In Review: Splintered Light

Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger is probably one of the best books of Tolkien analysis I have ever read. I highly recommend it. The problem with reviewing this book, therefore, is to narrow what I discuss, as otherwise I’d be retelling the entire book. My copy stands testament as practically half the pages are marked, annotated or highlighted.

Flieger’s primary focus traces the theme of light and dark and its fragmentation and dimunition through time in Tolkien’s Legendarium.  It is particularly engrossing with regards to Tolkien’s development of Quenya and Sindarin in conjunction with his mythology. Here, she describes the theory of Owen Barfield and the unity of myth and language, a philosophy espoused by him and Tolkien. To paraphrase Tolkien, Language is the disease of Mythology.

Flieger begins the book by discussing the nature of philological thought as it developed during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Her main focus is on Barfield and Tolkien and how they shifted the paradigm away from the theories of Max Müller, who claimed myth was a byproduct of semantic misapprehension. Words are applied to nature and grow into metaphor, rather than exhibiting the semantic unity and subsequent splintering of Barfield and Tolkien.

As an introduction to philological thought and mythology, Flieger’s book is an excellent starting point. She gives the basic premise of the theory, but enough tantalizing detail that I greatly look forward to the chance to read Barfield’s Poetic Diction.

Most of Flieger’s analysis focuses on the nature of Light and Dark in the Silmarllion and the extent to which the inhabitants of Arda are either of the light or of the dark.  In his use of Quenya and Sindarin, Tolkien demonstrates Barfield’s theory through example. He also demonstrates his own belief that language is the disease of mythology. In his languages and his legendarium language as we know it is wholly changed. What is metaphor is made fact, and what is many words may become one.

The most complete example is simply what the elves call themselves.  When awoken on the shores of Cuivienen, the elves first exclaim “ela!” behold! at the sight of the stars above,  irrevocably tying their tongue to perception of light. They name themselves Quendi: ‘those that speak with voices.’

From here they are split between the Calaquendi and the Moriquendi, the Light Speakers and the Dark Speakers, those who follow the Valar and those who remain in the darkness of Middle Earth. Not only do the names describe their relation to the light, ie. that of Valinor and the trees, but they also take on metaphoric meaning in “enlightenment and obfuscation.” The names tell a story, particularly when acknowledged that the second, the Moriquendi, is the name given to the Avari by the Calaquendi, therefore adding a layer of judgement. But in the literal sense the names are also true, as the first see the light, while the second refuse it.

Upon arrival in Valinor, the elves split again; and again their natures and names relate directly to their proximity and affinity for the Light. “They are the Vanyar (the Fair Elves), the Noldor (the Deep Elves), and the Teleri (the Lastcomers).” The Vanyar have golden hair and remain always in the Light. The Noldor are the wise, but they are only “wise in the sense of possessing knowledge, not in the sense of possessing sagacity, sound judgement” (Silmarillion 344). As with the Moriquendi, here again there is a sense of judgment in the name. And the Teleri, the last, are those who hesitate in the face of the Light and cannot fully embrace it. In each sense, Tolkien is referring to Light in all its conotations: physical light, goodness, enlightenment and knowledge. Through his use of Quenya and later Sindarin (which itself exhibits the same qualities of dimunition as it is the language of M. E. and removed from the light of Valinor), Tolkien expresses this experience of the encounter with the Light, particularly in the use of names.

Ultimately, it is a fascinating study of how Tolkien used his language in his mythology, not just to be tacked on as seasoning but to be a mythology of its own in parallel and supporting the narrative myth.

Verlyn Flieger makes an astute statement with regards to language and myth, which I will let speak for itself:

“To hear or speak a new language is to be, for the moment, in a new and strange world created by unfamiliar words expressing different perceptions and a different imaginative vision – in effect a Secondary World whose colors are refracted through the prism of language. We may say, then, that any world in which human beings live and speak is sub-created by their words and is thus a Secondary World. We can never experience directly what was spoken into being with the first Word-the Logos-only what humanity speaks and makes with splintered light. (95)”

In this we are subject to the fall; unable to fully experience the Light as much of our perception is also governed by our speech. However, in sub-creation, making by the law in which we are made, language may approach they unity it once held.

