A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: fantasy (Page 1 of 3)

Tolkien meets the Oulipo

An Epitome of the Idiosophical method

(The core of Idiosophy is that the idiosopher can be misinformed and incorrect at every step in a logical process, and still arrive at a meaningful conclusion.) Our starting point is an earlier post, on which Tom commented, wondering what the “Ents’ Marching Song” would sound like in Latin.

1. The riposte humorous:  Hexameters! Longfellowish sprawling hexameters.

2. Noticing a flaw in the joke: Wait, no. Archy the cockroach liked hexameters because he had six feet. Ents all have two feet.

3. Transfiguration: But ents have lots of toes. Ent-latin should have big feet with lots of syllables.

4. Observation: They do. The first line is definitely one long foot. I suppose it’s possible to argue that the second line is a jumble of small troches and dactyls, or maybe iambs and anapests with stray syllables at either end, but that’s not how I hear it.

In the willow-meads of Tasarinan I walked in the spring.
Ah, the sight and the smell of the spring in Nan-Tasarion!

LotR, III, iv

5. Following the thought wherever: How could we construct a sound-pattern for big feet that makes them into poetry? Alliteration is matching the sound at the beginning of the foot. Rhyme is matching the sound at the end. If we’re just using iambs and troches, rhyme and alliteration are our only choices. With big feet, though, we have the possibility of matching sounds elsewhere. That would be a novel poetic structure!  Dactyls have three syllables. Can we match the middle consonant?

6. Noticing that someone smarter is ‘way ahead of me:  “Errantry” has lots of that kind of central sound-match. It’s neither rhyme nor alliteration, but my ears enjoy it the same way.

he built a gilded gondola
to wander in and had in her
a load of yellow oranges
and porridge for his provender…

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 3.

7. The unexpected arrival:  J.R.R. Tolkien was a Modernist writer, and “the most striking element of modernist poetry is the invention and experimentation of new modes of expression.” This is what my heroes in the Oulipo are interested in, too.  This is derived from a root as mathematical as any of their self-imposed constraints.

Up at the top of the page, I promised a meaningful conclusion.  Coincidentally, Dimitra Fimi just published an essay in the Times Literary Supplement about world-building.  She points out that writing speculative fiction is about creating a different set of rules from those we see in the world around us, and writing your story in strict adherence to those rules.  But, she says, that’s exactly what the Oulipians do, except they’re doing it at the level of the text, while fantasy and science-fiction writers do it at the level of the story. So it’s entirely reasonable that JRRT was doing this on purpose,working on both levels at once.

Multilingual Ents

The twitterati were discussing Ents in foreign languages yesterday. The marching song of the Ents is so primitive, so devoid of nuance, that it’s got to be fun for a translator to work on. “We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door.” In my French translation, they don’t usually worry about rhythm in their translations of the poems (that’s not a French thing to do) but this time they couldn’t resist: “Nous allons, nous allons, nous allons en guerre, pourfendre la porte et briser la pierre!” It’s a literal translation, which insists that we put the accent on the “al”s and turns out to be amphibrachic meter. Now, if you know anything about French poetry, that’s about as likely as Dr. Seuss writing a rondeau. Somehow it seems to go with Rohan, but it’s too light-footed for Ents.

Olga gave us two Russian versions. One is prosaic: “Мы смерть несём за шагом шаг.” I like this. Literally it’s “we’re bringing destruction, step by step.” It’s not entirely prosaic, I must point out: “shagum shag” is a nice onomatopoiea for the sound I’d make if every step I took required pulling a root out of the ground. The poetic version, though, is amazing: “Идём-грядём, судьбу несём.” I translate that as, “We go, we’re climbing the ridge, we’re bringing doom.” Let me try to give an impression of the sound. That “ë” is pronounced “yo”, and I can’t resist putting the stress on those. “idYOM, gradYOM, sud’bu nesYOM”. That’s heavy. That’s twenty tons of oak talking. It goes really well with “hoom” and “hom”, which Treebeard uses either as interjections or as punctuation. Massive kudos to the translator. JRRT cared about the sound of his writing as much as anything. I think he’d have liked this verse, based on a line in Letter #142: “the time I once spent on trying to learn Serbian and Russian ha[s] left me with no practical results, only a strong impression of the structure and word-aesthetic.”


