Idiosophy

A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Publishing On Line

I’ve put the final version of the Ardagraphy paper on a couple of social networks.  The first is the Humanities Commons, which is brand new and looks encouraging.

The second is Academia, which gets a high page rank on Google. I’m not exactly sure of what that site is doing, though.  For example, it put the PDF I uploaded into Scribd.

Minas Tirith as a Study in Military Science

The Angry Staff Officer wrote a post that I’ve been thinking of for a long time.  It’s better that he did, because he knows much more about military science than I do.  (ROTC was a looong time ago.)

The Battle of the Pellenor Fields is a good example of several points of military science.  It uses a lot of jargon, but it gives me a chance to ask a question I’ve wanted to ask for a long time.

And if the Rohirrim at their onset were thrice outnumbered by the Haradrim alone, soon their case became worse; for new strength came now streaming to the field out of Osgiliath. There they had been mustered for the sack of the City and the rape of Gondor, waiting on the call of their Captain. He now was destroyed; but Gothmog the lieutenant of Morgul had flung them into the fray; Easterlings with axes, and Variags of Khand, Southrons in scarlet, and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.

LotR V.vi

Here’s what I want to know about the internal structure of the armies of Mordor:  what do you have to kiss, how many times, before you get assigned to sit in Osgiliath during the fighting and only come out when it’s time for pillage and rapine?

Metathor

The Monday meeting of the Defenders of Denethor is now in session. I commented over there, but I’m putting this here because Stephen’s got a serious discussion going on, and this gets less serious the more I think about it.

Where I think we both ended up is, Denethor is doing the right thing according to his reason. His proposed course of action is entirely defensible, all his priorities are well established, he’s acting within his authority, and if anything went wrong his CYA package was in order. Unfortunately, he’s operating outside the theater of reason alone. The circumstances require faith in Something much greater than the works of Men, which Denethor doesn’t have, or hasn’t found use for in government.

Here in our world, any christian (and large numbers from other religions) will tell you we have Scripture to tell us about that Something.  Nothing of the sort exists in Gondor.  I suppose the Steward could go ask Elrond, which is kind of what Boromir is doing at the Council.  Or he could ask Galadriel and Celeborn, since they were around for even more of the backstory.  Or Círdan would have an interesting perspective.  But these people all have their own interests, their own motives.  He’d never be sure they were telling him everything.  If you really want Denethor to take supernatural powers into his calculations, you’d have to give him something in writing.

What img_0159 if Denethor got hold of a copy of the Letters?  Would that have the same theological impact as the Epistles of St. Paul have in ours?  After all, Middle Earth has an omniscient creator (he’d say “subcreator”) who knows and sees all, and has a Plan for the world.

The book would contain the creator’s secret thought,  his intentions that didn’t make it into the obvious plot. It contradicts itself in some places, and is frustratingly silent when it gets to some things you really need to know. Some parts would make no sense at all to a character from LotR. It has all the trappings of the foundational text of a religion.

Somehow, though, I don’t see the Men of Gondor accepting it that way.

Denethor as Tragic Hero

Denethor Unfinished” by Peet on Deviantart

I organized the Defenders of Denethor [1] Committee (membership: 1) in response to a post by Stephen C Winter on his blog “Wisdom from the Lord of the Rings“.

Mr Winter does not go easy on the Steward of Gondor. The post levels accusations like “deluded”, “lack of self-knowledge”, and “given to fantasy”. There are two specific charges against Denethor: use of the palantir, and planning to use the Ring. The post says it’s because Denethor’s Numenorean arrogance (stipulated by the defense) convinces him he’s stronger than either, and so he can turn them to his own ends. This kind of misjudgment, the argument goes, makes him the bad guy.

As I mentioned over there, there’s nothing in the text that makes us conclude Denethor thought that he was greater than the Ring or the palantir.  The evidence says, rather, that he made a considered judgment that using the palantir is better than not using it.  I agree that “the Ring holds no terror” for him. If not using it would be the greater evil in Denethor’s judgment, he would use it.  What does Tolkien say in his favor?