Splintered Light’s main focus is The Silmarillion; following the persistent metaphor of splintered light throughout the history of Middle Earth. Flieger ends the book, though, by applying the same theories to the decision of Frodo on Mount Doom.

According to Flieger, Frodo exemplifies the duality of light and dark as he journeys to Mordor. He travels “against the light for the light’s sake” by going into the darkness of both Mordor and within himself. His battle with the Ring and it’s power over him are largely internal, and thrive off the darkness already within. This all makes sense and lends itself to a deeper and nuanced understanding of the tale. However, I take issue with Flieger’s analysis of the final moments at the Cracks of Doom. She states:

“In a final, shattering reversal, Frodo’s defeat in Mordor, his utter surrender to the Ring, is transformed by Gollum, who here if ever must do what he most wants to do. He repossesses the Ring and falls into the Cracks of Doom. This inadvertent victory, however, does not lessen the bleakness of Frodo’s defeat. Here is no eucatastrophe, no consolation giving a glimpse of joy. What happens to Frodo is katastrophe, the downward turn in the action, when the hero is overcome. (152)”

I have to say I categorically reject this notion. I can understand it and the apparent logic behind it, but I do not think it takes other key factors into account. As I see it, Frodo’s final surrender to the power of the Ring is a moment of discatastrophe, as Flieger states. However, it is simultaneously a moment of great Joy. For in this moment, the Ring is wrested from him and destroyed, through apparent chance, the quintessential definition of eucatastrophe and the work of Grace. On a macro scale, this is the eucatastrophic moment of the tale, bringing about the victory for the peoples of the West. But as Flieger points out, at first glance it appears to be a moment of utter darkness for Frodo.

However, as seen in my previous post on eucatastrophe and discatastrophe, Frodo could never have succeed in the letter of the quest. And to take the Ring from him  would break his mind, a fact stated multiple times. But it is seen that in the destruction of the Ring, even though taken by force, Frodo is immediately at peace. The weight has been lifted and the darkness banished. This is not to say he is unchanged, but for Frodo to return to the Light the Ring had to be destroyed, and the only way for that to occur is through Frodo’s surrender to it. The true eucatastrophe and heroism of Frodo is not bound in this moment at the edge of the Cracks of Doom but along the entire journey to them. One thing I’ve noticed lately is that Frodo almost never refers to the quest in light of the Ring’s destruction, but almost always in terms of getting it to Mordor. This trend only becomes more obvious the closer they get to Orodruin. His heroic deed is the journey and the mercy he showed to others along the way.

As we cannot fully perceive the Light without the aid of Providence, Frodo cannot cast off the darkness within, strengthened and hardened by the Ring, without Providential aid. To say this moment is a catastrophe is too limited. Yes it is a failure of will on Frodo’s part, but it is not unexpected shackled to the Ring. Following the destruction of the Ring, Sam observes Frodo beside him, using these words,

“And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire. (926)”

Frodo is not healed, nor can he ever be fully in Middle Earth, but he is spared madness and grief; he is made free of the darkness in his soul, and if this is not eucatastrophe, I do not know what is. For here, at the micro scale, the deepest darkness to which Frodo sank, without hope of return, has turned to light.

The Beauty of the Choices of Master Samwise

I’ve been listening to the Lord of the Rings audio book, as narrated by Rob Inglis, for the last month. It has been an interesting journey. Listening to the tale has allowed me to enter into the story as never before both intellectually and emotionally.

For instance, for myself I’ve never felt the draw of Samwise Gamgee as a potent force, or experienced the true emotional power of the scene at Cirith Ungol. In some ways, as I’ve stated before, Sam is too normal, too like us, the reader, to really evoke the same reaction as the other heroes in the War of the Ring. Yes this makes him all the more relateable, and endearing, but at least for myself, he has never been as memorable as Gandalf, or Treebeard or Theoden. Even among the Hobbits, I’ve often found him upstaged by others in my mind. I can’t really explain it. Though if I wanted to psychoanalyze it, I’d say it has something to do with the fact that being ordinary and most like us, it is harder to see Samwise as a hero, just as heroes in our lives are not always seen or acknowledged, except when the act is of truly “heroic” proportions.

And yet Sam, as so many in this world, is heroic in the simple everyday way he treats others and approaches life. He takes simple virtues to extraordinary lengths.

