Monday, January 20, 2020

Botticelli Triptych: Matinee at Lincoln Center

After picking out four concerts this season, I'm now deemed a subscriber to the NY Philharmonic.  This has, unexpectedly, resulted in some genuinely useful loot: a well-designed roomy packable shopping bag and a metrocard holder which helps guard against the twin dangers of folding and demagnetization.

I took some gambles on music that sounded cool. The Bluebeard's Castle program was certainly very interesting, especially after taking Signum's Folkloric Transformations class.

But my absolute favorite so far was the matinee on January 4, featuring:

  • Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1862-64)
  • Respighi: Trittico botticelliano (1927)
  • Haydn: Symphony No. 96 in D major, Miracle (1791)
The quintet consisted of pianist Jeffrey Kahane and "four Principal musicians from the Orchestra: Concertmaster Frank Huang; Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples; Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps; and Principal Cello Carter Brey." Each of them holds a named Chair position, which I've omitted from the quote.  Both women wore eye-catching outfits, much as female vocal soloists do – elegant, brightly colored gowns.  

So I was interested to see, when the four were re-absorbed into the orchestra for the remainder of the program, that the women changed back into their regular orchestra outfits to blend in.  

I really loved the Respighi piece, reflecting three paintings by my favorite artist.  It was absolutely beautiful.  La Primavera is in allegro vivace; L'adorazione dei Magi is andante lento; and La nascita di Venere is in allegro moderato.  

Unfortunately, my few scribbles on the music are mostly indecipherable, and I waited too long to remember the details that particularly struck me at the time.  But apparently the 3rd movement of the Brahms quintet (scherzo allegro) reminded me a bit of the Pink Panther theme for some reason, and some other point in the concert inspired the notation "almost galloping."

It was followed by a Q&A session which was pretty good, though they didn't call on me.  My question would have been: If you could choose any work to test the acoustics of the renovated concert hall, what would it be?  (I'd still like to know the answer!)  It would have been more interesting, I think, than the last question they took from the audience, which was basically an extended version of "Don't you know that Boston Symphony Hall is the best concert hall that has ever existed in the history of the universe, and why aren't you just copying them?"

Now that I think of it, there was one other non-musical thing that struck me quite forcibly during the first piece; but I'm not sure I want to memorialize it here.  Without a writing, it will probably slip away into the ether, but so be it.  

When No One Steps Up

It's easy to distinguish the hero from the rest of the crowd when he's the only one brave enough to step forward to accept a high-stakes one-on-one challenge.

But how to characterize the crowd's silence, when no one accepts OR declines outright?  Here are some tentative initial thoughts on examples in a few versions of the story of Guy of Warwick and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

(The earliest Anglo-Norman lay, Gui de Warewic, apparently was written shortly before 1204.  I haven't found the actual text yet, so I'm not sure what if anything it says about the incident.)

In Guy of Warwick (stanzas) in the Auchinleck Manuscript (est. between c. 1331 - 1340), we get a simile -- the nobles are as silent as men who shaved their crowns (i.e. as silent as monks):
[S]til seten erls & barouns          9801
As men hadde schauen her crounes;Nouȝt on answere nold.
Likewise, in the "first or 14th-century version" of the Romance of Guy of Warwick, on a summer's day, when the king asks for a champion to fight the Danes' giant in single combat:
They stode all styll, and lokyd down,
As a man had shavyn ther crown.      10395
Here, although the king recognizes this silence as cowardice, I'm not sure the narrator says so in his own voice.

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (probably mid-to-late 14th C and perhaps as early as 1348), during Arthur's Christmas revels:
Þerfore to answare watz arȝe mony aþel freke,
And al stouned at his steuen and stonstil seten
In a swoghe sylence þurȝ þe sale riche;
As al were slypped vpon slepe so slaked hor lotez
in hyȝe--

I deme hit not al for doute,
Bot sum for cortaysye--

Bot let hym þat al schulde loute
Cast vnto þat wyȝe.
So the Gawain poet uses a different simile - they are as silent as if they were asleep!  And the narrator pretty much calls them out on being too afraid to speak up, though it's slyly couched as if he were speaking in their defense.  But the narrator deems 'not al' of them were afraid; some may have been being courteously deferential.

In the "second or 15th-century version" of the Romance of Guy of Warwick:
All they sate stone stylle:
A worde þey spake nodur gode nor ylle.      10028
Nodur erle nor knyȝt, þat was þere,
Durste speke a worde for pewre fere.
Here, they were still as stones (the simile is apparently already fossilized into a conventional phrase, it would seem).  If I understand correctly, the narrator doesn't mince words: it's pure fear that keeps them silent.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Mixed Feelings

"It had always been a notion of [Sam's] that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. Of course, he also firmly held the incompatible belief that Mr. Frodo was the wisest person in the world (with the possible exception of Old Mr. Bilbo and of Gandalf)."
-- Tolkien,  LotR at IV.3.

The sailors "regarded [Dr Maturin] as a very valuable creature, but as one unaccountable for his actions outside the sickbay or the cockpit, being brutally ignorant of everything to do with the sea -- could scarely tell the difference between port and starboard, right and wrong -- almost an innocent, as one might say.  A gentleman to be boasted of, being a genuine physician as well as the boldest hand with a saw in the fleet, but to be concealed from view as much as possible, when in company with other ships."
-- O'Brian, Desolation Island p. 101.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Hamlet and the Loss of Fathers

Claudius on filial grief (I.ii):
'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow...
But of course, when he says "your father lost a father," he is also speaking quite literally of his own father.  He thus could have made this personal -- e.g., "your father and I lost a father" -- acknowledging his own past share in such grief.  Instead, he seeks refuge in the cold, impersonal, generic pattern of death, its inevitability, as if to distance himself from his own personal involvement in this particular and not-so-inevitable death.

* * *

And this focus on the inexorable workings of time (death comes to us all) suddenly reminds me of Macbeth, on receiving the news of his wife's death (V.v):
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time...
Her death, too, has been hastened by human hand -- albeit her own.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Inspector Morse: Death Is Now My Neighbour

I really liked this episode -- great ending for Morse personally and professionally, complete with a satisfying comeuppance to the reckless and ruthless and utterly creepy Clixby Bream.

But Clixby was right about one thing; Shelly Cornford certainly was naive.

I can somewhat see how he tricks her into not telling her husband the first time he propositions her.  She's in an alien environment, after all, and might quite innocently believe Clixby's representations about how things would go awry if she told Denis.

When we come to the second episode, however, Clixby's winning argument is that Denis would never forgive her if he lost the Mastership because she was unwilling to whore herself out for him.  If that were true, surely she would lose nothing by running it by Denis first.  (After all, the argument is premised on Denis eventually finding out that she didn't have sex with Clixby and being permanently angry and resentful about it.)  So when she sends Clixby to the other room, surely all she has to do is call Denis and say, "Hey, sweetie, Bream is telling me he'll make sure you get the Mastership if I have sex with him.  And he told me you'd never forgive me if I didn't -- is that true?"

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Weapons Screening at Meduseld: Wizards, Dwarves, and Men

The companions are warned right at the gate of Edoras that all weapons must be left at the threshold of Meduseld. Basically everyone but Legolas ignores the TSA instructions and acts totally surprised that "no weapons" actually refers to him. Here's the highlights reel:
Gate-guard: Théoden gives you leave to enter; but any weapon that you bear, be it only a staff, you must leave on the threshold. The doorwardens will keep them. (509)

Háma: Here I must bid you lay aside your weapons before you enter. (510)

Legolas (handing over his knife, quiver, and bow): Keep these well, for they come from the Golden Wood and the Lady of Lothlórien gave them to me.

Háma: No man will touch them, I promise you.

Gandalf (after Aragorn and Gimli balk): Here at least is my sword, goodman Háma. Keep it well. Glamdring it is called, for the Elves made it long ago. (511)

Aragorn (reluctantly, at Gandalf's bidding): Here I set it, but I command you not to touch it, nor to permit any other to lay hand on it. In this Elvish sheath dwells the Blade that was Broken and has been made again. Telchar first wrought it in the deeps of time. Death shall come to any man that draws Elendil's sword save Elendil's heir.

Háma: It shall be, lord, as you command.

Gimli: Well, if it has Andúril to keep it company, my axe may stay here too, without shame.

Háma (to Gandalf): Your staff. Forgive me, but that too must be left at the doors.

Gandalf: Foolishness! Prudence is one thing, but discourtesy is another. I am old. If I may not lean on my stick as I go, then I will sit out here, until it pleases Théoden to hobble out himself to speak with me.


One thing I hadn't remembered noticing before -- and have highlighted above -- is that the gate-guard specifically states that staffs are prohibited weapons. So Gandalf's feigned surprise and indignation is quite an act. (And both Háma and Aragorn surely see through his protestations, despite Aragorn's concurring characterization of the staff as an old man's support.)


What I noticed here flows from the characterization of each weapon:
  1. Legolas mentions only the origin of his weapons (not their names or lineage), and asks Háma merely to keep them well. This is sufficient, as Háma is clearly afraid of handling weapons from Faërie and volunteers that they will remain untouched.
  2. Gandalf provides name and origin of his sword, and likewise asks Háma to keep it well (no special request and no reaction from Háma).
  3. Aragorn provides name, lineage, and history of Andúril and commands that no one touch it, and Háma, clearly awed, indicates the command will be obeyed.
  4. Gimli does not provide a name or lineage for his axe, nor does he require it to be untouched once he leaves it. We might infer from this it's an ordinary axe, and that only dwarvish pride spurs him to follow Aragorn's lead: He's sure as heck not going to comply, if Aragorn is exempt! 
    This strikingly echoes the situation at Lothlórien, where Gimli wasn't going to be the only one blindfolded! (Tellingly, he first relents on condition that Legolas would be blindfolded too, and -- just as tellingly -- the Elf balks at this until the whole Company ultimately agrees to the condition.)

For this, I was struck by Aragorn saying "Death shall come to any man that draws Elendil's sword save Elendil's heir."

He makes it sound like a curse that lies on the sword (think Túrin). But is Andúril indeed cursed? Who exactly would have cursed it, and when? Surely not Aragorn -- I don't think he has the power.
Is he threatening to kill anyone who draws the sword? Seems unlikely; how would he do it, weaponless? And how would he know if someone drew the sword?

One potentially significant fact is that Aragorn doesn't provide a timeframe as to when death will come to a man (other than him) who draws Elendil's sword. So quite possibly Aragorn is saying something perfectly true -- since death shall come to all men -- and making it sound like a curse by suggesting that he himself is exempt. And in a sense Aragorn is exempt, because it is given to him to choose the time of his death. That is, death technically does not come to him; rather, he goes to death, when his work is done and the time is right.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

A Few Stories About the Rohirrim

Uglúk's lore:
  • they "have better night-eyes than most Men" (454)
    • STATUS: This may or may not be true; riders miss the hobbits at night (457) but are described as "keen-eyed" when they hunt down the remaining orcs  after dawn (459)
  • "their horses [...] can see the night-breeze" (454)
    • STATUS: confirmed, in Tolkien's typically ambivalent way: "Whether because of some special keenness of sight, or because of some other sense, the horse lifted and sprang lightly over them; but its rider did not see them" (457)
Isengarders' taunts to the Northern orcs:
  • they "will catch you and eat you" (452)
    • STATUS: hahaha! or more likely, leave your stinking orc corpses on the road unburied -- except where the corpses are numerous enough to burn in a big heap (440)
Aragorn's explanation of what he, Gimli and Legolas have observed:
  • "they do not heed the wrath of Fangorn, for they come here seldom, and they do not go under the trees" (441)
Story that they pay tribute to Sauron/Mordor:
  • At the Council of Elrond, Gandalf reports Gwaihir's words: "They pay a tribute of horses [...] and send many yearly to Mordor, or so it is said; but they are not yet under the yoke" (262).  Aragorn is very surprised and deeply grieved to hear this; Boromir is certain it is "a lie that comes from the Enemy" (id.)
  • On the brink of actually meeting them, Gimli reminds Legolas and Aragorn that "Gandalf spoke of a rumor that they pay tribute to Mordor" (431).  Aragorn now says he believes it "no more than did Boromir" (431), although he remains uncertain about their loyalties (262, 430, 433). 
    • STATUS: When Gimli asks about it, Éomer angrily refutes it (436).

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Saruman and the Boggart: A Slight Point of Connection

Just noticed a tiny point of connection between Saruman and Rowling's boggarts. It is a point merely implied by Gandalf's words, and not fully developed in Tolkien; but coincidentally brought to fruition in one of Harry Potter's Defense Against the Dark Arts classes. (I am not in any way suggesting that Rowling had it in mind.)

For simplicity, I'm reporting the dialogue as if it were a script.
Gimli: I will come. I wish to see him and learn if he really looks like you.

Gandalf: And how will you learn that, Master Dwarf? Saruman could look like me in your eyes, if it suited his purpose. And are you yet wise enough to detect all his counterfeits? Well, we shall see, perhaps. He may be shy of showing himself before many different eyes together. [...]
(Tolkien, LotR, III.10 at 576-77).

Hermione: [A boggart is] a shape-shifter. It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.

Lupin: [...] So the boggart sitting in the darkness within [the wardrobe] has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. [...]This means that we have a huge advantage over the boggart before we begin. Have you spotted it, Harry?

Harry: Er — because there are so many of us, it won’t know what shape it should be?

Lupin: Precisely. It’s always best to have company when you’re dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a boggart make that very mistake — tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.
(Rowling, HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban, ch. 7 at 133-34).

However, in the event, Saruman is not shy appearing before many different eyes - he appears as "an old man, swathed in a great cloak, the colour of which was not easy to tell, for it changed if they moved their eyes or if he stirred. His face was long, with a high forehead, he had deep darkling eyes, hard to fathom, though the look they now bore was grave and benevolent, and a little weary" (LotR, III.10 at 578). It is his voice that ultimately holds the peril. And when Gandalf's voice proves stronger, forcing Saruman to turn back when he would leave them, even this last chosen mask fails; "[h]is face was lined and shrunken" as he comes slowly back to the iron rail (id. at 583).

And Rowling's boggart cycles through many forms, each dismissed in turn with laughter by the targeted student, going faster and faster -- "Crack! The banshee turned into a rat, which chased its tail in a circle, then — crack! — became a rattlesnake, which slithered and writhed before — crack! — becoming a single, bloody eyeball" -- until it is thoroughly confused and finally banished by the group's laughter (PoA, ch 7 at 138).

And this brings us on to a second, perhaps more significant, point of connection.  Because, of course, the power of Saruman's voice is likewise finally shattered by laughter.  In a final gambit, Saruman has turned his full attention and persuasiveness to Gandalf.  The onlookers recognize these two wizards are "[o]f loftier mould [...]: reverend and wise.  It was inevitable that they should make alliance" (LotR, III.10 at 582).  Even Théoden fears betrayal.  And yet --
Then Gandalf laughed.  The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.

Works Consulted

Rowling, J. K.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Scholastic Inc., 2001.
Tolkien, J. R. R.  The Lord of the Rings.  50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Thursday, August 29, 2019

That Hideous Strength: Lewis Boosts His Friends

I (ahem) still haven't gotten around to discussing C. S. Lewis's references to "Numinor" in any detail.

But I think it's important to note that he wasn't only cross-promoting Tolkien in That Hideous Strength -- he was also cross-promoting Williams:
   "I  wish you'd read the poem I'm reading," said Camilla. "For it says in one line just what I feel about this waiting:
All lies in a passion of patience, my lord's rule."

   "What's that from?" asked Jane.

   "Taliessin through Logres.”