Denethor II was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil as to one of nearest kin … When Denethor became Steward (2984) he proved a masterful lord, holding the rule of all things in his own hand. He said little. He listened to counsel, and then followed his own mind.

LotR, Appendix A(iv)

Coming from JRRT, this is high praise. Hell, I’d even vote for him myself. On the negative side, we have Gandalf’s post-mortem:

Though the Stewards deemed that it was a secret kept only by themselves, long ago I guessed that here in the White Tower, one at least of the Seven Seeing Stones was preserved. In the days of his wisdom Denethor would not presume to use it to challenge Sauron, knowing the limits of his own strength. But his wisdom failed; and I fear that as the peril of his realm grew he looked in the Stone and was deceived: far too often, I guess, since Boromir departed. He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.

LotR, V.vii

No way is Gandalf a disinterested observer. [2] This is a funeral speech for political purposes, like Marc Antony’s over Julius Caesar, but if we’re careful we can use it. Disregard subjective judgments about wisdom and foolishness, and note the contradiction: there’s only one sentence separating “…Denethor would not presume to challenge Sauron…” from “He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power…”. Let’s note that not using the palantir to challenge Sauron means Denethor was using it for general reconnaissance, which was “often of service to him.” He knew how to use tools, even ancient artifacts.

Mind to mind, the Steward of Gondor was a match for Sauron, where Saruman was not. This is a clue to Denethor’s place on the good-guy/bad-guy scale. Saruman was caught (LotR, III.xi) because he wanted power beyond his due. On the contrary, just like swindlers can’t con an honest man, Sauron can’t subdue Denethor. Denethor has earned his power, by birth and by decades of just rule. He’s not looking for more than he has.

Middle Earth and the Cold War

As it happens, I met a real-life Denethor. James R. Schlesinger was President Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, President Carter’s Secretary of Energy. (For my readers outside Washington, DC, that means he was in charge of the nuclear weapons.) In that meeting I was only 5% more senior than Pippin, and believe me: “between two such terrible old men” is an understatement. I wore a tie that matched the wallpaper and I kept my mouth so firmly shut it’s a wonder I could open it again afterwards.

The One Ring is not an allegory for nuclear weaponry, but it’s perfectly valid to use the Ring to think about what nuclear weapons mean. Working the other way is valid, too. We now know lots of stories about how people behaved when they were given world-destroying power, and we can use that to think about what the Ring might do.

When Sec. Schlesinger took office, the official strategy of the US was “Mutual Assured Destruction“. That is, the USA knew that the USSR wouldn’t attack us because we’d obliterate their cities. And the USSR knew we wouldn’t attack them because ditto. Yes, technically both of us were threatening war crimes. Schlesinger saw that there was a fundamental moral problem with that, which leads to a military problem: will the troops carry out that order? What kind of monster would give it? (cf. “The Last Command” by Arthur C. Clarke) Schlesinger started the process of turning US strategy towards counter-force operations, which improved the deterrence by concentrating the threat on the people who would actually be involved in starting the war. It worked. I was of draft age during the last, most-stressful part of the Cold War. I won’t even pretend to be objective in my approval.

Because of this history, which JRRT didn’t have, I believe Denethor when he promises, “It should have been kept, hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what befell would not trouble us, being dead.”  All eight US Presidents and five Soviet Premiers did that in their challenge. All the Secretaries and Ministers of Defense, as well.  Zero leaders on either side failed to.

Faramir passed the test of the Ring. Might not Denethor have passed it, too? He was greater than Faramir when he was young, and only grew in wisdom and power after that.

And pride, alas. Sauron found the tragic flaw. He couldn’t beat Denethor face to face. He couldn’t thwart Denethor’s intelligence operations, but he could mislead them. Lying through the palantir’s video feed may have been Sauron’s greatest accomplishment. I don’t doubt that Denethor experienced a direct frontal assault on his mind from Sauron, withstood it, and thought that he had won. That’s when one is most vulnerable to deceit, and where Sauron is strongest.  Winter says this means Denethor “disastrously misjudged his own capacity”; I say this is the kind of conflict we see in the real world, between two evenly-matched adversaries.  Where you can’t win by strength, you try trickery.  Nobody misjudged anything.

