Of Good Afternoons and Good Mornings

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

“And A Happy New Year!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

-From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, pg. 7

Upon reading the passage above, particularly excised from its surroundings, I was immediately put in mind of another passage. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is an obvious holiday favorite, and one I return to almost every year; yet this is the first time I’ve noticed this simple passage.

Scrooge’s nephew has come to wish his uncle a Merry Christmas, and is met by a gruff “Bah Humbug!” and a long lecture regarding the foolishness of the holiday, which ultimately devolves into the chill greeting I quoted above. At first glance, each utterance of the greeting (or should I say dismissal) ‘Good afternoon’ seems a simple repetition of annoyance, dismissal and disinterest in the continuation of the conversation, but there is more to see.

Tolkien begins The Hobbit in much the same way, with the meeting of acquaintances who have their own verbal sparring match. Here, Tolkien much more explicitly develops the change of tone in the repeated greeting ‘good morning’ giving the reader insight into the characters of both Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf.

The first instance is an expression of goodwill, further expanded through Gandalf’s wordplay to encompass wish, feeling, and natural state:

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo.

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 6-7

The second utterance devolves into annoyance, as quite obviously Gandalf has soured Bilbo’s otherwise relaxing and pleasurable morning and shall ruin it altogether should he remain:

“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here thank you!”

…”What a lot of things you use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and it won’t be good till I move off.”

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 7

Now, of course, Bilbo is much too much a gentleman to admit to such a wish, and swiftly changes the conversation to introductions and reminiscing. Though the text states his intent to end the conversation, it also informs the reader that he is “a very well-to-do-hobbit” and “very respectable” which can be understood to mean such a blunt and even rude dismissal is out of character (Tolkien 1).  This second exclamation therefore may be understood as an ejaculation of fear and dismay, perhaps with little or no thought with regards to propriety. So when called out by Gandalf, Bilbo immediately shifts focus; only to be dragged back to the prospect of adventure by the clever wordplay of the wizard. This leads to the third, and final, ‘good morning’ which is a true dismissal, but one given in haste and even panic:

“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea-any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!”

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 8

That final torrent of words smacks of nervous energy and the complete loss of control by Bilbo. Indeed, upon closing the door, he immediately remonstrates himself for his foolishness in inviting the wizard to tea.

Tolkien’s writing often explores the many meanings and uses of words and expressions in his day and in the past. In these early passages of The Hobbit, he goes further by teasing out the coded language of polite speech, which says something altogether different below the surface.

Dicken’s passage immediately reminded me of Tolkien’s, which in turn caused me to look closer at Scrooge’s use of ‘good afternoon.’ Does this scene reflect the same internal monologue seen in Bilbo, coded in polite greeting (however gruffly delivered)?

In small subtle ways it may. Though all Scrooge’s ‘good afternoons’ appear to be negations, denials, and dismissals no different from a ‘Bah Humbug!’ there is nuance. After discussing Fred’s marriage, career, and finally love, Scrooge’s first ‘good afternoon’ is both dismissal and repudiation of the foolishness of love. The second utterance marks a dismissal and a refusal of human affection. The third, an utter refusal of Christmas cheer, given weight by the finality of the exclamation point. And the fourth, a final dismissal and a statement of ignorance, again ended definitively by exclamation point. The sameness of Scrooge’s response may also imply his complete disconnection with the conversation. From the very first exclamation of ‘good afternoon’ the conversation, and his part in it, is concluded. He is a broken record or a wall battered under the onslaught of Fred’s goodwill.  There is no real change in Scrooge; just as there is no real change in Bilbo at this stage in his story. Both stand at the precipice, about to be utterly transformed.

