Friday, March 23, 2018

Amphora vs Anaphora: The Puzzle

One of them, and one of them only, is something Niece 1 has declared she does not want to encounter again in her entire life.  In fact, she mentioned it again, after three years of silence on the matter, while visiting me here.  Was she overwhelmed by (a) clay pots or (b) a literary device?

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Escape from the Nor'easter

I hadn't even heard about the storm until I was en route to Albany; my colleagues were obsessively monitoring the predictions.  Eventually, I got so worried about traveling back to the city right at the peak of the storm that I decided to ride it out up north... where we did not experience a single flake.   

It turned out pretty well; despite a sleepless night worrying about the storm, I was able to spend my erstwhile travel day very productively in my pleasant room.

balcony overlooking faux colonial-era town square
By contrast, the ride home on Amtrak was tremendously unproductive, as the wi fi craaaaaaawwwled and frequently cut out.

The programs that initially warranted my trip went well, and it was great to meet up with my favorite ex-colleague and her husband.

Monday, March 19, 2018


I just woke up at a sound that sounded a little like knocking at my front door (three quick, light taps).  When I came out to the living room, there was a glow just around the corner of my mantlepiece.  The electric candle that I keep there, and have not touched in years, was lit.  I wondered if it had gone haywire; would I need to remove the battery?  But I picked it up to turn it off, and it turned off easily at the press of the switch.  The door is locked and all otherwise seems quiet and undisturbed.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Riders and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

"There is, one has to admit, one thing about the Riders which does not resemble the historical ancestors of the English, which is that they are riders. In texts of the later Anglo-Saxon period [...], the reluctance of the Anglo-Saxon military to have anything to do with horses approaches the doomed, or the comical. The Maldon poem begins with the English leader telling his men to leave their horses and advance on foot [...].  It could be argued that Hastings was lost because of this insular insistence on fighting on foot."  
                  --Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century at 92.

As I've been revisiting "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields" (LotR V.6) in multiple passes to mark up different phenomena, I noticed that Tolkien may be giving us a pre-history that starts to explain why the later Anglo-Saxons might have given up on military use of horses.

Specifically, he shows how unreliable the horses are in this particular battle – and how dangerous to their masters, as they are easily spooked and vulnerable to darts – which may be the first step in transforming the Eorlingas into the horse-eschewing Anglo-Saxons.

[Citation note: To identify specific paragraphs within book V, chapter 6, I lettered the "sections" within each chapter (each separated from other sections by white space), and then numbered the paragraphs within each section.]

First, the horses are spooked by the unnatural dark, throwing their riders. "The new morning was blotted from the sky. Dark fell about [Théoden].  Horses reared and screamed.  Men cast from the saddle lay grovelling on the ground" (C.1).  The "grovelling" to me suggests great pain and physical injury, but even if they are merely inconvenienced rather than broken or killed, they are at least temporarily sidelined; they can't join the battle until they get themselves off the ground.

Merry is, of course, the exception; he does his one great battle-deed from the ground where he has been crawling! But he and Dernhelm were likewise thrown by Windfola "in his terror," when the Shadow came (C.5).  Although they survive to jointly defeat the Dark Rider, they are left to do so on foot because Windfola is running "wild upon the plain" (id.) and is thus unavailable.

Second, even the best rider on the best horse can be defeated if his steed is killed; it's an extra point of vulnerability.  As the horses rear and scream, throwing off their riders, Théoden immediately tries to rally his men, but "Snowmane wild with terror stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side: a black dart had pierced him.  The king fell beneath him" (C.2).  Critically, even the king's steed (doubtless the best of the lot) is "wild with terror."  The king manages to stay on, but the horse is only mortal; he is shot and falls over, crushing Théoden.  (As later noted, he indeed proves "Faithful servant yet master's bane" [E.3]).