Conclusion

Back in the real world (as I commented on Winter’s blog) I look at leaders, and I see one thing they all have in common. As a rule, the good ones are all conscious of their responsibility to the innocents they protect. Denethor is one of our leaders. He looks at the worst that can happen, and chooses the strategy that turns out the best if everything goes wrong. (Operations researchers call this “minimax”.)  If cost-benefit analyses existed in Gondor, he’d insist on having them on his desk. I feel like I understand Denethor, because I’ve met people like him.  By my lights and theirs, he’s doing the right thing.  Gandalf breaks that rule. He sends the Ring into Mordor, knowing that the chance of devastating failure is at least as great as the chance of success. What kind of person does that? The hero of a romance, that’s who. Gandalf’s plan would never be chosen by someone who doesn’t have supernatural support, which is Tolkien’s point.

Also on the comment thread, “The Hapsburg Restorationist” (username checks out) cites Letter #183, that “Denethor was tainted with mere politics”, and Winter replies with the observation that “Denethor is a politician and Aragorn is a king. We all need to learn the difference between the two in our time.” I hope this post demonstrates that we’ve done so.


[1] “Denethor” is an anagram of “dethrone”, which I never noticed before but others did.
[2] Gandalf learned compassion and pity from Nienna, but the books are silent about where he learned intellectual snobbery. I’m guessing faculty meetings.

Fun with Botany

In which, once again, Olga does all the work and I riff off of her creativity.

Olga’s post is about the lights that shone on Arda before the Sun and Moon. Light is where my branch of physics originated, so off we go. I’m primarily interested in the Lamps, and the paradox they seem to contain, which is where she starts.  Chapter 1 of The Silmarillion, “Of the Beginning of Days” is her text.

Varda filled the lamps and Manwe hallowed them, and the Valar set them upon high pillars, more lofty far than are any mountains of the later days… all was lit as it were in a changeless day.

Then the seeds that Yavanna had sown began swiftly to sprout and to burgeon, and there arose a multitude of growing things great and small, mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees whose tops were crowned with cloud as they were living mountains, but whose feet were wrapped in a green twilight. And beasts came forth and dwelt in the grassy plains, or in the rivers and the lakes, or walked in the shadows of the woods.

Silmarillion, Ch. 1, “Of the Beginning of Days”

My quotation overlaps with Olga’s by the first sentence.  I continue to quote because that’s where it gets really interesting.  As I mentioned in my comment on that post, “changeless day” isn’t good for plant growth.  Plants store up energy during the sunlit hours, and then generate new tissue at night.  Mess with that diurnal cycle, and they don’t grow well at all. Prof. Tolkien knew this, of course. He spent lots of time on farms, and kept vegetable gardens.

Tolkien in his vegetable garden

Garden excerpt from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography via Google Books

Constant brilliant light creates a desert.  So where did that multitude of growing things come from? That’s the brilliant part:  Get those enormous trees going, and all the rest follows.  JRRT is describing a cloud forest. The only ones I’ve seen are on the sides of mountains – the most extraordinary was in Kohala, on the big island of Hawai’i. If you don’t have a mountain handy, but you do have a Vala, you just make the trees that high.  Then the moisture transpired from the leaves condenses into a cloud, the leaves of the trees would hold the clouds in place, and there would be a moist, shady area between the tree trunks where “mosses and grasses and great ferns grow.”

Ted Naismith’s painting is designed to look pleasing to European eyes, which it does very well. But a more accurate rendering of Tolkien’s vision might look like this.  Once you get out from under the trees, there’s always a rainbow up there, in case it matters.

I also wonder now if Treebeard, when he remembers the “great trees” of his youth, might not be thinking of these mountain-high specimens.

 

But enough serious discussion.  I have to point out a bunch of things now.

  1. The Valar live on an island far to the west.
  2. Valinor is a paradise that Men and Elves yearn for.
  3. Halfway to that island in the west (measuring from England), the Valar put a land of Men who had the most powerful navy ever seen. Masters of technology, rulers of the world, stupendous egotists, these guys.
  4. Before Melkor messed everything up, the island was a cloud forest.
  5. “When the lamps were spilled, destroying flame was poured out over the earth.” (ibid.)  Mauna Kea is an active volcano, from which destroying flame pours out daily.

Dear reader, the evidence is clear.  Valinor is Hawai’i.  Yavanna wears a lei and a grass skirt.  Aule and Tulkas, “clad in the raiment of the World”, are wearing loud tropical-print shirts. All you working on the Silmarillion “film” project, take note.

I understand medievalists a bit better

Brad DeLong has an extraordinary economics blog. You can find there lots of economic history, center-left politics, and also unique compositions like a Socratic dialog concerning the Greek fiscal crisis, jokes about the Valar, and who knows what else.

This weekend, he posted about the (lack of) philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics. [1] That’s an interesting topic in itself, but what struck me was the fact that he was quoting from an optically-scanned PDF of a magazine article by John Bell.  The OCR program wasn’t invented for physics, so when we do things like stick a greek letter into an english sentence, it gets confused. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t hard to read.  Because I’ve been through the arguments a dozen times before, it was easy to figure out that”If we take advantage of the indistinguishability of p and p…” actually has two ρ’s in it, and one of them has a circumflex over it.  (By symmetry of the copulating conjunction, it doesn’t matter which one. [That’s a physics joke])

When I look at a medieval document, I can usually recognize a bunch of the words. But understanding full sentences isn’t as easy, so I find a paper by a medieval scholar who interprets it. How do I know she got it right?  This little exercise in point-of-view reversal has given me a lot more confidence that they know what they’re talking about.


[1] If you’re wondering why, a speculation: Prof. DeLong frequently discusses the problems with dynamic stochastic general-equilibrium models of the macroeconomy. This may be a case where he’s looking at physics for guidance about how to stay connected to reality when your equations are fiendishly complicated.

My Notes from MidMoot III

I took a lot of notes at MidMoot 3, held on September 24-25, 2016. Strung end to end, they’re too long for a blog post, so I broke them up into panels.

Saturday:

Sunday:

 

Janet Brennan Croft: The Name of the Ring: MidMoot 3

This paper is on line.  Janet wrote some really hairy stuff in an easily accessible style, so I won’t re-cap  much of it here.  She starts with Northrop Frye’s organization of literary forms. Myth -> High mimetic -> low mimetic -> ironic.  There are four phases of language to look for.

  • Metaphoric: subject and object linked by some power. Spells, boasts, oaths, magic.
  • Metonymic: “this” is put for “that”. Language describes something beyond itself. Bilbo uses metonymic language with Smaug, calling himself barrel-rider, ring-winner, luck-wearer.
  • Demotic: Subject and object are clearly separated. Words describe an objective natural order. Astrology is replaced with astronomy. The thing evokes the word, and the word has no power to affect anything.
  • Recurso: the cycle restarts. Matter is a form of energy, which finds science leading us back to the mythical. (!) Terms like romantic and extravagant, which were insults in the Middle Ages, are used approvingly now.

The metaphoric/metonymic distinction separates the two reasons not to speak the name of an evil power.  Songs are metaphoric. They bring you through the recurso.

Q: What did Frodo think he was doing, when he put on the Ring? Boromir, Gollum & Sam all had plans for what they’d do. Not him. Tom: the two scenes with Frodo dominating Gollum imply that Frodo did actually know how to use it. JBC: but Frodo has a pattern of rejecting authority and responsibility. Arthur: Frodo doesn’t have a “ring-induced monologue” like everyone else — does he only desire to dominate Gollum? Tim: Self-preservation is Frodo’s goal.