The discussion of these two passages is meant in no way to imply a correlation or source from one author to another, rather it is an exercise in applicability. Tolkien defines applicability in the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, in which he disparages allegory’s ‘purposed domination of the author’ and embraces the ‘thought and experience of readers’ (Tolkien xvii). The knowledge, experience, and imagination of the reader are intended, in Tolkien’s mind, to build upon the story and create the proper interpretive lens. Using the insights of ‘On Fairy Stories’, fantasy is further empowered by a “freedom from the domination of an observed ‘fact’” through the use of sub-creation (TM&TC 139). There is a danger in growing older: “a danger of boredom or anxiety to be original;” a weariness of all that exists to be experience (TM&TC 145). This danger leads to a dangerous pattern of creation, whereby in the unremitting desire of the original, the first, all creative energy devolves into “drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium” (TM&TC 146). Tolkien finds the cure for this imaginative malady in the recovery offered by the fairy-story.

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining –regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness of familiarity – from possessiveness.”

‘On Fairy-Stories’ Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, p 146

Recovery leads to escape and consolation. Escape is not surrendering the real world for the imaginary, but rather embracing the fullness of the world beyond our understanding and familiar use. Tolkien uses the example of a prisoner to make this point clear: “the world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it” (TM&TC 148). The consolation of recovery is “the joy of the happy ending,” summed up in Tolkien’s use of the term eucatastrophe (TM&TC 149). This is not an isolated event, but rather one which resonates through the entire tale, “[reflecting] a glory backwards” (TM&TC 150). Therefore, whether through memory of the story traversed, or by re-reading, the fairy-story is irrevocably transformed by the eucatastrophe, such that all steps along the journey are uplifted, and informed by this singular event.

This is why a re-reader chuckles at the folly of Bilbo’s fumbling attempts to avoid adventure, and perhaps sheds a tear to the utter simplicity his quest tears from him. This is why the perceived coldness of Scrooge is ultimately transfigured into pain, loneliness and despair, which only increases the reader’s joy upon reaching his moment of redemption. Particularly after learning of the repeated loss (both self-inflicted and not) via the ministration of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the reader may begin to understand the symbol of pain and loss which Christmas has become from Scrooge. Of all the spirits, the Past appears to have the most effect, with the following two simply cementing the lesson. The abandoned childhood, the loss of his beloved sister, the gradual loss of self in gold and avarice, leading to the loss of Belle lay the foundations for the broken Scrooge we see in this early conversation.

Also, by reading in the light of applicability and recovery, the cautionary tale of Ebenezer Scrooge may also inform Bilbo’s journey. Bilbo begins as a country gentleman, stuck in his ways, unimaginative and immobile. Though not lacking in charm, humor, and kindness, the quest of Bilbo is in many ways just as necessary as that of Scrooge.

In Review: The Gift of Friendship

Tolkien and CS Lewis: The Gift of Friendship“Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship,” by Colin Duriez, attempts to tell both Tolkien and Lewis’s biographies as a single narrative, illuminating the linkages and influences they had with each other. The focus of Duriez’s writing and the events told, reflects this goal. However, to anyone who has read about either author’s life, there isn’t any new information, just different framing.

For myself, as a avid reader of all things Tokien and related to his works, the writing pertaining to Tolkien was not new…most information being available in his letters or Carpenter’s biography. So in a sense this book works more as a collection of the friendship themed bits.

I have read CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Screwtape Letters and his Space Trilogy, but not much else…and so his life was fresh and new for me. It even helped illuminate further what I know of Tolkien and his beliefs and opinions; particularly as relates to Tolkien’s faith and influence on C.S. Lewis’ conversion.

The dual nature of this book uses each author as a foil for the other, to reveal another layer of their personalities. In this sense, even though we may already know the information, “Gift of Friendship” is a success; and finds all the ties that bind these two greats together. But the fact remains that no real new information or conclusions originate in this work.

Allegory, No! Applicability, Yes!

I recently had a conversation with my sister regarding Tolkien’s work in which she made the assertion that his work is allegory. Now my sister isn’t a big fan, and has only read The Hobbit and seen the LotR films, so I tried to explain, but she didn’t really understand.

According to the dictionary, allegory means the following:

a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.

Whereas the word applicable means:

able to be applied or used in a particular situation.