Third, the spooked horses run wild, scattering into the distance and thus rendering their riders useless to the battle.  As Théoden lies dying, the "knights of his house lay slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds were borne far away" (C.5)

Fourth, even when the riders regain control of their horses, they still can't necessarily get them to go where they need them to go.  This happens at least twice:
  • Éomer rides up in haste, accompanied by "the knights of the household that still lived and had now mastered their horses" (D.9).  Logically, this suggests to me that some knights that have survived are not with him because they have not yet been able to control their horses.  Moreover, even though these particular knights have allegedly "mastered their horses," still "their steeds would not go near" the place where the empty mantle and hauberk lie (id.).  The Black Rider is gone, but the horses are still spooked, presumably by the carcass of his fell steed.  Éomer ends up leaping from his saddle to stand by Théoden's side.
  • Worst of all, in the midst of battle, "wherever the mûmakil came there the horses would not go, but blenched and swerved away," allowing the creatures to remain unfought and stand "like towers of defence" as a rallying point for the Haradrim (F.2).  So the spookability of the horses actually provides bastions or safe-havens for the enemy on the field of battle.  
After all this, I can see why the Eorlingas might have started to sour on horses...

Meriadoc the Hobbit at the Pelennor Fields (LotR V.6)

Tolkien makes a point of making Merry distinctly unheroic in this scene.  He starts out crawling on all fours like a dazed beast, blind and sick (C.5). He can't even look up (C.6). 

Amazement conquers his fear, briefly, when Dernhelm boldly laughs and reveals herself (C.13). Then pity and great wonder suddenly awakens "the slow-kindled courage of his race" (C.14).

That courage forms itself into a truly heroic resolution, "She should not die, so fair, so desperate!" (id.).  But it is promptly deflated to the more realistic "At least she should not die alone, unaided" (id.) – presumably because his hobbit-sense tells him the help of a dazed and untrained halfling is not likely to save her from death.

Even now, having resolved (essentially) that he should die with her in an almost certainly futile attempt to aid her, he "hardly dared to move, dreading lest the deadly eyes should fall on him" (C.15).  It'll be hard to aid her at all unless he moves, of course.  But if I've got this straight, he's afraid of being looked at by the Ringwraith. Seriously, it's not as if the Ringwraith is shooting lasers from his eyes or anything.  Yeah, yeah, it's a grave spiritual peril, I know – and Éowyn quails from his gaze as well – but still, Merry's reaction does not exactly inspire confidence in his martial prowess.  It's not too surprising that the Ringwraith heeds him "no more than a worm in the mud" (id.).  Merry is obviously an everyman, a negligible quantity.

Éowyn and the Ringwraith exchange blows, or rather, she kills his steed and he knocks her down to her knees and prepares to finish her off, when Merry intervenes.  This is his great battle-moment.

And what does he do?  He stabs the Ringwraith's leg from behind and below, while Éowyn unwittingly distracts him.  At most, the blow could be crippling rather than fatal.

So it's two-on-one, stab-from-behind, at the back of the Ringwraith's knee; not very heroic, but the best he can do.  And it is enough.

Huzzah for the everyman?  Not so fast: critically, he had collected a dagger en route that turned out to be magic.  "No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will" (E.2).  What should we make of this chance, if chance we call it?  As so often happens in LotR, a sort of providence may help those who at least try to do the right thing, even when they are certain their effort is hopeless and doomed to failure.  The sword required a hand to wield it, and it turned out to be Merry's.  But there was no guarantee, a priori, that his sword would be a magic one "wrought [...] slowly long ago" by foes of the sorcerer king (id.).  On the spur of the moment, with no assurance of success, he had to crawl in the mud under the deadly eyes of the Ringwraith and strike his feeble blow with an unnamed blade randomly dealt out to him, without special ceremony, by a singing stranger.

Here is "a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur" – but Merry had to do his part, in whatever way he could manage.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Happy Mariners vs The Lonely Isle

For our short paper, we had to compare two poems.  The good news is, I found two that were short enough and similar enough to discuss in the allotted word count.  The bad news is that I soon discovered that I really only wanted to write about one of them.  Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth and gave roughly equal time to both.  Here is the result:

