A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: March 2017

How to Catch a Baggins

I’m almost caught up with the Mythgard Academy class on Return of the Shadow.  This morning I finished Class #12.

There was quite a bit of discussion of Gildor’s comment that the other hobbits will mess up the ability of the Black Riders to track Bingo by smell. How did they do that?  Here’s (half of) the slide that was on screen at the time.

I think it likely that your three companions have already helped you to escape: the Riders did not know that they were with you, and their presence has for the time being confused the scent.

Return of the Shadow, p. 282

Well, let’s back up a step and ask a more basic question: Why did Sauron send creatures to look for Bagginses who can’t see very well, but can smell? As Corey Olsen said, it’s wrong to think of Black Riders acting like bloodhounds. They do not have superhuman olfactory organs.  They can’t detect the differences between hobbits by scent. After all, they’d never met a hobbit until they got to the Shire. They didn’t know what hobbits smell like, any more than Smaug did. They had to be searching for a smell that they hadn’t experienced personally, but had been described to them.  It would have to be a very strong smell for that to succeed.

The Black Riders were tracking the smell of tobacco smoke.

In the published Fellowship of the Ring, we hear about “sniffing” in Chapter 3, when the hobbits are out on the road. We don’t hear Gaffer Gamgee mention it.

Ceci n'est pas une bague.

In our war against the West, this has always been our greatest foe.

Out on the road, sniffing works. In Hobbiton, where lots of people smoke, Black Riders were at a loss.  They couldn’t find Baggins because everyone in Hobbiton smells like that.  And since they don’t know anything else about hobbits, smell is all they’ve got to go on.  Without smell, they have to ask nicely, and perhaps bribe if asking doesn’t work.

This clears up something I’d wondered about in the published Fellowship of the Ring.  Gandalf is rather pleased with his cleverness in getting half of the Black Riders to follow him away from Weathertop.

“I hoped to draw some of them off, and yet reach Rivendell ahead of you and send out help. Four Riders did indeed follow me, but they turned back after a while and made for the Ford, it seems. That helped a little, for there were only five, not nine, when your camp was attacked.”

LotR II,i

How did he draw them off?  On the “other side”, where Ringwraiths have frightening forms and Glorfindel shines brightly, Gandalf can hardly be mistaken for a hobbit.  The Ringwraiths know he’s there, and they can’t be very eager to tangle with a Maia when their mission is to capture a Baggins.

Now we know the answer:  Gandalf smokes tobacco, too.  When the Ringwraiths smelled Gandalf, they smelled the smell of their quarry. They knew Gandalf was there, but they couldn’t take the chance that he didn’t have a Baggins with him, so they divided their forces and attacked Frodo’s camp with only half their strength.

Sing along with LotR

Lots of people have been talking about the poems in Tolkien’s works lately.  I think Olga started it, with a characteristically delightful discussion of elf-song in The Hobbit.  Alan of The Prancing Pony Podcast has posted a pondering about “The Road Goes Ever On”.  On Twitter, Olga and I discovered that we both sing the poems, though not out loud if anyone else can hear.

Here are some of the tunes I use, for the sake of provoking argument.  They’re arranged in order of increasing embarrassment at my congenital lack of solemnity.

Hymn to Elbereth: Princess Leia’s Theme

The tempo fits. It doesn’t feel wrong to stretch the name “Elbereth” over half a measure. And I love the idea of elf-voices as french horns.

Bombadil’s Song against the Barrow Wights: Estuans interius

From Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.  Of course everything Tom says can be sung to the same tune, and I love Morwen Thorongil’s composition for when he’s in a good mood.  But when Bombadil is out to destroy, he needs something darker.  Strangely enough, the 12th-Century satirist Walter of Châtillon who wrote “Estuans Interius” was like old Tom, in that he used the same meter for almost everything.

Errantry: Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Major General’s Aria

from Pirates of Penzance, of course. You can use this for “Earendil was a Mariner” too, with a little twisting, but it doesn’t work so well.

Legolas’s song of Nimrodel: “Nadine”

Corey Olsen likes to take a line from Legolas’s song as an example of a perfect line of iambic meter:

Amroth beheld the fading shore / Now low beyond the swell,
And cursed the faithless ship that bore / Him far from Nimrodel.

Against which I’d put Chuck Berry’s heptameters:

I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac

The worst of all: Namárië

Donald Swann did this as a chant straight out of a medieval cathedral, but my mind runs down different channels.

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen (singin’ ooh wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do)
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron! (ooh wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do)
Yéni ve (yéni ve)
Lintë (lintë)
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avanier

and that’s when the paramedics arrived.

The Ideal Reader

Terry Eagleton doesn’t like his predecessors in the field of literary theory. I suspect this is because the word “theory” has so many definitions that it’s useless in this context, but more about that in a future post.  At the moment, I’d like to call attention to one of the daggers he sticks in the back of the Structuralists.

For the structuralists, the ‘ideal reader’ of a work was someone who would have at his or her disposal all of the codes which would render it exhaustively intelligible. The reader was thus just a kind of mirror—reflection of the work itself — someone who would understand it ‘as it was’. An ideal reader would need to be fully equipped with all the technical knowledge essential for deciphering the work, to be faultless in applying this knowledge, and free of any hampering restrictions. If this model was pressed to an extreme, he or she would have to be stateless, classless, ungendered, free of ethnic characteristics and without limiting cultural assumptions. It is true that one does not tend to meet many readers who fill this bill entirely satisfactorily, but the structuralists conceded that the ideal reader need not do anything so humdrum as actually exist.

Literary Theory, p.105

Submitted for your consideration:  We, here in the World Wide Web, and especially the teachers and students of the Mythgard Academy, are creating J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideal reader. Nowhere was it ever said that the reader had to be one person.  In fact, for most of history, that’s not what reading was.

Going down the list of criteria:

  • Equipped with technical knowledge? Check. At Tolkien conferences, I have met astronomers, botanists, classicists, doctors, economists, physicists (sorry, that’ll have to do for “F”), geographers, historians, idiosophers … And I’d bet a dollar there’s at least one zymurgist among us.
  • Faultless in applying our knowledge? Well, not at the first try, but we’re a group, and we point out faults and mend them together.
  • We are certainly stateless, in that we’ve got people from lots of countries within our ensemble.
  • We’re ungendered.  Groups don’t even have genders, per se.
  • Classless? In a purely Marxist sense, which is appropriate for Eagleton, we come mostly from the bourgeoisie, but I’m of solid proletarian stock. (I can’t be the only student who’s used both a manure fork and GoToWebinar within two hours, but I’m sure not all of us have.) In a more relevant American sense, there are several orders of magnitude of wealth between the students and the doctors and lawyers among us. Subjugation to class interests is not a problem.
  • Free of ethnic characteristics … maybe. I’ve never heard most of us mention their ethnicity. I know of seven or eight ethnicities, depending on whether you count Angles and Saxons as different. Anyway, though we’re reading books written with a specific ethnic purpose, everyone I’ve heard counts new ethnic perspectives as a win.
  • “Without limiting cultural assumptions.” This is one of those things that makes me wish that e-books came with a virtual author I could punch. We are all (1)reading books (2) written in the mid 20th Century (3) in English and (4) discussing them on the Internet. That’s a pretty narrow cultural slice. And the opinions of people who don’t do the first three things aren’t important to understanding the books.

Altogether, it is not true that I haven’t “met many readers who fill this bill.”  All the readers I’ve met, together, fill the bill quite well. So, a fig for the fatuous fulminations of Eagleton, to use George Starbuck’s excellent phrase.  We exist, and the new forms that the Academy are taking in the 21st Century are rendering Eagleton’s assertions obsolete.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

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