695), just as Frodo had introduced him: 'Samwise son of Hamfast, a worthy hobbit in my service' (4.iv.657). Now the use of 'Samwise' here is as remarkable as the use of 'Master'.  For the present passage is only the third time we have heard Sam's full name, which does not occur within the Tale itself before this book, and both of the prior uses serve to associate Sam closely with Frodo.  In The Passage of the Marshes Frodo says 'Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit -- indeed, Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends' (4.ii.624); and in The Black Gate Is Closed the narrator reminds us that Gandalf's 'thought was ever upon Frodo and Samwise' (TT 4.iii.644). The Tale of Years, moreover, parallels the pairing the narrator has here named. For until the Fellowship is broken Frodo is always referred to alone, and Sam is not mentioned at all. Yet afterwards it is almost invariably 'Frodo and Samwise' until Frodo begins suffering the aftermath of the quest. The Tale of Years gives an added subtle emphasis to this pairing by recording the births of Frodo and Sam, but not of Merry and Pippin. History seems to have suddenly taken particular notice of Sam.

Frodo's introduction of himself and Sam to Faramir, moreover, is also only the second time in the Tale that we have ever heard the Gaffer's first name. On that first occasion, we should remember, we learned that Bilbo used to call him 'Master Hamfast', which is deemed to be 'very polite' (FR 1.i.22). So, we see that 'Master' is a title of courteous address in both the Shire and Gondor,* but it is also a great honor, because it is a great condescension in the old sense, for someone in Sam's position -- a servant -- to be addressed in this way. As such, the honor Faramir does Sam here is even greater than that which Bilbo did the Gaffer, if not without a degree of gentle irony. With this we may contrast the bitter mockery dripping from Gollum's 'kind Master Samwise, the hobbit that knows so much' (TT 4.viii.715), a characterization he offers not long after Faramir and the hobbits part company.**

I would argue that what we are seeing here, with the use of 'Samwise', and 'Hamfast', and 'Master', and all the attention paid to Sam and his family in the Appendices, is best explained by the filial piety of Elanor, daughter of Master Samwise and Mistress Rose, and her descendants, the Fairbairns of Westmarch.  Elanor no doubt heard her father addressed as 'Master Samwise' many times during the time they spent in Gondor while she was handmaiden to Queen Arwen -- a detail that is pointed out in two different Appendices. The entry in The Tale of Years we saw above.  The other mention we find in a quote embedded in Appendix A's section on the history of the North-kingdom and the Dúnedain. The quote makes clear that its source lies within the Shire:

There were fourteen Chieftains, before the fifteenth and last was born, Aragorn II, who became again King of both Gondor and Arnor. 'Our King, we call him; and when he comes north to his house in Annúminas restored and stays for a while by Lake Evendim, then everyone in the Shire is glad. But he does not enter this land and binds himself by the law that he has made, that none of the Big People shall pass its borders. But he rides often with many fair people to the Great Bridge, and there he welcomes his friends, and any others who wish to see him; and some ride away with him and stay in his house as long as they have a mind. Thain Peregrin has been there many times; and so has Master Samwise the Mayor. His daughter Elanor the Fair is one of the maids of Queen Evenstar.' 
(RK App A 1043-44)

We also know from the Note on Shire Records in the Prologue that her family not only had custody of the Red Book, but added what we call the Appendices to it:

To these four volumes there was added in Westmarch a fifth containing commentaries, genealogies, and various other matter concerning the hobbit members of the Fellowship. 
The original Red Book has not been preserved, but many copies were made, especially of the first volume, for the use of the descendants of the children of Master Samwise. 
(FR Pr. 14)
Once again we see the marvels of attention Tolkien paid to even the smallest details, investing great thought into creating not only the Tale itself, but also the commentaries upon it and the relationship between them and their author(s) and the text. 'Samwise' also occurs in the synopses attached to The Two Towers and The Return of the King, which leads me to wonder how Tolkien thought of them as connecting to the text. Did he, when compelled by the exigencies of publication costs, decide to incorporate into his work the idea that the one book had already been broken into three as part of its frequent copying by the descendants of 'Master Samwise'? And does the chapter title, The Choices of Master Samwise, suggest that all the chapter titles derive from the Fairbairns of Westmarch? 

How little escaped his eye from the top of that tower. 

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Addenda


* In Rohan, too, it seems clear: Merry is called Master nine times by the men of Rohan, including by Théoden King in his final moments (RK 5.iii.796, 800 twice, 801, 802, 803; v.831; vi.842; App. B. 1097). This may be further evidence of ancient connections between hobbits and the Éothéod, since both once dwelt in the vales of Anduin. Since Gollum also originated there, his use of it may suggest the same, even if hearing Faramir use it prompted his memory.