This saves him as a Bearer of the Ring.

Hearing this chapter, “The Choices of Master Samwise,” I felt the raw pain, saddness, confusion and anger of Sam for the first time. And I realized something. Sam takes the Ring, first out of duty and self sacrifice, and secondly to serve love and save Frodo.

From the early drafts, and still lingering in the published work, the acts tied to the beginning of one’s possession of the Ring bear great weight. This is born out by the murder of Deagol by Smeagol and the limited hold of the Ring on Bilbo as he began his ownership by having mercy on Gollum.

Sam begins bearing the Ring through sacrifice and love. There is no tie of the heirloom or souvenier to bring sentamental value. All he has ever known of the Ring is its evil. Knowing its corrupting power, and the likelihood of failure, indeed failure in death, Sam resolves to bear the burden of free will. And so he takes the Ring upon himself and continues up the pass only to realize he cannot deny the ties of love, friendship and loyalty to Frodo, even (so he thinks) in death.

This simple hobbit, with no Tookish blood to lend him courage, turns aside from the quest in the service of love. In these two choices Sam largely negates the hold of the Ring on him. He is tempted, yes, but his simple choice to pusue love, even to the final extreme of self sacrifice, renders the Rings temptations meaningless.

Eucatastrophe, Discatastrophe and the destruction of the Ring

The concept of the eucatastrophe, and conversely the discatastrophe, is central to J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of fantasy literature or the Fairy-Story.  Eucatastrophe, as defined by Tolkien in his lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” is the “good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…it is a sudden and miraculous grace…a fleeting glimpse of Joy” (On Fairy-Stories 153). Going further, it is a moment of Evengelium, referencing the greatest moment of eucatastrophe in human history: the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ; a myth in which “Legend and History have met and fused” (On Fairy-Stories 156). Eucatastrophe was not just a literary tool for Tolkien, but an opportunity to elicit Truth and therefore explore the nature of Providence. It is through the mechanism of eucatastrophe, sudden miracle, that The Lord of the Rings becomes a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (Letter 142).

Just as light is unperceivable without darkness, so too is eucatastrophe meaningless without the presence of discatastrophe or “sorrow and failure” (On Fairy-Stories 153).  This duality of light and dark, hope and despair, victory and defeat is an integral part of Tolkien’s subcreated world.  It is subconsciously present upon the first reading, but is revealed in rereading.  The sudden joyous turn “reflects a glory backwards,” revealing the Truths, and unnoticed eucatastrophic moments along the way (On Fairy-Stories 154). In this sense eucatastrophe becomes Tolkein’s greatest vehicle for applicability.

One of the recurring questions surrounding The Lord of the Rings is whether Frodo fails in his quest.  The quest is achieved, though not explicitly by Frodo, but through the entrance of Grace in the final struggle at Sammath Naur.  However, having experienced the Joy of this moment, upon further thought it is necessary to reflect that final moment of glory backwards on all preceding events.

The manner in which Tolkien begins The Lord of the Rings is of utmost importance.  It is essentially a small primer in the nature of eucatastrophe and discatastrophe, which begins this great theme that unites the whole work and foreshadows the final mechanism of victory.  Tolkien begins with two fire-side scenarios, one with Bilbo and one with Frodo, which are in many ways identical and yet at the same time polar opposites.

Bilbo Baggins is not a central figure in The Lord of the Rings and yet without him, the quest would have failed before it began.  The tale begins with the Long Expected Party, in which Bilbo, following Shire custom, gives many gifts and performs his great “joke” in hopes of making the sacrifice of the Ring easier.  It is obvious this is not the trinket of The Hobbit, it has a true and strong hold on Bilbo.

Following his joke, Bilbo returns to Bag End, packs his things and places the Ring in an envelope for Frodo, and “at first he put it on the mantel piece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck in his pocket” (LotR 31). The use of the word suddenly implies subconscious, instinctual or outside motives.  This is reinforced when Bilbo doesn’t even remember the act when asked by Gandalf.  He says: “’There it is on the mantelpiece. Well, no! Here it is in my pocket!’…’Isn’t it odd now?’…’Yet after all, why not? Why shouldn’t it stay there?’” (LotR 32). This moment, and the many similar which follow, demonstrate the holding power of the Ring. Bilbo at first registers shock upon discovering his subconscious action, but later affirms and appropriates that action and its motives to himself.

Gandalf repeatedly has to urge Bilbo to relinquish the Ring and move on with his life (LotR 33-34). After no less than six entreaties and reminders by Gandalf, Bilbo finally gives in:

“Bilbo took out the envelope, but just as he was about to set it by the clock, his hand jerked back, and the packet fell on the floor. Before he could pick it up, the wizard stooped and seized it and set it in its place. A spasm of anger passed swiftly over the hobbit’s face again. Suddenly it gave way to a look of relief and a laugh.” (LotR 34)

And so ends the first eucatastrophic moment of The Lord of the Rings.  It is a moment of great hope, often overshadowed by the darkness to follow, but should also be seen as instructive in the nature of grace in Middle Earth. Gandalf later tells Frodo:

“’A Ring of Power looks after itself…It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care…Bilbo alone in history has…gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too.” (LotR 54)

Bilbo does not leave the Ring purely through his own power; it is due to the presence and perseverance of Gandalf that he succeeds.  Gandalf or Olorin is a maiar and therefore a representative of the Valars’ and ultimately Iluvatar’s will in Middle Earth.  He is a divine or angelic entity, and so a tangible agent of Grace, helping to bring about this first moment of eucatastrophe and set the stage for the intangible entrance Grace at the Cracks of Doom.

The second “fire-side episode” is a moment of discatastrophe, mirroring the first, and casting the entire quest in doubt. It reinforces the impossibility of the quest and the necessity for providential aid, while the first episode reveals the real chance of success and the seed of hope.

Seventeen years pass between the Long Expected Party and the second fire-side episode. In that time Gandalf has discovered the history of Ring and has only one last trial to perform to prove it to be the One Ring to rule them all: fire.  Gandalf relates the long history of the Ring to Frodo, and asks him for the Ring:

“[Frodo] unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it…To Frodo’s astonishment and distress the wizard threw it suddenly into the middle of a glowing corner of the fire. Frodo gave a cry and groped for the tongs; but Gandalf held him back.” (LotR 48)

A short time later, Gandalf removes the Ring from the fire, and hands it to Frodo, finding it cool to the touch.  This fact is crucial to an understanding of what happens next.  Here follows the rest of this episode:

“’But why not destroy it, as you say should have been done long ago?’ cried Frodo again. ‘If you had warned me, or even sent me a message, I would have done away with it.’

‘Would you? How would you do that? Have you ever tried?’

‘No. But I suppose one could hammer it or melt it.’

‘Try!’ said Gandalf. ‘Try now!’

Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without a mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forced himself to remember all that Gandalf told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away – but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.

Gandalf laughed grimly. ‘You see? Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it…Your small fire, of course, would not melt even ordinary gold. This Ring has already passed through it unscathed, and even unheated.” (LotR 59)

As Gandalf notes, Frodo has already witnessed the Ring pass through the fire unharmed, but what is important about this moment is Frodo’s intention to do harm to the Ring, not whether the attempted act would succeed.  It is also noteworthy that Gandalf urges Frodo to attempt to harm the Ring and is unsurprised by the resulting failure.  The quest appears doomed to failure even before it is formed.

However, Gandalf is an agent of Grace, and though limited in his foreknowledge has reason to hope, and that hope lies in Providence.  When they come to the time of the Ring with Gollum, Frodo expresses disgust and wishes for his death. Gandalf responds:

“Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends.  I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.  And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many-yours not the least.”(LotR 58)

Though it is open to interpretation, Gandalf’s intuition here taken with the reflected glory of the final eucatastrophic moment reveals the hope for the future.

The two fire-side episodes highlight both the hope of success in Grace and the doom to failure without it.  The apparent conclusion is that Frodo cannot destroy the Ring. If this is the case, what grounds are there for hope? Why would Gandalf and the wise encourage this quest? The answer lies at the heart of faith, hope and eucatastrophe.

As Bilbo cannot free himself of the Ring’s power without Gandalf’s help, Frodo also requires aid beyond himself in order to achieve his quest. While the accomplishment of the quest may take but single moment, in Truth it is the culmination of a series of eucatastrophic moments through which the final outcome is determined.

On the edge of the Dead Marshes, Gollum catches up with Frodo and Sam and they capture him. Upon seeing him in his sorry state, Frodo has a change of heart, saying “’for now that I see him, I do pity him’” and offers him a path to redemption (LotR 601). Gollum at first tries to escape, but is recaptured, and to avoid the elvish rope begs to swear by the Precious. Frodo responds harshly, “’On the Precious? How dare you?’…’Think! One Ring to Rule them all and in the Darkness bind them. Would you commit your promise to that, Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!’” (LotR 604). Gollum subsequently swears to “be…good…never to let Him have it…[and to] serve the master of the Prescious” (LotR 604). During this scene, Gollum ceases to be “My Precious” or the solely onomatopoeic “Gollum,” but rediscovers his sense of self referring to himself as Sméagol. Henceforth Frodo treats Sméagol with mercy and dignity, as an ancient and tortured hobbit and refuses to let any other harm him.

A key part of the nature of eucatastrophe is the idea of Evangelium, or the revelation of Truth.  The notion of mercy and charity is central to The Lord of the Rings, just as it is central to Tolkien’s Roman Catholic faith.  Christians are called to treat others as Christ, just as they are called to be Christ-like:

“’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

Just as Gandalf is the agent of Grace in the first fire-side episode, so too is Frodo an agent of Grace in his mercy towards Gollum, cementing the final outcome of the quest. It is Frodo’s pity that saves Gollum, and allows him to be reborn as Sméagol, if for a short time. It is also Frodo’s pity which guides Gollum to his fateful oath. It is well established that the Ring can twist the bearer’s words or deeds, and so achieve its own ends. However, here it may be the powers of Providence working through Frodo to use the machinations of the Ring against itself.

In the penultimate confrontation on the side of Mount Doom, Frodo and Gollum grapple with each other before Frodo flings him to the ground. And then Sam sees a curious vision. It should be noted that Sam has worn the Ring, and therefore some of its powers to see beyond the veil may have been conferred on him.

“Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.

‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’” (LotR 922)

The description of Frodo here highly resembles Frodo’s vision of Glorfindel while wearing the Ring at the Ford of Bruinen, where he sees “a shining figure of white light” (LotR 209). This vision is a reflection of the elf’s true nature; a reflection of the glory of Valinor he at one time beheld.  So too is this raiment of white a veiled reference to the Transfiguration, and ultimately symbolic of holiness or wisdom, marred only by the fire of the Ring.

In the final throws of the Ring’s corruption, Frodo’s part in the quest essentially ends.  His role as the conduit of Providence is transferred to Sam, who after this confrontation is left to face Gollum, of whom he has never had any liking or trust, yet even he finds his heart filled with pity and empathy:

“Deep in his heart there was something restraining him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.” (LotR 923)

Sam lets Gollum go. In all of their dealings with Gollum since the stair of Cirith Ungol, it should be noted how Gollum refers to himself. He is no longer Sméagol, and his few uses of the first person are long gone. He is no longer anything but a shell wholly enthralled by the Ring and in essence become the Ring, or “My Precious.” The creature before Sam is utterly destroyed by the Ring, and it seems only just that one so tortured by its machinations would bring about its destruction.

Here at the brink, particular attention must be paid to the words sworn by or enforced by the Ring. Gollum’s oath is two-fold: to keep the Ring from Sauron and to serve the master of the Ring. As stated by Gandalf, following the Council of Elrond, there is only one master of the Ring, and that is Sauron (LotR 220). In following Frodo, and attempting to prevent the destruction of the Ring, might Gollum be serving Sauron? Yet at the same time, he has sworn to keep the Ring from Sauron, and the Ring will hold him to that as well as to Frodo’s last warning.

When Frodo claims the Ring for his own, “the Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him…[and]…at his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom” (LotR 925). Gollum swore to keep the Ring from Sauron, the Ring holds him to that oath, and so he succeeds in gaining the Ring only to fall over the edge into the fire, thus fulfilling both his oath and the command of Frodo.

