A bit of poetry…

I have always found the character of Ulmo fascinating, particularly as a contrary perspective to the other Valar. Therefore, when the Grey Havens Group threw down the poetry gauntlet, Ulmo’s side of the story became my primary focus. After becoming familiar with the rhyme scheme and structure of Tolkien’s “Light is Leaf of Lindentree,” I thought I’d try my hand at something similar. I figured I’d share in case there might be some merit in what I’ve produced; and perhaps I will return to its composition in the future.

Ulmo gazed in frozen wonder
on vision below of songs made
in turbulent roll of thunder,
on seas of harmonies heaving,
a wild concert of hymns which swayed
heart of him whose spell fell under,
the mighty ainu whose voice shall wade
in deeps and heights of song weaving.

But down among the waves new-formed
fire and smoke rose, in swift reply,
as in a tortured dance performed
destructive alchemy seeming.
And dark cold sunk to ossify
a spray of foam up lept deformed.
Harsh crystal and cruel steam awry
anguish bought and tears new-streaming.

Simmering seas and frozen swells,
heats and colds unmindful broken,
in violence none may dispel,
brought Ulmo swiftly angering.
Unseeing eyes in rage woken
sought Melkor, whose singing like spell
had shattered harmonies woven
with discord crassly battering.

But quick Eru was to halt him
and prompt the marvel to reveal,
“See Melkor hast not made ruin grim
but snows and clouds and rains shining,
of envious desire a new ideal
that to my glory greater hymn
might raise the Ainur as they kneel
and fill my Theme with joy twining.”

“See how the fire’s rage brightly sears
yet thy song’s pure form remains true.
In twisted curls the tune appears
up to thy brother embracing,
and with his breath of winds make dew
to fall in gentle wave of tears
where two unite and powers brew
new friendship beyond replacing.”

“Know now thy brother Manwe best
through Melkor’s might and challenge bought,
from storm, and tide, and brief tempest,
new works beyond compare springing.
In biting cold rimed flake is wrought
to fly the airs and find its rest
on shore or branch or ice is caught
the delicate limpet clinging.”

Of Evil and Lust

‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ is arguably the central story of Tolkien’s entire Legendarium. All tales lead to and stem from the pivotal events described. As such, the tale is uniquely suited for closer study, as a microcosm of sorts of the entire history of Arda.

At the last meeting of the Grey Havens Group we discussed this most beautiful and most powerful of Tolkien’s works. Badgaladriel commented at one point that the unsurpassed beauty of Lúthien is difficult to even begin to imagine. Like Helen of Troy, it is a superlative quality which is impossible to qualify. However, in both cases, initially, we were only contemplating external, visual beauty and one member posited that Lúthien’s beauty may be of the flesh, but is also, and perhaps predominantly, a beauty of the spirit.

Lúthien is the most beautiful in the history of Middle-earth not just in appearance, but in substance, and in spirit.

She is the only scion of the pairing of Maiar and Eldar. Not only that, but Thingol is of the eldest, first generation of the Eldar, and one of the three emissaries to see the Trees of Valinor. In her the great and wise are combined. As a maiar, Melian stands among the most powerful beings of Arda, only surpassed by the Valar themselves. The persistent strength of the Girdle is a great testament to her power, only destroyed when she leaves her bodily form in grief following the death of Thingol.

This is Tolkien’s greatest story of love. Lúthien, and all her actions, is defined by it. In some sense, she is suffused by it in a loveliness which is love.

Morgoth lusts for this beauty: of light and love.

The Roman Catholic Catechism describes both greed and lust in similar terms. In both cases, describing the ninth and tenth Commandments, the Catechism refers to the ‘three kinds of covetousness…lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life’ (CCC 2514). The desires in and of themselves are good and natural, but often become unreasoning, leading one to ‘covet what is not ours’ (CCC 2535). Also, in both cases these desires are driven by what St. Augustine calls ‘the diabolical sin,’ which is envy. Envy ‘refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly’ (CCC 2529). The Catechism continues, stating that envy is also a ‘refusal of charity’ and an expression of pride (CCC 2540).

Understanding Lust, Greed, and Envy in this light is important to an understanding of evil in Tolkien’s work, and Morgoth in particular.

Morgoth’s rebellion begins in the very first moments of creation at the singing of the Ainur. Though the greatest of the Valar, and the brother of Manwë, he ‘[envies] the gifts with which Ilúvatar promised to endow” his children, wishing ‘to be called Lord,’ with mastery over them (S 18 &28). Seeing the fire of life kindled in Arda, the other Ainur’s ‘hearts [rejoice] in the light…[and are] filled with gladness’ (S 19). Melkor’s is not. Instead he envies the unique gifts and status given to the Children of Ilúvatar, as well as those unique skills and powers granted the other Valar entering Arda.

Entering the world, the Valar take on earthly forms, ‘lovely and glorious to see,’ filling Melkor with further jealousy. This envy, which consumes him, and his pride of place twist him into a ‘form…dark and terrible,’ falling ‘from splendor…through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless’ (S21 & 31). It would appear, therefore, that Melkor’s envious nature poisons his own power, making him incapable of taking on like form. He is filled by insatiable lust for power, for status and for beauty. First of all things he desires ‘Light, but when he [cannot] possess it for himself along, he [descends] through fire and wrath…into Darkness’ (S 31). Morgoth longs for the primordial physical Light, not just a desire for possession in some part, but for possession entire to the exclusion of all others. Presumably, as Light is intrinsically tied up in the genesis of Life (see the burgeoning growth in Middle-earth following the rise of the sun), in his quest to supplant Ilúvatar, Light holds to the key to the domination he desires. And so, all the wars of the First Age, and even those which follow, are defined by the contested ownership of Light, which may be seen as the sacred relic in Middle-earth’s crusades.

Upon their creation, Melkor immediately ‘[lusts] for the Silmarils, and the very memory of their radiance [is] a gnawing fire in his heart,’ causing him both joy (as far as he is able) and tremendous pain (S 66). Ungoliant too, twisted and strengthened by Melkor’s might, ‘[hungers]…for the light and hated it,’ gorging herself in an attempt to feed the ‘emptiness’ inside (S 73). This emptiness is intriguing. It implies the absence of something which was there before. This emptiness is the light of goodness, of life, of charity which is present upon the creation of the Ainur, but is somehow lost in Melkor’s rebellion during the Music. In Tolkien, evil is fallen. Fallen from goodness, or twisted. The hunger and unending emptiness is the sense of that loss within them; and the destructive lust and envy its direct byproduct.

This lust for light, beauty and sanctity, even in the face of searing and everlasting pain, defines evil in Tolkien, though in later years it becomes a lust for their destruction.

When Beren and Lúthien come to the gates of Thangorodrim, they are confronted by Carcharoth, a great beast of terror, fed by the hand of Morgoth with ‘living flesh’ (S 180). In a moment akin to Glorfindel at the flight to the ford, Lúthien is revealed in all her power, ‘radiant and terrible’ (S 180). Again reveale, before the seat of Morgoth, her beauty is the object of ‘evil lust’ (S 180). Morgoth is entranced by her beauty, in some ways like any man would be, but also by the thoughts of evils which might be perpetrated through possession of her. Escaping with the Silmaril, Beren and Lúthien again confront Carcharoth. Beren thrusts the gem at the beast, but rather than quail in its holy light, as does Shelob, he ‘[is] not daunted, and the devouring spirit within him [awakes] to sudden fire,’ driving him to consume the jewel (S 181).

The utter possession of beauty and purity desired by these exemplars (Morgoth and Carcharoth) is a striking aspect of this tale. Unexpectedly, evil hungers for good, for beauty, for purity and for love. True, their desire is unreasoning and without self-control, but remains the excessive expression of a natural impulse.

Might Morgoth desire his own redemption? Might all evil things? Yet looking back at the nature of envy, he must first die to self, eliminate pride and accept charity.

The Nature of Morgoth

This week for the Grey Havens Group meeting we were reading ‘Of the Ruin of Beleriand.’ Little did I know I was uniquely primed for this chapter to more deeply contemplate the nature of Morgoth, the fallen Valar.

I recently completed and reviewed Stant Litore’s No Lasting Burial. I have also been indulging a guilty pleasure of mine, re-watching Xena: Warrior Princess from its start. Neither was on my mind while reading, but the ideas they espouse brought aspects of the tale of ‘The Fall of Fingolfin’ to the fore as never before.

On a lark, I posted to the GHG facebook page, asking “What does Xena have to do with Morgoth?” and later “the Gift of Men and the Gift of Elves, leprosy and zombies” in order to stir up some interest. It proved to be an entertaining experiment, though I will never get the image of Morgoth in Xena’s armor out of my head. Thanks, Stant Litore!

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the Xena episode ‘Death in Chains,’ which is a retelling of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In usual Xena fashion, it is no simple mash-up, blending many myths across many cultures.  In the episode, Sisyphus chains Celesta or Death, thereby preventing not only his own passing, but all deaths. Interestingly, however, suffering remains. As in the earlier episode “Prometheus,” humanity loses its ability to heal. Death is not something to be feared, but may be a release, a comfort.

Curious, I did a little research to see how accurate this portrayal is to Greek mythology.

The story of the chaining of ‘death’ is central to the mythology of Sisyphus, being one of the primary reasons for his unique punishment. Celesta is an invented goddess, basically substituting for Thanatos, Hades or Hermes depending on the myth. The twin brothers, Thanatos and Hypnos (Death and Sleep), like the Norse Valkyries, bore the dead down to Hades. The episode also pulls in elements of the keres, death spirits and daughters of Nix, whose touch sends the fallen warrior’s soul to Hades, as described in Hesiod’s Shield of Heracles. Whether it is Hades or Thanatos, the god of death is tricked into the chains meant for Sisyphus. And in one version, where Hades is captured, no one can die, those ill from wound, age or sickness suffer with no relief.

I am no expert on Classical mythology, and do not intend to prove anything about Tolkien’s sources or influences. Instead, I want to establish my frame reference. When I read Tolkien, I attempt to interpret Tolkien from within Tolkien using Tolkien, though applicability always opens new vistas.

The tale of the “Fall of Fingolfin” is unique in all the tales of the Legendarium in that it marks the only time Morgoth answered the challenge of the Eldar. It is also an interesting commentary on the nature of Morgoth, particularly as he relates to his fellow Valar, the Eldar and Men. Much like Sauron’s relationship to the Ring, Morgoth’s works in Middle-earth diminish and “[disperse]” his power, making him “ever more bound to the earth” (S 101). This marks the paradoxical condition in which Morgoth is both “greatest of all things in this world” and “alone of the Valar [knowing] fear” (S 153). These two brief statements are radical in their implications.

From the beginning, Melkor is “mightiest among” the Valar; foremost in power, and cunning (S17). Yet in his quest for dominion, there is a major tectonic shift, which is only hinted at up to this moment. The Valar are made by Ilúvatar, they are creatures of the Void, from without. However, in their choice to descend to the world, their power is “contained and bounded in the World, to be within it forever…so they are its life and it is theirs” (S 20). Paradoxically, the Valar are both of the World, being confined in it, and outside of the World. In part, therefore, they are akin to the Eldar, who “cannot escape and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs” (S 265). On the other hand, having their origins outside the world, they are also akin to Men, who die not as punishment, but are allowed to “escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness” (S 265). The Valar, though bound to Arda, are intimately aware of the Void without, though they may not return until the ultimate end.

Returning to the description of Morgoth, given as he comes to answer Fingolfin’s challenge, it is critical to pay minute attention to Tolkien’s choice of words. Notice he says “greatest of all things in this world,” seemingly indicating in power Morgoth may not be judged among the Valar. However, turning the initial quote on its head, he “alone of the Valar” knows fear. These simple word choices demonstrate a great shift; Morgoth is become of the world, in a manner which negates his nature outside the world, thereby taking on traits from the world.

During the battle between Morgoth and Fingolfin, Morgoth is wounded seven times and finally pierced an additional time in the foot before Fingolfin’s death. Coming to preserve Fingolfin’s body from defilement, Thorondor mars Morgoth’s face. These actions in themselves are amazing, but the truly astounding part follows. After the battle, Morgoth is maimed. Not only is he maimed but “the pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed” (S 154). This single phrase shatters everything I ever thought of Morgoth.

“[T]he pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed.”

Think about that. Here is Morgoth, once mightiest of the Valar, wounded, in pain, suffering, with no remedy.

Ever.

There is no mention of hurt or harm ever coming to the Valar or Maiar, or at least any which may not be undone. Melkor has fallen so far it may be argued he may no longer be counted among their number. He has taken on the cares of the world, its fears and pains, with neither the release of the Gift of Men or the death and rebirth in Mandos of the Gift of the Eldar. He is trapped in a state in between.

For him, and presumably all the Valar, there is no death. Yet having invested himself so much in the world as to make himself of the world, he takes on the suffering of death and sickness without the comfort of final release, whether through death or through healing.

In his unsurpassed hunger for works both sacred and beautiful, out of jealousy and a yearning for dominance and the abasement of others that entails, Morgoth may be easily compared to the undead, to zombies. His is an unreasoning and unquenchable hunger, a sharp pain, which though never assuaged is somehow satisfied in the torture and destruction of others. But the wounds, and the pain, remain.

I am reminded of the Biblical treatment of leprosy, in which any ailment of the skin or flesh is proclaimed unclean. Stant Litore takes that to the ultimate extreme, with the unclean dead, but reading No Lasting Burial and Yeshua’s treatment of the hungry dead did remind me of something.

In Biblical times, any ailment was seen as a mark of sin, whether originating in the afflicted or their ancestors. In almost every miraculous healing, Jesus does not just heal the body, he first and foremost heals the soul. This is most poignantly shown during the healing of the paralytic in Luke, where Jesus first forgives the sins of the afflicted man, then, hearing those arrayed against him, commands him to “rise, take up your bed and go home” (Luke 5:24). In this, we are meant to see the more important wound, not that of the flesh, but that of the spirit.

Morgoth’s marred state is curious, and sets him apart. Though one of the Valar, and still mighty among the creatures of the earth, he is wounded and incapable of release. This state makes his fall from grace physical. Nowhere else is there any indication of pain, suffering, deformity or woundedness among the Valar. It radically changes the frame of reference by which Morgoth is to be judged.

Did anyone call an Eagle?

There has been much debate over the years about Tolkien’s use of the Eagles in his works. The common argument is that the Eagles are nothing more than Deus ex machina, apparent evidence that Tolkien wrote himself into a corner. The Eagles are seen as a crutch, a tool or even to take it to its extreme, a taxi.

It is little wonder that these arguments are so common, given the Eagles’ proclivity for showing up at just the right moment to save the day. Given their utility, their abuse has been rampant even from the earliest days, where the Zimmerman story-line has “people gallop about on Eagles at the least provocation” (Letter 201). Tolkien states that “the Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine’…[which he uses] sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness” (Letters 210). The trend humorously continues in the ‘How it should have ended’ spoofs for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The topic is also briefly aired in the latest Grey Havens Group Podcast.

Tolkien refers to the Eagles as a device in his letters about the Zimmerman adaptation, stating that overuse “[stales] the device of the Eagles when at last they are really needed” (Letter 210). This manner of referring to the Eagles continues in many of Tolkien’s letters referring to the story-line, but I don’t think it refers to the Eagles as written in his full Legendarium.