** One of these days I mean to investigate Gollum and Faramir as antitheses in Book 4.

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11 June 2017

Sir Orfeo, Faërian Drama, and the Quenta Noldorinwa

Copyright Ted Nasmith


In a forthcoming article I argue that in The Hobbit we can see Tolkien using the fairies of medieval Romance, specifically in Sir Orfeo, to recreate Elves that can be taken seriously, like those in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and unlike the gossamer-winged sprites of Victorian England. (I posted an earlier, much shorter incarnation of this paper here last September).  One of the fascinating points to be noted in studying these texts from this perspective is that in Sir Orfeo it is Orfeo, a mortal Man, who can summon up visions by means of song, while in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings this power belongs exclusively to the Elves. In my article I suggest that in the transference of this ability from Men to Elves we might be seeing the birth of what Tolkien termed 'Faërian Drama', which is 'a dream that some other mind is weaving' (OFS, 63, ¶ 74).

One of the passages I cited to illustrate this Elvish art describes the first meeting of Elves and Men, as initiated by Finrod:
Long Felagund watched them, and love for them stirred in his heart; but he remained hidden in the trees until they had all fallen asleep. Then he went among the sleeping people, and sat beside their dying fire where none kept watch; and he took up a rude harp which Bëor had laid aside, and he played music upon it such as the ears of Men had not heard; for they had as yet no teachers in the art, save only the Dark Elves in the wild lands. 
Now men awoke and listened to Felagund as he harped and sang, and each thought that he was in some fair dream, until he saw that his fellows were awake also beside him; but they did not speak or stir while Felagund still played, because of the beauty of the music and the wonder of the song. Wisdom was in the words of the Elven-king, and the hearts grew wiser that hearkened to him; for the things of which he sang, of the making of Arda, and the bliss of Aman beyond the shadows of the Sea, came as clear visions before their eyes, and his Elvish speech was interpreted in each mind according to its measure. 
(S 140-41)

Yet today I discovered in the Quenta Noldorinwa, one of the predecessors of The Silmarillion, a very interesting difference in its version of the first encounter of Elves and Men:

That night Felagund went among the sleeping men of Beor's host and sat by their dying fires where none kept watch, and he took a harp which Beor had laid aside, and he played music on it such as mortal ear had never heard, having learned the strains of music from the Dark-elves alone. Then men woke and listened and marvelled, for great wisdom was in that song, as well as beauty, and the heart grew wiser that listened to it. 
(Shaping 104-05)
In the passage from the Quenta Noldorinwa, which Christopher Tolkien dates securely to no later than 1930, the visionary experience of the Men is completely absent, however much they may have profited by Finrod's singing otherwise. The version of the tale we find in The Silmarillion dates to the 1950s, after Tolkien had finished writing The Lord of the Rings (Jewels, 173, 216-17). It is also worth noting here that one of the characteristics of Faërian Drama as portrayed in The Silmarillion passage quoted above is that the listener does not need to know the language of the Elves to comprehend their song. The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings have precisely this experience when they hear Gildor and his Elves singing in the woods of the Shire (FR 1.iii.79), an episode which dates to the earliest draft of what became the chapter Three's Company (Return 58-59).

It's as if between the two versions of this scene we can see dramatized the very transference of which I spoke above, in which Tolkien shifts the power of visionary enchantment from Orfeo to the Elves,

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Three Moments of Sam in Faërie



There are many subtle things about Sam Gamgee that a reader may easily miss or neglect. Not only is he bold enough to spy on Gandalf, but he is cool-headed enough to lie to him about it (FR 1.ii.63-64; v.105). He pretends to be asleep while Frodo is talking to Gildor, and then has his own conversation with the Elves after Frodo has retired (1.iii.82. iv.87). He simply shows up at the Council of Elrond when he is not invited (2.ii.271). He even composes poetry (1.xii.208). But one thing no one overlooks is his love of Elves and 'stories of the old days'. Even before we meet him, the Gaffer is talking about it (1.i.24). From the first time we see him in The Green Dragon -- 'They are sailing, sailing, sailing' (FR 1.ii.45) -- through the Company's sojourn in Lothlórien, Elves are a common theme.  As a participant (Archimago) in Mythgard's Exploring the Lord of the Rings class (episode 10, starting at 15:20) recently pointed out, Sam's early refrain of 'Elves, sir' is almost 'like punctuation' in itself:

‘Well, sir,’ said Sam dithering a little. ‘I heard a deal that I didn’t rightly understand, about an enemy, and rings, and Mr. Bilbo, sir, and dragons, and a fiery mountain, and – and Elves, sir. I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. Lor bless me, sir, but I do love tales of that sort. And I believe them too, whatever Ted may say. Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?’
(FR 1.ii.63, emphasis added)

Another passage that has long been of interest to me, is one that shows Sam to be less susceptible to some kinds of enchantment, or at least more conscious of its effects. In the Old Forest, when Frodo, Merry, and Pippin are all overwhelmed by Old Man Willow's spells, Sam sees through them:

Sam sat down and scratched his head, and yawned like a cavern. He was worried. The afternoon was getting late, and he thought this sudden sleepiness uncanny. ‘There’s more behind this than sun and warm air,’ he muttered to himself. ‘I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won’t do at all!’
(FR 1.vi.117)
To which I would add this passage:

[Frodo] turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. 'It's sunlight and bright day, right enough,' he said. 'I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.' 
Haldir looked at them, and he seemed indeed to take the meaning of both thought and word. He smiled. 'You feel the power of the Lady of the Galadhrim,' he said. 
(FR 2.vi.351, emphasis original)
It's hard to say just why Sam seems more perceptive on this score than his fellow hobbits.  One would expect Frodo, if anyone, to be the hobbit most attuned to such things. Frodo certainly seems more learned, and his experience with the Ring expands his range of perceptions. Yet when a desire to drop everything and follow Bilbo rises up within him, he does nothing (1.ii.61). He lets months pass (1.iii.65-69), an almost fatal mistake. Sam, when granted the opportunity to go see the 'Elves, sir!', bursts into tears of joy (1.ii,64). As we also know, he openly talks about the Elves, in the face of reproofs from his Gaffer and public ridicule at the Green Dragon (1.i.24; ii.44-45). And there is something about Sam that he shares with another hobbit, who at first seemed unlikely to be so open to a wider world. Not only does Merry say of Farmer Maggot that 'a lot goes on behind his round face that does not come out in his talk' (1.v.103), words that could equally well describe Sam the gardener, but from Tom Bombadil we learn that Farmer Maggot knows more about Faërie than he lets on, and is not unlike Sam Gamgee in other ways as well:

... but [Tom] made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined. ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open,’ said Tom.
(1.vii.)
Sam and Maggot both have a connection to the earth that Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, who pretty clearly don't earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, entirely lack. The Gaffer, too, is similarly grounded in the soil of the Shire, which may be why he and Farmer Maggot can stand up to the Black Riders. In Rivendell Gandalf alludes cryptically to 'a power of another kind' in the Shire, a power that could 'withstand' evil to some degree (FR 2.i.223). He also recalls his doubts, while a prisoner of Saruman, 'that the hunters before whom all have fled or fallen would falter in the Shire far away' (2.ii.261).

And yet they do falter, baffled by the Gaffer and seen off by Maggot, the two earthiest characters we meet in the Shire.  The one we know by 'Farmer' rather than a first name, and the purport of his last name, unfortunately submerged in the predominant modern understanding of 'maggot', not only describes someone as a 'fanciful' or 'whimsical' character, but is also an old word for 'magpie' in the West Midlands of England, where Tolkien was raised. It thus ties Maggot to one of the shrewdest birds in nature. As for the other, Gaffer Gamgee, his first name, Hamfast, declares the strength (OE, fæst) of his roots in the Shire as his home (OE, ham).*

So it seems a real possibility that Sam's superior perceptions of enchantment have their roots in the earth of the Shire, as it were, as much as, if not more than in his openness to Faërie. And this brings me to the last of my three passages on Sam and Faërie. On their first night in the house of Tom Bombadil Merry, Pippin, and Frodo all have very troubling dreams, though instructed by both Goldberry and Tom to 'heed no nightly noises' (1.vii.125,126). Merry and Pippin both remember (or hear again) these words when they awake from their nightmares (1.vii.127-28), and Tom chides them in the morning for not listening (1.vii.128). Sam alone has no nightmares, as the narrator goes out of his way to point this out, quite humorously so:
As far as he could remember, Sam slept through the night in deep content, if logs are contented.
(1.vii.128)
Given what else we've seen, however, I can only wonder if Sam's contentment and seemingly dreamless sleep, which the narrator points out twice in one sentence, have the same source, a deep connection to the earth itself, which, as Tolkien saw it, was naturally a part of Faërie even if mortals are not (OFS 32 ¶ 10).