Both of these are true on the surface when applied to Tolkien’s work, but the key lies in who determines the character or symbol. While it is probable, though Tolkien despised overt allegory, that Tolkien had specific Truths in mind when he wrote, that was not his purpose in writing. His purpose was to free the writing of all allegory to allow the reader to take control, to see and interpret the writing from their place in life, rather than his own.

Tolkien provides many metaphors which illuminate the process of applicability, most found within his great work ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.’

The first is the tower metaphor, in which a man builds a great tower using remnants of other buildings in order to see the sea. Others come and berate the man for his silliness and dismantle the tower in order to see its component parts, to see the concrete origins. Yet, the primary purpose of the tower is to see the sea! With allegory, the reader is shown a controlled, empirical interpretation, the meaning is closed, internal, finite. Applicability, or the tower, elevates the reader, allowing them to see further vistas, to see the sea! It is inclusive, infinite.

Think of it this way:

Allegory is the tower with one window. The view never changes. Though at times weather and the vagaries of time may affect the view, the ultimate vision is fixed in time and space.

Applicability is the tower with winding stairs, and windows pointing north, east, south and west, with a viewing platform at the top. In this tower, as one climbs the steps the view changes and even when one comes to the same cardinal point the view differs from the height. The peak of the tower gives yet another view, a vision of all, and yet different from all those visions which came before.

Allegory may be applicable, but as its genesis lies in the author, there is always a fixed point of reference, a correct view.

In the same essay, Tolkien equates myth and story telling with a stew. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take any one ingredient, taste it alone and it is bland, ordinary. Mix it into the stew of story and you create a savory dish. Though a singular ingredient may shine at any one moment, that depends on the diner: their taste, whether they have a ‘side dish’ (personal experience), if it’s left-overs etc.

These two examples are two of the few times Tolkien resorts to allegory to make a point. Yet even these are applicable. How is applicablity different from allegory then?

In some sense applicability is allegory, in that it references ultimate Truths of the world and human existence. The difference lies in the purposes of the two. Allegory leads the reader by the hand to a singular point. Though the ignorant may read allegory as applicability, once the signified is known, the reader is chained to that knowledge. Applicability, however, allows the reader to approach the tale from their own state in life and find meaning from there. The meaning is not static, but ever changing.

What I’ve come to realize is that applicability can be a powerful vehicle for recovery. This visceral connection in which the reader takes ownership of a tale and colors it with their experiences creates renewal and opens their eyes to Truth.

The genius of applicability is in its ability to show us a facet of Truth through the lens of our current state in life. Truth never changes.  We constantly change. We, the readers, are constantly climbing the winding stair, discovering new facets of that grand Truth we can never fully grasp. The Truth at the heart of myth, at heart of human existence, is so vast it can never be fully perceived. We are allowed catch glimpses, and new vistas as we progress through life. Though we may see many of those facets in life we never see the whole diamond of Truth.

Myth gives us a concrete way to discover and share the Truth, though always in slivers and shards. Applicability brings myth to a higher state, allowing each and every reader to make the tale their own for their current state in life.  In using this mechanism, Tolkien continues a long tradition within the Catholic church of teaching through symbol. Much of ecclesiastical architecture used proportion, geometry and scale to inspire a sense of the sacred and even educate the illiterate. The Gospels and the Bible are proof of the eternal power of applicability. Though thousands of years old, these ancient texts still speak to us, no matter our faith (or lack thereof) or state in life. Particularly following the Counter-Reformation, begun with the Council of Trent, the primary focus of Catholic art (art, architecture, literature etc) was on the creation of the sublime; to uplift the soul and enflame the heart with a love of God and His creation. Though not overtly Catholic, Tolkien’s work is suffused by his frame of reference: his deep and lasting faith. By following the model the Church has used through the ages, Tolkien developed these theories in the field of literature, infusing every word with eternal Truth.

Reading The Hobbit: Riddles in the Dark or Let’s Play with the Monster who wants to EAT Me!