I went looking around the Web for a basso aria from a Russian opera to illustrate this post. Bozhemoi, what a downer! Pro tip: don’t do that without professional assistance.  Russian composers are some of the most depressed people on earth, and nothing good has happened to characters sung by basses since the Baroque. The death of Don Quixote at the burning of his library isn’t even the worst one I found.  To anyone who would undertake a similar quest, I recommend that you wait for a sunny day, get a Prozac prescription, surround yourself with friends and loved ones, put a newly-adopted kitten in your lap, and only then start listening to the results of a web search for Russian basso arias.

Echoes of Númenór

Akallabêth tells us there were three languages in use in Númenór:

For though this people used still their own speech, their kings and lords knew and spoke also the Elven tongue, which they had learned in the days of their alliance, and thus they held converse still with the Eldar, whether of Eresséa or of the westlands of Middle—earth. And the loremasters among them learned also the High Eldarin tongue of the Blessed Realm, in which much story and song was preserved from the be inning of the world; and they made letters and scrolls and books, and wrote in them many things of wisdom and wonder in the high tide of their realm, of which all is now forgot.

Alan and Shawn at the Prancing Pony Podcast reminded me of this. Languages are parallel between Númenór and medieval England:

Númenór England
Common people Adunaic Anglo-Saxon
Aristocracy Sindarin French
Scholars Quenya Latin

This Númenórean social divide persisted all the way through the Third Age, and it shows up in the way Gondorians talk. Let’s look at two words for strong fighting men, both of which make teenage boys snicker: “doughty” and “puissant”.

‘Happily your Caradhras has forgotten that you have Men with you,’ said Boromir, who came up at that moment. ‘And doughty Men too, if I may say it; though lesser men with spades might have served you better.’” The common folk of Minas Tirith hear rumors that “When the Riders came from Rohan, each would bring behind him a halfling warrior, small maybe, but doughty.” Grimbold of Rohan gets that adjective, as would many warriors of the Rohirrim. Frodo describes the Rangers of Ithilien as doughty, and he’s being polite. “Doughty” is a good Anglo-Saxon word, meaning “the guy who gits ‘er done.”  It’s appropriate for Rohirrim, hobbits, and other such plebs.  Boromir, despite being of a noble family, has a strong mixture of base blood, so he uses it to refer to himself and Aragorn.

But the blood of Westernesse runs “nearly true” in Faramir, and when Tolkien says that about him, he means the blood of the Númenóreans who escaped to Middle Earth at the last minute: the Faithful; all from the aristocracy. Now listen to Faramir talking to Éowyn: “You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant…” The word “doughty” is gone, replaced by its French synonym.  Faramir is an expert rhetorician — putting some social distance between his target and his rival is a nice move — though perhaps only a professor of philology would expect such a maneuver to work in that context.

More than three thousand years later, the social-linguistic fracture lines endure in Gondor. And Denethor at least was proud of it.  Florence doesn’t seem so bad any more.

Saruman 15-love

Gandalf probably has the most dedicated fan club of any character in LotR. But to an idiosopher, he has one moment of complete catastrophe. This is from Gandalf’s report to the Council of Elrond about his confrontation with Saruman:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

LotR, II, ii.

