Friday, March 15, 2019

The Green Knight vs the Mouth of Sauron

The Mouth of Sauron's encounter with the Captains of the West in The Lord of the Rings has been reminding me of the Green Knight's visit to King Arthur's court in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  So I wanted to look at the scenes a bit more carefully together.

The initial set-up is quite different, naturally.  The Green Knight comes in uninvited without any introduction or explanation -- the reader is thus in the same boat as members of Arthur's court -- whereas Tolkien gives us some backstory on the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr when he comes out in response to the heralds' challenge.  The Green Knight arrives alone on a color-coordinated steed that seems an ordinary animal except for its hue, but the poet hints the knight himself might possibly be supernatural ("Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were").  Intriguingly, the similarly color-coordinated fellow who approaches Aragorn & Co. is almost exactly the inverse, i.e., a living man on a possibly supernatural mount:
[O]ut of [the Black Gate] there came an embassy from the Dark Tower.  At its head there rode a tall and evil shape, mounted upon a black horse, if horse it was; for it was huge and hideous, and its face was [...] more like a skull than a living head, and in the sockets of its eyes and in its nostrils there burned a flame.  The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man.
(LotR 888, paragraph break omitted)
The core similarity, of course, is the disrespectful address.  In each version, the stranger boldly rides right up to the company and makes a big show of looking them up and down and asking who is in charge.  He is very specifically pretending not to be able to discern the leader -- a matter which would be self-evident both from the man's own physical location, bearing, and adornment and from his followers' reactions, since they would doubtless be turning to him or looking his way.  Here's Tolkien in LotR:
Now halting a few paces before the Captains of the West he looked them up and down and laughed.  
'Is there anyone in this rout with authority to treat with me?' he asked. 'Or indeed with wit to understand me? Not thou at least!' he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn. 'It needs more to make a king than a piece of Elvish glass, or a rabble such as this. Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following!'
(LotR 889).
Clearly, the Mouth of Sauron knows who Aragorn is, since he specifically picks him and his Elvish glass out for the first round of mockery.  Here's the Middle English poet's verse (ll. 221-231):
Þis haþel [knight] heldez [proceeds, goes, comes] hym in and þe halle entres,
Driuande [lit: driving] to þe heȝe dece, dut [feared] he no woþe [danger],
Haylsed [greeted] he neuer one, bot heȝe he ouer loked.
Þe fyrst word þat he warp [uttered], 'Wher is', he sayd,
'Þe gouernour of þis gyng [company]? Gladly I wolde
Se þat segg [man, knight] in syȝt, and with hymself speke
     To knyȝtez he kest his yȝe,
     And reled [rolled] hym vp and doun;
     He stemmed [stopped, halted], and con [did] studie [look carefully, lit: study]
     Quo walt [possessed] þer most renoun.
The Green Knight's words are less overtly disrespectful here; he does not call into question Arthur's intellectual capabilities, compare him to a "brigand," or refer to his followers as "this rout" or "a rabble." Or does he?  The word "gyng" (l. 225) stands out initially due to its visual resemblance to "gang."  Tolkien's notes and glossary translate it as "company" (1st ed. p. 160) and his own translation uses "gathering" (p. 23).  Likewise, Borroff goes with "crowd" in her verse translation, both in the 1967 original and a revised version for the Norton Critical Edition (2010).

Still, Borroff's commentary on these lines in "The Challenge Episode: A Stylistic Interpretation" cites the OED to suggest the word conveys an ambiguously deprecatory sense.

Indeed, the first several definitions or subdefinitions in OED's entry for "ging, n." (1, 2a, 2b, 3a) are consistent with this neutral usage; it can mean (for example) a company of armed men, a great personage's retinue, household, followers, or retainers, or even more generally a gathering of people.  1, 2a, and 2b are attested at various times from 1043 (in Old English) through 1632, while 3a is attested ?c1200–1877. But then we reach definition 3b:
 b. depreciative. A crew, a rabble.
As we have seen, the Mouth of Sauron refers to the host as "this rabble."

Curiously, the Green Knight seems to have come indoors ("heldez hym in and þe halle entres") on horseback.  He does not dismount on entering the feast-area, but instead drives or presses forward to the high dais ("Driuande to þe heȝe dece," rendered by Tolkien as "pressing forward to the dais").    In this regard, the Green Knight seems more overtly disrespectful than the Mouth of Sauron; an emissary summoned forth to answer a challenge might well ride up to the enemy awaiting him, but an unexpected visitor dropping in at Christmas revels "in halle" (l. 101) should surely, at the very least, approach the dais on foot.

The Green Knight's insolence devolves into increasingly open mockery (ll. 280-86, 309-15) and then to loud laughter (l. 316).  Arthur initially identifies himself and graciously invites him to join in the feast and let them know his business after, but the Green Knight declines.  He's not there for a fight, of course, because "Hit arn aboute on þis bench bot berdlez chylder" (l. 280).  Instead, he challenges them to a beheading game.  When his startling offer is met with stunned silence, the Green Knight throws off all restraint (ll. 309-22):
'What, is þis Arthures hous,' quoþ þe haþel þenne,
'Þat al þe rous [fame, talk] rennes of þurȝ ryalmes so mony?
Where is now your sourquydrye [pride] and your conquestes,
Your gryndellayk [fierceness] and your greme [wrath], and your grete wordes?
Now is þe reuel and þe renoun of þe Rounde Table
Ouerwalt wyth a worde of on wyȝes speche,
For al dares for drede withoute dynt schewed!'
Wyth þis he laȝes so loude þat þe lorde greued;
Þe blod schot for scham into his schyre face
and lere;

     He wex as wroth as wynde,
     So did alle þat þer were.
     Þe kyng as kene bi kynde
     Þen stod þat stif mon nere,
So Aragorn, unlike Arthur, passes the test insofar as keeping his cool under open mockery and laughter: "Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other's eye and held it, and for a moment they strove thus," until the challenger quails (LotR 889).

The similarities in set-up perhaps reflect that, in each case, the emissary seeks to undermine, to provoke, to throw the good guys off their game, and ultimately to set a trap for them.

Coda - Miscellaneous Details

The Green Knight issues his challenge on horseback, since immediately afterward "Þe renk on his rouncé hym ruched in his sadel" to look around at the company (l. 303).  Moreover, once the challenge has been accepted, "Lyȝtly lepez he hym to, and laȝt at his honde" (l. 328).  So he's kinda doubling down on the not-dismounting thing until he gets what he wants.

The scene in LotR does not include a similar challenge/exchange.  The Mouth of Sauron is answering the heralds' challenge: "Come forth! [...] Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth! Justice shall be done upon him. For wrongfully he has made war upon Gondor and wrested its lands.  Therefore the King of Gondor demands that he should atone for his evils, and depart then for ever.  Come forth!" (LotR 887).  But this is a fundamentally different kind of challenge than the Green Knight's proffered exchange of one beheading for another.

The Mouth of Sauron does offers the company an exchange, but it, too, is fundamentally different from that offered by the Green Knight, since the terms are wildly unequal on their face (rather than like for like): He invites total submission and capitulation in return for the non-torture of one hobbit.

Note on Etymology:

From the OED's etymological notes on "gang, n.":
Sense 8 probably developed primarily from the conception of a group of people going about together, whereas senses 9 and 10 were probably additionally influenced by sense 7, as denoting a group or set (of people or animals) having characteristics in common. Compare earlier ging n.1 It is uncertain whether there was any influence from early Scandinavian uses in compounds, or whether these simply show a parallel development; compare Old Icelandic þjófa-gangr group of thieves, gaura-gangr group of ruffians, and also drauga-gangr group of ghosts, músa-gangr group of mice. (Dutch gang and German Gang denoting a group of criminals show borrowings < English.)
In turn, the outline for "† ging, n.1" provides:
Origin: Of uncertain origin. Either (i) a variant or alteration of another lexical item. Or (ii) a borrowing from early Scandinavian. Etymon: i-geng n.
Etymology: Either (i) aphetic < i-geng n., or (ii) < early Scandinavian (compare Old Icelandic ...
 1. A company of armed men, a troop, army, host.
 a. A retinue (of a great personage); a household, a body of retainers or followers.
 b. In plural. A person's followers or people. Also: people in general.
 a. gen. A gathering of people, a company; a band, a gang; a set. Also figurative.
 b. depreciative. A crew, a rabble.
 c. spec. The crew of a ship or boat. Cf. gang n.