*I believe there is more to be said about the name Maggot, but that must await another day.


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05 June 2017

Wonder Invoked -- On the Uses of Enchantment



Trying to find my room on day one of Mythmoot



The theme of the most recent Mythmoot --  held just this past weekend in the Khazad-dûm-like corridors of the nevertheless comfortable and welcoming National Conference Center, where the fish entrees were always, fittingly, tasty --  was 'invoking wonder.' To be honest, my eye is a bit jaundiced when it comes to themes, which inspire me to think of (un-)motivational posters about the unstoppable power of one's dreams. But I am too much of a romantic to be anything but an easy prey to cynicism.

And yet I knew exactly where the fair folk of Mythmoot were coming from when they spoke of the importance of wonder and the first moments in their lives that they could recall experiencing it. For me that moment came in or just after September 1966, when I heard the words "Space, the final frontier...." for the first time.  There was something about the music and the way William Shatner said these words that moved me, that opened vistas of space and time for me the way the words "Eala Earendel, engla beorhtast" did for Tolkien, and "Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead" did for C. S. Lewis.

Many years later, in an interview after Kirk died in Star Trek: Generations, William Shatner said of the moment of Kirk's death on screen that Kirk "faced death as he had faced all those aliens, which was a mixture of awe and wonderment...." Shatner also said that it did not come through on the screen. It did for me. It was perfectly clear to me, just as the sense of awe and wonder with which Kirk approached "all those aliens" always had been. There were quite a few such moments over the years. There was "second star on the right and straight on till morning at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country; there was Kirk's "young, I feel young" at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.


But for me perhaps the most evocative is that sine qua non of Shatner imitations, that speech both famous and infamous, as beloved as belittled, from the episode Return to Tomorrow:



For me, and for my memory, wonder began here. But it's come in a thousand different forms since then, in experiences as well as in books.

  • That beautiful late summer afternoon over two decades ago, as our boat approached the harbor. The was setting sun before us, and the land's violet shadow reaching out towards us. It was drowsy and balmy and I was standing by the transom to enjoy the breeze. My eyes were unfocused but looking over the side at the swells we were soaring through. Then something else moved that wasn't the water. Beside us a humpback whale crested the surface to take a breath. I gasped. Somewhere in my mind the crew of The Pequod were shouting "she breaches", but all I could do was gape. By the time I was able to say anything to the others on board, who were all in the cabin, the whale was gone. 
  • "And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last." (If you don't recognize these words, you're surely reading the wrong blog.)
  • Five years have past; five summers, with the length
    Of five long winters! and again I hear
    These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
    With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
    Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
    That on a wild secluded scene impress
    Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
    The landscape with the quiet of the sky. (Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey)
  • Every night in a chill Vermont winter, with the snow crunching beneath our feet as Argos and I walked past the dark wood, as the trees popped in the frigid air, and the luminous green curtain of the Northern Lights swayed and shimmered around us.
  • The day I saw an eagle lazily pivot 360 degrees on a wingtip, as if he were doing it just because he could.
  • "It may be laid down as a general rule that if a man begins to sing, no one will take any notice of his song except his fellow human beings. This is true even if his song is surpassingly beautiful. Other men may be in raptures at his skill, but the rest of creation is, by and large, unmoved. Perhaps a cat or a dog may look at him; his horse, if it is an exceptionally intelligent beast, may pause in cropping the grass, but that is the extent of it. But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak a language it understands. In the fairy's song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself" (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell).
  • Whenever I discover the joy of silence, sitting by my window with a book, listening to the birds singing and the wind in the leaves of the oak trees.
  • That day underwater in Bonaire, as I looked down at my buddy 30 feet below me, and watched his bubbles rise towards me; and when they came within a couple of feet, I realized I could see my reflection in their surface.
  • The description of the history of the dragon's hoard in Beowulf.
  • The adagio of BWV 1060, especially this version
  • How even now, eleven years after she died, I can still feel the softness and warmth of my mother's hand in mine.
  • The still, small voice that comes after the earthquake, the fire, and the whirlwind.
  • The morning star.
  • The Sea, 
  • And the Sea,
  • And the Sea.
I could easily keep going with this list, since the things on it, and a hundred other things like them, and still others of a joy or sorrow too private to tell, are the things that help me keep going. That's what wonder does. It beckons me onward and bids me hope. Following isn't always an easy thing for me. My eyes tend to look back and rest on the things that went wrong. By all rights I should have turned into a pillar of salt long ago. Yet maybe there's a place where wonder can help to balance past and future. It's a hope like this that has always made me so fond of one particular poem in The Lord of the Rings. Even as a child reading this book for the first time, and knowing nothing of what it's talking about, this poem about wonder moved me. Whether that makes my soul old or prophetic, I don't know. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been; 
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see. 
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know. 
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

22 May 2017

Things You Find In Grammar Books




From A Guide to Old English, sixth edition (2001) by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson.