From the beginning, the Eagles are a race apart. They are not precisely beast. They are not really among the Children of Ilúvatar. The hawks and eagles are the special servants of Manwë, a status established in the Book of Lost Tales, where “Sorontur King of Eagles [is given] much might and wisdom” by the chief Vala of Middle-earth (TBoLT I 74). Sorontur often acts as both watcher and messenger of Manwë and the Valar, even bringing their pronouncement of Doom to Melko after the theft of the Silmarils and murder of Fëanor’s father (TBoLT I 166 & 197).

The close relationship between the Eagles and the Valar is tightened significantly in the Valaquenta. Following Aulë’s creation of the dwarves and Yavanna’s reaction, Manwë is troubled and seeks the wisdom of Ilúvatar, which comes to him as a replaying of the great Song of creation. He receives knowledge, not only of the creation of the Ents, but also that of the Eagles, saying:

“But dost thou not now remember, Kementári, that thy thought sang not always alone? Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds? That also shall come to be by the heed of Ilúvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.” (Sil. 46)

Like the dwarves and the ents, the Eagles are adopted children of Ilúvatar; born from the hearts and minds of Manwë and Yavanna, but given life and being by Eru. Yet, unlike the other adopted races, the Eagles remain closely tied to the Valar, particularly during the First and Second Age.

Their role as guardians and saviors has its roots in the Tale of the Fall of Gondolin, where their bravery helps the fleeing Noldoli escape along the Eagles’ Cleft through the Crissaegrim following the rape of the city (TBolT II 194). The reason for the unceasing enmity between the creatures of Morgoth, Morgoth himself and the Eagles is briefly described in the Tales. Morgoth and his forces capture Eagles, chain them and torture them in an attempt to gain the power of flight; even killing those who would not respond for their wings to make his own (TBoLT II 193-4). Other than Varda and Manwë, none of the Valar can reach the upper airs; in torturing the Eagles, Morgoth hopes to gain that edge as well.

Other than the single quote above regarding the creation of the Eagles from The Silmarillion, all the development of the eagles noted has been from before the composition of the Hobbit or LotR. Tolkien’s tale of a hobbit and company of dwarves meanders in and out of the perilous realm he explores in the Tales. The Eagles are, in a small sense, another example of this.

Though the Eagles of The Hobbit are significantly more savage than the storied messengers of Manwë, they are yet an “ancient race…the greatest of all birds…proud and strong and noble-hearted” (TH 121). They are clearly sentient beings, with their own culture and hierarchy. They are creatures of the air, who, when they deign to look to the ground, drive away the goblins. Gandalf knows the Lord of the Eagles, having aided him before and converses at length with him. As an Istari, a messenger of the Valar himself, this is only fitting (UT 406). The Lord of the Eagles refuses to take the Company further than Carrock, as they cannot come too close to the dwellings of men for fear “they would shoot at [them]…[thinking the Eagles are] after their sheep” (TH 129). Curiously, in The Hobbit at least, all the company may hear and understand the Eagles, proving they are much more than beasts.

Two things must be remembered when viewing the Eagles, especially as seen in The Hobbit. Firstly, this is a children’s story, whose episodic nature may be explained by stories told before bed. Secondly and similarly, though some foreshadowing or introduction of the concept of the Eagles may have increased their plausibility, it would have ruined the surprise. The Hobbit is meant to be Bilbo’s diary of his adventures, though possibly translated multiple times over as part of the Red Book (LotR 14). The Company is saved when all hope is lost. They themselves are surprised by the Eagles’ coming. Bilbo being a storyteller himself would presumably not want to ruin the surprise for the reader.

As Bilbo’s own epistolary account, much of the capricious nature of the text fits into place. It is more akin to the Norse Eddas or the Homeric epics than the nursery rhyme. Tolkien may have written and read along to his children or even spun tales to refine and write later; ultimately that truth of its composition is immaterial. Whether there is evidence to support an oral tradition for The Hobbit or not, the use of the Narrator naturally makes it so. The book works beautifully read aloud, so even if it was not composed that way, with the inclusion of the Narrator it is probable it was refined that way; or minimally is a monument to Tolkien’s supreme word-craft.The way the tale is framed not only corroborates Tolkien’s literary conceits of adventure log, but through the insertion of the narrator may also denote later insertions either by Bilbo or Frodo, or even by the scribes of Gondor who would later transcribe the Red Book.

Viewing The Hobbit from the oral and epic tradition is therefore quite fitting. The episodic nature, the seemingly sudden and swift mentions of peoples, places and events are all derived to some degree from this literary mode. As described in Elizabeth Solopova’s introductory book Languages, Myths and History, “[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) This creates a level of ambiguity in the tale, blurring the lines between myth and history.

If the Eagles are solely a vehicle by which to fly away to safety or to save the protagonists in a pinch, no further information besides their simple existence is needed. Instead, the reader is given a glimpse of their thought, their life and their society. Like Tom Bombadil, the Eagles are an example of other, showing more of the fullness of the world (Letter 153). By showing seemingly extraneous characters, races, places and histories which may or may not bear on future events in the tale, Tolkien sends roots deep into the soil of Middle-earth. The Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, Old Man Willow, the Barrow Downs, Beorn, Goblin Town, Treebeard, Ithilien, the Dead Marshes…the list is endless. All increase the level of authenticity and reality of Middle-earth, grounding the tales as found or discovered rather than invented.

The Eagles function in much the same manner. If they are viewed as more than a mere taxi, much of their doings begins to make sense.

The Eagles live in the Misty Mountains, which at the time of The Hobbit is infested with goblins. The goblins and wargs often raid the dwellings of men, destroying their livelihood and taking many as slaves (TH 118).  A large massing of the goblins and wargs would certainly concern the Eagles, as this would threaten their own food supply (TH 129). To attack protects their eyries, as well as giving sport given their presumed hatred of the goblins. Taking the Eagles seriously in this manner, as a race apart, with their own needs and motivations, makes the scenario plausible.

In the Battle of Five Armies, the Eagles are the last to arrive. Why do they come only to save the day? Though pure conjecture, there are a number of reasons which stem directly from what little description Tolkien gives. Again, as a told story, supposedly from Bilbo’s point of view, the need for surprise, for eucatastrophe is evident. But if the Eagles are taken seriously, a couple plausible conclusions may be made. Just like the goblin armies, the Eagles need to travel from the Misty Mountains to Erebor. Presumably, the Eagles watch the army form and follow, whether immediately or after perceiving the true threat. It is also possible the Eagles harry the host along the way, though this seems unlikely as then the goblin host would have foreseen their attack from the air.

The Eagles may also be observing the battle from on high, fulfilling their ancient role as the watchers and messengers of Manwë. In The Hobbit, at least, this appears unlikely. Given their proud nature and their evident curiosity, it seems more likely the Eagles are observing to see which way the tide will turn, to give aid where the aid will do the most good, and also yield the most honor and possible reward.

The Eagles appear again in The Lord of the Rings, where they are most often seen aiding the Wise. When Gandalf is tricked into coming to Isengard, He tells Radagast to inform his beast and avian friends to watch and bring news to him and Saruman at Orthanc (LotR 251). This is how Gwaihir the Windlord comes to Orthanc and rescues Gandalf, fulfilling the ancient Valar-given role of his race as watcher and messenger.  Again, after the battle with the Balrog, at the “command of the Lady Galadriel,” Gwaihir finds and saves Gandalf. The two are also seen high over Rohan by the three companions (LotR 493).

These two examples show a much closer relationship between the Istari, Galadriel and the Eagles. There are clear ties of friendship and alliance shown. Through the lens of these clues, therefore, the Eagles’ appearance at the Black Gate may be interpreted.

First of all, by reviewing the Tale of Years in Appendix B, three attacks on Lórien occur concurrently with the battle at the Black Gate (LotR 169). Though no mention of the Eagles is made in the brief description of these battles, it seems likely they may have played a part. After all, why would the Eagles fly away from the near battle to reach the far? It is possible Galadriel, sensing the final thrust of Sauron’s might, sent the Eagles to the aid of the Armies of the West, even knowing the sacrifice in her own people’s blood that would entail.

As to assertions the Eagles may have flown the company to Mordor and thereby completed the quest simply and easily, the conception of the Eagles as beings in their own right refutes this claim. Even with the great ties of friendship between the Eagles and Gandalf there is little likelihood the Eagles would leave their homes on a hopeless venture where they would be completely exposed, particularly to the flying Nazgul. If they are taken seriously, on par with the Elves and the Men and the Ents, the same theme is there, just unspoken: why fight for the good of others; with the eventual response that only in fighting as one may evil be vanquished.

All of this is, of course, purely conjectural. Though guesswork, however, it is all drawn from the Eagles as depicted. These are the sorts of conclusions which may be drawn when they are taken seriously, as sentient beings, as a race, and not a taxi, not simply Deus ex machina.

How, then, do Peter Jackson’s Eagles compare?

In the original film trilogy, Gwaihir is called to Gandalf by a moth. This is a necessary evil given the deletion of Radagast from the plot. They actually play no role at all in the battle at the Black Gate, only appearing afterwards to save Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom. In An Unexpected Journey, Gandalf again calls for them via a moth. They do not speak, they appear nothing more than giant birds. They have been demoted to beasts of burden, the taxi service of Middle-earth, who come when called. The proud and ancient race is gone. There is no sight of the great friendship between Gandalf and Gwaihir, even if corrupted to the sort shown between Gandalf and Shadowfax. All of this is absent, and with it any hope of making the Eagles anything more than a device. If any Eagles are Deus ex machina, they are Jackson’s, not Tolkien’s.

Bracing for “The Desolation of Smaug”

It’s that time of year again. I, and many other fans, await not-so-patiently the release of the next Hobbit movie. Depending on your tickets, we have minimally four long days to slog through. So what should we do to prepare?

This summer, a fellow Grey Havener, Katy, posted an insightful piece regarding the nature of the Tolkien fandom: Battle of the Mavens. To divide ourselves so neatly, while expeditious, does a disservice however. Not all of us are pure CM’s or MM’s; most fans of Tolkien’s work (whether as originally presented or through the eyes of the filmmaker) are lodged somewhere between the two extremes, and some even flow back and forth along the scale.

Now, if for some reason you have not picked up on this yet, I am somewhat more of a “Canon Maven.” I hold Tolkien’s original works in the highest esteem, and often find the changes that have been made to the source material cringe-worthy. That being said I still have enjoyed Peter Jackson’s films (though at times it’s a struggle), and fully intend to attempt to do the same for DoS.

The “Movie Maven,” those who love the films, has it easy. They can sit down the next few nights and treat themselves to a full (or extended) theatrical marathon and get hyped up that way.

So for the rest of us, cleaving to the books, between, and somehow appreciative of both the written and filmed, here are some recommendations I will be using to gear up for the film event of the year:

Read, or better yet reread, The Hobbit. Personally, I would not recommend this option for the purely Canon Maven at heart, it will only make it that much more difficult to enjoy the movie. It’s better to let the details be a bit fuzzy on the first viewing, allowing the Canon Maven to easily skate over the minor to moderate changes with ease. This will not ease the burden of mangled cherished scenes, new additions or gross misinterpretations, but it can help. I will save rereading for the second or third viewing, when I will be viewing with a more critical eye.

The one exception I might make to this moratorium would be to read “Inside Information,” particularly the riddle game between Smaug and Bilbo. If the Riddles in the Dark sequence of AUJ is an accurate judge, this scene will be truly stupendous. I for one would like to pick up on all the nuances; as this looks to be the crowning scene of the upcoming film.

Get a better understanding of the meaning of adaptation and interpretation and reset your expectations. This helped me immensely last year to enjoy AUJ. I will be rereading this post by the Tolkienist, and if you struggle to pry off that analytical hat, I recommend you do the same:

Why the film purists and the book purists will never understand each other on how not to appreciate Peter Jackson’s work.

Here are my thoughts on the matter, upon successfully enjoying AUJ:

The Hobbit: AUJ Third Time’s a Charm

Avoid reviews and spoilers. I’ve already broken this suggestion, but I would recommend limiting your exposure to reviews and possible spoilers as much as possible. While general statements to the quality or enjoyment of the film are good and heighten anticipation, anything more leads to speculation and built-in bias. I have enough to be wary about, I don’t need more. That being said, the TORN.net review does a fair job getting me excited, while largely skirting the issues of controversy. The level of divergence is concerning. However, there may be an upside there. Unlike An Unexpected Journey, which at times closely matched my imagination only to veer off course, making for a jarring ride, the scale of this divergence (as described) may make it easier to separate myself from the source material and see this for what it is: a Hobbit inspired film rather than The Hobbit.

Two things I know for sure: Howard Shore’s music will still awe me, and the visuals should stun as well.

So here I am, with many of you, counting down the days; the days to what hopes to be an amazing film. And, without fail, sure to be fodder for future discussion.

Of Darkness and Light: A Tale of Two Streams

Days grow shorter and the Night longer. Darkness clouds the earth, trees are bare, and the wind bites with cruel cold. Yet the light of Hope is kindled today with the First Sunday of Advent. Today we begin to look with hope to Christmas, when true Light was made incarnate.

In the Bible and the liturgy we hear of the Light of Faith, and sometimes refer to Christ as the Light which will illumine the earth. In the burning bush, we see an incarnation of God, a flame of holy light which does not consume. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends as tongues of flame, enflaming hearts and minds to the work of God. The idea of light as a physical and sacred object is nothing new, inspiring many religions based solely on worship of the sun. For ages, fire was even considered one of five elements. This desire for and love of light is ingrained in what it means to be human, otherwise why would so many suffer from SADD?

It is little wonder, therefore, that Tolkien takes the logical mythical step of making of light a workable raw material. He also describes light in reverent ways, as a sacred gift created and given by Ilúvatar, who in the moment of Creation “[sends] forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable…[to be]…the heart of the World” (S 20). However, the point is more explicitly made in Tolkien’s early drafts, where  Ilúvatar adds only “the fire that giveth Life and Reality…the secret fire [which burns] at the heart of the world” (TBoLT 53). This account echoes the descriptions of the Holy Spirit found in Acts (2:3-4), Isaiah  (4:4), Matthew (3:11-12), Luke 3:16-17 and the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (5:19). In Acts, the Holy Spirit is also often referred to as a gift from God.

It can be argued (and has been) endlessly whether Tolkien’s Flame Imperishable (and by extension light) is the equivalent of the Holy Spirit, and what his intent may have been. I think here it is critical to remember Tolkien’s espousal of the theory of applicability. The symbolism speaks to the reader from their station in life, suggesting meanings from their own deepest held beliefs and desires. Ultimately, it may be definitively stated though, that in Tolkien’s legendarium, light is a material and somewhat sacred in nature; notions implicit in the final drafts, yet beautifully explicit in the early tales.

Evil, in Tolkien’s world, is most often associated with darkness or shadow. Sauron is often referred to rather vaguely as the “Shadow” or the “Shadow in the East.” How fitting a description this is, when light is viewed as a sacred element and the embodiment of goodness! A shadow is produced by obstructing or blocking a source of light. The shadow itself is nothing. It is simply a visual sense of the lack of light. Further thought demonstrates how this simple description reveals the nature of evil. It skirts the arguments of the Boethian or Manichean conception of evil, by taking elements of both. Evil works to prevent the transmission of light; whether by obstruction or distortion. It consists of anything which keeps us from goodness or twists goodness beyond nature to produce an evil result.

In the Silmarillion Tolkien creates an example of a more Manichean conception of evil in the creature Ungoliant. She “[hungers] for light…[sucking] up all the light she [can] find, and [spinning] it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom” (S73). She consumes light and emits darkness as webs, which  themselves also devour the surrounding light.

After the confrontation at Lammoth, Ungoliant flees the Balrogs of Morgoth, coming to dwell in Nan Dungortheb beneath Ered Gorgoroth. She lives there for a time, mating and consuming other spiders, leaving “her offspring [to abide] there and [weave] their hideous webs” (S 81). In chapter 14 of The Silmarillion, it is said that the ravines of Nan Dungotheb are “[filled] with her deadly gloom” and “the thin waters that [spill] from Ered Gorgoroth [are] defiled, and perilous to drink, for the hearts of those that [taste] them [are] filled with shadows of madness and despair” (S 121). It is inferred here that Ungoliant’s offspring continue her lust for light and production of darkness. Her future scion, Shelob, does the same, where even the “radiance of the [Phial of Galadriel] [does] not pierce and [does] not illuminate, as if [the webs are] a shadow being cast by no light” (LotR 706).

The streams of Ered Gorgoroth, however, are something else and yet the same. They consist of tainted waters, which may be drunk, thereby inducing madness. Closing the eyes creates a different sort of darkness. It separates a person from perceiving the outside world, while opening him or her to their interior being. At this point, the person is alone with their thoughts. In times of doubt and fear, closing our eyes can be difficult. Fears come to life, the subconscious frees our demons to wreak havoc. If we reject the light of goodness within, these fears cause a downward spiral into despair.

The waters of Ered Gorgoroth appear to work in the same way. Some rube willingly, knowingly or not, ingests it, and the darkness of evil infects him or her, gulping the light within, spewing darkness. It is a pointed vision of the nature of sin.

The darkness of the spiders continues in lesser state in the spiders of Mirkwood. The thought struck me, reading the passage with regards to Nan Dungortheb, that the Enchanted River of The Hobbit may be drawn, in part, from this mythical predecessor.

Some argue The Hobbit should be read on its own merits, which I applaud, however the tales of The Silmarillion have such a central part in Tolkien’s life they merit some part in analysis of The Hobbit. After all, Tolkien wrote the majority of the Silmarillion’s mythology in the fifteen years prior to the conception of The Hobbit. He was consumed with the idea of creating a mythology of England, for England; an ambition which would cause him to tinker with the tales for the rest of his life. He longed to publish The Silmarillion, and attempted such following the success of The Hobbit, but failed (both then and when attempting to publish simultaneously with the LotR) and moved on to write a “sequel or successor to The Hobbit” (Letter 19). Despairing of ever publishing this work of his heart, he worked to include as much as possible within the texts and appendices of The Lord of the Rings.

Knowing, therefore, that the tales were fairly complete at the time of The Hobbit, and knowing Tolkien’s great desire to share them with the world, it is fair to say some ideas may have found their way into The Hobbit (beyond those more explicitly seen). The Hobbit was at first conceived as a tale Tolkien told to his children, which “seemed to amuse his boys,” and told at about the same time as the composition of the early 1930’s Quenta Silmarillion draft and the Annals.

In the chapter, Queer Lodgings, Beorn warns the company of a stream which crosses the path, a stream that they “should neither drink of, nor bathe in; for [he has] heard that it carries an enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness” (TH 155). Entering the forest, they find that its name, Mirkwood, is well earned. By day, the company wanders in a “darkened green glimmer” and by night are trapped in a darkness “so black that you really could see nothing” (TH 164). Further enshrouding the forest, they see signs of spiders: “dark dense cobwebs with threads extraordinarily thick, often stretched from tree to tree, or tangled in the lower branches on either side of them” (TH 164). Looking further, perusal of the map of Wilderland reveals spider webs depicted on all sides of the stream at the heart of Mirkwood. Falling into the stream, Bombur falls into enchanted sleep where he dreams of feasting elves.

The effect is very different from the streams of Nan Dungortheb, yet similar. The elder streams yield a madness and despair brought on by contact. It leads to a losing internal battle for the mind and soul. The Enchanted Stream also creates an internal battle of sorts. There is no other victim by which to compare Bombur’s experience, so the nature of his plight and how it may compare to others is pure conjecture.

Bombur’s dreams dwell on his primary personal vice: gluttony. Upon waking, he cries, “Why ever did I wake up!” desiring the dream in place of reality (TH 174). In this is shown the perils of pure escapism and yielding blindly to temptation. Bombur sleeps for at least four days, with neither food nor water to sustain him, and wakes “weak and wobbly” (TH 174). Presumably, if he never wakes, or sleeps again, Bombur would slowly starve to death in blissful dreams of revelry. This stream is dangerous in a different way. If the enchantment stems from the vomited darkness of the spiders, then its risk appears to lie in fulfillment of desires or lusts to the point of forgetting to live.

Given Bilbo’s dream brought on by the enchantment of the Wood Elves, on the other hand, the origin of the magic of the Enchanted Stream is somewhat questionable. However, there is a singular difference; though “it [takes] a deal of shaking” Bilbo wakes up fairly easily (TH 178). Whether this is an indication of the relative strengths of the two enchantments or a sign of their distinct and opposing natures is up for grabs. The stream poses a conundrum: is it a byproduct of the evil that dwells in Mirkwood, some arcane protection of the Elves, or, even stranger, some combination of the two?