This is the final and greatest moment of eucatastrophe in The Lord of the Rings, a tale which is united by a string of miraculous events which presuppose the final victory. The will of Ilúvatar is present throughout, though he is never named. As he states in the Music of the Ainur, “’no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined”’ (Silmarillion 17). This is another example where Tolkien’s faith was woven within the fabric of Middle Earth. In this manner do all the peoples in the War of the Ring take part in the final eucatastrophe, building steps along the way to the final moment of glory.

            It is the virtue of mercy and pity which is the ultimate defeat of the Ring, first by Bilbo, then by Frodo and finally by Sam. Without pity, that fateful oath would never have been uttered. Without continued patience and mercy, it would never have been fulfilled.

In Review: The Lays of Beleriand

The Lays of Beleriand, by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher TolkienI am not really into poetry, but I was hoping due to the wonderful experience reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun that I would be pleasantly surprised by The Lays of Beleriand.  I have to say the result, ultimately was 50/50.  I had a lot of trouble getting through The Lay of Children of Hurin, but absolutely loved the Lay of Leithian.

There are many possible reasons for this.  The Children of Hurin is one of Tolkien’s best established works, in terms of publishing.  I have now read the tale in The Book of Lost Tales, the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales (Narn i Chin Hurin) and the stand-alone The Children of Hurin…and now the Lay.  Ultimately, therefore, my issues may have been due to over familiarity with the tale.

The other hurdle is the fact that the Lay of the Children of Hurin is written in alliterative verse, much like the Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.  While fascinating to hear and decifer the structure of this type of poetry, I found it did not lend itself to easy reading.

The Lay of Leithian, on the other hand, is written in rhyming couplets and is a joy to read.  It is not only stunningly beautiful at times, but the tale itself is greatly expanded.  Nowhere else is the tale of Beren and Luthien told more poignantly or completely (granted the lay leaves off shortly after the recovery of the Silmaril).  The other amazing thing about the Lay of Leithian, which is revealed through the commentary by Christopher Tolkien, is that the tale as told in the Lay is still the tale.  The differences found in the chapter of the Silmarillion are largely due to compression, not due to revision or rewriting.  This fact (though not true of all cases) makes this Lay all the more valuable for any fan of Tolkien’s legendarium.

As with the Book of Lost Tales, Christopher Tolkien’s commentary is very enlightening, helping to tie together the progression of the tales across drafts, time and place.  His analysis helps to give an inside look into the thought process and method of Tolkien’s myth making.

One kernel of great insight is buried in the commentary for the Lay of Leithian.  This wonderful thought is from none other than CS Lewis, who read and critiqued this Lay as Tolkien wrote it (a great part of his criticism and suggestions is included at the end of the lay).  He wrote:

“I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves in the reaf (Old English: ‘garments, weapons, taken from the slain’).  I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend’s work had very little to do with it.  I should have enjoyed it just as well if I’d picked it up in the bookshop, by an unknown author.  The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader.” (LoB p184, bold to call out two main points)

So who needs my recommendation when you can have Lewis’s?

The two main points Lewis lists at the end of this quote are of great interest.  The first, regarding the sense of reality and background, shows the process of interlacement (described by Tom Shippey) was already being used by Tolkien throughout his work, even before the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  In both lays, there are many references to events, places and beings beyond the scope of the current tale.  Sometimes they are given significant description, such as the oath of the sons of Feanor, or the fall of Fingolfin.  While other references are often passing mentions, with little explanation other than the reader’s own knowledge gained through the Silmarillion.  Often reading these short references made me wonder if these were the first kernels of a tale, newly sprung in Tolkien’s thought as he wrote.  Based on the outlines and synopses presented in this book, it would not be hard to believe; as it appears he often worked through a process of rewriting and expansion of ideas through each iteration.

The second observation of CS Lewis is particularly interesting given Tolkien’s own stated aversion for allegory.  Here, Lewis gives one of the best descriptions of what Tolkien desired in the pursuit of applicability over allegory.  Here too, Lewis’ observation on myth and allegory explains the continuing success of Tolkien’s works, as well as all the mythology that has been passed on to us through the ages.  They each write to the core of the human experience, to our aspirations, dreams and fears, but leave the ultimate search for meaning and connection to the reader, giving him or her the power to find personal meaning in each passage, rather than assigning meaning which stifles the that potential visceral connection between written word and reader.