Riddles in the Dark is probably the most famous and well-known piece of Tolkien’s writing. This is primarily due to the great character he introduced here which is wholly unlike anything to come before or after in literary history: Gollum.

What makes the chapter even more fascinating, beyond its own merits as a tale, is the fact that it played a crucial role in the creation of The Hobbit’s sequel, The Lord of the Rings. It is well-known that Tolkien returned to this book, and largely this chapter to revise the tale in line with its successor. However, rather than toss the original form, Tolkien makes of this revision a meta-narrative, folding the revision into the new and more sinister conception of the Ring.

The revision becomes part of Bilbo’s story. The original tale of Gollum’s “gift” is the story Bilbo tells the world, and initially reports in his diary (The Hobbit). The tale most of us are familiar with today, as currently published, is the true tale of the finding of the Ring by chance and the harrowing escape from Gollum.

I received a copy of John D. Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit this past Christmas, so of course I made a beeline for this chapter! Rateliff’s book publishes the earliest surviving manuscripts of Tolkien’s Hobbit. (Though not terribly different from the first edition text, I will be returning to this post to insert that text as well, where different from either edition).  The remarkable fact is that there is very little difference between the first story and the second history.

The wording of the finding of the ring versus the Ring is very interesting:

In the first:

Certainly he did find what felt like a ring of metal lying on the floor in the tunnel. He put it in his pocket; but that didn’t help much.” (THoTH p151 vol. 1)

And in the revised:

“...till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket, almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment.” (TH p81)

Notice the addition of the words “suddenly” and “without thinking.” These two slight changes are actually monumental in their implications. It is said later by Gandalf in the FotR that Bilbo was indeed meant to find the Ring.  His deduction is based on the fact that Bilbo finds the Ring by chance occurrence in the dark. How easy it would have been for his hand to slip past the Ring over the rock! So too the second change is crucial to an understanding of the fact that the Ring left Gollum and chose Bilbo. Here we see, as is much more pronounced in the LotR, the same association of the Ring with seemingly subconscious and automatic action. It may seem a stretch, but the wording is too similar to not imply the same relationship between Ring and bearer.

First, there’s Bilbo’s fire side scene:

“At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.” (LotR 34)

And during Frodo’s scene 17 years later:

“…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.” (TH 59)

It is a very slight resemblance, yes, but it is there none the less, and begs the question if this was the reasoning behind the change in the wording.

One of the things I’ve always wondered at during the “Shadows of the Past” is when Frodo expresses such dismay at Gollum’s ownership of the Ring; surely he knew of this part of the Ring’s history. Yet if we look at the original draft, Gollum, though in some ways a very honorable monster (I’ll get to this later), is quite a bit more monstrous than the final version. This is how he was once described:

“…as dark as darkness except for two big round pale eyes…” with” …pale lamp-like eyes…like telescopes” and “long fingers” (THoTH p155 vol.1 ) and “long webby [feet]” (THoTH p158 vol. 1)

It is obvious from this description, Gollum is quite far from the depraved hobbit he will become. I wonder though, if this description somehow remained in Bilbo’s retelling of the true (revised) tale to Frodo. If so, this would certainly explain Frodo’s disgust upon the discovery that Gollum is indeed a hobbit just like Frodo and Bilbo, and maybe not such a monster after all!

Between the two versions, the riddle game largely remains unchanged, with one exception: the declared reward for the winner. Gollum remains quite enthusiastic about eating Bilbo in either case, but Bilbo’s reward is quite different:

“If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we gives it a present: Gollum.” (THoTH p156 vol. 1)


“If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!” (TH 87)

Unbeknownst to Bilbo, this proposed gift is the very ring he placed in his pocket earlier. The Riddle Game ensues, with the same result, Bilbo wins. How Gollum reacts is quite different in either version of the tale. In the first, Gollum is immediately ready and willing to hand over his present, Bilbo has nothing to worry about.

“For one thing the Gollum had learned long long ago was never to cheat at the riddle game.” (THoTH p 160 vol. 1)

So Gollum paddles off to his island to retrieve the ring, only to find it’s gone. As in the revised tale, he wails and shrieks and scrambles about it distress. However, in this instance it is to be wondered whether this is more due to the fact that he cannot fulfill his promise or due to the loss of the ring. Gollum, very apollogetically, explains the situation to Bilbo and the nature of his present, even so far as describing its powers. The narrator (presumably Bilbo) admits “I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon” (THoTH p160 vol. 1).

Gollum, in this incarnation, is perfectly honorable and nothing like you’d expect of the monster waiting to eat you in the dark. He holds true to his word, and when he cannot, instead of “offering a substitute reward” he is “pathetically eager to make good on his debt” (THoTH p167 vol. 1).  Though monstrous in appearance, and monstrous in appetite, Gollum is still honor bound by the riddle game and its agreed upon reward. It is hard, reading this segment of the original version, to see Gollum as a monster at all.

It is all turned around. Bilbo of course soon realizes what he really has in his pocket.  What does he do? Does he tell Gollum? No, “Finding’s keeping!” (THoTH p 160 vol 1) Not only that, but he guilts Gollum into giving him further reward, saying:

“‘Never mind, the ring would have been mine now if you could have found it, so you haven’t lost it. And I will forgive you on one condition…Help me to get out of these places.” (THoTH p161 vol. 1)

Gollum, now established as the more honorable of the two, docily agrees, and leads Bilbo to the tunnel leading to the back door. Bilbo does experiment with the ring in the tunnel following Gollum, but removes it and puts it back in his pocket after a short test. And so he is spotted by the goblins.

Now to return to the current or true version of the tale.

In the original tale, as in the final, upon winning the riddle contest, Bilbo places his back against the wall with Sting out prepared for devilry on Gollum’s part. In the first case, his worry was completely unfounded. In the second, he was right. Losing the contest, Gollum “[is] angry…and hungry…and he already [has] a plan” (TH 95). He convinces Bilbo he must return to his island to get some items in preparation for the journey out. As in the original, though now unknown to Bilbo, he returns to find the Ring.

Discovering the Ring is gone, Gollum soon jumps to the conclusion that the Ring is the answer to Bilbo’s last “riddle.” He returns in a rage, and Bilbo, now wondering and afraid, feels for the Ring in his pocket and it slips on. Again, as in the finding, this is not a conscious decision. And so Bilbo discovers the nature of his find.

Gollum rushes through the tunnels thinking Bilbo actually knows the way out, and all Bilbo has to do is follow. That is, until Golum reaches the final tunnel and can go no further. Here Bilbo is met with great temptation: to rid the world of this monster. An internal battle ensues:

“He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.” (TH p 102)

All this courses through Bilbo’s mind, and just as quickly he makes his decision and makes his fateful leap to escape. Gandalf will tell Frodo later, when describing this moment:

“It was Pity that stayed his hand…And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.” (LotR 58)

And so, with a few simple changes, Tolkien, or should I say Bilbo, has set the stage for the first eucatastrophic moment of the Lord of the Rings, established Bilbo as the more honorable character and primed Gollum for all his future deeds.

Let’s return to the final moments of the chapter in the “true” version. Bilbo leaps over Gollum and rushes up the tunnel to the goblin guard chamber before the back door, all while still wearing the Ring. Or so he thinks. Reaching the chamber, he is shocked to find the goblins can see him.

“Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, it was not on his finger.” (TH 104)

As many of the other revisions, this one is quite small. Like the others, however, it bears great weight. This contrary aspect of the Ring: it’s apparent ability to change size and weight is of great import in the larger legendarium. This trait alone causes the death of Isildur and leads to Gollum finding the Ring, and much later allows the Ring to leave Gollum for Bilbo. It is a defining moment in the transition of the ring to the Ring, the one Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

The comparison of the two texts is eye opening. Yes, some of the “tale” is related in the “history” in both The Hobbit’s current edition and in the Lord of the Rings, but it is really worth reading in full. What is really amazing is how well the meta-narrative ends up working. It follows the “truism” that the best lies are made of the most truth. Extremely little of the structure or sequence of events is changed. Really the only overt change is the addition of Bilbo’s great leap and his great decision which immediately precedes it.

This parity only lends further credence to the notion of the cover up by Bilbo. Also the nature of Gollum, and Bilbo’s logic in keeping the ring in the original lends itself well towards building up Bilbo as the burglaring type, at the same time as it should (and does) cause suspision. It is a rather weak tale, when the “monster” ends up more sympathetic than the hero. Tolkien painstakingly made these revisions, I’m sure, and I can only say I am thankful and amazed at his brilliant sollution: not to reject the original, but to explain its origin as a part of the fabric of the new tale that he was documenting in the LotR.

Reading The Hobbit: An Unexpected Party or An Invitation to Faerie

Reading the first chapter of Tolkien’s The Hobbit can sometimes seem a chore. It is the reader’s first introduction to hobbits, the Shire, Bilbo and Gandalf, and an enormous cast of characters; of dwarves and far off lands and adventure to come. It can be positively mind-boggling at times. We land, just like Bilbo, directly in the thick of things. And like Bilbo, we can be forgiven for wanting to sneak away or shriek “struck by lightning!” Yet like this simple hobbit, we are inexplicably drawn on.

You see, the Unexpected Party is much more than cause for sensory overload. It is our, meaning Bilbo’s and the reader’s, invitation to wander in the lands of Faerie.

Through his mother, Bilbo is grandson of the Old Took. And it is explicitly stated that there is something odd about the Tooks; “that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife” (TH 5). They inclined to be absurd and go off on adventures, to find and experience the unknown.

Yet Bilbo is a Baggins and if ever there was a stick-in-the-mud, stolid, home-body type it is literally defined by the Baggins clan.

Bilbo is firmly placed between these two extremes: the love home and the known and the enflaming desire to see beyond. His Tookish aspect is just buried, and only needs a little prodding to be awoken:

Far over the misty mountains grim

To dungeons deep and caverns dim

We must away, ere break of day,

To win our harps and gold from him!

The Hobbit, 19

Upon hearing the dwarves’ song, “something Tookish woke inside [Bilbo], and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick” and so do we (TH 19).

Myth and legend, song and tale kindle in a us a desire for the unknown, the fantastical, the wondrous things and events just beyond our sight. It is soon quashed by fear, as seen in Bilbo’s case, but once planted, is not easily uprooted.

Though terrified out of wits, it doesn’t take much to get Bilbo back in the Tookish frame of mind. His curiosity has been awoken. The thrill of fear and his own apparent weaknesses do little more than increase the desire in his heart to prove both the dwarves and even himself wrong.

We have stepped to the threshold of Faerie. The Shire is home. It is the world, largely as we see it. And like Bilbo, at first we are unaware that somewhere beyond our sight, in that very same world, there are dragons.

It may be wondered, why Bilbo? Why are we invited to follow?

Gandalf tried to find a Warrior or a Hero; “but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found. Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). That is why I settled for burglary-especially when I remembered the existence of the Side-door. And here is our little Bilbo Baggins, the burglar, the chosen and selected burglar. (TH 27, my emphasis)

Heroes, warriors, dragons…they are all things far away, and, as Gandalf states, therefore myth. They are outside the Shire, outside our understanding of the world; dangerous and fascinating…alluring in their otherness.

It is the same sense of other, of magic, wonder and fear that we feel when contemplating travel to Rome or Paris or Moscow. They excite our passion for the unknown and awaken the imagination to create marvels larger even than later reality would prove. Here we stand at the gates of Faerie, where even those spectacles remain true. Like Bilbo, we have only to take the next step.



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.

In Review: Languages, Myths And History

Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction by Elizabeth Solopova is a fascinating little book and a quick read (a rare and sometimes welcome occurrence for me).  However, it is exactly what it is stated to be, an introduction.  At little more than eighty pages, it is barely able to scratch the surface of the topic of Tolkien’s linguistic and mythical sources of inspiration.  The other potential problem I found is that it appears to be written under the assumption that the reader already is greatly familiar with Tolkien’s education, life and work in the subject.  This did not cause any problems for me, but would be an issue for someone newer to Tolkien scholarship/analysis outside his own writings.

Solopova introduces the topic with a discussion largely pulled from ‘On Faerie Stories,’ ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,’ and ‘A Secret Vice,’ all off which reveal the great importance language and myth and their symbiotic relationship had in Tolkien’s professional and literary work.  The book is an overview of both the languages and myths that Tolkien would have been familiar with, as well as works he studied and possibly drew from.  Languages include: Old Norse, Old English, Finnish and Gothic.

Overall the book is a solid introduction, and makes me eager to get my hands on a copy of Solopova and Stuart Lee’s book The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of JRR Tolkien.

As I have been discussing the nature of language, myth, and names quite a bit lately, Solopova’s sub-chapter on Stories and Names, in the Old Norse chapter, particularly struck me.  Both in Old Norse sagas, and subsequently Tolkien’s works, there are a proliferation of names are used, which do not always serve any practical purpose.

“[The] use of place names in sagas reflects their borderline position between fiction, which involves conscious invention and the use of names as a literary device, and a historical narrative.” (Solopova 22)

Both in Old Norse and Old English literature, elements of real historical places and people were mentioned or listed, giving the piece(s) a sense of a true history and scope.  This is why there is some confusion, as stated by Tolkien in his lecture “Beowulf,” about how to approach these works.  They are not quite fiction, and not quite historical chronicle.  They are somewhere in between.

This layering of information, even if not evidently part of the plot, is what helps to lend depth to these tales.  It is a method Tolkien would use often in LotR, in a system Tom Shippey calls “interlacement.”  Brief mentions of tales from the Silmarillion, or cities on the map of Middle Earth, all help build a concrete conception of Middle-Earth.  It becomes a living breathing place, set in a deep and rich history.

Solopova makes another observation of note with regards to the nature of names.  They can be considered their own “lexical group.” (Solopova 22)  Names today have little meaning in everyday use, but at one point they were carefully crafted and quite descriptive of the named person, object or place.  Take for example the common surnames linked with professions such as Cooper or names based on patrimony as in Johnson.  Very little of this quality of names remains in today’s culture.

Tolkien developed his names with great care, following this archaic pattern, and creating his own “language of names” so to speak.  Solopova lists a few:

“River Running, Mysty Mountains…Legolas (‘Green Leaves’ in Sinadarin), Théoden (‘Lord’ in Old English)…Aragorn (‘Royal Tree’)…also known as Elessar (‘Elfstone), Strider, Isildur’s Heir, Longshanks and Wing-foot.” (Solopova 21)

Another possible reason for naming also drawn from Old Norse is the poetic list of names known as a ‘thulur,’ which may have had “a mnemonic function, helping poets and audiences to remember” the tales associated with them. (Solopova 23)  Again, this lends itself to the argument of interlacement.  However, in some cases it is believed the name listing is nothing more than a poetic device, as in the example Solopova gives in Widsith.

I think ultimately the argument could go either way for Tolkien’s works.  The names of the primary characters serve a secondary purpose.  To borrow from opera terminology, they function as a sort of leitmotiv, layering further information unseen or untold.  Yet at the same time, they also function as an aesthetic device: an “art-lang” of a different form by which Tolkien can create a phonetic aesthetic for Middle-Earth.

All in all, Languages, Myths and History makes for a quick and stimulating read, with plenty of ideas and source material to whet your appetite for such things.  The main criticism I have is that it is solely an introduction, so that most of the arguments are only named and not fully developed.  I guess that just means I’ll have to go find her other book!