While no definite answer may be reached, contemplation of the two streams leads down strange pathways of thought, which may (or may not) inform the reader regarding the nature of Good and Evil, and Sin and Temptation in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Complacency and Sub-Creation

I had the privilege this past Thursday to participate in a Grey Havens Group meeting for the first time. We met to discuss the eleventh chapter of The Silmarillion, “Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor,” in light of its earlier form found in The Book of Lost Tales. As it was my first time, I was asked to read the group out to end the night. I chose a passage which had struck a chord reading the Tale of the Sun and Moon the second time over.

In the Tale, Vána and Lórien lavish the stores of light-dew remaining on the two trees, in hopes that this primordial fire may awaken them to renewed life. The earth drinks hungrily of this divine light to no avail, consuming it. If not stopped, the entire store of the Valar, Maiar and Eldar may have been thus discarded.

Finally, dispirited, Vána and Lórien seek the aid of the “Earth-lady,” Yavanna. Yavanna, hearing their wish, dissolves into tears proclaiming:

“’Tis of the fate of the Music of the Ainur. Such marvels as those Trees of gold and silver may even the Gods make but once, and that in the youth of the world; nor may all my spells avail to do what ye now ask.’” (TBoLT, part I, 201)

She further foretells the Trees shall not be relit until the Gods grow old and the Elves fade. Many are dismayed to hear her say such things of portent and protest. Yet Yavanna resists, realizing in the death of the Trees that they have denied light and aid to the rest of Eä and forgotten the coming of Men.

There are two distinct things being described here. One is complacency. The other is a desire to hold things unchanged, to bring forth only the same blessing.

Up until the rape of the Trees by Ungoliant and Melkor, the Valar lived in ages of peace and joy in Valinor. They felt secure, satisfied in the light of the two Trees and the wonder of the first Children of Ilúvatar. They had forgotten the outside world, the darkness of Middle Earth, and to prepare for the coming of the Second Children.

They were comfortable. In comfort, however, lies stagnation. It reminds me of a great quote by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The world offers you comfort, you were not made for comfort, but for greatness.” How true this is! How we long for the easy way, the straight path, but we are called to leave that comfort zone in order to help others. From a Catholic perspective, we must remember that earth is not our home, it is a stop-over on our way to the eternal home. Discomfort in the service of virtue should not phase us, but increase expectation and joy at the life to come. This mindset is exceedingly difficult to accept and maintain, as is demonstrated here by the realization of the divine guardians of Eä.

The second point speaks to my creative nature. Adolf Loos, an architect and theorist at the turn of the twentieth century, saw in photography and replication the death of art. Art has an aura, which is dependent upon its setting and original purpose. Take a piece and move it, replicate a three dimensional experience in two dimensions and it can never be the same, the aura is lost.

So much of art and style is applied, with limited knowledge of the original meaning and purpose behind forms and ornament. There is a desire for the glories of the past, but the heart is gone, it is nothing more than image, it become hollow. One has only to look at the various architectural revivals to find endless examples of the barren and vain quality of these imitations. There have been efforts to relearn the process, philosophy and function of the components, but often these efforts have been overshadowed by the over-arching ‘style craze.’

The important thing to realize, though, is that works of the past may never be recreated. They had their time and place. The reproduction is either a cheap copy, which has lost its heart, or, having built upon a true knowledge of the inspiring forces in the original, is not a reproduction at all but a new creation with new meaning, memorializing the past, yet not being the past.

Tolkien expresses this theme beautifully in the Tale. The efforts of the Valar and Maiar to revive the Trees fail, and even when they finally yield fruit, the result is nothing like the expected or the Trees before.

“…to such vast heights did the Sunship climb, and climbing blazed ever hotter and brighter, that ere long its glory was wider than ever the Gods conceived of when that vessel was still harboured in their midst.” (TBoLT, part I, 211)

They set out with pure intention to bring light back into the world and, this time, share it with the wider world. The result was beyond their imagining. Greatness comes not out of comfort and complacency, the known, the tried and true, but venturing into the unknown. Yet the new can be very uncomfortable, even jarring. The Valar and maiar soon grumble, some even calling for the return of the Sunship and the end of this grand new scheme, for

“…in their hearts [they know]  that they had done a greater thing than they at first knew, and never again would Valinor see such ages as had passed…” (TBoLT, part I, 212)

It almost becomes a ‘Leaf by Niggle’ moment. The Valar have created something new, striving to recreate the lights of the past. They spend so much time concerned with the ‘tree and leaf’ that they are unable to see the ‘vast country’ they’ve envisioned beyond.

In this moment, as in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, is crystalized that moment when the creator looks on the created and realizes it doesn’t quite match their original vision. In art, you learn about hand-eye coordination. This does not just apply to actual sight, but the sight of imagination as well. Sometimes it’s near impossible to mesh the physical with the imagined. The initial impulse (at least for me, and apparently both the Valar and Niggle…and by extension Tolkien) is to reject the creation as an imperfect reflection. But that is because we are looking at it the wrong way. We have forgotten that we are not creators, but sub-creators, working in the shadow of the ultimate Creator, God. Something of God’s Truth enters into our subcreation bringing it to a life of its own. The sun and moon, as described in the Tale, perfectly express this concept.