Monday, July 26, 2021

Boromir Names His Reward

Boromir held out long against this choice; but when it became plain that Frodo would follow Aragorn, wherever he went, he gave in. 'It is not the way of the Men of Minas Tirith to desert their friends at need,' he said, 'and you will need my strength, if ever you are to reach the Tindrock. To the tall isle I will go, but no further. There I shall turn to my home, alone if my help has not earned the reward of any companionship.'

Boromir's comments here show a curious sense of something akin to entitlement.  He starts out promisingly; since he can't convince Aragorn/Frodo to come with him, he is willing to accompany them for a bit because it is "not the way" of his people to "desert their friends at need."  

But he immediately develops the theme of "at need" by suggesting that the other eight cannot make it – even so far as the Tindrock – without him and his strength.  (He is perhaps conveniently forgetting that it was Legolas who most recently dismayed the enemy by shooting a fell beast from the sky.)

This then takes yet a darker turn in his final sentence, that he will turn to his home at the tall isle "alone if my help has not earned the reward of any companionship."  This is where the clear sense of entitlement comes in; his "help" (which he deems necessary to the others) should, in his view earn a reward.  So he has, rhetorically, come quite a distance from it simply being "the way" of his people to stick by their friends when needed; he now thinks he deserves a reward for it.

The reward he names is "companionship"; the only proper way to show appreciation or gratitude for his help is to accompany him.  Significantly, he does not, even now, suggest that any of the others have any help to offer him or Minas Tirith (although the Ring can never be far from his mind and if Frodo accompanies him, so does the Ring).  Clearly, he believes he has the strength to reach Minas Tirith alone, but is setting up anyone who chooses to follow the original quest as a poor friend, ungrateful for all he has done for them, or worse.

It's darker still when you realize this whole little speech is meant almost entirely for Frodo's ears.  It is clearly the four hobbits who have most needed the help of others to get as far as they have.  But would Boromir be satisfied if Merry, Pippin and Sam rewarded him with their companionship to Minas Tirith, while Frodo went on with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas?  I don't think so.  Even if everyone but Frodo joined him, I think it would not be sufficient.  The reward he wants is Frodo coming with him to Minas Tirith, thus bringing the Ring under the dominion of Denethor.  

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Hnau Hunting Hnau in Middle-earth

I've always been troubled by Ghân-buri-Ghân's request to Théoden: 'if you live after the Darkness, then leave Wild Men alone in the woods and do not hunt them like beasts any more.'  LotR 833.

That is, we have rational beings (the Rohirrim) hunting other rational beings (the Wild Men) 'like beasts.'  One presumes this is done either as "pest control" (as with wolves or orcs) and/or for sport, rather than for food, but it still raises an equally disturbing question: What they do with the Wild Men once they've killed them?  One doesn't bury beasts after a hunt.  Do the Rohirrim display the heads as trophies or warnings, as Beorn does with the goblin and Warg ('A goblin's head was stuck outside the gate and a warg-skin was nailed to a tree just beyond.'  Hobbit 123)?

If nothing else, Ghân-buri-Ghân's comment re-contextualizes Aragorn's much earlier jest on discovering Frodo's mithril coat: 'Here's a pretty hobbit-skin to wrap an elven-princeling in!  If it were known that hobbits had such hides, all the hunters of Middle-earth would be riding to the Shire.'  LotR 336.

This is a much creepier comment than it seemed at first, given that hnau do hunt other hnau in Middle-earth.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit.  HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

--. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Case of the Fallen Warrior: The Faerie Queene III.iv & The Lord of the Rings

I won't claim that Tolkien was 'influenced' or 'inspired' by book III of The Faerie Queene (although Shippey has apparently done so - see Cilli 271), but I was struck by some 'set pieces' in FQ III.iv that remind me of certain aspects of Tolkien's legendarium.  I'm calling them 'set pieces' (rather imprecisely) because I believe these are images, scenes, and/or ideas that multiple authors have used or returned to, and are thus found in multiple sources.  Tolkien would certainly have been aware of them in Spenser, but would likely also have been aware of them in other works or traditions.

To my mind, perhaps the most striking point of similarity is between FQ III.iv and The Lord of the Rings a fallen warrior is believed to be dead, until one with greater leechcraft arrives on the scene.  In each instance, the battle is one-on-one between a male warrior and a gender-hidden female warrior; the male warrior gets in one mighty, shattering blow before he is defeated by the female warrior's first stroke.  Moreover, in both, there is a misinterpreted prophecy about the defeat or destruction of the male warrior!  