 4. In Old Testament usage: the Gentile nations collectively; heathen peoples.

NOTE: The citations are rather rough - I'll have to go back and clean them up at some point.

Works Consulted
Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. W.W. Norton, 2008.

Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. W.W. Norton, 1967.
---. “The Challenge Episode: A Stylistic Interpretation.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Authoritative Translation, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Marie Borroff and Laura L. Howes, 1st ed, W.W. Norton, 2010, pp. 93–104.
---. “The Translated Text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Authoritative Translation, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Marie Borroff and Laura L. Howes, 1st ed, W.W. Norton, 2010, pp. 1–64.

“gang, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Third Edition, Mar. 2013,
“ging, n.1” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Third Edition, June 2017,
"Sir Gawayn and Þe Grene Knyȝt."  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, Clarendon Press, 1949.  (;view=fulltext)
---.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Edited by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, edited by Norman Davis, Norman, editor, 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, 1968.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005.
Tolkien, J. R. R., translator.  “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, edited by Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollinsPublishers, 1975, pp. 17–93.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

“was upon [personal pronoun]”

I believe alas_not_me has been meditating on the phrase the Ring was upon him in LotR for a while, and he mentioned Friday night that it clearly means more than the literal physical location of the Ring on (or upon) Frodo's finger.  Among other things, he suggested it has similar overtones as saying the enemy was upon him.  (Here, we might say upon conveys the sense of immediate confrontation.)

But in context it also reminds me of a Biblical phrase such as the Holy Ghost was upon him - a sense of an overwhelming power infusing and overcoming Frodo.  If the Ring is upon Frodo, he is figuratively under its influence.  Indeed, he seems to start receiving multiple micro-visions (small and clear), as if he had the power of far-seeing in many directions; though they are silent, we might almost say he's been given a temporary gift of “seeing in tongues.

Here are two examples in the KJV:

  • Ezekiel 37:1 “The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones.”
  • Luke 2:25 “And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.”
~ ~ ~

Of course, one may wonder how Tolkien uses this phrase (was upon [personal pronoun]) elsewhere in LotR?  Here are all the usages that come up in a phrase search for was upon (obviously excluding three impersonal/non-human uses):  
  • “no sign of age was upon them [Celeborn and Galadriel]” (354)
  • “the Ring was upon him [Frodo]” (400)
  • “The White Rider was upon them [the hosts of Isengard], and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness.” (542)
  • “A new fear was upon them [Frodo, Sam, and Gollum]” (645)
  • “a fury was upon her [Shelob]” (728)
  • “the swoon that was upon him [Sam]” (729)
  • “fled when we came, crying out that the King of the Dead was upon them [defenders and foes of the fords of the River Gilrain]” (875)
The first is fairly literal, of course. The second we have been discussing. Of the other five uses, three suggest to me an overwhelming power or experience (fear, fury, swoon); while two have more the sense of immediate confrontation - but nearby clauses reveal the confrontation itself is indeed overwhelming to those facing the onslaught.  So I think we can justify both interpretations for upon in the Ring was upon him.

~ ~ ~

As usual, alas_not_me makes additional connections and analysis (including intriguing nearby uses of upon) that further illuminate the passage.  But I'm trying to keep my focus narrow and not steal his thunder. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Stephen Maturin in "Post Captain"

To my surprise, I've reached a point in Post Captain where I find Stephen distinctly unsympathetic.  It's when he reflects on Diana's aging:
But if, as she says, her face is her fortune, then she is no longer Croesus; her wealth is diminishing; it will continue to diminish, by her standard, and even before her fatal thirtieth year it may reach a level at which I am no longer an object of contempt. That, at all events, is my only hope; and hope I must.  (O'Brian 288)
He does recognize that he may bear some culpability for the vulgarity he has started to see in her features, that "[i]n a relationship of this kind each makes the other, to some extent."