Q: Larry Niven’s story “Grammar Lesson” revolves around the confusion between english-speakers and an alien race when they don’t get the difference in “my” between “my heart”, “my wife”, and “my car”.  Is that what’s going on here?  A: Yes, he’s making the metaphoric-metonymic-demotic distinction clear.  Note added later: C.S. Lewis did this in The Screwtape Letters, too!

Tolkien Studies: Midmoot 3.06

My notes from the last panel on Sunday at MidMoot 3.

Josh Ramsey: Death through a Catholic Lens

Death is a gift, not a tragedy. Catholics think it’s punishment for Original Sin. Is this heresy? The elves who perpetrated the Kinslaying didn’t die, so death is not a punishment. The Men who aided the Valar died, so immortality is not a reward for virtue.

Venerable Bede says Genesis 2:17 doesn’t refer to mortality, it says just “death”, which means spiritual death. Finrod vs. Andreth speak of death as two different things. The spirits of Elves are perfectly at home in the world, unlike the souls of men.  Finrod says it must have been in Men’s power to take their bodies with them when they died — that’s early Christian. Arda-remade lines up with Revelations. (!) Discontent with the world is an echo of our original purpose, to save the world from Morgoth.

The discussion afterwards showed an impressive range of scholarship.

AH: Luthien died and left the world, in a poem called the “release from bondage”. A: wow – haven’t thought of that. Tim: the eastern orthodox say it’s a release from bondage to the passions of the body.

Graham: are you saying the Assumption is the perfect form of Resurrection? A: it’s the 2nd fruit of the resurrection, in the eastern tradition. Marie: brings up the Assumption of Mary, but that’s a special case. She’s the first resurrected. (?) the distinction between heaven and earth is erased after the resurrection.

We decided at this point that resolving the schism between the Greek and Latin churches was beyond our charter. The Protestants in the room hadn’t even weighed in yet!

Grace Costello: Philosophical theories of Musical Expression

Her text was from the “Lay of Leithian”. Oriel feels longing as a result of the minstrel Tinfang Gelion playing underneath his window.  There are several theories of how music affects its listeners that might apply to this situation.

Formalism: music is just notes and rhythms. It doesn’t express emotions, and looks for other ways an emotion can be evoked. It could remind you of another event. It could induce physiological symptoms of the emotion.  Like mimicking a beating heart changing its rate.  Maybe a magical method? We could suppose that music could magically arouse emotions – this doesn’t have any textual support, though.  (I don’t think anybody thinks formalism is 100% of the correct answer — if it were, non-Americans could tell sad bluegrass songs from happy ones without listening to the lyrics.)

Theory of Expression: the music is full of longing. Whose? The composer’s. (Prof. Olsen: never occurred to wonder what Tinfang Warble was longing for.)

Arousalist theory – the music has it, if it arouses the same reaction in any listener. Sounds like the sea-longing Galadriel warned Legolas about.

Blogger’s Privilege again:  At this point I wondered about the note at the beginning of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. “[Errantry is] a rhyme or story which returns to its own beginning and so may be recited until the hearers revolt.”  Does revolution count as an emotional response?

Q: how does a functionalist explain the idea of a lament? A: a slow tempo drags you down by their connectin with the physiological reaction of grief.

Comment from behind me so I don’t know who said it:  Scientists have actually studied why some people are moved to tears by music. It’s partly synesthesia, partly empathy.  (Cool!)

Tom Hillman: These are not the Elves you’re looking for

The complete paper is available on line.

This is the first part of a contribution to a festschrift for Prof. Flieger. He’s starting a project on Elves. You can see Victorian diminished fairies in The Hobbit, and in Gildor, and “Errantry”. In the Lay of Leithian, Tinuviel can hide under hemlock umbels.

Tolkien was trying to turn English tradition back towards the true tradition (like Spenser, or Sir Orfeo). This isn’t an easy job, because it’s so complex. Beowulf traces elves back to Cain, like all the other monsters. Spenser’s fairy knight Redcrosse is a christian elf, with a bloody cross on his chest. Morgan Le Fay takes Arthur to Avalon, even though it’s not going to work. Indeterminacy is a key to Faërie.

