Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ugarit and the Old Testament / Peter C. Craigie -- Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman's Publishing, 1983

A full understanding the Old Testament requires not only knowledge of the text itself, but also of the culture out of which it came; however, if we are limited to the Old Testament to understand its culture, then a full understanding of the Old Testament is not possible. We need, instead, additional sources of information to provide the context. Numerous archaeological and historical resources are available for this, but perhaps the most interesting are the ancient artifacts uncovered at Ras Shamra in Syria on the Mediterranean coast.

Beginning in 1929, archaeological digs at Ras Shamra have produced a wealth of cuneiform tablets from what has been determined to be the ancient city of Ugarit. These tablets, along with the ruins of buildings and other artifacts, shed a clear light on the culture of the Old Testament as life in Ugarit appears to have been similar to life among the Hebrews. This can be concluded from the temporal and spacial proximity of the two cultures, the similarity of their physical environment, and the similarity between ancient Hebrew and the language of the Ugarit cuneiform tablets.

Ugarit was destroy approximately in 1200 B.C., just centuries prior to the settlement of the Hebrews in Canaan, and while this might seem like a long time from a modern perspective, the pace of cultural change in the ancient world was very much slower than the pace of change in modern times. Linguistically, Ugaritic is nearer to Hebrew than any other middle eastern language. Consequently, we can conclude that the cultures are likely to be more closely tied to one another than the culture of the Hebrews is to any other known contemporary or near-contemporary culture.

Like the Hebrew's Hebron, Ugarit was a small city state that expanded to become a small buffer state between two ancient superpowers. Both maintained this status for several centuries. Ugarit appears to have been more cosmopolitan than Israel, probably due to its role as a regional trading center.

The Ugarit tablets provide a wide variety of information about life in Ugarit, including its religion. Three deities are prominent in the texts: El, Baal, and Dagon. It is noteworthy that the world "el" is used in biblical texts to refer to God, as in for example, "Elohim" and "Bethel" (house of God). Furthermore, the character of Baal appears strikingly similar to Yahweh. Both are, for example, sky gods who made their earthly homes in sacred temples within a city or cities; however, the Hebrews made a transition possiblty from polytheism through henotheism and finally to monotheism. All three gods mentioned in the Ugarit tablets are mentioned in the Old Testament, indicating a direct connection between the writers of the Old Testament and the writers of the Ugarit tablets.

Beyond making these sorts of connections, Peter Craigie's Ugarit and the Old Testament gives close analyses of some of the Ugaritic texts, showing their similarity to certain biblical passages, particularly Psalm 29, Psalm 104, Amos 7:14-15, Deuteronomy 14:21, Exodus 23:19. Craigie also suggests that the Hebrews were not unique in understanding themselves as having a "covenant" with their god, but that this relationship was common in Canaan's religious milieu. Craigie also provides an interesting glimpse into Ugarit in its own right, describing its most prominent buildings, libraries, languages, populations, and commercial relations with the Egyptian and Hittite empires. Furthermore, Ugarit's access to the Mediterranean made it an important commercial gateway between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations.

Ugarit and the Old Testament provides a very interesting -- though brief -- tour of the discoveries of Ras Shamra and their significance. It leaves the reader hungry from more.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Lost Road and Other Writings / J.R.R. Tolkien -- New York: Ballantine Books, 1996

Following J.R.R. Tolkien's death, his son Christopher Tolkien began combing through Tolkien's papers to provide the world with posthumous works much in demand. Among the material the Christopher published is the twelve-volume series The History of Middle-earth. Volume Five The Lost Road and Other Writings is among the most important of the series. In it, we find versions of the stories that serve as the backdrop for The Hobbit and especially The Lord of the Rings. Furthermore, the versions in Volume Five were written just before the time of the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Consequently, they give us the clearest picture of Tolkien's legendarium as it bears on understanding The Lord of the Rings.

The first part of the work details the history of Numenor and its fall. Numenor was an island created for the race of men who fought with their half-kin the elves in the epic battle against Morgoth. Ultimately, the Numenoreans were seduced by Saron into waging war against the Valar, the gods who inhabited the forbidden Western land of Valinor. Upon the defeat of the Numenoreans, the island of Numenor was submerged into the ocean, with only a remnant of the race (loyal to the gods) escaping to Middle-earth. With the destruction of Numenor, the Valar reshaped the planet -- Arda -- such that it was now impossible for mortals to travel "the road" to the forbidden shores of Valinor, forever separating the men Middle-earth from alinor; hence, the story of "the lost road."

The Lost Road itself was an attempt by Tolkien to write a time travel story in which the travelers found their way back to Numenor through the vehicle of dreaming. The Lost Road was never completed, though Tolkien again attempted the story in a later work known as The Notion Club Papers. The Notion Club Papers can be found in Volume Nine of The History of Middle-earth -- Sauron Defeated.

Time travel as conceived in The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers bears an interesting relationship to the work that Tolkien was engaged in as a philologist. Reconstructing dead, prehistoric languages from the remnants of descendant historical languages and thereby recreating the prehistoric culture is at least as much an art as a science. It inevitably involves creativity and imagination which are most at liberty in our dreams. How much Tolkien saw his work as a philologist as traveling through time is an open question, but The Lost Road is strong evidence that this is how he conceived of it.