...the O[ld] E[nglish verb distinguished only two tenses ... the present and the preterite. Hence ... the two simple tenses are often used to express complicated temporal relationships. This is one of the things which made Professor Tolkien once say in a lecture that most people read OE poetry much more quickly than did the Anglo-Saxon minstrel, reciting or reading aloud as he was to an audience which needed time to pick up the implications of what he was saying. And this would apply, not only to the subject-matter, especially to the hints and allusion which frequently had great significance, but also to the relationship between paratactic sentences ... and to the actual relationship in time between two actions both of which were described by a simple tense of a verb. 
(108, emphasis added)

Most people? 

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Conditions expressed by the word-order V[erb].-S[ubject] without a conjunction -- e.g., 'Had I plenty of money, I would be lying in the sun in Bermuda' -- occasionally occur in OE prose.
(99)

A sentence clearly composed in winter by someone not getting rich from writing an Old English grammar.

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'It has already been pointed out in § 179.4 that unreality is timeless in OE' (109)

§ 179.4 reads:
and þæt wisete eac weroda Drihten
þæt sceolde unc Adame yfele gewurðan
ymb þæt heofonrice, þær ic ahte minra handa geweald
'and the Lord of Hosts also knew that things would turn out badly between Adam and me about that heavenly kingdom, if I had control of my hands.'
...[the sentence] here might refer to something which is impossible at the time when Satan spoke -- the implication being 'if only I had control of my hands now, but I haven't'. But it could also be translated 'God knew that trouble would arise between Adam and me if I were to have control of my hands'.
.... Does this interpretation mean that there was a possibility that Satan might have control of his hands ... or that such a thing was impossible when God spoke? The issue here is complicated by questions of God's foreknowledge, though perhaps our own knowledge of the story enables us to dismiss the latter possibility. But enough has been said to make it clear that the Anglo-Saxon 'rule' that 'unreality is timeless' is not without its advantages.
(109, emphasis added)

Nothing, and I mean nothing, screws with the mood of a verb like questions of divine foreknowledge. Had Apollo only used the subjunctive, Oedipus might have been lying in the sun in Bermuda.


Toxic Advice from C. S. Lewis


In The Discarded Image, his otherwise marvelous introduction to the medieval model of the world, C. S. Lewis tells us:
Mercury produces quicksilver. Dante gives his sphere to beneficent men of action. Isidore, on the other hand, says this planet is called Mercurius because he is the patron of profit (mercibus praeest). Gower says that the man born under Mercury will be 'studious' and ' in writinge curious', 
bot yit with somdel besinesse
his hert is set upon richesse. 
(Confessio, vn, 765.)
The Wife of Bath associates him especially with clerks (D 706). In Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis he is the bridegroom of Philologia - who is Learning or even Literature rather than what we call 'philology'. And I am pretty sure that 'the Words of Mercury' contrasted with 'the Songs of Apollo' at the end of Love's Labour's Lost are 'picked', or rhetorical prose. It is difficult to see the unity in all these characteristics. ' Skilled eagerness' or 'bright alacrity' is the best I can do. But it is better just to take some real mercury in a saucer and play with it for a few minutes. That is what 'Mercurial' means. 
The Discarded Image, 107-08.
Better to play with mercury?

07 May 2017

Dreams of Beowulf




Sometimes I have the coolest dreams.

The other night I fell asleep at my desk (as one does) leaning on my hands, trying to hold my head up and stay awake, so I could finish my daily reading in Beowulf.  First I entered that strange state where I am just awake enough to know that my eyes are closed, but I am unable to open them, no matter how I try. 

Often, even when flat on my back reading in bed I can stay in this state for a while, and have dreams while still holding up my book and aware that I am doing so. Sometimes I will wake up again and read a little while longer, until my eyes close once more.

But this night I dreamt that my head sank, slowly and irresistibly, until my face was resting on my notebook where I write out the text and vocabulary. Still in the dream, I awoke to find that the lines of the poem were now written on my face. Somehow I was now standing looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, tracing the lines of black ink with my fingers. Somehow I knew they wouldn't wash off.

I don't much like tattoos, but this one I was okay with, especially since that day's lines touched on Beowulf's fight with the dragon.