I’ve talked about this passage before, working from the possibility that Saruman was playing a clever joke. Lots of people, many of whom know more than I do, take that last sentence as a statement of JRR Tolkien’s own beliefs. Malcolm Guite‘s Signum Sessions lecture is an excellent example:

But there’s a problem with that: I agree with Saruman.  First, dyeing white cloth.  JRRT frequently mentions colors, and uses them as important signifiers in his texts.  Hobbits like to dress “in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green” (LotR, Prologue).  Bombadil’s jacket is bright blue (I, viii). Gandalf wears blue and grey. The dwarves in The Hobbit are even distinguished by the color of their hoods (I, i). Surely if wearing cloth of other colors than white were morally dubious, it would have been mentioned. If Gandalf is going to disagree with this, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.  JRRT provides no explanation.

Second, the white page can be overwritten. If it weren’t, a philologist would have nothing to do.  A twentieth-century author would not publish any books.  Writing on white pages can’t be a bad thing to Tolkien.  Something is going seriously wrong with the wise-Gandalf interpretation.

Third, breaking things to find out what they are is an essential part of learning.  In the specific case in the text, a group of photons that would have been annihilated in the electric field of earthly matter in a few nanoseconds was divided up to show its component colors and confirm the wave theory of light.  Lots of learning for no loss.  Here’s a sampling of other ways that life would be lessened, had we stayed on this so-called “path of wisdom”:

  • No one would ever have eaten an oyster or a walnut;
  • Musical harmonies might never have been discovered;
  • Doctors wouldn’t know about the circulation of the blood;
  • The beauty of the crystals that form inside geodes would never be seen.


(The dwarves of the Glittering Caves will back me up on the importance of that last one.)  None of these things is bad.  Gandalf is just wrong.

What’s going on, here?  It’s the power of the Voice of Saruman.  Even through the filter of Gandalf’s re-telling, the effect is still there.  Gandalf sounds like a fool.  Saruman’s voice has tricked him into a ridiculous position. JRRT has shown the effect, not just told us about it, by having it affect the reader as well.  As Théoden found out, “When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast…” (III,x.)

No worries, Grey Wanderer — it can happen to anyone.

Hail, Caesura

In which the Idiosopher appreciates the poetic value of zeroes of the first time-derivative.

Tom Hillman has written a Mythgard Academy bank-shot post, in which he draws a line from the song-duel between Finrod and Sauron in The Silmarillion, to a poem in Boëthius’s Consolation of Philosophy, to the beach in Long Island.  Tom points out an almost-caesura in J.R.R. Tolkien’s verse:

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.

Silmarillion, ch. 19

The alliteration on “s” in lines 3-5 is onomatopoetic to me.  We’re hearing waves on the beach.  The caesura effect comes from the repetition of “beyond” and “on sand”.  The forward progress of the poem glides gently to a halt, then resumes, like a wave losing energy as it climbs the beach, before it returns to the sea. To a first approximation, the distance a wave travels up the slope of the sand is a parabola. We see only the nose of the parabola, because another wave comes along and uses it as a lubricant against friction with the land.   What we see is Figure 1.

Fig. 1. Wave height as a function of time

This is a good time of year to think about that. We’ve just passed the solstice, so the same sort of thing is happening with the sun. The sun has been in the sky perceptibly longer each day; now that’s come to an end like waves running out of energy on the sand.  The actual length of the day is a complicated function of the earth’s axial tilt, the latitude of the observer, the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, the nutation of the earth’s rotation, and even a little factor due to the Moon.  The Naval Observatory keeps track of all this.  We can use a much simpler approximation, and treat everything as circles.  [geometric derivation with awesome ASCII art]  That yields an equation you can actually read.  The fraction of a day during which the sun is up is

2 acos[sin(λ) tan(τ sin(2πy))],

where λ is the latitude of the observer, τ is the earth’s axial tilt, and y is the number of days since December 21st divided by the length of the year in days.  The approximation is about 10 minutes shorter than the true amount of sunshine at my latitude, as shown in Figure 2.  Not bad, Copernicus!

Fig. 2. Daylight in Virginia

So here we are, just past the noontide of the year.  The vegetable plants have stopped their manic growth phase. (Fortunately, so has the grass.)  The botanical world is in a caesura of its own for a few days.  The beanstalks made it to the tops of their poles just in time.  The squash vines have found every inch of space they can reach.  Now they’re hunkering down to making seeds and fruits.  My job protecting them from skulking vegetarians will begin soon enough, but now is a time to take a breath.

Yes, the camera is at eye level. This year’s experiment is a 15-foot bean trellis.

The Elevation of Master Samwise

Tom Hillman looks into Sam Gamgee’s evolution from servant to “Master Samwise” Go read it; as usual from Tom it’s as good as blogging gets. There’s an angle to it that I’d like to add, though.

Corey Olsen pointed out, years ago when he was podcasting his classes at Washington U, that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a complex textual history into The Lord of the Rings. It sticks out most dramatically in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields: the action stops to talk about the grave of Snowmane, Théoden’s horse, in terms that couldn’t have been written by Frodo a few years after the event. Obviously the text has picked up some additions as it was copied and distributed around Middle Earth during the Fourth Age. Here’s another one:

Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood. And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt.

LotR III,vi

What on earth is that all about? The last few pages have been Gandalf vs. Théoden, but the point of view swings suddenly to Aragorn and the narrator gets all tongue-tied and metaphor-mixed. Stammering “fair” twice in a row is unlike the narrator’s usual voice, and mornings don’t come into womanhood if Frodo of the Impeccable Grammar has anything to say about it. I interpret this passage with the perspective one gets from working as a courtier in Washington DC. This is another interpolation by a Fourth-Age scribe. The scribe was employed at the court of the Prince of Ithilien. His patron was a descendant of Faramir and Éowyn, and he felt sure that it would rebound to his favor if he made the biggest possible production out of the first meeting between the great Elessar and his patron’s ancestor.

Is this a valid reading? Sycophancy is the handmaiden of politics, wherever one looks. I assume that politics among the Men of Gondor and among hobbits is similar to politics in our world. In Gondor this is certainly the case (cf. Letter #136). The presence in the Shire of lawyers indistinguishable from our own (The Hobbit, at the auction, and LotR I,ii) implies their politics must not be too different. So on we go.

The descendants of Sam and Rosie Gardner were sure to face challenges to their legitimacy. The founders of their house were not of aristocratic stock, and an eminent literatus has proven beyond controversion that the family was not accepted

Map of Gardner

Mayor Sam Gardner’s family

unconditionally into the highest strata of hobbit society. The tale of the War of the Ring would have been an essential tool in consolidating the social position of the Gardners and the Fairbairns. Therefore, the hobbit scribes who wrote the Red Book of Westmarch took every opportunity they could find to connect Sam and Elanor with the royal family of Gondor and Arnor, as Tom documented, all through the Appendices. But how far back can the pretense to nobility be pushed?

As long as Frodo and Sam were embedded in a social structure, Sam would have to stay in a servile role. By the end of Book 2, though, Frodo and Sam are on their own. This is the perfect place to turn the story of Sam the sidekick into the origin myth of Mayor Samwise, founder of the House of Gardner. Their roles aren’t dictated by people around them any more. Sam can evolve. The first formal social structure Frodo and Sam encounter after that is Faramir’s company, and as Tom notes that’s where “Master Samwise” makes its entrance into the text, never completely to depart. The book shows Sam being treated with respect by the future Prince of Ithilien, lieutenant of the King Elessar, from the start.

Shortly after that, Frodo of the once-impeccable Bagginses, confirms the elevation.

‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”’
‘Now, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, ‘you shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.’
‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am.’

LotR IV, viii

Modern people tend to view this kind of political manipulation with distaste. But older generations didn’t think there was anything froward about it. Frodo told Sam to do it explicitly:

You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more.

LotR, VI, ix

Or did he? All we have to do is decide what to do with the text that is given us.

Mythmoot Lúthien Seminar

Since Beren and Lúthien was just published, we paid a lot of attention to it at Mythmoot IV. In this paper session, it got crowded in the dell under Weathertop. Along with Aragorn and the hobbits, Kate Neville, Tom Hillman, Trevor Brierly and about 20 others were eavesdropping. This took the form of three talks about Beren, Lúthien, and the song of Tinúviel. All three talks referenced the Mythgard Academy class on Return of the Shadow, appropriately enough.

Kate Neville: How much does a linden-leaf weigh, anyway?

Kate handed out four different versions of the song Aragorn sings, written over 30 years. What is a ballad, anyway? We don’t know what JRRT’s definition was, but the etymology is “something to dance to”. Repetitions of words match repeated steps in a dance. The ballad is separate from the “Tale of Tinúviel”. The ballad has seasons in it; where the story takes place over a few days. Kate thinks putting the dancing Luthien into a song is the origin of her power as a singer.  “Whenever I see the leaf in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, I think of a linden.”

Hemlock umbels, high enough to dance under

Umbelliferous Hemlock

Since we’re discussing Lúthien’s weight, let’s discuss her height, too. My farm got a lot of rain this month. Most of the hemlock-umbels are four feet off the ground, as usual. A few, though, are almost seven feet high. A daughter of Thingol could easily have danced under the tallest ones. We know Tinúviel had extraordinary grace, because the tall hemlocks are all on a riverbank where the land is on a one-to-one slope. Only an elf could dance there without falling in the water.

Tom Hillman: “She died.”

Tom started with a contentious assertion: that Aragorn’s coda to the song was the biggest disappointment in Peter Jackson’s movie. That’s a tough competition, but he made a good case. Aragorn’s step away from his historical role means that he has to reduce Arwen’s eventual choice to a purely personal level. This is one of the moments where the depth of Middle-Earth comes out, in the book. The movies were completely de-mythologized, so that had to be deleted. There’s no hope in the movie version. No Silmarils, no victory over Morgoth. How could there be? In the movies, the indicator of enormous evil power is that you’re really big and can hit a lot of people with one swing of a mace.

One metaphor I loved: In the Mythgard class, Corey Olsen made a big deal out of identifying exactly where JRRT brought the two worlds of the Silmarillion and The Hobbit into conjunction. Tom points out that this is a necessary consequence once the world was made round. Parallel lines never intersect in a flat geometry, like the world before Ar-Pharazôn’s little folly. But parallel lines always eventually cross on a globe. In the Third Age, the Hobbit and The Silmarillion couldn’t be kept apart.

Trevor Brierly: how Lúthien became a “maiden, elven-wise”

Lúthien doesn’t do anything in the earliest poem, but the “Tale of Tinúviel” makes her into an agent. The part where Beren is stalking her stops being creepy, because she knows he’s watching and encourages it (without telling him, of course). In The Fellowship of the Ring version, she actively embraces Beren. As Kate interjected, “Beren keeps trying to get away, and she keeps showing up wherever he is.”

We had a great discussion afterwards, which only happens when everybody is keyed onto the same topic. That doesn’t always happen when three distantly-related papers get put into a session.

One item that came up, relevant to my chairmanship of the Committee for the Defense of Celeborn: The reason Celeborn always just says “yes, dear” is buried deep in the First Age. “At times Melian and Galadriel would speak together” and Galadriel learned a lot. Celeborn was watching, too. He saw how Thingol never listened to his wife, and what happened to him. Celeborn let his wife do the talking, and he lasted through two more Ages of the world. Smart guy.

Verlyn Flieger – Wonder is a three-body effect

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.

The Hippogriff:  Lord Juss’s Emblem

One time ignorance was bliss

Venus cloud tops

Hubble Space Telescope

Tom Hillman has spoiled us with another essay, this time on the changing role of the Silmarils in Tolkien’s Legendarium.  I’d like to add another contrasting pair.  I seem to be on a protracted campaign of sympathy for the devil these days, of which this is another whistle-stop.

Here’s Ungoliant’s attitude toward the Silmarils in the First Age:

‘Dost thou desire all the world for thy belly? I did not vow to give thee that. I am its Lord.’
‘Not so much,’ said Ungoliant. ‘But thou hast a great treasure from Formenos; I will have all that. Yea, with both hands thou shalt give it.’
Then perforce Morgoth surrendered to her the gems that he bore with him, one by one and grudgingly; and she devoured them, and their beauty perished from the world. Huger and darker yet grew Ungoliant, but her lust was unsated. ‘With one hand thou givest,’ she said; ‘with the left only. Open thy right hand.’
In his right hand Morgoth held close the Silmarils…

Quenta Silmarillion, IX

And here’s the attitude of her daughter, at the end of the Third Age:

As if [Sam’s] indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light. No such terror out of heaven had ever burned in Shelob’s face before. The beams of it entered into her wounded head and scored it with unbearable pain, and the dreadful infection of light spread from eye to eye. She fell back beating the air with her forelegs, her sight blasted by inner lightnings, her mind in agony.

LotR, IV,x

It’s a good thing that Sam had never read the Quenta Silmarillion. A hero of greater lore (Bilbo?) might have recognized Shelob, remembered her mother’s attitude towards the light of the Silmarils, and concluded that showing her the Light was the worst thing he could do. Après Thomas Gray, in that situation it would have been folly to be Wise.

Venus and crescent moon over Tenerife observatory

Venus and crescent moon from Tenerife

Goldberry Teaches Frodo a Lesson

The text for today’s cerebration comes from The Fellowship of the Ring, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”:

“Fair lady!” said Frodo again after a while. “Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?”
“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.
Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look.

LotR I,vii

If you want to, you can read Goldberry’s answer in a transcendent, almost supernatural way.  The verb “to be” is transitive; there has to be an object of the sentence. [1]  With one notable exception, it’s always used in the form “x is y“.  And lots of people interpret Goldberry’s answer as if Bombadil were that exception, as if he might be the sort of person who can simply say “I am”.  They give him some kind of divine character, especially if it’s the Seventies and transcendental religious experiences are all over the Zeitgeist.  That interpretation made it into Prof. Olsen’s mailbag. Here’s how he read the quotation, on the Tolkien Professor podcast from July 8th, 2009:

I read it that way too, at first. Because Seventies. The following sentences, though, undercut such a heavy interpretation. Why would Goldberry smile?  It could be out of pity or sympathy, I suppose, but those are exalted feelings in Tolkien.  They seem somehow too high for a down-to-earth figure like Goldberry. [2]

At this point my tropism towards wisecracks asserted itself. As I mentioned back at the beginning of this blog, meaning is a relationship between text and reader. If the reader is a smart-aleck, that affects the meaning of the text. And so it has come to pass. Here’s how I read that phrase now:

Kids these days call that a “dad-joke“.  Zooming out a bit: Goldberry is busy making dinner; Frodo asks her a question that doesn’t really hit the mark; she realizes he’s expecting a fairly complex answer; she tosses out a word-play [3] to let him know she heard the question.  Then, when she reaches a point where she can stop for a moment, she smiles at him to see if he appreciated the joke.  He didn’t get it.  When Goldberry sees the expression on Frodo’s face, she relents and tries to come up with an answer that fits better with his current frame of reference.

The two parts of Goldberry’s response aren’t repetitive.  The first is a gentle put-down. The second is a teacher’s attempt to tell the student that he’s making things too complicated, and should pay more attention to what’s in front of his eyes.  Frodo will find this useful a few days later, in Bree.

[1] Eco, Umberto, “On Being”, in Kant and the Platypus. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1997.

[2] Yes, I just called a water spirit “down to earth”. It doesn’t feel incorrect.

[3] I actually wrote “jeu-de-mots” here in my first draft, because reading Eco makes me think using just two languages is pedestrian. His essay in footnote 1 uses six languages in the first three pages.

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