         Tolkien’s poems “The Lonely Isle” and “The Happy Mariners” each explore the theme of exclusion, the speaker’s sense that he is barred from a place he greatly desires.[1] In both, this is achieved by creating a sense of isolation and loneliness, which at first seems directed elsewhere (the titular isle or a western tower) but is revealed to inhere in the speaker. The theme of exclusion is further supported, in “Happy Mariners,” by the tantalizing faintness of the sounds or signs of Faërie, which only makes the speaker’s sense of exclusion more poignant.
         The first half of the initial stanza of “Happy Mariners” depicts an isolated tower which is exposed to the “celestial seas” (l. 2). The tower is physically isolated, as it stands on a “dark rock” with the sea “washing round” it (l. 9). The word “lonely” gains prominence from the repeated “l” sounds in stressed syllables, as the tower “glimmers like a spike of lonely pearl” (l. 7).[2] The “lō” sound in the word “forlorn” (l. 8) hearkens back to the word “lonely” in both sound and sense, but also alliterates with the stressed rhyming word “fade” at the line’s end (l. 8).  The long vowel sounds and soft consonants in these three linked words (lōnely, fōrlōrn, fāde) help create a slow, mournful sound.  The segment ends with the poem’s first rhyming couplet (stands/lands), drawing attention to the speaker’s observation that “fairy boats go by to gloaming lands” (l. 10).  The alliteration and iambic beats put greater stress on “by” than might be seen in prose, making clear the tower is not itself a destination; the boats “go by” on their way somewhere more desirable and do not stop there.  Indeed, the words in this final line are aurally interconnected, creating a sense of forward movement that subtly supports the idea of fairy boats passing by; there is repeated assonance with the long “ō” sound (boats, go, gloaming) and consonance with the “l” (gloaming lands). 

            Thus far, the speaker has coyly described the tower at a distance, starting with “I know a window in a western tower” (l. 1), as if he has merely heard about it, or has been there occasionally.  Only in the second stanza does he reveal his own connection with the tower: “While I alone look out behind the Moon / From in my white and windy tower” (ll. 25-26).  With these lines, he definitively associates himself with the isolation of the tower: it is “my [...] tower,” though “white and windy” rather than comfortable, and “I alone look out” from it.  He feels keenly the separation from the “happy mariners” (l. 20) who go where he cannot, to the “Islands blest” (l. 34).

            The speaker in “Lonely Isle,” by contrast, addresses the desired land directly as an “island [...] sea-girdled and alone” (l. 1).  In each verse’s second line, the speaker describes the land as “a gleam of white rock” in the distance (ll. 2, 14), which he sees “through a sunny haze” (l. 2) and “over sundering seas” (l. 14).  “Sundering” suggests the seas are too rough to cross, as if violently cutting off the island from the rest of the world, leaving it isolated and thus “alone.”  These lines create an initial impression that the island is distant (it is seen through a “haze” like objects on the horizon seen through earth’s atmosphere) and perhaps even uninhabited – after all, a “white rock” most readily “gleam[s]” in the sun if it is perfectly bare.[3]

            Gradually, however, a sense of the speaker’s exclusion, rather than the island’s isolation, builds through repetition and recasting of words.  The title and first line set an initial expectation that the island is “lonely”; it is “sea-girdled and alone” (l. 1).  But a soft, repeated “w” sound (white, whispering, wailing, sea-wingèd, wheel, outward) introduces a melancholy mood in the second half of the stanza (ll. 7-12) as the speaker describes a “lamentable host” of sea birds (l. 9) with their “wailing” (l. 8) and “sad whistling” (l. 11).  The last line of the stanza – prominent as part of the terminating rhymed couplet (grey/way) – offers a sudden, jarring personification: the sea birds “wheel about my lonely outward way” (l. 12).   In the phrase “my lonely outward way,” the speaker unexpectedly takes ownership of his own loneliness, using the possessive (“my”), even as he projects it onto the sea birds’ circling.  Likewise, the “sunny haze” of a land glimpsed on the horizon, which in the first stanza could be a mundane atmospheric effect, becomes “a mist of tears” (l. 15) in the second stanza.  This now suggests the speaker is weeping at his forced separation, as if cleaved by the “sundering seas” (l. 14).  The island’s edge is, to the speaker, a “forbidden marge” (l. 13).  The second stanza thus reveals it is actually the speaker who is lonely, excluded, and forbidden access.