Part two of Volume Five reaches even further back in the history of Arda, providing a description of its creation, annals of the world before the fall of Morgoth, and a version of the Quenta Silmarillion which tells the history of elves from their origins to the fall of their arch enemy, Morgoth. It also includes a version of The Llammas, a treatise on the history of the languages of the people of Arda.

Much of the material in Volume Five appears in earlier published work by Tolkien, particularly The Silmarillion. After each section by Tolkien, Christorpher makes an heroic effort to describe how the present version differs from other versions, but the level of detail is too great for the casual reader to appreciate the distinctions. Setting the texts side by side and using Christopher's notes as a guide might yield valuable insight into the transformation of Tolkien's creation, but in the end, it would probably only be of interest to the most dedicated Tolkien scholar. Nonetheless, Tolkien's narative, given to us in The Lost Road and Other Writings will reward anyone who appreciates Tolkien's work.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

History in English Words / Owen Barfield -- Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1967

A lot of people are very fond of tracing the origins of words, such that a dictionary that does not provide etymological information can be a real disappointment. Our fascination for etymology, however, usually stops short of a passion for philology, i.e., understanding the relationship between words and culture and the principles that lie behind the changes in words and their meanings. The 19th century saw the heyday of philology, though a good deal of philological work was done in the early part of the 20th century; but by that time, there was a struggle in academic English departments between professors of literature and professors of language. With the rise of linguistics departments, the professors of language tended to lose ground in English departments, bringing on the decline of philology.

Owen Barfield's History in English Words is a late reminder of how fascinating philology can be. Barfield strategically selects words that have entered the English language to provide a brisk history of the English speaking people. As the conditions of life and our perspectives on the world changed, our language changed to express these new conditions and perspectives. Our history is revealed in our language.

Barfield's first chapter, "Philology and the Aryans," reaches back to the millennia prior to the advent of English. This is perhaps the most speculative, but also most interesting, facets of philology -- the attempt to identify common roots in recorded languages, to reconstruct prehistoric languages and thereby shed light on prehistoric culture. By the second chapter, "The Settlement of Europe," Barfield's subject becomes historical and he begins employing his primary method of study -- selecting newly introduced words to illustrate the changing currents of culture. In the early Middle Ages, words such as altar, candle, clerk, creed, deacon, hymn, martyr, mass, nun, priest, shrine, and temple entered the English language. This was, of course, a reflection of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, the absence of such institutions among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and the centrality of religion to the lives of the post-conversion English speakers.

Later, in Modern England, the language was supplemented by a huge infusion of French and Latin words, but also words from other European languages, reflecting the integration of Europe and international commerce. Indeed, the Age of Discovery brought words to English from all over the world; however, the simple borrowing of words from other languages to enrich English does not adequately illustrate Barfield's study. The real work is done in subsequent chapters in which Barfield identifies important currents in the zietgeist of the English speaking people, for example, the rise of experimental science, the discovery of individuality, personality, and reason, and the hegemony of a mechanistic world view. Barfield illustrates each of these new currents of thinking with the new words that entered the English langauge that were needed to express the new ideas.

Much of this is not surprising, but some is quite startling and revealing. Barfield observes that after the Reformation a host of new words entered the language that began with the prefix "self-," e.g., self-conceit, self-liking, self-love, self-confidence, self-command, self-contempt, self-esteem, and self-pity, among others. Today we use most of these words without thinking, but their sudden, simultaneous appearance in our language is evidence of an important change in how people thought of themselves. The explosion of the "self-" prefix seems to reveal something much more subtle and deeper in the cultural changes of the time, whereas the appearance of new scientific terms to describe new instruments and processes is relatively unremarkable.

History in English Words is alternately unenlightening and exquisitely surprising, since much of the changes to our language are ones that we would easily understand and predict, given our general understanding of history, but others reveal a largely imperceptible plasticity of culture not marked by what is obvious to any historian.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook / Alan Lee -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005

Peter Jackson's series of movies based on The Lord of the Rings was nominated for thirty Academy Awards, winning seventeen. All three movies were nominated for Best Art Direction and the third movie, "The Return of the King" won in this category. Much of the art in the movies was based on the drawings and and paintings of Alan Lee. Work on the movies was, however, not Lee's first effort to depict Middle-earth. By the time of the release of "The Fellowship of the Ring," Lee's vision of Middle-earth had become widely known among Tolkien fans. So by hiring him to work on the films, Peter Jackson ensured that a large portion of his audience would leave the theater thinking, "That's exactly how I pictured it." It was as if a film of Alice in Wonderland would have John Tenniel involved in its art direction.

The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook is a fine collection of work by Alan Lee which takes the reader through the story of The Lord of the Rings by presenting sketches of critical images, including characters, buildings, landscapes, locations, armour, props, and more. Accompanying the sketches are brief paragraphs in which Lee explains his art or elaborates on the subject that image depicts. Lee also provides a peak behind the scenes of the making of the movies.

The book does not have any great pretensions. It neither provides any deep insight into Tolkieana nor does it treat Lee's art as more than story board illustrations. It is nevertheless an enjoyable romp through Middle-earth and Peter Jackson's movies.