In which your humble Idiosopher follows the Straight Road, or as some might say, goes off on a tangent
Edited to add: A video recording of the lecture is now online.
Verlyn Flieger gave the Saturday plenary lecture at Mythmoot IV. She took the theme of the conference “Invoking Wonder” literally, with spectacular results. This has taken me a long time to get written, so there are some good reviews out there already. Kelly has a comprehensive recap, which is a good place to start. Sørina has a précis. Lee zooms in on one feature of the lecture — how to teach wonder. I’m going to zoom in on another.
As Prof. Flieger describes it, “wonder” is a three-body situation. Otherness is one essential component; a thing that’s outside the viewer’s experience is where it starts. An observer, someone looking at it, is the party of the second part. “Hey, look!” is their reaction. (Or “Ele!” if you’re an elf seeing the stars for the first time.). Which brings us to the third part – the observer needs someone to say that to. You can’t keep wonder to yourself. The term Prof. Flieger uses is “rebound”, like a combination shot in billiards. Back in Cuivienen, JRRT writes the awakening of the elves so the elves see the stars, and the wonder of the stars bounces off the elves and comes to us. Then she quoted Owen Barfield, who once said that there is no such thing as an unseen rainbow. The metaphor is so exact that I’m sure Prof. Flieger intended us to think of the way a rainbow is generated, as light from the sun bounces inside raindrops and back to our eye. She then followed with a list of examples where JRRT does the same thing. The Arkenstone, the Window on the West, the Glittering Caves…. Curious — more than half of the examples involved refraction. I’m sure it’s purely a coincidence that her first book was entitled Splintered Light.
Prof. Flieger polled the audience to see how many of us were fans of E.R. Eddison. (Five.) She used him as a not-so-good example of invoking wonder through extravagance, not recovery. Her passage from Eddison overwhelmed the reader with almost Rableaisian lists that include both familiar and exotic delicacies. I’m one of the fans, so I felt like leaping to his defense. Eddison could use the rebound effect himself when it was important.
Let me interject a personal confession here: I don’t grok heroes. High romance needs heroes to make things come out at the end, but it’s hard to make a character unique and flawless at the same time in a way to which I react well. One reason I love Tolkien is that he managed to write Aragorn exactly the right way to do that. (Peter Jackson couldn’t.) The only comparable achievement I know of is what John Steinbeck did with Lancelot, whom I’d never cared for until then.
E.R. Eddison uses the rebound technique in The Worm Ouroboros to get around the fact that Lord Juss is such a good guy that, to me, he’s a blank spot on the page.
Here’s Lord Brandoch Daha:
His gait was delicate, as of some lithe beast of prey newly wakened out of slumber, and he greeted with lazy grace the many friends who hailed his entrance. Very tall was that lord, and slender of build, like a girl. … His buskins were laced with gold, and from his belt hung a sword, narrow of blade and keen, the hilt rough with beryls and black diamonds. Strangely light and delicate was his frame and seeming, yet with a sense of slumbering power beneath, as the delicate peak of a snow mountain seen afar in the low red rays of morning. His face was beautiful to look upon, and softly coloured like a girl’s face, and his expression one of gentle melancholy, mixed with some disdain; but fiery glints awoke at intervals in his eyes, and the lines of swift determination hovered round the mouth below his curled moustachios.
We know him. The too-pretty, too-well-dressed façade that conceals a deadly fighter is a perennial figure of romance, like Aramis in The Three Musketeers or Simon Templar or Sir Didymus. I can root for this guy. Lessingham assumes he must be Lord Juss, but no. There’s another remarkable figure there, for whom the earthling makes the same mistake,
… apparelled in black silk that shimmers with gold as he moveth, and crowned with black eagle’s feathers among his horns and yellow hair. His face is wild and keen like a sea-eagle’s, and from his bristling brows the eyes dart glances sharp as a glancing spear. A faint flame, pallid like the fire of a Will-o’-the-Wisp, breathes ever and anon from his distended nostrils. This is Lord Spitfire, impetuous in war.
We know him, too. Heroes who are like birds of prey form a long line: Hawkeye, Hawkmoon, Hawkwind, Hauksberg… and that’s just the “H”s. Then we meet Lord Goldry Bluszco:
[Y]on lord that bulks mighty as Hercules yet steppeth lightly as a heifer. The thews and sinews of his great limbs ripple as he moves beneath a skin whiter than ivory …. Slung from his shoulders clanks a two-handed sword, the pommel a huge star-ruby carven in the image of a heart, for the heart is his sign and symbol. This is that sword forged by the elves, wherewith he slew the sea-monster, as thou mayest see in the painting on the wall. Noble is he of countenance, most like to his brother Juss, but darker brown of hair and ruddier of hue and bigger of cheekbone. Look well on him, for never shall thine eyes behold a greater champion than the Lord Goldry Bluszco, captain of the hosts of Demonland.
Of course the big kid whom none of the other kids can tackle might be the oldest trope in epic literature. He’s such a compelling figure in stories that he can serve equally well as the villain if (e.g.) we only have the Hebrew version of a tale.
Here’s where Eddison sets up the five-way combination shot: Spitfire is first to say Lord Juss is the best general. Goldry Bluszco wouldn’t want to fight Juss hand to hand. And when Brandoch Daha and Juss are traipsing up mountains in search of hippogriff eggs, there’s no question who the tougher soldier is. So even though Eddison doesn’t have Tolkien’s chops as a writer, Lord Juss is wonderful because all these familiar heroes are vouching for him.
That was a long digression, but it shows the power of this formal construction of wonder. As always, Prof. Flieger set up an excellent punchline to her lecture, with Gimli’s description of the Glittering Caves to Legolas. We’d never seen Gimli show a lyrical side before, but here he goes to extremes and even uses a sea metaphor to impress the Elf. This isn’t just us seeing a wonderful site through his eyes: the complete ricochet is Gimli->Legolas->caves->reader->Gimli. JRRT wants us to see Gimli, not the caves, when we read this passage. Altogether, a wonderful lecture and a way to perceive the issue I would never have thought of myself.