            In “Happy Mariners,” the sense of exclusion is further heightened by the faintness and uncertainty of the sounds from the desired place and the mariners’ one-way journey there.  In particular, the speaker is not sure what he is hearing: “maybe, ’tis a throbbing silver lyre, / Or voices of grey sailors [... ] / For often seems there ring of feet and song / Or twilit twinkle of a trembling gong” (ll. 14-15, 18-19).  Both “maybe” and “seem” carry beats in these iambic lines.  With “maybe,” the speaker tentatively introduces two alternatives; he cannot discern if he hears strumming of a musical instrument or voices of “grey sailors” (ll. 14-15).  The word “grey” to describe the sailors suggests they are somehow faded, as if by age or even by death; the voices could be haunting, even ghostly.  The lyre, by contrast, suggests a material, physical instrument and a living poet/bard to play it, and thus the warmth of companionship.  Ordinarily, the sound of feet, song, or gong could easily be distinguished from other sounds, but the speaker does not trust his powers of identification; these merely “seem” the sounds he has heard (ll. 18-19).  Likewise, as the happy mariners go by, the speaker hears “chanting snatches of a mystic tune” as if the sound is coming in and out of range, rather than merely growing closer and then more distant, as would be normal in the mundane world (l. 28).  All these tantalizing hints of what he is missing make his longing more acute.

            By contrast, the speaker in “Lonely Isle” somehow knows the “shores [are] all full of music” (l. 16), that fairies dance “to soft airs their harps and viols weave” (l. 20), and that a bell in “a high inland tower” peals and echoes “through the lighted elms” at evening (ll. 23-24).  These sounds are not a matter of uncertainty or doubt, although the speaker’s source of information is not revealed.  In other words, his longing appears to be triggered by clear awareness of what he is missing, rather than by hints or hopes.

            Both poems thus explore similar themes of isolation and loneliness, with a characteristic shift in perspective to reveal the speaker’s sense that he is being denied access to Faërie; he is left behind in mortal lands while others dwell in bliss.  The initial focus on the tower in “Happy Mariners” makes for a subtle shift; the tower’s loneliness in its exposure to the celestial seas becomes the speaker’s exclusion, as if he can get no closer than the tower to the Islands blest.  The initial focus on the island in “Lonely Isle” becomes mere reversal of perspective; the reader is initially led to believe the isle is remote and girdled by seas, but in fact, the speaker experiences this as a sundering or exclusion of himself.  While both speakers describe wonders from which they are excluded in the course of each poem, the effect of the half-heard, half-grasped sounds in “Happy Mariners” suggests an inchoate longing and thus an exclusion that is ultimately more complex and more haunting than that described in “Lonely Isle.”

Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R.  “The Happy Mariners.”  The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1st American ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1984, pp. 273-74.  The History of Middle-earth, v.2.
---.  “The Lonely Isle” in John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, Kindle ed., Mariner Books, 2005.


[1] For simplicity, I refer to the speaker as male, like the poem’s author. However, the poems offer no cues that would dictate the speaker’s gender.

[2] Where needed, italics denotes a stressed rhyming word at the end of a line, underline marks a repeated sound in a line, and bold marks a stressed syllable.

[3] Of course, this impression proves incorrect, as it is inhabited by “children robed in flowers” (l. 17) and “fairies” (l. 19), and contains a citadel with a bell tower (ll. 22, 24).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Not Too Shabby

Got a head-start on the weekend with a re-run of the National Theatre production of Hamlet featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.  (My friend scored tickets to it from relatives who see pretty much everything that comes to NYC; I think it conflicted with their bridge game.)

There were some interesting choices from the very beginning, including the decision to start with Hamlet sitting on the floor going through his father's old record collection rather than, oh say, for example, Francisco and Bernardo on watch, to be joined shortly by Horatio and Marcellus.  We could almost say the production out-Hamleted Hamlet, an impression only bolstered by Hamlet jumping up on banquet tables and whatnot to deliver monologues without anyone else noticing – they were too busy moving in slow motion in the background, apparently.  When he decides to play at being mad, he dresses up as a toy soldier and goes off to play? mope? in a child's toy castle.  

I can't comment on the entire production, since I fell asleep for bits of it, but one artistic choice that really failed for me was the decision to fill the floor of Elsinore castle with ashes or rubble at the end of the first half, and leave it that way for the rest of the show.  It made the place look like a complete wreck, which fatally undercut Ophelia's descent into madness.  It's already difficult for a sturdy young woman to play Ophelia, whose psychological frailty is more plausible on a physically frail frame.  But to have her do this in a castle that seems to have suffered its own devastation seems pointless.  There's no remnant of cleanness and sanity to contrast with her own pathetic state.  