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Dr Who: Self-Delusion Takes You Away

The recent Dr Who episode "It Takes You Away" (season 11, episode 9) is, at some points, rather touching.  I still prefer "Demons of the Punjab" (the best of the season so far, in my view) but this one is pretty good.

So I've been looking at some reviews to see what others make of it.  On the A.V. Club, Caroline Siede writes:
"The episode leaves it up to the viewer to decide why Erik didn’t try to bring Hanne to the parallel universe to begin with. You could charitably say he didn’t want to risk her life or uncharitably say he wanted to live like a carefree newlywed."
The choice of possible explanations is not so binary or stark, of course.  

It seems quite likely to me that Erik half-suspected or half-feared that Trina was an illusion and that Hanne, though physically blind, might see through it.  As indeed she did.

What I like about that explanation is that it allows for Erik's willingness to be deluded, his complicity in self-delusion.  This is surely a very common human failing, even among people who are otherwise well-meaning and intelligent.*   

Another alternative explanation (which is ultimately less satisfying because it involves more speculation) is that Erik might have told himself that he would bring Hanne over and/or bring Trina back eventually, without ever acknowledging and confronting the depth and intensity of his desire to remain in the Solitract universe with Trina.  This would again be self-delusion, but in the form of wishful thinking, buttressed by a bit of wilful blindness.  A weasel word like eventually, without any timeframe attached or any accountability, would allow Erik to deceive himself about what he is doing and why.  He could potentially spend the rest of his life with Trina, always assuring hmself of his perfectly good intention to do the right thing by Hanne eventually (but never today).

I suppose both of these could be seen as manifestations of a deeper fear on Erik's part: The fear that bringing in Hanne will cause him to lose Trina.  But it's a fear he wouldn't have if he didn't know, deep down in his heart of heats, that Trina was really dead.

~ ~ ~

FN * And if Erik had a perhaps subconscious suspicion or fear that Trina might be an illusion, might not that anxiety have found an outlet or release in his own elaborately constructed illusion for Hanne?  It's not decisive, but I would note that although the illusions differ in their sophistication, both the Solitract and Erik use them in the same way (i.e., to manipulate and control others).

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Vowel Change (Ablaut) Reduplicatives

More inspiration from the Holmes article in A Wilderness of Dragons. Holmes speculates that "great green dragon" might reflect the language rules or syntax of Tolkien's innate "native language" (or I-language).

Of particular interest is his third point, concerning phonology.  He says "there is a self-evident internal logic to the order of vowels that has nothing to do with the rules of E-language or any other cradle-tongue a child may learn" (149).  He suggests the vowel changes of a green great dragon "produce a charming sequence: there, down, and back again," progressing from  mid-central a, to high-front green, to mid-front great, to low-front dra, to mid-back/central -gon.

To me, this also raises the question of whether the vowel change reduplicative pattern found in "green great" (long E followed by long A) is common in English.  I couldn't think of any examples off-hand (the first ones that came to mind were flim-flam, dilly-dally, and ooh! ah! oh!), so I scouted around and found a list of vowel change reduplicatives compiled on Daily Writing Tips.

Their list only includes one long vowel sound, in see-saw.  Breaking it down, they came up with

  • short i - short a (11 examples):
    • chit-chat, dilly-dally, flim-flam, knick-knack, mish-mash, pitter-patter, riff-raff, riprap, shilly-shally, tittle-tattle, zigzag; see also splish splash (, big bad (, jibber-jabber (
  • short i - short o (4 examples):
    • clip clop, flip-flop, hip-hop, tick tock; see also tip-top (
  • short i - aw (3 examples):
    • criss-cross, ding-dong, ping pong; see also sing-song (

  • long E - aw (1 example):
    • see-saw; see also hee-haw (me), geepie-gawpie (
To this one might add:
  • short i - long A:
    • ship-shape (Brian Wasko)
  • short i - ah:
    • wishy-washy (Brian Wasko)
  • short i - schwa - short a:
    • bric-a-brac
  • oo - ah - long O:
    • ooh! ah! oh!
  • shot u - long O:
    • hunky-dory (Rastall via Preuszová)
  • long E - long E - long I - long O:
    • eeny, meeny, miny, mo (Preuszová):
As Visual Thesaurus observes: "Of the many reduplications of this type, a striking number show a tell-tale pattern: the vowel in the first component is "short i," or what phonologists and IPA-aficionados call /ɪ/."

ProEdit suggests: "In linguistic terms, you could say that a high vowel comes before a low vowel. The i sound is considered a high vowel because of the location of the tongue relative to the mouth in American speech. The a and o sounds are low vowels."

In her 2017 Bachelor Thesis, Preuszová refers to these vowel change reduplicatives as "ablaut reduplicatives – a group which consists of reduplicatives with alternated vowel."

"Green Great Dragon": Mapping the Great Colors

I'm partway through the first of two essays in A Wilderness of Dragons about Tolkien's early encounter with culturally mandated adjective order.  In "'A Green Great Dragon' and J. R. R. Tolkien's 'Native Language,'" John R. Holmes looks for usage patterns of green great vs great green in various databases, and (thus far) seems to conclude that Mabel Tolkien was correct.

But of course this got me thinking about how green great/great green stacks up against other color choices.  So I played around with google Ngrams to see which combinations were most popular over time.  In the process, I noticed that the first Ngram phrase is always in blue, the second is always in red, etc.  So for synergy, I decided to list the colors in an order that coordinated with the thing described, i.e. the blue line would show data for blue great/great blue.

Predictably, the great [color] formula was much more common than the [color] great formula.

But I was more interested in which colors are more "popular" in the great [color] formula.  Of the five colors considered, great red has historically been most popular, followed most nearly by great blue.

great [color] in 1700-1800 (red, blue, green, orange, violet)

Then, around 1970, great red declined as great blue ascended.  And now great blue has taken the lead.

great [color] in 1800-2000 (blue+, red-, green, orange, violet)

For what it's worth, I can think of phrases such as "great blue marble" (referring to Earth) which I associate with the 1970s/1980s, and a song that began "Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts..."  Of course, google has some other suggestions, in the following order:

  • great blue (omitting two instances of "great blues"):
    • ...heron, 
    • ...hole belize, 
    • ...heron facts, 
    • ...lobelia, 
    • ...whale, 
    • ...north, 
    • ...heron habitat, 
    • ...heron diet.
  • great red
    • ...dragon
    • ...dxd, 
    • definition, 
    • ...elekk, 
    • ...sox players, 
    • ...sox pitchers, 
    • ...dragon bible
    • ...shark.
  • great green
    • ...wall, 
    • ...macaw, 
    • ...gobs
    • ...wall africa, 
    • ...bush cricket, 
    • ...supermarket, 
    • ...arkleseizure, 
    • reviews, 
    • ...wall china.

There were relatively few instances of [color] great in 1700-1800 -- each appeared only once, except for violet great, which did not appear at all -- so I'll just show the diagram from 1800-2000:

[color] great in 1800-2000 (green+, blue-, red, orange, violet)

Here, it is interesting that blue great was by far the most popular of these unpopular formulations of the phrase, though with green great spiking now and then.  But after 1980, green great took over.  I can't help wondering if that might reflect the rise of Tolkien scholarship, and specifically discussion of his story about his childhood story about the "green great dragon."

For those who are curious, here are close-ups of the 1970-2000 period:

Bonus "Rainbow-Plus" Edition
(not color coordinated)

Finally, just for kicks, here's the rainbow plus black, white, gold, and silver.  Turns out great white and great black take the lead -- though I would assume the name "great white shark" probably skews the results a bit.  Here's what google suggests for those two:
  • great white (omitting one instance of "great white sharks"):
    • ...shark, 
    • ...fleet, 
    • ...buffalo, 
    • ...shark attack, 
    • ...north, 
    • ...way, 
    • ...shark facts, 
    • ...shark cape cod.
  • great black
    • ...hawk, 
    • ...wasp, 
    • ...hawk marine, 
    • ...hawk portland maine, 
    • ...backed gull, 
    • ...wasp sting, 
    • ...movies, 
    • ...swamp, 
    • ...wasp nest, 
    • ...shark.

great [color], rainbow-plus, in 1800-2000

[color] great, rainbow-plus, in 1800-2000

close-up of [color] great, rainbow-plus, in 1800-1900

Ngram searches (for ease of cutting and pasting):
  • great blue,great red,great green,great orange,great violet
  • blue great,red great,green great,orange great,violet great
  • great red,great orange,great yellow,great green, great blue,great indigo,great white,great black,great silver,great gold
  • red great,orange great,yellow great,green great,blue great,indigo great,white great,black great,silver great,gold great

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Misunderestimating Each Other

I often think of Sam's mistrust of Gollum, and how this may have helped spike the last feeble, fitful possibility of metanoia.  That works against the good guys in the short term, at least; though Gollum's free-fall allows the quest to be accomplished.

But I forget that Gollum, in his turn, underestimates Sam, which works to the good guys' advantage:
Not expecting even this simple trick from Sam, Gollum fell over with Sam on top, and he received the weight of the sturdy hobbit in his stomach. (726)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Tom Bombadil and the Cunning Questions

Back in August, I listened to a Tolkien Professor podcast discussing Tom Bombadil's interactions with Frodo and the Ring. What particularly struck me was the word cunning to describe Bombadil's questioning of Frodo, since Bombadil can come across as almost simple in his seeming superficiality, singing about his own clothing as he does. Here's the passage:
Indeed so much did Tom know, and so cunning was his questioning, that Frodo found himself telling him more about Bilbo and his own hopes and fears than he had told before even to Gandalf. Tom wagged his head up and down, and there was a glint in his eyes when he heard of the Riders. ‘Show me the precious Ring!’ he said suddenly in the midst of the story: and Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 132). Mariner Books. Kindle Edition.[FN1]  Even within this passage, of course, the idea of Bombadil's questioning being somehow "cunning" seems to contrast with his almost childish reaction -- head-wagging -- to Frodo's divulging of "more about Bilbo and his own hopes and fears."  Now that I focus on this point, I realize it would be most natural in a story for grown-ups to say "Tom nodded" (or possibly "Tom nodded in agreement" or "nodded enthusiastically") rather than describing the physical motion.  That is, specifying that Bombadil "wagged his head up and down" necessarily comes across as more juvenile than saying "he wagged his head in agreement" or "he nodded."[FN2]  So the word "cunning" stands out strangely even within the context of this single passage.

Why and how is Bombadil's questioning cunning?  In what sense is Tolkien using this word here?  It certainly does not seem to follow what the OED terms its "prevailing modern sense" (5a):
In bad sense: Skilful in compassing one's ends by covert means; clever in circumventing; crafty, artful, guileful, sly. 

So we can eliminate 5a for that reason; I don't think we are cued to think Bombadil's purposes are in any way nefarious or suspect.  Technically, since it's his questioning that is cunning (rather than Bombadil himself), I suppose we should focus on 1b and 5b, which are "transf. Of things," and possibly 2b, which is "transf." {"Transf." = "Transferred sense"}[FN3]
1b. transf. Of things: Characterized by or full of knowledge or learning, learned. ?1520—1630 
2b. transf. Showing skill or expertness; skilfully contrived or executed; skilful, ingenious. 1423—1842 
5b. Of things: Showing or characterized by craftiness; crafty. 1590—1872

1b would probably be a bit redundant here ("so much did Tom know, and so cunning was his questioning").  So I'm thinking 2b or 5b, perhaps more 2b.

If it is primarily skilfulness that Bombadil is showing in his questioning (and perhaps especially his skill in eliciting information that has eluded Gandalf), might that not culminate in his skilful order ‘Show me the precious Ring!’ -- which Frodo finds himself unexpectedly and unquestioningly obeying?

I'm thinking now of Alas Not Me's post "'I could not take it from him' -- The peril of seizing the Ring," because Bombadil with his cunning questions not only gets Frodo to disclose information that he'd not provided to Gandalf, but he also gets Frodo to hand over the Ring without a thought or murmur or protest.  That is, the transfer of custody does not seem to be with Frodo's conscious volition or consent; he finds himself doing it "to his own astonishment."  Significantly, this does not break Frodo's mind.   Here's the comment I made on Alas Not Me's post:
Is Gandalf really saying that anyone taking the Ring by force from Frodo would necessarily cause Frodo's mind to break?  
Surely he could be referring to himself here, without generalizing. After all, Gandalf is not just anyone to Frodo; he is a trusted friend and advisor, immeasurably wiser and stronger, who has hitherto acted as if the free will of lesser folks were worth his respect. For Gandalf in particular to take the Ring from Frodo by force might have a very different effect than, for example, ruffians like Sharkey's men or a fellow sufferer like Gollum taking it from him. 
And that gets me to wondering if Gandalf is hinting rather strongly that the "force" he could and would exert on Frodo to obtain the Ring from him against Frodo's will would be more than physical. Indeed, it might not be physical at all, but a more or less direct attack on Frodo's will. If so, it'd be much more likely to break Frodo's mind than Gollum's merely physical attack. 
I'm thinking these differences between Gandalf and Tom Bombadil may be significant -- they apparently exercise power quite differently, with quite different effects on mortals.

And another point of comparison between Gandalf and Tom Bombadil, which coincidentally also came up in conversation with Alas Not Me, may also be of interest if we are trying to understand something about the kinds of beings they are.  That is, Tom Bombadil can see a hobbit who is wearing the Ring, quite easily.  But Gandalf cannot, as shown in these two passages from The Hobbit[FN4]:
1. “And here’s the burglar!” said Bilbo stepping down into the middle of them, and slipping off the ring. 
Bless me, how they jumped! Then they shouted with surprise and delight. Gandalf was as astonished as any of them, but probably more pleased than all the others. He called to Balin and told him what he thought of a look-out man who let people walk right into them like that without warning. 
2. “What voice is it that speaks among the stones?” said the man halting and peering about him not far from where Bilbo sat. 
Then Bilbo remembered his ring! “Well I’m blessed!” said he. “This invisibility has its drawbacks after all. Otherwise I suppose I might have spent a warm and comfortable night in bed!” 
“It’s me, Bilbo Baggins, companion of Thorin!” he cried, hurriedly taking off the ring. 
“It is well that I have found you!” said the man striding forward. “You are needed and we have looked for you long. You would have been numbered among the dead, who are many, if Gandalf the wizard had not said that your voice was last heard in this place. I have been sent to look here for the last time. Are you much hurt?” 

To be continued...


[FN1] Since I'd never particularly noticed Tolkien's use of the word before, I ran a word search in LotR and found 33 matches -- I may look into that more another time.

[FN2] One sees this style in the Junie B. Jones books, where no one ever "frowns" or "grins" - they "make a frown" or "make a grin."  That faux-juvenile phrasing irritated me immensely.

[FN3] The eliminated definitions are:
†1a. Possessing knowledge or learning, learned; versed in (†of) a subject. Obsolete. c1325—1667
 2a. Possessing practical knowledge or skill; able, skilful, expert, dexterous, clever. (Formerly the prevailing sense; now only a literary archaism.) 1382—1843
 †3. spec. Possessing magical knowledge or skill: in cunning mancunning woman, a fortune-teller, conjurer, ‘wise man’, ‘wise woman’, wizard or witch. (Also hyphened cunning-man.) Obsolete (or dialect) 1594—1807
 4. Possessing keen intelligence, wit, or insight; knowing, clever. 1671—1856

The OED provides the following etymology:

Original type *cunnende, present participle of CAN v.1 (infinitive Old English cunnan, Middle English cunnenconnen), in its earlier sense ‘to know’; hence originally = ‘knowing’. Not found in Old English, but in regular use from 14th cent. both in the northern form cunnand, and the midl. and southern cunningconnyng. The derivative conandscipe occurs in Cursor Mundi, Cotton MS.

[FN4] Now, Gandalf in The Hobbit is not necessarily as wise and powerful as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings -- he seems to be more Man than Maia.  But it's generally more interesting if we assume he is the same character and being in both stories.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Why Let Tolkien's Letters Have the Last Word?

What people forget when they quote from Tolkien's Letters, in no particular order:
  1. Each letter was written to a particular person, for a particular purpose.  So the statements may be true as far as they go, but they may not be the whole truth; they could be selected to create a particular impression.  There may be conscious or unconscious embellishments, shadings, or omissions, both large and small, as suited to the context and purpose of the communication.  (Hat tip: Dr. Verlyn Flieger; perhaps also cf. Emily Dickinson's "Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies")   
  2. Each letter was written at a particular time. Tolkien's memory of long-ago events (including his own writing process or intentions) is no more reliable than anyone else's.  See, e.g., John Rateliff's History of 'The Hobbit', where he painstakingly investigates the book's actual composition history and reaches a very different conclusion than the timeline Tolkien claimed.
  3. An author's intentions and explanations (even if 100% accurately recalled and explained in a later writing, untinged by any agenda) are not necessarily the best guide to interpretation of the text.  Or as Lewis put it : 
"It is the author who intends; the book means. The author's intention is that which, if it is realised, will in his eyes constitute success. [...] Meaning is a much more difficult term. [...] The nearest I have yet got to a definition is something like this: the meaning of a book is the series or system of emotions, reflections, and attitudes produced by reading it. [...] The ideally true or right 'meaning' would be that shared (in some measure) by the largest number of the best readers after repeated and careful readings over several generations, different periods, nationalities, moods, degrees of alertness, private pre-occupations, states of health, spirits and the like cancelling one another out when (this is an important reservation) they cannot be fused so as to enrich one another. [...] As for the many generations, [t]hese serve to enrich the perception of the meaning only so long as the cultural tradition is not lost. [...]  Of a book's meaning, in this sense, its author is not necessarily the best, and is never a perfect, judge."
(On Stories 139-40).

Lewis, C. S. “On Criticism.” On Stories, and Other Essays on Literature, edited by Walter Hooper, 1st ed, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982, pp. 127-41.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Golden Game Pieces: A Preview

Tonight, Prof. Carl Edlund Andersön drew a connection between the "gullnar tǫfllor / í grasi" (golden game-pieces in the grass) of Vǫluspá (N-K 61, CR 60, Hb 54) and a scene from chapter two of Prince Caspian.  He wasn't sure if anyone else had made the connection, so I did a quick google search to see what I could find.   

"The younger gods again shall meet
In Idavellir's pastures sweet,And tales shall tell of ancient doom,The Serpent and the fire and gloom,And that old King of Gods recallHis might and wisdom ere the fall.There marvelous shall again be foundCast in the grass upon the groundThe golden chess wherewith they playedWhen Asgard long ago was made,When all their courts were filled with goldIn the first merriment of old."J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Prophecy of the Sybil," from The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun.  This poem is amazingly reminiscent of The Last Battle (and those golden chess always make me think of the beginning of Prince Caspian), for both were drawing on Norse mythos and the Voluspa.
So at least one other person has made the connection between the Voluspa (via Tolkien's poem) and the Narnia tale, although I haven't looked for any serious scholarship on the issue.

And here is an edited and condensed version of the passage from Prince Caspian.  It's not clear whether Susan found the piece in grass, per se, but it might have been in among some weeds.
At the fifth journey they found the well, just outside, the hall, hidden in weeds, but clean and fresh and deep when they had cleared these away.  The remains of a  stone pavement rand half-way round it.  […]  When [Susan] came back [from getting another drink at the well] she was carrying something in her hand.  ‘Look,’ she said in rather a choking voice.  ‘I found it by the well.’  She handed it to Peter and sat down. […]  All now saw what it was — a little chess-knight, ordinary in size but extraordinarily heavy because it was made of pure gold; and the eyes in the horse’s head were two tiny little rubies — or rather one was, for the other had been knocked out.  ‘Why!’ said Lucy, ‘it’s exactly like one of the golden chessmen we used to play with when we were Kings and Queens at Cair Paravel.’

C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, ch. 2