Of course, I've deliberately described these elements in a manner that maximizes their similarities; they do not map one-to-one.  In FQ, it's the male warrior (Marinell) who is mistakenly believed to have been KIA; in LotR, it's Éowyn.  For present purposes, we'll look at three aspects of the scene. 

The Challenge and the Battle

Marinell is stationed at the entrance to a beach of 'pearles and pretious stones of great assay' as well as golden ore (III.iv.18); he challenges all comers and, until now, has always been victorious.  The warrior maiden Britomart, who is dressed as a knight and therefore always assumed to be male, arrives and does not declare her identity.  Marinell offers the chance to fight him and be defeated, or flee: 'Sir knight, that doest thy voyage rashly make / By this forbidden way in my despight, / Ne doest by others death ensample take, / I read thee soone retyre, whiles thou hast might / Least afterwards it be too late to take thy flight' (III.iv.14).  Britomart responds disdainfully to Marinell's 'proud threat' and, without waiting for a reply, runs right at him (III.iv.15). Marinell gets in one good blow, striking her 'full on the brest, that made her downe / Decline her head, & touch her crouper with her crowne' (id.).  Undaunted, she smites him with a mighty blow, defeating him, and rides on.

In Tolkien, it is the female warrior Éowyn who issues the initial challenge, commanding the Nazgûl to depart and 'Leave the dead in peace!' (LotR 841).  In essence, she is attempting to guard her beloved kinsman's body, just as Marinell was trying to guard his precious beach.  The Black Captain, like Marinell, has no idea the warrior before him is a woman. He issues a counter-challenge, as he, too, is certain he will kill this paltry opponent; he threatens her with long-lived torment (rather than death) if she comes 'between the Nazgûl and his prey!' (id.).  Éowyn, like Britomart, responds defiantly.  Unlike Britomart, however, Éowyn is on the defensive from the start.  First she must defend herself against an attack by the Nazgûl's steed, slaying it.  Only then does the Black Rider rise and 'With a cry of hatred that stung the very ears like venom he let fall his mace' (842).  This one blow shivers her shield, breaks her arm, and brings her to her knees.  He prepares to deal a death-blow with the mace; instead Merry attacks, Éowyn rises and smites her foe, and both she and the Nazgûl Lord fall.

So we can even increase our list of similar elements: a male warrior and male-passing female warrior meet; the initial challenge is issued by the one guarding something precious; it is met with defiance; there ensues a single mighty exchange of blows between those two, wherein the male strikes first; the female's stroke is even mightier and the male is defeated; and only one of the two is left alive on the battleground.

Tolkien has, however, complicated the picture with a counter-challenge by the Nazgûl bringing in supernatural horror and threats of torment, and a critical intervention by Merry (which proves necessary to undo the Nazgûl's supernatural advantage so that he can be destroyed).  Left on the battleground are Merry, Éowyn, Théoden, the bodies of Snowmane and the Nazgûl's steed, and the Nazgûl's's gear and garments.  A character we know and care about (Merry) is left to report on the scene; for all he knows intially, both Éowyn and Théoden are dead. 

Interestingly, Spenser has our heroine Britomart ride on, unconcerned with the fate of her foe. Thus, the misdiagnosis of Marinell is made by characters we've never met before: his mother Cymoent and her sister nymphs, who somehow receive word of his fall.

The Misdiagnosis

Notably, Cymoent and the other nymphs not only wail over Marinell's body (III.iv. 35-39); they also handle his body extensively without realizing their mistake: 'when they all had sorrowed their fill, / They softly gan to search his griesly wound: / And that they might him handle more at will, / They him disarm'd' (FQ III.iv.40).  Moreover, they 'softly wipt away the gelly blood / From th'orifice: which having well vpbound, / They pourd in soueraine balme, and Nectar good, / Good both for earthly medicine, and for heauenly food' (id.).  Through this entire process, they have absolutely no doubt of Marinell's death.

And then Liagore, the medically trained nymph, feels his pulse and realizes the reports of Marinell's death are greatly exaggerated:

Tho, when the lilly handed Liagore
(This Liagore whylome had learned skill
In leaches craft, by great Appolloes lore [...])
Did feele his pulse, she knew there staied still
Some little life his feeble sprites emong;
Which to his mother told, despeire she from her flong.  (FQ III.iv.41)

In Tolkien, Merry lifts Théoden's hand to kiss it, and discovers that Théoden is alive (842)  He sees Éowyn 'through a mist' of tears 'as she lay and did not move' (id.).  He is certainly convinced she is dead, but he does not touch her.  Éomer likewise diagnoses Éowyn as dead immediately on sight: 'suddenly he beheld his sister Éowyn as she lay, and he knew her' (LotR 844).  He does not linger to mourn, but impulsively, in the grip of a 'fey mood,' spurs 'back to the front of the great host' and rallies them with a cry of 'Death!' ... and they surge forward 'like a great tide' (id.).  So at this point, no one has taken the time to examine her body.  Thereafter, those left behind 'lifted Éowyn gently up and bore her after' Théoden, believing that she is dead (id.). 

Then along comes Imrahil.  Tolkien's deliberate archaism here – Imrahil referring to medics/doctors as 'leeches' – provides a linguistic echo of Spenser's passage:

'Are there no leeches among you? She is hurt, to the death maybe, but I deem that she yet lives.' And he held the bright-burnished vambrace that was upon his arm before her cold lips, and behold! a little mist was laid on it hardly to be seen. (LotR 845) 

As compared with Spenser, Tolkien has greatly heightened the tension and interest in the scene, by having a known and developed character – one of the good guys – mistaken for dead by other known and developed characters.  

The unexpected reveal that there is yet a little life in the fallen is also more dramatic or even cinematic, in Tolkien's version, because a bit of mist on polished armor is a visible sign of life, even if it is hard to see.  By contrast, the other nymphs in Spenser must take Liagore's word for it that she has felt a pulse.

Coda: The Misinterpreted Prophecy 

Marinell's mother, Cymoent, had consulted with Proteus, who 'was with prophecy inspir'd,' about her son's fate.  Proteus urged Cymoent "from womankind to keep [Marinell] well: / For of a woman he should haue much ill, / A virgin strange and stout him should dismay, or kill" (III.iv.25).  

From this, Cymoent mistakenly assumed love/sex/romance would be his undoing (III.iv.26-28), and urged him every day "The loue of women not to entertain" (III.iv.26).  As of stanza 46, which abruptly changes gear to follow Arthur and the Redcrosse knight, it seems that neither Marinell nor Cymoent and her sister nymphs have realized that Marinell's foe was a woman.  Rather, Cymoent believes Proteus has made a false prophecy: 'Not this the worke of womans hand ywis, / That so deep wound through these deare members driue' (III.iv.37).   She does not even suspect her own misinterpretation ('I feared loue: but they that loue do liue") (id.).

On the battlefield, the Nazgûl Lord boasts of his prophecy: 'No living man may hinder me!' (841).  Éowyn then reveals that she is not a 'living man' but a woman (id.).  This discomfits him; 'the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt' and he is 'in doubt and malice intent upon the woman before him' (id.).  It is of course this intense focus and doubt which allows Merry to creep in close enough to make his own move.

The prophecy in LotR certainly echoes Macbeth far more closely than FQ, but I think all three may be worth considering together.

  • The Nazgûl Lord trusts that no living man may hinder me; he is discomfited by learning that his challenger is a woman; and it turns out that a woman and a hobbit (with the aid of a dagger made by men who are now dead) may hinder him.
  • Macbeth trusts that none of woman born shall harm Macbeth; he is discomfited by learning that Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped; and it turns out that Macduff shall harm him. 
  • Cymoent and Marinell believe that of a woman he should have much ill and be dismayed or killed; it turns out that a woman should dismay him in battle, but on finding her son apparently dead, Cymoent simply believes the prophecy is mistaken (she does not suspect that it has been fulfilled to the letter).

So Tolkien's version of the mistaken prophecy trope has elements found in Shakespeare and in Spenser.  Again, it is surely more dramatic to shatter the complacency of the person who trusts in the protection of a prophecy he has misinterpreted (as Tolkien and Shakespeare do), rather than revealing the existence of the prophecy to readers only after the battle (as Spenser does). 

Works Cited

Cilli, Oronzo. Tolkien's Library: An Annotated Checklist, Luna Press Publishing, 2019.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Edited by Thomas P. Roche, Penguin, 1987.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005.

Monday, March 22, 2021

And Yet, Here We Are

When my little brother got engaged, many many moons ago, I jokingly awarded him the title of 'Interim Elder Sibling' - since he was leapfrogging over me in milestones for adulthood. Never suspected at the time that my status as first-born could ever be in doubt.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Dragon Battle - Faerie Queene I.XI

Artwork by Trina Schart Hyman, from
Saint George and the Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges.

I am not at all certain that this battle, though epic, is entirely meant to be taken seriously.  I'll address just a few points that occurred to me in reading Canto XI.

Making Mountains Out of Great Hills?

The showdown is bracketed with landscape-inflected similes, though there seems to be some 'inflation' here (from a great hill to a heaped mountain): 

Eftsoones that dreadfull Dragon they espide,
Where stretcht he lay vpon the sunny side,
Of a great hill, himselfe like a great hill. (4)*

So downe he fell, and like an heaped mountain lay. (54)

We might be tempted to say the initial impression of the dragon as 'like a great hill' is merely due to distance, but I think it is telling that he lies like a great hill on the sunny side of a great hill.  Even at a distance, one ordinarily distinguishes between great hills and mountains.  He's not described as akin to a mountain on the side of a mountain.  It's 'great hills' all round, at the start.

Long-Shot Survival in the Cruell Rending Clawes 

In stanza 12, we learn the dragon's "cruell rending clawes" far exceed the sharpest steel:

Dead was it sure, as sure as death in deed,
What euer thing does touch his rauenous pawes,
Or what within his reach he euer drawes (12)

Well, that sounds pretty clear, doesn't it?  But after a fierce blow from our hero, the dragon is so annoyed, he takes to the air:

[...] he cutting way 
With his broad sayles, about him soared round: 
At last low stouping with vnweldie sway,
Snatcht vp both horse & Man, to beare them quite away. (18)

The dragon bears them "So farre as Ewghen bow a shaft may send" before he's forced to "let them downe before his flightes ende" (19).  

Spenser characterizes this journey as "Long," but just how far does a yew bow shoot?  Perhaps about 300 yards, it would seem.  

By way of comparison, the dragon's tail "of three furlongs does but little lacke" (11); that's a little less than 660 yards.  So the dragon bears knight and steed not even half as far as his own tail-length!!!  That's hardly a good show.

Moreover, despite the promise of stanza 12, knight and steed are still in fine fettle after being carried in the dragon's claws, and the knight is able to get in a good spear-thrust under the dragon's left wing (20)!

There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune

From the knight's most excellent spear-thrust, 

Forth flowed fresh
A gushing riuer of blacke goarie blood,
That drowned all the land, whereon he stood;
The streame thereof would driue a water-mill. (22)

Amazingly, the knight remains mounted on his steed despite dragon's blood gushing so powerfully that it would drive a water-mill; it's only when the dragon hurls his "hideous tayle" about that the steed gets knocked over and throws his rider (23).

And even as all the land drowns in the blacke goarie blood, the well of life – into which the knight will soon fall backward when "ouerthrowen" by the dragon (30) – fortunately remains completely untainted! 

A Dental Hygiene Nightmare?

Other little grace notes abound.  I like the contrast between the arguably bucolic scene of the dragon nestled like a great hill on a great hill ... and the shark-like configuration of the dragon's teeth: "Three rankes of yron teeth enraunged were, / In which yet trickling bloud and gobbets raw / Of late deuoured bodies did appear" (13).  

This dental hygiene nightmare is seemingly confirmed by the noxious cloud that comes "Out of his stinking gorge" filling "all the ayre about with smoke and stench" (id.).


* On twitter, @virginicus connected this somewhat odd simile to one appearing in Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN #38 ("The Hunt").  Dialogue between grandfather and granddaughter:

[GF, telling story:] One day he took a handkerchief, and wrapped up his few possessions -- some tarnished bronze coins, a small bone that he had carved into the shape of a small bone, a thin wooden finger-ring his mother had left him...
[GD, interrupting:] A small bone that he had what?
[GF:] Carved into the shape of a small bone.
[GD:] But it was a small bone already.
[GF:] He carved it into the shape of a different small bone.  All right?

Specifically, @virginicus questioned whether this might have been "a jab at Spenser’s lame simile."  I have no idea of the truth of the matter, but I like to think he's right.

 But I suppose in light of the interrupted flight (meaning he didn't reach his intended destination, whatever it may have been), we at least can absolve the dragon of selecting a ludicrously unwise battleground which contains both the well of life (30) and the tree of life (46) to restore his foe twice from death overnight.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

2021 Reading Projects

It's time to undertake some reading projects for 2021.  I think the focus might be poetry.

  • What I have in mind first is tackling Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.  I recall reading at least the first stanza in college – I associate it with Professor Kent Cartwright's course on Medieval and Renaissance literature – but I am quite sure we did not read the whole thing.  If I read one canto per day, it should take 74 days.  (Six books of 12 cantos each, plus the 2 cantos of mutabilities.)
  • I'd like to finish reading "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" in middle English.  The poem has 101 stanzas, of which I've read the first 22.  So if I read one stanza per day, we're talking 79 days.
That seems entirely doable!  After that, who knows.  Other targets might include "The Pearl" and "The Dream of the Rood."  I also want to go back to some of Tolkien's poetry, esp. "Light as Leaf on Linden-tree."  And probably Tennyson's "Idylls of the King."

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Altering the Previous Scheme for All Remaining Time

@alas_not_me was reflecting recently on fate and free will in Middle-earth (as one does), and he mentioned this sentence which I've highlighted in bold:

[O]ne of the Eldar would have said that for all Elves and Men the shape, condition, and therefore the past and future physical development and destiny of this ‘earth’ was determined and beyond their power to change[...].  The Downfall of Númenor was ‘a miracle’ as we might say, or as they a direct action of Eru within time that altered the previous scheme for all remaining time.  (Tolkien 185)

What gripped me was the idea of a divine intervention that permanently altered the prior scheme; it reminded me immediately of this passage from Perelandra:

If he [Ransom] now failed, this world also would hereafter be redeemed. If he were not the ransom, Another would be. Yet nothing was ever repeated. Not a second crucifixion: perhaps--who knows--not even a second Incarnation . . . some act of even more appalling love, some glory of yet deeper humility. For he had seen already how the pattern grows and how from each world it sprouts into the next through some other dimension. The small external evil which Satan had done in Malacandra was only as a line: the deeper evil he had done in Earth was as a square: if Venus fell, her evil would be a cube--her Redemption beyond conceiving. Yet redeemed she would be.  (Lewis 126)

Tolkien seems to be describing a divine intervention, in response to human sin, that resulted in a permanent change in the physical nature or essence of Middle-earth itself (as I recall, the straight way to the Blessed Realm was bent, so that humans could no longer get there or even see it, no matter how far they sailed).  This cutting-off of mortals could potentially be seen either as a punishment or as a means of physically enforcing a prohibition or quarantine (since mortals don't always do well with willed obedience or compliance).  Or both.  But it does not appear to be a redemptive act.

Ransom's reflections in Perelandra seem to me almost the flip side of Tolkien's comment.  Lewis is focusing on the ever-increasing evil, to which Maleldil will respond in what can only be increasingly scheme-altering ways.  Of course, Lewis is not looking at changes to the physical make-up or structure of the world, but the enormity of the divine interventions necessary to redeem fallen hnau in different worlds.


Lewis, C. S. Perelandra. 1st Scribner Classics ed, Scribner Classics, 1996.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Fate and Free Will,” edited by Carl Hostetter. Tolkien Studies, vol. VI, 2009, pp. 183–88.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Two Echoes of 'The Hobbit' in 'The Lord of the Rings'

I've noticed two passages from the opening chapter of The Hobbit that seem to be echoed in The Lord of the Rings, albeit significantly reworked and repurposed.  Here are some initial thoughts, which I may refine further.

I. Dismissal of the Unwelcome Visitor

A. Good Morning!

In the opening chapter of The Hobbit, Bilbo's initial friendly greeting to a passing stranger (eventually revealed to be Gandalf) prompts an oddly literal-minded interrogation into what exactly Bilbo means by "good morning."  A carefree Bilbo good-humoredly agrees to all the suggested meanings and more.  But as the stranger introduces a more disturbing topic – the prospect of sending Bilbo on an adventure – our hero resorts back to the same polite formula once more, this time as a clear dismissal: 

“Good morning!” he said at last.  “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!  You might try over The Hill or across The Water.”  By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.

“What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf.  “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

“Not at all, not at all, my dear sir!  Let me see, I don’t think I know your name?”

“Yes, yes, my dear sir – and I do know your name, Mr. Bilbo Baggins.  And you do know my name, though you don’t remember that I belong to it.  I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me! To think that I should have lived to be good-morninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!”  (The Annotated Hobbit 33, footnote omitted)

As I described it in my essay on etiquette humor in The Hobbit:

Bilbo tries to dismiss Gandalf and end the conversation by saying “Good morning!” and “thank you!” in quick succession (H 6). As Shippey notes, this “insincere politeness [...] is socially coded to mean its opposite” (9), but when Gandalf points out what Bilbo is doing, Bilbo denies it. Obviously, it would be impolite for Bilbo to acknowledge in so many words that Gandalf’s presence is unwelcome, and as a result he is too embarrassed to admit that Gandalf’s interpretation is correct. Thus, Bilbo’s own concern for the appearance of proper behaviour traps him into a conversation that he finds more and more alarming, until the only way that he sees to escape is to invite Gandalf to tea.  (Smith 118)

In other words, Bilbo's attempt to signal to Gandalf in a socially acceptable manner that he is unwelcome and should buzz off not only fails, but completely backfires as it gives Gandalf an excuse to return (with friends!) and railroad him into a most alarming adventure.

Bilbo's utter ineffectiveness in dismissing Gandalf is naturally played for comedy in The Hobbit.  But much of the humor, and its significance for setting the plot in motion, stems from Gandalf's deep familiarity with the social conventions that constrain Bilbo, and his working or flouting them, at will, to his own advantage.

B. Good Night and Good-Day to You! 

Once again in The Lord of the Rings, we see hobbits signaling to passing strangers that they are unwelcome with words of greeting socially coded to indicate dismissal.  Except this time, the strangers in question just happen to be Black Riders (most likely Khamûl in both instances) on a mission from Mordor.

In Book One, Chapter 3, Frodo overhears "voices, just round the corner by the end of Bagshot Row."  He recognizes one as the Gaffer's, while the other one is almost inaudible but "strange, and somehow unpleasant."  The Gaffer "seemed put out" by the stranger's questioning, but Frodo can only hear the answer portion of the dialogue:

‘No, Mr. Baggins has gone away.  Went this morning, and my Sam went with him: anyway all his stuff went.  Yes, sold out and gone, I tell’ee.  Why?  Why’s none of my business, or yours.  Where to?  That ain’t no secret.  He’s moved to Bucklebury or some such place, away down yonder.  Yes it is – a tidy way.  I’ve never been so far myself; they’re queer folks in Buckland.   No, I can’t give no message.  Good night to you!’ (LotR 69)

Throughout the conversation, the Gaffer seems to be providing the socially minimal appearance of "helpfulness" that at best only thinly veils his annoyance at the stranger's nosiness.  Even his explanation that Frodo has gone "to Bucklebury or some such place" at first sounds like an old man's vagueness about matters of little import to him.  But this seems to be a bit of deliberate misdirection while avoiding the lie direct, as the Gaffer later flatly tells Sam "I've sent him on to Bucklebury" (LotR 75).  Crickhollow is another few miles to the north and east of Bucklebury, and more isolated.

The Gaffer's final comment – "Good night to you!" – is a dismissal.  Whether or not the Black Rider is familiar with the convention, the tone and delivery surely makes clear to the Black Rider that his questions are unwelcome and the evening "won't be good till [he] moves off."  Unlike Gandalf, the Black Rider then leaves without demur, as "Footsteps went away down the Hill."  A crotchety old hobbit has successfully baffled a Black Rider.

In the very next chapter (I.4), Farmer Maggot recounts his own encounter with a Black Rider who was trespassing on his property.  In this instance, the initial greeting is clearly a dismissal.  Indeed, it cannot be mistaken for a polite welcome, as the hobbit immediately tells the stranger to exit his property and get back to the public road:

‘“Good-day to you!” I says, going out to him. “This lane don’t lead anywhere, and wherever you may be going, your quickest way will be back to the road.”  I didn’t like the looks of him; and when Grip came out, he took one sniff and let out a yelp as if he had been stung: he put down his tail and bolted off howling.  The black fellow sat quite still.

‘“I come from yonder,” he said, slow and stiff-like, pointing back west, over my fields, if you please.  “Have you seen Baggins?” he asked in a queer voice, and bent down towards me.  I could not see any face, for his hood fell down so low; and I felt a sort of shiver down my back.  But I did not see why he should come riding over my land so bold.

‘“Be off!” I said.  “There are no Bagginses here.  You’re in the wrong part of the Shire.  You had better go back west to Hobbiton – but you can go by road this time.”

‘“Baggins has left,” he answered in a whisper.  “He is coming.  He is not far away.  I wish to find him.  If he passes will you tell me?  I will come back with gold.”

‘“No you won’t,” I said. “You’ll go back where you belong, double quick.  I give you one minute before I call all my dogs.”

‘He gave a sort of hiss.  It might have been laughing, and it might not.  Then he spurred his great horse right at me, and I jumped out of the way only just in time.  I called the dogs, but he swung off, and rode through the gate and up the lane towards the causeway like a bolt of thunder.  What do you think of that?’  (LotR 94)

Here, of course, the Black Rider does not immediately depart on being good-nighted.  Farmer Maggot has to dismiss him three times (a traditional approach when dealing with creatures of Faërie), the third time rejecting a proffered bribe and threatening to sic the dogs on him.

The hiss at the end is wonderfully ambiguous in this passage – is the Black Rider hissing with annoyance at this belligerent, uncooperative hobbit, apparently foolishly unaware of the danger he's courting?  And/or hissing with amusement at the threat of calling "all my dogs" when the first dog slunk off in fear?  Although when we recall that he hissed at the Gaffer, too – "Hissed at me, he did" (LotR 75) – I'm inclined to think it's frustration or annoyance more than anything else. 

So, in both these hobbit-Rider encounters, the hobbits ultimately prevail, apparently by sheer spunk, while far mightier folk (e.g. the armies of Gondor) have quailed.[FN*]  Of course, it helps that the Riders apparently are not permitted to exercise their full powers while seeking information in the Shire.  

But it would seem that Khamûl perhaps also lacks the deep familarity with social conventions and hobbit psychology that allowed Gandalf to win a war of words against Bilbo.  He therefore lives (if that is the right word) to be good-nighted and good-dayed by an elderly gardener and a country farmer, as if he were selling buttons at the door.

II. Startled By a Wizard's Light Trick 

This is one I noticed in February 2018.  In both The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf suddenly strikes a light and one of his interlocutors, startled, falls to the floor.

Bilbo is shaken by the prospect of an adventure from which he might not return.  He shrieks, startling the dwarves and causing them to knock over a table.  Gandalf strikes a light to bring order to the chaos: 

Gandalf struck a blue light on the end of his magic staff, and in its firework glare the poor little hobbit could be seen kneeling on the hearth-rug, shaking like a jelly that was melting. Then he fell flat on the floor, and kept on calling out “struck by lightning, struck by lightning!” over and over again; and that was all they could get out of him for a long time.  So they took him and laid him out of the way on the drawing-room sofa with a drink at his elbow, and they went back to their dark business.   (The Annotated Hobbit 47) 
Since Bilbo starts from a kneeling position when he falls flat on the floor, it seems most plausible that he falls forward, onto his face.  His cowardice, his comically over-exaggerated reaction to the wizard's practical light-trick, sidelines him from the action (amusingly termed the dwarves' "dark business") for a while.

Then this scene in Book Three, Chapter 6 of The Lord of the Rings seems to hearken back to it, although the context is quite different, as Gandalf is making a display of his power to command everyone's attention.  Especially Théoden's, since after an initial exchange of greetings between them, it is Wormtongue alone who has spoken, as if undertaking the burden of conversation with Gandalf on Théoden's behalf.  Gandalf soon has had enough of this.  Drawing himself up, he says:

‘[...] I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.’ 

He raised his staff.  There was a roll of thunder.  The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night.  The fire faded to sullen embers.  Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth. 

In the gloom they heard the hiss of Wormtongue’s voice: “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff?  That fool, Háma, has betrayed us!”  There was a flash as if lightning had cloven the roof.  Then all was silent.  Wormtongue sprawled on his face.  (LotR 514)

So what Gandalf does here in Théoden's hall is considerably more elaborate than merely turning on a wizardly light for the company to see by.  Here, he is working multiple light and sound effects to sideline Wormtongue:  First, he implies that lightning will soon fall, setting the mood and preparing his audience.  Second, he creates the sound of thunder and darkens both the sky (as if generating an eclipse) and the hall (the fire fades to embers).  Third, there is a great flash, as if lightning has broken through the roof.  All this is done in order that Théoden might "hearken to" Gandalf directly, rather than allowing Wormtongue to serve as intermediary and buffer (id.).

Seeming to wield the powers of a storm and/or an eclipse are, I believe, traditional calling-cards of a magician.  I'm virtually certain these effects are a powerful illusion and Wormtongue was not, in fact, struck by lightning.  So why is he sprawled on his face at the end of this passage?  I think it shows Wormtongue's lack of courage.  He was, until now, "sitting upon the steps of the dais" (LotR 513).  Either he has risen in an attempt to flee, and stumbled and fallen in terror, or he has thrown himself forward on to the floor to be absolutely sure that he will not be high enough to draw a feared lightning bolt.  Since Wormtongue "remained lying on the floor" as Éowyn helps Théoden stand (LotR 515), it seems likely that Wormtongue has managed to knock himself out either way.[FN**]  

Wormtongue's cowardice is different from Bilbo's, of course; it is a realisticly depicted cowardly response to a wizard's apparent unleashing of a lightning storm indoors.  It not only confirms our already low opinion of Wormtongue, but it helps communicate the same view to Théoden (and all the others present who were somehow able to face the terror of an uncanny storm without falling or throwing themselves on the floor).  Plus, Wormtongue appears to be out cold.  It thus has the effect of completely sidelining the serving-man, so that Gandalf can speak with the king.  Wormtongue does not appear again for several pages, after Théoden has started to recover himself and his strength and to take better counsel; and even then, Wormtongue  comes out following Háma and "cringing between two other men" (LotR 519).

The cowardice revealed in Bilbo, by contrast, is played for pure comedy.  In The Hobbit, Gandalf has not simulated a lightning storm, so Bilbo's fear that he was "struck by lightning" is, in essence, a wildly over-exaggerated reaction to someone turning on a light unexpectedly.  He, too, is temporarily sidelined – though he will surprise himself when he recovers.  And curiously, it does not undercut our affection for our hero, as we recognize that he is a most unassuming and unadventurous hobbit ... who is being prepared for far greater things than he can imagine.


FN* Boromir at the Council of Elrond: "We were outnumbered, for Mordor has allied itself with the Easterlings and the cruel Haradrim; but it was not by numbers that we were defeated. A power was there that we have not felt before.  Some said that it could be seen, like a great black horseman, a dark shadow under the moon. Wherever he came a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our boldest, so that horse and man gave way and fled."  (LotR 245, paragraph break omitted)

FN** It's theoretically possible that Wormtongue merely fainted without attempting to flee or throw himself out of danger, but I don't find that likely.  He was on probably the third step of the dais, at Théoden's feet, so unless he was already leaning very far forward, it seems implausible that he would have ended up "sprawled on his face" after fainting from a seated position.  There is also precedent for Tolkien's characters to throw themselves down when frightened.  In the dell on Weathertop, for example, "Terror overcame Pippin and Merry, and they threw themselves flat on the ground" (LotR 195).  


Anderson, Douglas A. The Annotated Hobbit. Revised and expanded edition. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

Shippey, Tom A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Smith, Laura Lee. “‘This is of course the way to talk with dragons’: Etiquette-Based Humour in The Hobbit,” in Laughter in Middle-earth: Humour in and around the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Thomas Honegger and Maureen F. Mann. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2016.  107-132. 

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Sleeping Under Trees

I always think of Old Man Willow as Tolkien's invention, and it may well be, but Gerald Durrell relates some intriguing tree sleep-danger folklore from Corfu in the mid-1930s: 

"I will tell you something, little lord," he said; "it is dangerous for you to lie here, beneath these trees."  
I glanced up at the cypresses, but they seemed safe enough to me, and so I asked why he thought they were dangerous.  
"Ah, you may well sit under them, yes. They cast a good shadow, cold as well-water; but that's the trouble, they tempt you to sleep. And you must never, for any reason, sleep beneath a cypress." 
He paused, stroked his moustache, waited for me to ask why, and then went on:
"Why? Why? Because if you did you would be changed when you woke. Yes, the black cypresses, they are dangerous. While you sleep, their roots grow into your brains and steal them, and when you wake up you are mad, head as empty as a whistle."
I asked whether it was only the cypress that could do this, or did it apply to other trees. 
"No, only the cypress," said the old man, peering up fiercely at the trees above me as though to see whether they were listening[...].

My Family and Other Animals at 31.

(Edition: Durrell, Gerald. My Family and Other Animals. Penguin Books, 2004.) 


Monday, September 07, 2020

Henry V: "though we seemed dead, we did but sleep"

A connection between 2 Henry IV 4.3 and Henry V 3.6, which I don't recall noticing before.

Starting at 3.6.115:

MONTJOY: You know me by my habit.
KING HARRY: Well then, I know thee. What shall I know of thee?
MONTJOY: My master's mind.
KING HARRY: Unfold it.
MONTJOY: Thus says my King: 'Say thou to Harry of England, though we seemed dead, we did but sleep. Advantage is a better soldier than rashness. [...]'

I'm thinking this might hit Henry rather hard, since he mistook his own sleeping father for dead in 2 Henry IV 4.3. When his father awakens to find himself alone, sans crown, he demands to know why Harry walked off with it.  Harry's initial response, "I never thought to hear you speak again," is not well-received; Henry IV replies "Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought. / I stay too long by thee, I weary thee." and continues in this vein for another 40+ lines.  Harry kneels and moves his father to reassess the situation with a humble and apparently heart-felt speech.