Although it was a nice touch for Gertrude to open up Ophelia's abandoned suitcase, see Ophelia's prized possession (a camera, perhaps in homage to the 2000 Hamlet with Ethan Hawke), realize with horror that Ophelia was headed for her death, and run after her.  This was done silently and effectively – somewhat like the wonderful scene in the first Hobbit movie where Martin Freeman decides to go on the adventure after all, moving from relief at being off the hook to realization of how empty his tidy little life is to a sudden conviction that this is his Chance.  With nothing more than subtle facial expressions, he lets us see that he has chosen to give life a shot, rather than remaining in stultifying stasis and sleepwalking to his grave.  

But I digress.  One other thing worth mentioning from the production: Hamberbatch wears a Bowie t-shirt.  This is important because....

Saturday started with a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden – hope springs eternal for the crocuses – followed by a tour of the Brooklyn Museum with a friend from the Tolkien world.  We cooled our heels at an exhibit of blue stuff, Korean art, and Egyptian artifacts (one take-away: Hieratic is apparently cursive writing for hieroglyphs),  before we gained admittance to ... the David Bowie exhibition!  It was quite interesting and extensive.  I won't say exhaustive, since my friend thought of a few things that were missing, but they were certainly thorough enough to display a tissue purportedly used to wipe the lipstick off Bowie's face after a concert (cf. Weird Al Yankovic's "Ebay").  Bowie's filmography was more extensive than I'd have guessed (it's a lot more than Labyrinth, which I also haven't seen), but we got to see snippets of many of them.  There were abundant costumes and music videos, sketches for publicity, set design, choreography, lots of displays and discussions about his influences and collaborations, and even a concert experience room.    There were many fascinating details, including an almost gushing thank-you letter from his mother for something or other he'd done for her – but in a postscript, she asked him not to show the letter to anyone because she didn't want to be deluged with fan mail!  A woman after my own heart.

But it was also somewhat funny at times to see a pop icon described in museumspeak.  They made a point of mentioning more than once that Bowie remained productive during the worst of his drug addiction (it seemed like the early 1970's in Los Angeles), though they were more than vague about medical details such as how and when he kicked his habit(s).   

There's probably more to say about the exhibition, but I was glad they played "Diamond Dogs" and "Rebel Rebel" while I was in the concert area.

Sunday was productive – I prepared a presentation and slideshow on "King Sheave" and finalized my abstract for Paper 2 just in time for a festive birthday celebration at Kunjip in K-town with some friends.  I'd already celebrated this friend's birthday last weekend with brunch at Maialino near Grammercy Park, but it was great to get together again for Korean barbecue.  We all tried soju, as well, sipping the plain and peach versions from little shot glasses.  

Saturday, March 10, 2018

West Highland Way...

Fingers crossed for September!  Just made a booking inquiry with deposit, a month after first looking into it.  Now I'd better get going on my paper for the poetry class, I suppose.  I'm not so sure about the topic I've chosen, but I haven't been able to think of another one.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Tentative Theory

Tentative theory: The degree of deliberate obfuscation in a scholarly field is directly proportional to its seeming accessibility to laypersons.

(If true, one might expect the worst offenders to be scholars of modern English literature or linguistics, as most native English speakers would otherwise consider themselves fit to analyze their own language and literature.)

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Unreasonably Excited

by my new purchase.  Yes, gentle readers, I splurged on a cassette capture device to deal with my final handful of cassette tapes.  (OK, this so-called "splurge" was under $20, but still.)

Most of the tapes I'd kept since jettisoning my cassette player have some sentimental value, but I hadn't purchased all the songs on iTunes -- so I've not listened to them in at least a decade.  And Jon Astley's songs, in particular, seem to be scarcer than hens' teeth in this digital age.

So I started with a single of Dave Matthews Band's "Stay (Wasting Time)," which I'd recorded on the reverse of a single of The Human League's "Tell Me When," and the quality seemed OK, especially after running a simple noise reduction feature.

Emboldened, I embarked on Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme album and figured out out to label the individual tracks and then automatically export each track as a separate MP3 file for ease of use in iTunes.

OMG.  It works!!! It even plays and records both sides of the tape without intervention!!!

I now remember how much I love each and every track on The Steve Miller Band's Fly Like an Eagle album.  And most tracks on Jon Astley's Everyone Loves the Pilot (Except the Crew)....

Not sure I will transfer the old sermon tapes or Fawlty Towers audio recordings to MP3, but the music is wonderful.