A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: fantasy (Page 1 of 3)

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.

Tirion upon Whole Wheat Toast


In which a perfectly good idea goes down in flames.

J.R.R. Tolkien was careful to choose proper names that would avoid ridiculous resonances with his audience, in English at least.  But he missed one.

Even among the radiant flowers of the Tree-lit gardens of Valinor, [the Vanyar & the Noldor] longed still at times to see the stars; and therefore a gap was made in the great walls of the Pelóri, and there in a deep valley that ran down the the sea the Eldar raised a high green hill: Túna it was called.

Silmarillion, Chapter 5

There’s a diacritical mark above the “u” in “tuna”, but it doesn’t help much.  How did this slip by?  That’s when I had an (what’s the opposite of “brilliant”?) idea:  Maybe people didn’t eat tuna in 1920s England!  After all, the idea of a tuna steak didn’t exist in the US until about 30 years ago.

So off I go to the Marine Management Organization of the UK.  Their statistical report for 2015 confirms that tuna isn’t really a thing, as far as the domestic fishing industry is concerned.  “Virtually all tuna available for use in the UK is from abroad.”  That means I can use worldwide production statistics from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.  Unfortunately, their data only go back to 1950. [1] Fortunately, the statistics fit an exponential curve fairly well up to 2000, [2] so we can extrapolate backwards in time.

Exponential growth of tuna harvest

Worldwide Tuna Catch by year

Extrapolation outside one’s data is generally risky, but in this case we have an endpoint to keep us in line:  Tuna wasn’t a big consumer item until they figured out how to can it about 1900.  The variation of the actual harvests around the regression line is about 100,000 tonnes per year.  Between 1900 and 1914, the extrapolated curve is less than the error term, so the estimated tuna harvest is indistinguishable from zero.  So far, so good:  Canning tuna began in Oregon and California, so it could easily have taken a few decades for tuna to catch [3] on in England.

But then this whole thesis falls apart.  “Demand soared with the onset of the First World War. Canned tuna provided a high-protein, portable, and convenient food for soldiers in the field.”  That is suspiciously close to the 1914 breakpoint I just computed.  Tolkien was a soldier in the field; there is no way he was ignorant of canned tuna.  Confusticate and bebother these facts!  In the words of Emily Litella, “never mind.”


One marvelous thing about the World-Wide Web is that it decreases the cost of following an idea into a dead end.  I spent less than an hour on research, data acquisition, and analysis for this post, and it’s snowing outside so I had nothing better to do anyway. If I had tried to do this exercise when I was in college in the 1980s, it would have taken a week.

Update:  Shawn, of Prancing Pony Podcast fame, points out that the fish in question was called “tunny-fish” in olden times.  According to Google Ngrams, he’s right.  You can clearly see the change-over when the American fisheries got into the act.

Tuna vs. Tunny

By the 1920’s the American word might just barely have been visibly more frequent (though the relative frequencies when spoken might have been different), but it would have been a moderately-impressive prophecy to anticipate that huge run-up in the second half of the century.

[1] Something bad must have happened in the 1940s to disrupt data collection.

[2] Production and consumption are flat so far in the 21st century.  Alas, tuna populations have collapsed.  We ate them all.  No sea-Ents have come to the rescue.

[3] For once the pun is not intentional.

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.


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?


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.


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.

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