Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology / Tom Shippey -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003.

Much has been written about the roots of the mythology created by Tolkien in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Some of it is insightful -- some of it is superficial. Tom Shippey's work The Road to Middle-Earth lies on the far end of the insightful side of the spectrum. Shippey, was briefly a personal acquaintance of Tolkien. He is a medieval scholar in his own right, having held the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University (formerly held by Tolkien himself) and the Walter J. Ong Chair of Humanities at St. Louis University in Missouri. His Road to Middle-Earth was first published in 1982, with a second edition in 1992, and a revised and expanded edition in 2003. The subsequent editions are informed by Tolkien's posthumous publications, particularly, the twelve volume set The History of Middle-Earth.

The most important theme in Shippey's work is how philology informed Tolkien's work. Clearly, Tolkien gave enormous attention to the words he chose in all he wrote. His work was deeply informed by his understanding of Old English, Old Norse, and other Northern European medieval languages. Shippey traces a huge number of connections between these languages and Tolkien's writing, and he provides valuable explanations of the significance of specific word choices and invented names to Tolkien's themes and ideas. Shippey's expert analysis reveals layer upon layer of meaning.

Shippey locates Tolkien's legendarium within the myths and legends of Northern Europe in the same way that a philologist might postulate unrecorded words in long dead languages. For example, based on specific observable rules for word relations between languages, the words for dwarves -- "dweorh" (Old English), "dvergr" (Old Norse), and "twerg" (High German) -- allow philologists to postulate "*dvairgs" in Gothic. They may do this despite the absence of any record of the word for dwarves in Gothic. In writing these inferred words, philologists normally precede them with an asterisk, e.g., *dvairgs, to distinguish it from a recorded word.

According to Shippey, philologist, including Tolkien, came to accept this methodology, and to infer -- not just words -- but the realities to which they were attached. He writes, "The whole of their science conditioned them to the acceptance of what one might call '*-' or 'asterisk-reality', that which no longer existed but could with 100 percent certainty be inferred." Furthermore, this methodology encouraged philologists to blur the distinction between historical discovery and creative construction.

Shippey indicates that Tolkien was particular prone to this. Applied to literature, Tolkien called this technique "Sub-Creation." The resulting story lies somewhere between historical reality and mere fiction. Sub-Creation has a depth of meaning and authenticity that reaches beyond the creative product of a single author relying on his or her individual imagination. Shippey's account does much to explain the sense that many Tolkien fans have that Middle-Earth exists on the same plane as the Garden of Eden, Gilgamesh's Cedars of Lebanon, and Asgard of the Aesir. It also explains what Tolkien meant when he wrote that he wanted to create a mythology for England. Middle-Earth is essentially the *Mythology of England.

Despite the strength of Shippey's analysis, one is sometimes left with the feeling that Shippey imputes more than was intended by Tolkien. As a medieval scholar well-equipped with the tools of philology, it would be easy for Shippey to interpret accidental elements in Tolkien's work as part of Tolkien's conscious Sub-Creation; however, even if this is true, it only indicates the extent to which Tolkien was living and breathing the combined mythologies that form the building blocks of Middle-Earth.

The Road to Middle-Earth is loaded with many more insights than I have described here. It is a tour de force of Tolkien scholarship and deserves to be read by every Tolkien fan.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Beowulf and the Critics / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Michael D.C. Drout, ed. -- Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002.

In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture to the British Academy entitled, "Beowulf: Monsters and the Critics." It completely transformed scholarship related to Beowulf. The paper, published in the following year, was based on a longer work, "Beowulf and the Critics" that would not see publication for 66 years. The volume in which we receive it includes two versions of "Beowulf and the Critics," labeled "A" and "B" by the editor Michael Drout. According to Drout, comparing both versions to Tolkien's British Academy lecture allows us "a glimpse into the workings of a great mind engaged in a struggle with a complex problem." He also notes that the differences between the versions are too great "to redact some kind of 'best text.'" Be that as it may, I chose to read only the longer B version of the work and skip Drout's copious notes that make up half the volume. Much to my loss, I'm certain, but too many other books remain unread for me to spend the time that Drout's work deserves.

Tolkien's essay (or short book) takes to task the literary critics and historians who had to that time dominated Beowulf scholarship. Literary critics criticized the poem for its disorganization, disproportion, and adolescent focus on the monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon. It was deemed to be a hodge-podge of pre-Christian folklore, with the most interesting parts mentioned, not in the main story line, but in passing and in narrative tangents. Furthermore, the integrity of the poem was seen to be compromised by the additions of Christian passages tacked on by an embarrassed Christian compiler. Historians merely neglected the poetic features of the work to focus on the clues it gave to life in the early Middle Ages in Northern Europe.

Tolkien found all of these critiques without merit. For Tolkien, the author of Beowulf was a poet of the caliber of Homer or Virgil. Beowulf provides us with one of the best literary celebrations of the Northern European medieval ethic. It is a clear expression of the Northern European hero, seeking glory in this world by vanquishing evil, with a commitment to doing so no matter the cost to himself. Critics saw the main story to be Beowulf's fight with Grendel. The fights with Grendel's mother and the dragon were merely redundant. Against this, Tolkien claims that the final contest with the dragon is an vital component of the story. Without it, the work would fail to fulfill its poetic purpose. It also serves as a necessary counter-weight to earlier struggles.

On Tolkien's view, the story begins with a young man risking all for fame and glory in a noble effort to free a beleaguered people from an devastating scourge -- Grendel. Doing so, he unexpectedly finds himself faced with the even greater task of defending his wards against an even greater terror -- Grendel's mother. That he does not flinch from his duty is an expression both of his desire for glory and his commitment to duty. The final struggle comes to Beowulf fifty years later when he is no longer the indomitable young hero of Hrothgar's hall. Nonetheless, he takes up sword and shield to face the dragon. His doom is evident, but for the hero of Northern lore, failure always eventually comes. What is important is how we behave in the face of it.

Tolkien also makes a strong case against reading the Christian passages as an alien addition to the poem. Instead, Tolkien concludes that the poem was written by a Christian during a time in which paganism was still a going concern in England and that the syncretism of pagan and Christian elements is a natural expression of the Christian author who has not yet discarded his sympathies for the pagan ethic.

Tolkien's reading of Beowulf is compelling, but what is more interesting is what this reading reveals about Tolkien. In many ways, Tolkien is describing himself when he writes of the author of Beowulf. Despite Tolkien's staunch commitment to Catholicism, he had great sympathy for the pre-Christian pagan ethic, and in all of his work, he found ways to coherently integrate both sensibilities into his work. It also is interesting to note that he would have to defend his own writing against critics in the same way that he defended the Beowulf author. He, too, would be attacked for an adolescent fascination with fantasy and monsters.

Besides Tolkien's case for the Beowulf author, "Beowulf and the Critics" is a rich vein of Tolkien's biting wit. His criticism of the critics is chocked full of laugh-out-loud put downs. Some of them probably unfair, but no less entertaining for that. Beowulf and the Critics is a fine work. Someday, I'll return to read the A version and Drout's copious notes and I'm sure it'll be equally worthwhile.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation / Seamus Heaney, tr. -- NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Reading Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf was a delight. Of course, I've never read a translation of Beowulf and not been delighted; so a more critical review of the work requires a bit more thought. This drove me to compare it to the two other translations that I have read. It's difficult to judge a translation without a good understanding of the original language -- which I certainly lack -- so I'm left to judge the work based on its translated poetry alone. On that score, Heaney's translation, for me, competes well with translations by Michael Alexander (Penguin Classics, 1973) and Francis B. Gummere (P.F. Collier & Sons, 1910). Each translation has its merits and reading them together deepens one's appreciation for each and for the poem itself.

Comparing specific stanzas in the three translations gives one a flavor of how different various translations can be. Heaney directs his readers to his translation of the opening stanza to exemplify his own approach:


So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.


We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark,
how the folk-kings flourished in former days,
how those royal athelings earned that glory.

and Gummere:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

One can immediately feel the tone that Heaney adopts: direct simple word choices, shorn of poetic pretense. In his introduction, Heaney writes: "I came to the task of translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery. I remember the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique," and later, "I am attending as much to the grain of my original vernacular as to the content of the Anglo-Saxon lines."

What Heaney rejects is the notion that a translation of Beowulf must be guided primarily by the notion that "we must labour to be beautiful." The result is a translation that reads easily and simply, and indeed, beauty flourishes in that simply. At least this is true most of time. What is sometimes lost is the remarkable, stirring phrases that appear in more self-consciously poetic translations. Compare the various translations of one of my favorite passages (lines 2550-2558), when the aged Beowulf first challenges the dragon in his lair:


Then he gave a shout. The lord of the Geats
unburdened his breast and broke out
in a storm of anger. Under the grey stone
his voice challenged and resounded clearly.
Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized
a human voice, the time was over
for peace and parleying. Pouring forth
in a hot battle-fume, the breath of the monster
burst from the rock. There was a rumble under ground.


Passion filled the prince of the Geats:
he allowed a cry to utter from his breast,
roared from his stout heart: as the horn clear in battle
his voice re-echoed through the vault of grey stone.
The hoard-guard recognized a human voice,
and there was no more time for talk of friendship:
hatred stirred. Straightaway
the breath of the dragon billowed from the rock
in a hissing gust; the ground boomed.

and Gummere:

Then from his breast, for he burst with rage,
the Weder-Geat prince a word outgo;
stormed the stark-heart; stern went ringing
and clear his cry 'neath the cliff-rocks gray.
The hoard-guard heard a human voice;
his rage was enkindled. No respite now
for pact of peace! The poison-breath
of that foul worm first came forth from the cave,
hot reek-of-fight: the rocks resounded.

To my ear, Heaney's version is certainly unencumbered by the "laboured poetry" of the Gummere version, but it is still stirring; however, in comparison to the Alexander version, Heaney's reads like a newspaper account. Nothing more exemplifies the difference than lines 2556-2568. Alexander's version best captures the ominous moment when Beowulf courageously faces his death: "...Straightaway / the breath of the dragon billowed from the rock / in a hissing gust. The ground boomed." Reading "the ground boomed" makes me want to put down my book and flee, lest I be cornered by the dragon. This is not to say that Heaney's directness and Gummere's laboured poetry do not outshine Alexander on other occasions, but on balance, for me, Alexander finds just the right poetic balance.

Regardless of the translation one choose to read, Beowulf is a stirring experience if one reads the poem slowly and thoughtfully -- aloud is best -- taking the time to let the words and images shape your experience and transport you to a time and place when honor and undauntable courage were prized above all. Heaney will do this for you and in an idiom that speaks directly to today's vernacular.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Prose Edda / Snorri Sturluson -- NY: American-Scandinavian Foundation and London: Humphrey Miford Oxford University Press, 1923.

In the early 13th century, Iceland's great poet Snorri Sturluson collected the stories of his culture now known as The Elder Edda and worked them into retelling now known as The Prose Edda. It is divided into three self-sufficient sections: Gylfaginning or The Beguiling of Gylfi, Skaldskaparmal or The Poesy of Skalds, and Hattatal or Enumeration of Metres. These and portions of these works have been translated into English since the first attempt in 1770; however, not until 1916 was the whole of Skaldskaparmal translated. This was done by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur for the American-Scandinavian Foundation. Brodeur's The Poesy of the Skalds appeard in the same volume with his translation of Gylfanginning. Hattatal, however, defied Brodeur's translation abilities, due to its highly technical nature. Indeed, fitting appropriate English vocabulary into the metre of the original work is likely impossible.

The Beguiling of Gylfi is the most accessible and engaging to the two translated works. It tells the story of the Norse gods, from the creation of the world to their death at the hands of the giants. While the work is certainly pagan, Snorluson introduces it by telling how the original knowledge of the Biblical story of Genesis was forgotten by the people of Northern Europe and how they constructed the Odinic myths; however, once he has established his Christian credentials, Snorluson faithfully retells the pagan stories without lacing them with foreign Christian interpolations.

The Beguiling of Gylfi recounts the exploits of Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldr, Freyja, Freyr, and other lesser Norse gods. Its stories include norns, valkyries, giants, elves, dwarves, men, shape shifters, and dragons. It provides a brief account of the story of Sigurd, Brynhild, and Gudrun. The stories are told to Gylfi by Harr of the AEsir, descendants of the Norse gods. The work provides an excellent summary of the Norse pantheon and cosmology.

The Poesy of the Skalds contains verses and some brief narratives, but is essentially a compendium of ways in which the poets of the Elder Edda referred to various gods and important subjects. Essentially, it is a handbook for poets (skalds) seeking to understand how to poetically refer to the subjects in their poems. So, for example, a young skald is directed to refer to Odin as "Allfather" and Thor as "Defender of Asgard and of Midgard" or "Smiter of Hrungnir." Baldr is "Companion of Hel" or "God of Tears." Loki is "Theif of the Giants" or "Forger of Evil;" "the Sly God" or "Contriver of Baldr's Death." Poetic references are recommended for such things as man, gold, the sky, the earth, battle, fire, etc.

The epithets for all these relate to the subject's place in Norse legends, and along with helping us understand the Norse view of the world, provide a rich summary of the poetic sensibility of the Icelandic skalds. Snorluson quotes stanzas of poetry that employ these epithets and sometimes provides us with longer narratives illustrating why the subject has received the epithet. Reading these stanzas in the context of Sturluson's poetic instruction allows us to understand why Norse poetry feels so loaded with meaning.

The Beguiling of Gylfi will reward anyone interested in the Norse mythology. Its gritty narratives are thrilling in a way that Greek and Roman mythology with all its glamour is not. The Poesy of the Skalds, on the other hand, will reward the more poetic reader, unconcerned with plots or narratives, but happy to read the isolated, but stirring, turn of phrase.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Addicted to Plastics / Ian Connacher -- Reading, PA: Bullfrong Films, 2007.

The documentary "Addicted to Plastics" (part of the 'etc.' on this blog) has the basic characteristics of a well done documentary. It is engaging and entertaining while informative. It covered some of the more widely known problems of plastics (their volume in our waste stream, the fact that they don't decompose and can only be down-cycled, not recycled) and drove home a couple of other points. One - the oceans are becoming plastic soup. Some of the most impressive scenes from the movie were of pieces of plastics large and small being removed in formidable volumes from remote parts of the earth. Two - plastics absorb chemicals that are otherwise diluted in the ocean, increasing their health hazard to marine and bird life and passing that risk up the food chain.

The documentary attempts to be optimistic by pointing to recycling efforts and new forms of less harmful plastics but doesn't offer any real call to arms to address the problems from plastic with concrete or timely measures. In fact, an overblown portrayal of life without plastic seems to suggest that the problem is too big for individual action. Although I believe that collective action holding manufacturers responsible for the lifecycle of their products is more powerful than individual efforts to reduce, the damage wreaked by plastics, as clearly outlined in the film, is too great to wait for the 'green chemistry' to save the day. Acting now to reduce the volume of plastic being produced decreases air, land, and water pollution and increases the livability of the planet we so enjoy.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr / Nancy Isenberg -- NY: Viking, 2007.

Nancy Isenberg's biography of Aaron Burr Fallen Founder will change what we think of Burr. Known primarily for three notorious acts, Burr's life has never been seriously studied by dispassionat historians -- at least this is Isenberg's plausible contention. Instead, what we believe we know about Burr has been given to us by his political enemies and has passed into history without careful scrutiny.

Isenberg's investigation of Burr's life prompts her to tell a far more sympathic story and rewrites what is thought to be known about the Election of 1800, Burr's duel with Hamilton, and Burr's alleged plot to conquer Mexico and separate the Western States from the Union. Isenberg's research into these and other events is meticulous. Her 521 page book includes 107 pages of notes, referring the reader to crucial primary sources that not only paint a different picture of Burr, cast doubt on the motives and testimony of his accusers.

It is commonly thought that during the constitutional crisis that threw the Election of 1800 into the House of Representatives, Burr worked to defeat his running mate, Thomas Jefferson, and secure the Presidency for himself. He might have been able to do this by persuading the Federalist members of Congress to join his own loyalists and win a majority of the states voting. According to Isenberg, Burr made his intentions clear: he had no desire to defeat Jefferson and that remaining a candidate for president was necessary to avoid electing the Federalist John Adams Vice President. Given Burr's youth, it seems quite plausible that he would be satisfied with serving as Vice President under Jefferson and then inherit the Presidency eight years later. However, Jefferson's animosity toward Burr would indicate that he was not able to gain Jefferson's trust, providing further circumstantial evidence in favor of a Machievelian reading of Burr.

Isenberg's description of Burr's duel with Hamilton leads one to see Hamilton as the most culpable member of the pair. Isenberg describes Hamilton's volitile and sometimes abusive personality in contrast with Burr's even genial temper. She writes that Burr was involved in only two duels in his life, while Hamilton was involved in 11 duels. Dueling was common in 1804, and given the abuse that Hamilton heaped on Burr over many years, one might not be surprised that Burr would issue the challenge. Isenberg's scholarship gives ample support to this reading.

Finally, Burr was famously tried by John Marshall and the Senate for treason. He was charged with planning an invasion of Mexico to establish himself as King and then inciting the Western United States to separate from the union to join his empire. In the course of the trial, he was also accused of plotting the assassination of Thomas Jefferson. What seems clear is that Burr intended to recruit a private army to invade Mexico. The invasion would, apparently only take place in the event that the US first declared war on Mexico. Raising private armies was, again, not unknown at the time. After two trials, one in Mississippi and one in the US Senate, Burr was cleard of the all charges against him. Isenberg persuasively argues that Burr's enemies fabricated the evidence against him and that the verdict of the courts were completely accurate.

Isenberg's rehabilitation of Burr is a splendid piece of history. Whether it is completely accurate or not is not as significant as the fact that she has opened an new field of study that will surely correct the unfair treatment that Burr has received for more than 200 years.

The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition / Anne Frank -- NY: Doubleday, 1995.

I never had a strong desire to read Anne Frank's diary. Despite its popularity, I expected that too many entries would be the mundane musing of an adolescent girl. I was moved, however, to pick up the diary after visiting the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. Simply occupying the space that once hid the Frank family and their fellow refugees made me curious about their lives.

I quickly found that the diary's reputation as a semi-sacred testament to the genocide of European jewry was overblown and that entry upon entry was markedly ordinary. I suspect that this would not come as a surprise to anyone more familiar with the work than I was. On only a few occassions did Anne write about the plight of Jews beyond her own conditions. At best, the diary is provides the tiniest glimpse into what Jews were experiencing through out Europe. Certainly, Anne's diary made it possible for people around the world to see deeply into the life of one of the millions of victims of the Nazi crimes, and to that extent, it humanized what might otherwise have been a bewildering story of unfathomable numbers and abstract horrors. Nonetheless, I was surprised at how divorced I felt from the holocaust while reading the diary.

I was, however, drawn into the work in a way that surprised me. More than a primary source for the study of the holocaust, Anne's diary is a fascinating look into the mental life of an adolescent girl struggling with her relationships with mother and father. Her entries deal largely with subjects that might preoccupy any young girl in 21st century America, though her thoughts and feelings were most likely heightened by the constant proximity of her fellow refugees. Nearly as interesting as her difficult relationship with her parents was her slowly developing romantic relationship with Peter van Dan.

In all, I was happy to have finally read a work that has come to be such an important part of the literary history of World War II, but it will remain low on my list of works to recommend for understanding the times in which Anne lived and died.