Give Me a Topic

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on July 16, 2007 @ 3:41 pm

Tolkienites, all two or three of you who so far comment on this site, and any Tolkienite reading this who has not yet commented: What do you want to talk about for the Weeklyish Tolkien?

I had an idea but, lacking in form and void, it kind of dribbled away down the drain. Got a Tolkien thing you’ve never quite grokked? Lay it on me. I don’t promise to grok it to your satisfaction, but I’ll tackle it.

Weeklyish Tolkien: Some That Die Deserve Life

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on July 7, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

‘What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy, not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.’

The Fellowship of the Ring


Does anybody else think Frodo took these words a little too much to heart?


‘I pity you. … Go at once and never return!’

The hobbits of the villages had seen Saruman come out of one of the huts, and … when they heard Frodo’s command, they murmured angrily:

‘Don’t let him go! Kill him! He’s a villain and a murderer. Kill him!’ …

But Frodo said: ‘… But I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way!’ …

Saruman turned to go, … but even as Saruman passed close to Frodo a knife flashed in his hand, and he stabbed swiftly. The blade turned on the hidden mail-coat and snapped. A dozen hobbits, led by Sam, leaped forward with a cry and flung the villain to the ground. Sam drew his sword.

‘No, Sam!’ said Frodo. ‘Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’

Frodo then offers both mercy and sanctuary to Wormtongue, but it comes out that Wormtongue has killed Lotho Sackville-Baggins on Saruman’s orders. Wormtongue draws his knife and slays Saruman.

Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.

The Return of the King


The simplest reading of this is that Frodo simply did not want Saruman’s, or Wormtongue’s, blood on his own hands. He accepts the fait accompli without a fuss and is relieved that it’s over. But it’s troubling that, having accepted the role of leader that the hobbits looked to him for, that he chose to vacate judgment in favor of doubt–doubt that he was worthy to judge Saruman, who was most assuredly fallen, doubt that removing him from menacing other innocents was a more proper course than letting him go.

It’s a gray area, for sure. Frodo’s words are valid–Saruman’s actions against the Shire were a specific act of revenge, and unlike reality, one is certain in reading the words of Tolkien that if Saruman had gone he would not have troubled the Shire again. And there’s a line of silliness that is eventually crossed in trying to analyze the actions of fictional characters, as in my upbraiding of Doctor Who for a similar action, but it’s valuable in understanding the story as well as the motivations of the writers. And at least the Doctor assumed responsibility for letting a mass murderer live by taking on his keeping himself. Though I shot down his arrogance for assuming he could keep any potential future victims safe, at least he had an alternative to executing him other than just letting him go. Frodo doesn’t just vacate judgment, like a Pilate leaving it up to the mob; he actively decides in favor of letting a murderer go. This isn’t even Frodo protesting against “death as punishment;” if it were, he should have provided for an imprisonment alternative.

Provided we can all stipulate (and some won’t, I know) that both the Master, in Doctor Who, and Saruman had committed obvious, established crimes for which we don’t need a jury trial to pronounce guilt, then Frodo’s decision to let Saruman go was at best a misguided application of mercy, with a healthy dose of “I’m so tired of it all” and self-doubt thrown in for bad measure. The fact that Tolkien does not allow either Saruman or Wormtongue to escape in the end leaves us to wonder whether Frodo or the hobbits represented his personal point of view as to what should be done in a similar situation.

A passage on Tom Bombadil from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien may give a clue:

…but if you have, as it were [like Tom Bombadil] taken ‘a vow of povery’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacificist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

Hmm, that sounds familiar. But more of lefty peacemongers v. jihadis another time. Tolkien expounded this theme within the text, when Aragorn talks of peaceful folk living within a day’s ride of creatures who would freeze their blood if they were not guarded ceaselessly–like hobbits. It is very curious, then, that only after seeing (and being one of) those who guard the Shire’s way of life from infiltration and destruction, Frodo would turn to letting go the perpetrators and wearily doubting his own ability to judge what was most proper. Curiouser still that Tolkien, in the letter, describes this as “the view of Rivendell” without committing himself … though the letter in question was very centered on the text. I think it safe to surmise that the justice represented in the deaths of Saruman and Wormtongue was at least as satisfying to Tolkien as it must have been to much of his audience. Why then have Frodo’s voice be at once the dissenting pacifist and the purported leader?

Because: Frodo is shown not to be the leader. The hobbits initially look to him, but in the end they supersede his judgment of release by shooting Wormtongue dead before he can enjoin them not to. Eventually he has passed all claim to judgment or leadership and also passed right out of the world, to Valinor. Leadership falls to Sam, elected Mayor, and Pippin, as Thain, and Merry, as Master of Brandy Hall. Tolkien has shown that those who allow wishful thinking (that all criminals or “fallen beings” could be healed) to affect the practical process of leadership and judgment are showing that they would prefer not to lead or judge and indeed are unfitted for it. Those who assume judgment, as Frodo did in this case and the Doctor did in my other example, must be willing to put the needs of potential victims ahead of their own longing for life and peace without bloodshed. Frodo was unwilling to do this. One can hardly blame him, and maybe that’s why Tolkien put the onus on him rather than a character who had less richly earned the right to be wrong.

Weekly Tolkien: Go Not to the Elves, Follow-Up

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on May 30, 2007 @ 1:34 pm

Last week got away from me before I knew it. Not an auspicious beginning to a three-week-old feature, but on we go.

Just a quickie this time, a follow-up to last time’s observations on Elves. LagunaDave said:

In some ways, the Elves remind me of religious people who devoutly believe they will spend eternity in a heaven where everything is perfect after they die.

Dave’s point was ultimately that Valinor (or heaven) is boring and not worth it, but I’ll take it in a different direction: The Elves don’t believe, they know that Valinor is open to them at any time. This marks a huge difference between Tolkien’s Elves and the faith of real, human Christians. Behaving in a certain way on the basis of a nebulous promise of something assumed to be good (heaven) is quite different from having to behave in no particular way to attain what is the only reward (or punishment) available (Valinor). My question is: did Tolkien anticipate this? Did he understand that the Elves would be a dead end precisely because their existence was bound to the seen, known, and earthly? Or was he trying to idealize or knock down heaven to a more, um, equitable state? It’s real, it’s here, it’s free to all unless you screw up royally, just be normal and you’ll be fine. If the latter, he must have been surprised when there was nothing left to do with Elves, simply because the predictability of their fate led inevitably to the predictability of their whole existence–an ironic dead end for beings who live forever. I tend to think that with his emphasis on the Gift of Men, he realized from the get-go that the Elves weren’t going to cut it and was using them as an illustration of what happens when some people get what they wish for–i.e. proof of God and heaven. Hard to say for sure without doing a lot more reading than I have time for at the moment, though.

Sad but true: faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. When you can see it, and travel to it, and live forever idyllically in it, all surety and no faith makes Jack Elf a dull boy. Did Tolkien know this, or did he start with a well-meaning plot to bring heaven to the agnostic and wind up with a whole race of dull boys?

Weekly Tolkien: Go Not to the Elves, Seriously

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on May 19, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

‘You are leaving the Shire … is not that so?’

‘It is,’ said Frodo; ‘but I thought my going was a secret known only to Gandalf and my faithful Sam.’ …

‘The secret will not reach the Enemy from us … I do not know for what reason the Enemy is pursuing you,’ answered Gildor, ‘but I perceive that he is–strange indeed though that seems to me. And I warn you that peril is now both before you and behind you, and upon either side.’

‘You mean the Riders? … What are the Black Riders?’

‘Has Gandalf told you nothing? … Then I think it is not for me to say more … The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out. … I do not think the Road will prove too hard for your courage. But if you desire clearer counsel, you should ask Gandalf.The choice is yours, to go or to wait.’

‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.

Tolkien’s Elves are a problem. When I was a child reading Tolkien, of course I couldn’t analyze them, but I instinctively wanted to be one, vaguely feeling how high and set apart they were. Why shouldn’t they be? They have no incentive whatsoever to live in the world and share its burdens. Would you care, if you could leave the world any time you wished to live forever in a realm of unspoiled bliss?

Yet it wasn’t always so. The Elves of The Silmarillion strove for power in the world and dominion over one another–Galadriel’s temptation to accept the Ring from Frodo represents the last flicker of that grasping spirit. The Elves, it seems, have had to learn the hard way that lunging for power will get them nowhere, and their only alternative is to accept what they’ve been given and to stay out of the remaining power struggles to the world. They say it outright: their day is past, mankind’s rise is at hand. I guess Frodo and company should have felt fortunate that Elrond and Galadriel should help and comfort them at all.

Tolkien tries to weave them into the story more integrally. At the Council Elrond claims a place in the battle for the Elves:

‘But it seems to me now clear which is the road that we must take. The westward road seems easiest. Therefore it must be shunned. It will be watched. Too often the Elves have fled that way. Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril–to Mordor. We must send the Ring to the Fire.’

That at least is clear and not ambivalent like Gildor’s advice to Frodo. But it seems pretty easy to pronounce from on high that the Ring must be taken to the Fire, knowing full well that somebody else will have to do the actual taking. What makes the Elves so aloof?

The story was written for the Hobbits. The Elves serve as their surrogate parents in their maturation, but it is the Hobbits who must carry out the deeds, aided by their fellow Mortals, the Men of the West. Thus, like the best of parents, they know when to let their children take decisions and actions upon themselves, but it can be hard to watch from the outside. It’s easy to scorn the Elves as deus ex machina in matters such as the flight to the fords of Bruinen and finger them for sending Frodo into dreadful danger on the road to Rivendell without properly warning him of his peril. But their looming shadow behind the stalwart fastness of the Hobbits and men like Aragorn is what strikes the fear, such as there is, into Sauron and the Orcs and evil men who serve him. They represent the goodness and freedom of the West, and since their own coming of age they have guarded the heritage of man- and hobbit-kind until they should be ready to come into their own. The Lord of the Rings is about the transition of that power from Elves to Mortals, and if the Hobbits and Men don’t perform the task on their own, then they show they’re not ready for the Elves to retire, so to speak. As I’ve gotten older, I no longer want to be an Elf. Their advice is tempered, their power dwindling. But I still respect them as those who have been through the fires and come out grey and somewhat weary on the other side. They will have their reward in their own land, but never know the true release and freedom from care that will come with the Gift of Men–death and freed spirits. Go not to the Elves, but respect their counsel when it comes, nevertheless.

Weekly Tolkien: Break Your Heart

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on May 9, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

Tolkien threads are popular around here, largely thanks to faithful commenter Professor (not student) of Physics (not engineering) LagunaDave. I’ve taken note. Back to the roots, then: Tolkien exploration and commentary, once a week and shorter (hopefully also a bit pithier) than it used to be at the ol’ Green Books hacienda. I may get into some of JRRT’s contemporaries in future as well, like (of course) Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and others.

First up: a little tidbit in The Fellowship of the Ring as the Company sets out from Rivendell, emphases mine:

At that moment Elrond came out with Gandalf, and he called the Company to him. ‘This is my last word,’ he said in a low voice. ‘The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the Ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.’

`Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’ said Gimli.

‘Maybe,’ said Elrond, `but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’

‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’ said Gimli.

`Or break it,’ said Elrond. `Look not too far ahead! But go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine upon your faces!’

A moderate amount of language to set up the short, pointy part: Sworn word may strengthen quaking heart/Or break it.

Tolkien generally reads very linearly. These people have a duty to do; some do it, to the benefit of the world; some don’t, to the detriment of their companions; but it’s generally taken for granted that Frodo will do what he said he would, right up until the devastating declaration at the lip of the crack. It’s fascinating to me, then, that Tolkien took the time explicitly to give Frodo’s companions an out. For a devout member of a religion so often accused of excess rigidity, of making unreasonable demands on people’s commitment, with all his book’s emphasis on the results of people doing or not doing their clear duty, this seems like something of a departure.

Note first, though, that even though a charge is laid on Frodo, it is not placed until after he freely accepts the duty. Though he is encouraged to believe the duty marked out for him, yet nobody commands him, for as Elrond says:

`But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right; and though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together your seat should be among them.’

It’s so heavy that Elrond won’t tell Frodo to do it, yet what would he have said if Frodo had declined? “Your choice is wrong?”

Tolkien finesses the frustrating balance between judgment and personal relationships–how to tell somebody what they should do without spooking, demeaning, or angering them–by the fact that Elrond and Frodo belong to different classes of being. The distance between them is vertical; Frodo looks up to Elrond as almost a spiritual adviser. But there he is in the very next chapter giving Frodo’s companions, chosen for his aid, free permission to desert him. Why?

Because “not even the very wise can see all ends,” because “you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road,” and because Elrond knew, as Gimli did not, that the problem is not people who leave when the road darkens, but solely because it does. People may be drawn into their own path at the moment when you think you need them most, but still be helping your cause even though separated from you. Most notably, the fact that the Walkers did not vow to stay with Frodo absolved them from a probably fruitless, dangerous search for him when Frodo himself decided that to wait any longer for any member of the fractured Company would be counter-productive and deadly to his mission.

Ultimately, this one little passage plays out in miniature the theme which is expressed in the lives of each of Tolkien’s characters: each must follow his or her own road. I’ve remarked on it before in the context of Tolkien’s handling of female characters, and Tolkien here bears it out one more time: Frodo chose his road, and others agreed to help him on it to the best of their abilities, but even among a group all working toward the same ends, a time may come when each must help in ways that are most effective for him or her, and they may not be what he or she originally set out to do.

Leaving room for the theme of Iluvatar to operate in one’s life, for Tolkien, means to be very careful what one vows, as the song may intend to take you to other places that you may forfeit by your own vow. It has less to do with fear of commitment and more to do with caution as to what specific path you vow to take rather than what general goal you plan to reach. If the remnant of the Company still free after the attack above Rauros Falls had dared all to reach Frodo, they might not have found him, and if they had, they certainly would have been abandoning more important duties that would have helped Frodo’s goal more than their presence with him. I don’t have to spell those out for the Tolkien fans in the crowd.

In short: plan for the goal, but don’t vow the means, or you may find yourself abrogating the goal to keep the now-worthless vow.

Tolkien’s Children of Hurin

Filed under:Authors,Cool,Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on April 18, 2007 @ 9:15 pm

Christopher Tolkien’s master-stroke of editing and piecing together his father’s fragmentary work was released yesterday to much “fan”fare. TORn covered and assisted the line at a Manhattan Barnes and Noble where fans lined up to buy copies signed by both C. Tolkien and illustrator Alan Lee. Andrew O’Hehir, who’s been covering matters Tolkien for Salon for a long time now, has a thoughtful, in-depth review, focusing largely on the startling difference in tone between this tome and The Lord of the Rings.

“The Children of Húrin” will thrill some readers and dismay others, but will surprise almost everyone. If you’re looking for the accessibility, lyrical sweep and above all the optimism of “Lord of the Rings,” well, you’d better go back and read it again. There are no hobbits here, no Tom Bombadil, no cozy roadside inns and precious little fireside cheer of any variety found here. This is a tale whose hero is guilty of repeated treachery and murder, a story of rape and pillage and incest and greed and famous battles that ought never to have been fought. If “Lord of the Rings” is a story where good conquers evil, this one moves inexorably in the other direction.

Readers of The Silmarillion, which seemed at the time of its publication the end of all things Tolkien but proved to be merely the beginning of Christopher Tolkien’s work of editing his father’s legacy, know that LotR notwithstanding, Tolkien was very occupied with themes of hubris, falls from grace (or characters without grace altogether), and dark, inexorable destinies. The jagged yet constantly descending roads these characters take in their slides toward doom are indeed startling, but though as O’Hehir says the darkness will “surprise almost everyone,” the surprise for those left out by “almost” is more and more coming to be that Tolkien had it in him to write the happy-ending stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at all. He could only do it by omitting utterly one of those occupying themes, hubris, from his three central characters of Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf, thus avoiding for them the dark destiny but reserving for them nevertheless places in grey twilight as their reward. When all’s said and done, Lord of the Rings is not a happy story, but at most grimly optimistic, to use Andrew’s word. In the end the individual matters only insofar as he or she did duty in the larger battle against evil, or failed in that duty.

Judging by the reviews, it looks as if The Children of Hurin will be a stark illustration of how to do your duty and fail miserably in life all at the same time. In a phrase, it’s Tolkien, painfully aware of the human condition, to the core.

Humor 101 for BDS Sufferers

Filed under:Bumper Stickers,Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on March 26, 2007 @ 10:31 am


Secret Weapon

Not funny, far too “on the nose,” alienates Tolkien fans with the bald statement of “Frodo failed,” completely lacking cleverness: Bumper sticker that reads “Frodo failed. Bush has the Ring.”

Subtlety sells, people. Don’t rip off a picture worth a thousand well-chosen words into a hack set of six that doesn’t get the job done.

Huorn in Kentucky

Filed under:Cool,Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on March 23, 2007 @ 9:25 am

A photo by Terry Prather, on staff at the Ledger Independent of Maysville, Kentucky, shows what happened to a few of those wakeful trees that surrounded the orcs at Helm’s Deep:

Huorn in Kentucky

(H/t: thelmajoy.)

Head in the Clouds

Filed under:Authors,Cool,Language Barrier,Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on March 12, 2007 @ 9:37 pm

Alan Sullivan with Best Word Use of the Day: Numinous. One of Lewis’s most-used words and the most concise and beautiful for meaning “supernatural, of the spiritual realm.” And probably associated in his mind with Tolkien’s Numenor, although Tolkien was at pains (and sometimes borderline uncharitable to Lewis) to set inquiring readers straight on the fact that “Numenor” in no way derived from “numinous” and was unrelated to Lewis’s unwelcome use of “Numinor.”

Also, in which I learn about sheer boundaries and what causes turbulence in clear air:

Such clouds may form low in the atmosphere, like these off California, or much higher, at cirrus levels. They are the visible form of eddies at a sheer boundary. Such phenomena are common in clear air, and they make for a bumpy ride when aircraft encounter them. If there is just enough moisture, clouds may provide a signature for the process.

Eddies in the air, just like in water. Fascinating, Captain. And good for an aspiring pilot to know. And yes, numinous.

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace