Posts Tagged ‘J. R. R. Tolkien’

Wandering: Rome, Venice, and Middle Earth

April 3, 2019
  • The wonderful Joseph Epstein, who is making more hay of his Roman reading project than I am, writes charmingly of the life of Julius Caesar, whom he, rather cheekily, calls Big Julie.
  • Speaking of Rome, William Edmund Fahey writes a thoughtful meditation on the city by way of an introduction to Hawthorne’s final, Roman novel The Marble Faun. By such means does the reading list increment.
  • It might seem incredible, but not everybody likes visiting Rome, or indeed the other great Italian cities. Some people even complain.
  • Although even I might complain, at least once, if I went to Venice and found it flooded. Having unburdened myself, I hope I would find a way to enjoy the watery wonderland.
  • Bradley Birzer reviews, appreciatively, The Fall of Gondolin, the most recent volume in which Christopher Tolkien, in a continuing labour of “love and piety”, has brought his father’s unfinished writing to print. I hadn’t thought to read it, but I’m re-considering.
  • At the New Yorker, Bob Moser writes a scathing exposé of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a “marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals” that has excelled at finding “hate groups” where the rest of us saw only their political opponents.
  • Finally, Terry Teachout writes, also appreciatively, about the music of Chopin.

For an envoi, here is the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes, played by the — in Chopin — unsurpassable Artur Rubinstein:

Heroism and hope in The Lord of the Rings

October 5, 2018

A few months ago I noted a good video essay on The Tree of Life. Today, from the same source — viz. the Youtube channel “Like Stories of Old” — comes a two-part essay on The Lord of the Rings. The essay is mostly about the book, but, since it’s a video essay, illustrated with scenes from the movies.

The first half is on “Heroism and Moral Victory”, especially on Tolkien’s translation of the locus of heroic action from the physical to the moral plane:

The second half is titled “A Mythology of Hope”, and explores the place of that virtue in Tolkien’s story:

It’s a good, hearty meal.

The ideas in these videos are drawn mainly from three books: Matthew Dickerson’s Following Gandalf, Bradley Birzer’s Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien.

Children’s books: here be dragons

September 26, 2016

Beowulf the Warrior
Ian Serraillier
48 p.

A number of authors have distilled Beowulf into a version intended for children, but this is the only one of which I’m aware that does so in verse. Serraillier condenses the original 3800 lines of the poem into about 800 lines of blank verse. All of the essential plot elements of the story are included, and quite vividly depicted. Overall, the writing would be challenging for young children, but I think would be suitable for roughly ages 10 and up. This edition is complemented by interesting illustrations by “Severin”.


St. George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti
(CreateSpace, 2014)
162 p.

This short novel tells the story of Marcellus, a Roman soldier who encounters a fierce dragon lurking on the outskirts of his father’s estate. The story has a two-fold motion: the conflict with the dragon gradually escalates, on one hand, and on the other Marcellus encounters Christians and is gradually converted to the new faith (taking the baptismal name George). The two arcs come together in a final battle between George and the dragon — but of course we knew that would happen.

It’s a first novel for Michael Lotti, and quite a good one, best suited, I would estimate, for children aged about 8-12. The writing is not as supple and convincing as one gets from the most accomplished children’s writers, but the characters are well developed and the story is an interesting one. I would like to know how much of the material comes from the legends about St George, and how much was Lotti’s own creation. For me the most engaging aspect of the book concerned Marcellus’ encounters with the Christians, and especially with an itinerant Christian bishop named Agathon; there is a good deal of inspiring catechesis packed into those conversations, but I never felt that I was being preached to. I will certainly encourage my kids to read the book when they’re a little older.


The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
(HarperCollins, 2007) [1937]
300 p.

This was my third or fourth time through this book, but my first with the kids, to whom I read it aloud. I have not a great deal to a say about it, apart from reporting that it was a huge success with the older kids (now aged 5 and 7). Actually, the experience of reading it to them was enriching for me too; I do not recall enjoying it on previous readings as much as I did this time.

It is always amusing to see the light-hearted, gee-whiz attitude this book takes to the One Ring, which we know will later prove to be so doom-laden. I used to surmise that Tolkien had not yet worked out the Ring’s significance at the time of writing, but this time I noticed that he returns to the Ring at the very end, emphasizing that it was a secret ring and that Bilbo never spoke of it to anyone. This inclines me to suspect that Tolkien did know its significance after all.

Caldecott: Secret Fire

February 5, 2014

Secret Fire
The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien
Stratford Caldecott
(Darton Longman Todd, 2003)
144 p.

This slender book is a thoughtful attempt to explore the spiritual roots and background of Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. It draws on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, of course, but also delves deeper into The Silmarillion and the fragmentary History of Middle Earth. It is not a book for casual Tolkien fans, but is accessible to readers (like myself) who have limited acquaintance with this “background” material. (The scare quotes are only because I am not sure Tolkien woould agree that it is background.)

Tolkien was a Catholic, and Caldecott argues that “an understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their influence on the story for which he is famous can only enhance our appreciation of this great work of art”. Some readers might contest, or at least not understand, the relevance of Tolkien’s Catholicism to the stories he told. There is no overt Catholicism in his tales (not in the best known ones, at least) and, even more remarkable, no overt religion at all. But Caldecott has a trump card in the form of a famous letter in which Tolkien wrote:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

It is an authorial claim that gets one thinking, and the Christian resonances soon become more evident: Tolkien’s stories turn on themes of humility, power in weakness, the parasitic nature of evil, Providence, and mercy. And there are some specific allusions to Christianity as well: Caldecott reminds us that the date of the destruction of the One Ring was March 25, the date of the Catholic feast of the Annunciation — the date on which the power of sin in the world was decisively (if still, in history, partially) undone.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a sacramental realm as well: material things have spiritual meanings and powers. From the background mythology Tolkien demonstrates that though the material world was created good, Morgoth’s power has disseminated through it, making it subject to corruption and decay, making it subject to his will, and making the dark magic of Saruman (for example) possible. Gold and fire are especially under his dominion, which casts the One Ring and Mount Doom in a new light (or a new shadow). Of all the elements of the natural world it is water that is most outside his influence; hence the watery backdrop of Rivendale, for instance.

There are also strong Marian themes in Middle Earth. Tolkien said that his “own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity” was founded on the Blessed Virgin, and he poured that beauty into certain characters, especially the female elves such as Galadriel. Caldecott argues that the longing for beauty, especially as experienced by the elves, is a Marian element of the mythology, and that that longing is sacramentally associated in the stories with starlight (perhaps under Mary’s title ‘star of the sea’), with music, and (again) with the sound of water.

(Incidentally, Caldecott has very interesting things to say about the place of elves in Tolkien’s world. They serve as a kind of experimental forum for him: they are immortal yet are confined to an earthly life. Their love and their longing are all directed at this world, rather than, as is fitting for men, at the next. Therefore although they long for transcendent beauty, they can never actually hope for it, and their longing is inflected by “a sense of melancholy, of infinite distance or separation.” This is an aspect of elvishness which I had not previously considered.)

One of the strongest conjunctions of Tolkien’s mythology with Catholic doctrine is to be found in the Creation myth which opens The Silmarillion. This section is one of the choicest jewels in Tolkien’s treasure chest, incredibly beautiful on its own merits. It begins with song, as Ilúvatar, the One, sings the world into being out of nothing. Caldecott spends quite a lot of time on this myth, examining its stages and various aspects in concert with Christian tradition, and it is among the most rewarding sections of the book. The notion that the Valar are “living Forms” (in the Platonic sense) was arresting; this was apparently how Tolkien himself thought of angels.

I said above that the Middle Earth mythology, however infused with Christian metaphysics and redolent of a Christian moral vision it may be, is nonetheless silent on the specific claims of Christian theology. And, of course, this is quite fitting, for the events with which Tolkien is concerned occurred long before the Incarnation. Yet I was surprised to discover that buried deep within the History of Middle Earth, in a section called “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”, Tolkien wrote of a prophecy that

“the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.”

One could hardly ask for a more direct indication that the world which Tolkien created was intended as an imaginative reconstruction of a Christian cosmos. And it was just one of many interesting things I learned from this intensely interesting little book.

Tolkien: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

May 13, 2010

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins; 2009)
377 p.  First reading.

The nature of my education was such that I learned of Tolkien’s Ring before I learned of Wagner’s.  Once I knew of both, I naturally wondered about the relationship between them.  There are obvious similarities, but to what extent was Tolkien’s idea of the “ring of power” indebted to the older tradition?  I remembered reading that C.S. Lewis had, in his youth, been enamored of Wagner’s music-dramas, and I thought it possible that Tolkien, who was about the same age, had been similarly influenced.  Only later did I realize that Wagner’s story was rooted in an immense medieval legendary tradition.  Tolkien being the man he was — a man for whom literature was all downhill after Chaucer — those older sources were a much more likely inspiration for Middle Earth, if indeed there was any connection at all.  But was there?

I still don’t know that I can answer the question decisively, but reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún has inclined me strongly toward answering in the affirmative.  This book demonstrates, at least, that Tolkien knew the medieval sources thoroughly, and admired them enough to expend time and effort writing his own versions of the stories, for that is precisely what we have here: English-language poetic renderings of two of the central legends in that medieval tradition.  The principal source for this material is the thirteenth-century Icelandic and Norse Edda (and not, as one might have expected, the Nibelungenlied).

The first poem, called by Tolkien Völsungakviða en nýja (“The New Lay of the Völsungs“), covers much the same ground as Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Apart from variations in names (“Sigurd” = Wagner’s “Siegfried”) and some differences in the details of how the plot unfolds, there is a recognizably close kinship between the two.  Tolkien’s version, more faithful (I would think) to the ethos of the medieval originals, has none of the modernist philosophical weight that Wagner larded onto his version.  Indeed, in his very extensive notes that accompany these poems Christopher Tolkien mentions Wagner only briefly, and that simply to note that “in spirit and purpose” Wagner’s dramas “bear little relation” to his father’s work.  Tolkien’s poem is not a translation, in any straightforward sense, of a particular medieval source, but rather an original composition that draws on several strands found in the medieval sources.

The second poem, Guðrúnarkviða en nýja (“The New Lay of Gudrún“, continues where the previous poem left off.  The Gjúking family (called the Gibichungs by Wagner) are threatened by the advancing armies of Atli (the historical Attila the Hun, of happy memory) and they offer their sister, Gudrún, as a bridal peace offering.  She is accepted and there is peace for a time, but, as you can imagine, things do not end well.  Gudrún becomes the central figure in a devastating tragedy that brings everyone to ruin.  Of the two poems, this was my favourite: it has a clearer line of development, greater atmosphere, more pathos, and larger snakes.

Tolkien’s poetry for these stories is quite different from that he wrote in, for instance, The Lays of Beleriand.  There are similar insofar as medieval poetic forms are clear inspirations, but the details are different.  Here Tolkien has used an Old Norse form called fornyrðislag, consisting of a concise eight-line stanza, each line being limited to just a few words, and he has taken pains to observe the rules of stress and alliteration found in his models.  There is no rhyming.  Together, these characteristics give the poems a concise, rough-hewn musicality.  I give an example below.

The book is nearly 400 pages long, but only roughly half of that is Tolkien’s poetry (with sparse typesetting to boot).  Christopher Tolkien has written extensive notes commenting on the relationship between his father’s poems and the medieval sources; I did not read this material in depth.  The poems are prefaced by a fairly long introduction that includes an interesting transcribed lecture that Tolkien once prepared on the subject of Eddaic literature.

I enjoyed reading these poems, although they are certainly peripheral to Tolkien’s oeuvre.  We don’t have much poetry in English that tries to emulate medieval models in this way, and seeing it done — and done pretty well, all things considered — is, I would think, the chief attraction here.


Here is an excerpt from “The New Lay of Gudrún”.  Gudrún’s brother Gunnar, come to rescue her from Atli, has been thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes:

There gleaming-eyed
Gudrún waited;
the heart within her
hardened darkly.
Grim mood took her,
Grímhild’s daughter,
ruthless hatred,
wrath consuming.

There grimly waited
Gunnar naked;
snakes were creeping
silent round him.
Teeth were poisoned,
tongues were darting;
in lidless eyes
light was shining.

A harp she sent him;
his hands seized it,
strong he smote it;
strings were ringing.
Wondering heard men
words of triumph,
song up-soaring
from the serpents’ pit.

There coldly creeping
coiling serpents
as stones were staring
stilled, enchanted.
There slowly swayed they,
slumber whelmed them,
as Gunnar sang
of Gunnar’s pride.

As voice in Valhöll
valiant ringing
the golden Gods
he glorious named;
of Ódin sang he,
Ódin’s chosen,
of Earth’s most mighty,
of ancient kings.

A huge adder
hideous gleaming
from stony hiding
was stealing slow.
Huns still heard him
his harp thrilling,
and doom of Hunland
dreadly chanting.

An ancient adder
to breast it bent
and bitter stung him.
Loud cried Gunnar
life forsaking;
harp fell silent,
and heart was still.
(stanzas 133-9)

Tolkien: The Lays of Beleriand

January 19, 2010

The Lays of Beleriand
J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
393 p.  First reading.

Beleriand, if you don’t remember, was the region of Middle Earth in which the Elves settled when they first arrived from the Western Isles.  It was inhabited by the Noldor (at the great hill fortress of Nargothrond), by the Sindar (in the forests of Doriath), and also, in the course of time, by Men. To the north lay Angband, the underground fortress of Morgoth, who was (and is) the greatest and most wicked of the Ainur.

I am actually not much of a Tolkienian.  Like everyone else, I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Like a great many people, I have also read (with, on reflection, an appalling lack of attention) The Silmarillion, and a few years ago I read The Children of Hurin.  But this is my first foray into the really obscure parts of Tolkien’s legendarium.  It look me a long time to get that first paragraph right (if I did get it right).

The events related in the Lays of Beleriand took place in the First Age of Middle Earth, about six or seven thousand years before the more familiar events from The Lord of the Rings, which are set in the Third Age.  Given the long time gap, the two periods have no characters in common — except perhaps for Morgoth, of whom brief mention is made in LOTR, and for whom Sauron is but a lieutenant. Hobbits are nowhere to be found in these tales.

The Lays of Beleriand contains two long poems: The Lay of the Children of Hurin, and The Lay of Leithian.  Each poem exists in two distinct versions, and each is incomplete.

The Lay of the Children of Hurin tells the story of Turin and Nienor, the two ill-fated children of the elf-warrior Hurin.  (Tolkien also wrote prose versions of this story, and it was from those manuscripts that The Children of Hurin, published a few years ago, was compiled.) The first version of the story is about 2300 lines, and the second version only about 800.  Neither progresses very far into the tale — Turin’s sister Nienor hardly gets a mention.  The main reason to read the poems, in my judgement, is their form: they are written in alliterative verse, in conscious imitation of Old English poetic models like Beowulf, and there are few, if any, other modern examples of this kind of versifying on this scale.  Here is a short passage for purposes of illustration, describing Turin’s wanderings in the woods around Nargothrond:

The ways of the woods \hspace{0.2cm} he wandered far,
and the land’s secrets \hspace{0.2cm} he learned swiftly
by winter unhindered \hspace{0.2cm} to weathers hardened,
whether snow or sleet \hspace{0.2cm} or slanting rain
from glowering heavens \hspace{0.2cm} grey and sunless
cold and cruel \hspace{0.2cm} was cast to earth,
till the floods were loosed \hspace{0.2cm} and the fallow waters
of sweeping Narog, \hspace{0.2cm} swollen, angry,
were filled with flotsam \hspace{0.2cm} and foaming turbid
passed in tumult; \hspace{0.2cm} or twinkling pale
ice-hung evening \hspace{0.2cm} was opened wide,
a dome of crystal \hspace{0.2cm} o’er the deep silence
of the windless wastes \hspace{0.2cm} and the woods standing
like frozen phantoms \hspace{0.2cm} under flickering stars.
(v.1, 2100-13)

My recollection of permitted line types in Old English poetry is dim, but Tolkien knows them and is, I expect, doing his best to follow the rules.  Although frequently called “alliterative verse”, the alliteration is actually an optional decoration (note its absence in line 2110); the poetry is built on a system of long and short syllables.  Personally I find that underlying structure hard to parse; alliteration is the attraction for me.

The second poem is more ambitious than the first. The Lay of Leithian tells the story of the tragic love between the man Beren and the elf Luthien.  Tolkien considered it one of his most important stories; the tombstone beneath which he and his wife are buried bears the names of the star-crossed lovers.   The poem is written in octosyllabic couplets, and again exists in two versions.  The first version has about 4200 lines, and completes thirteen of a projected seventeen cantos.  The second version begins in much the same way as the first, but soon begins to expand the story in scope and power; however, Tolkien only completed four cantos (about 650 lines) before abandoning the effort.  It is a pity that he never finished the poem, for it is a beautiful and memorable tale, and his narrative verse, while not “great poetry” on a world-historical scale, and despite the sing-song quality that sometimes creeps into the couplets, is well-executed.

Consider, for example, this passage, which describes Beren’s encounter with Luthien.  He sees her dancing and singing in the forest of Doriath:

The wind of winter winds his horn;
the misty veil is rent and torn.
The wind dies; the starry choirs
leap in the silent sky to fires,
whose light comes bitter-cold and sheer
through domes of frozen crystal clear.

A sparkle through the darkling trees,
a piercing glint of light he sees,
and there she dances all alone
upon a treeless knoll of stone!
Her mantle blue with jewels white
caught all the rays of frosted light.
She shone with cold and wintry flame,
as dancing down the hill she came,
and passed his watchful silent gaze,
a glimmer as of stars ablaze.
And snowdrops sprang beneath her feet,
and one bird, sudden, late and sweet,
shrilled as she wayward passed along.
A frozen brook to bubbling song
awoke and laughed; but Beren stood
still bound enchanted in the wood.

That is lovely, and there is music in it.  Tolkien can do dark and stormy as well, as when he is describing Morgoth’s reign of terror in the early days of Middle Earth.  I mentioned above that the second version of The Lay of Leithian improved on the first, and this is a good example.  Here is the relevant passage from the first version:

Unconquerable spears of steel
were at his nod. No ruth did feel
the legions of his marshalled hate,
on whom did wolf and raven wait;
and black the ravens sat and cried
upon their banners black, and wide
was heard their hideous chanting dread
above the reek and trampled dead.
With fire and sword his ruin red
on all that would not bow the head
like lightning fell.  The Northern land
lay groaning neath his ghastly hand.
(v.1, 115-26)

And here is the corresponding passage from the second version:

His hosts he armed with spears of steel
and brands of flame, and at their heel
the wolf walked and the serpent crept
with lidless eyes.  Now forth they leapt,
his ruinous legions, kindling war
in field and firth and woodland hoar.
Where long the golden elanor
had gleamed amid the grass they bore
their banners black, where finch had sung
and harpers silver harps had wrung
now dark the ravens wheeled and cried
amid the reek, and far and wide
the swords of Morgoth dripped with red
above the hewn and trampled dead.
Slowly his shadow like a cloud
rolled from the North, and on the proud
that would not yield his vengeance fell;
to death or thralldom under hell
all things he doomed : the Northern land
lay cowed beneath his ghastly hand.
(v.2, 119-38)

That’s a real improvement.  The ravens no longer sit and chant (do ravens chant?) but wheel and cry; Morgoth’s armies no longer bring an abstract “ruin red”, but their swords actually drip with blood and their enemies lie hewn and trampled; we see the elanor and the finch driven out; and the image of the dark cloud rolling south is downright scary.

I won’t go into the details of the story lest I spoil it for anyone; suffice it to say that Beren must complete a great quest if he wishes to win the hand of Luthien.  A prose version of the story can be found in The Silmarillion.  It occurs to me that this story would make a good film, and I wonder whether, once The Hobbit has hit screens, enterprising film studios might go searching through the Tolkienian backwaters in search of other adventures from Middle Earth.  Probably not, but it would be great if they did.

This volume is filled out with a few other, minor and fragmentary, poems about events in the First Age, and a considerable portion of the book is given over to detailed commentary.  If you ever had the itch to study variant readings of certain lines, you would be very well pleased indeed by the critical apparatus which Christopher Tolkien has included.  The best of the commentary, however, comes from C.S. Lewis, who cushions the blow of his sometimes sharp criticism of the first version of The Lay of Leithian with some wonderful English don humour.  He pretends the poem is of medieval provenance, and conjures up a group of scholars (Pumpernickel, Peabody, Schuffer, and Schick) to comment upon it.  It is a charming cherry atop the cake.