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