The random cruelty of fairies, which I think is their defining characteristic in pre-JRRT literature, is totally missing from Middle-Earth.

This is going to be a fascinating project. I’m eager to see how it comes out.

Speculative Fiction: Fantasy : MidMoot 3.05

My notes from the second panel at MidMoot 3

Joe Hoffman: Fragments of a Geographical Approach to Fantasy Criticism

This paper is on line in its entirety,  by some strange chance.  Some of the symposium attendees looked disappointed when I mentioned I’d taken out the mathematical underpinning of the Tolkien section.  You guys are great!

A couple of interesting questions came up.

Q: Did I look for an alignment of Bree-hobbit names with Englishmen living overseas?  A: I don’t have an easy source for those, but it would be really cool if they were South Africans or Australians.

Q: Did you look along the coast of Cornwall, where Tolkien spent holidays as a child?  A: (Later) I found Chubbs there, but nobody else.

Prof. Flieger suggested the name “Trotter” might be interesting.

Trotter

Distribution of Trotter in the UK, computed by Oliver O’Brien

That was Tolkien’s original name for “Strider”.  She suggested that it might be from the Scottish borderlands.

A: There is certainly a hotspot there, but the highest concentration is in Lincoln. Running through my associations with that city, I recall that Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men (aka rangers) dressed in Lincoln green. That is exactly the kind of thing I no longer dismiss as coincidence when I’m thinking about Tolkien’s writing.

David Gras: Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis & the Bridge between them

David describes himself as a Christian apologist. (I didn’t know that was still a job title.)

C.S. Lewis didn’t embrace paganism the way JRRT or J.K. Rowling did.  We shouldn’t resist the mythological resonances.  Lots of phoenix imagery in Harry Potter, for example.  Harry Potter and Aslan are bridges between the human world and the Forest. Making the self-sacrifice to save their worlds.

Q: Pre-christian myths have different status from a myth derived from Christianity. A: Lewis wrote a letter on that; you don’t have to abandon the things you learn from ancient myths when you convert to Christianity. We don’t have to avoid them, we should learn from them. The Phoenix was adopted as a symbol of Christ by medieval missionaries. Jesus was portrayed as a white stag; Harry’s patronus is a white stag.

Q: how do you deal with Christians who say that witchcraft is evil so christians must avoid it in books? A: It’s just brought in as a connection to mythology. The things in the book don’t have anything to do with actual Wicca. It’s there to communicate a moral about light, not inform about darkness.

Q: Nobody thinks they’re evil. Witches think they’re a force for good. A force within yourself (hereditary) isn’t what they think. A: When JKR was asked about that, she said that real Wiccans laugh at her books. The Navajo are kind of objecting to her latest work, by the way.

Michelle Markey Butler: Good People Doing Bad Things

A shared theme doesn’t require direct influence. It’s not a cage match, pitting authors against each other to see who did this better. Shared themes are handled very differently by Tolkien and Rowling.  Her examples are Boromir & Sam vs. Lupin, Dumbledore, & Harry.

Boromir accepts that Aragorn is the leader, which is a self-sacrifice. The fact that he’s a good guy is obvious to adults, but children don’t get it. Chesterton: children are innocent and love justice; adults are wicked and prefer mercy. One of the most psychologically-realized characters.  Sam is the hero, but he pushes Gollum past any chance of redemption. The most cynical observation in the book — that people frequently do real damage from just trying to help others.  Note:  It’s widely said that George R.R. Martin is a cynical reboot of Tolkien. This isn’t really true. JRRT has such a deep streak of cynicism that no such thing is needed.

Lupin taught most of the magic. But then he abandons his pregnant wife.  Dumbledore is kindness, patience, and wisdom. Until we learn about his past problems, like plotting to take over the world & rule through wizardry. How could the Dumbledore we thought we knew make those choices?  Harry makes choices that lead to the death of his godfather. He trusts his dreams too much, even when his friends urge him to wait. Harry can’t be a solitary hero. Without his friends, bad things happen.

Page 1 of 6

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén