Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Silmarillion / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977

The Silmarillion has a bad reputation.  After a spike in the popularity on American college campuses of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, his readers were eager for a similar work.  When they discovered that Tolkien's unpublished stories were consciously not in a traditional novelistic form, they largely turned their backs on them -- not just The Silmarillion, but all of his remaining unpublished works.  In the years following the publication of The Silmarillion, one could easily find copies of it in used bookstores.  This is all too bad, since there is much to appreciate in The Silmarillion, if one does not expect it to be like The Lord of the Rings.

The volume is composed of five works: "Ainulindale," "Valaquenta," Quenta Silmarillion, "Akallabeth," and "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age." "Ainulindale" is and account of the work of Eru, the One, called "Iluvatar" by the Elves.  Eru created everything. First among his creations were the Ainur (or more specifically, the Valar), god-like beings that remind one of the Olympian gods.  Tolkien describes their primary activity as the making of music, which is disrupted by the dissonance of one of the Ainur, Melkor, because of his pride.  Later, the music of the Valar takes on a new ontological form as Ea, the material universe and Arda, the world in which all of Tolkien's stories are set.  Included as a region of Arda is Middle Earth.  The tone of all of this is rather like The Book of Genesis. Never does Tolkien establish what one might consider a novelistic plot or characters of any substance.  What story line that can be found, is based on the rebellion of Melkor.  Upon my first reading, I was thrilled by the depth and majesty of the work and fascinated by its theological undertones, but like so many other readers, I was hoping that the remainder of the work would be more like The Lord of the Rings.

The second work in the volume, "Valaquenta," seems more like a snippet from an encyclopedia, providing entries on the Ainur: the Valar mentioned above and the Maia a demi-god like being.  Ther is also an entry on "the Enemies," including Melkor and Sauron, a Maia of The Lord of the Rings.  There is no doubt value here, but because the roles of the Valar and the Maia are not great in the remainder of the volume, the detail we find here is rather unnecessary for the whole.  We do get, however, a deeper understanding of the powers of the world that the Valar represent and so have a better sense of the cosmology within which the stories of the "Childern of Iluvatar" (elves and men) unfold.  Those stories are told in the three subsequent works in the volume.

The Quenta Silmarillion is the longest and most complex work in the volume.  It is a history of the First Age of the world in which the actions of the elves are of greatest import.  Elves are the "first born" of the Children of Iluvatar, discovered first by Melkor who had taken refuge in Middle Earth. Their fate was decided by a war between Melkor and the other Ainur, the outcome of which was the defeat of Melkor and his imprisonment for three ages.  Following the war, the Ainur invited the elves to come to Aman, "the Undying Lands" to live forever in peace and under the protection of the Ainur.  Three ambassadors were chose from the elves to receive the summons, Ingwe, Finwe, Elwe.  Each became a king of a portion of the elves and each encouraged their subjects to travel across the sea to the join the Ainur.  However, not all of them made the journey.

Perhaps the most gripping story in the Quenta Silmarillion is that of the "Flight of the Elves."  While in the Undying Lands, one elf, Feanor, son of Finwe, made three precious jewels that contained a sacred light.  He called the jewels "the silmarils."  They were, however, stolen from him and taken to Middle Earth by Melkor who had finished his time in prison.  In his pride and lust for the silmarils, Feanor and all his sons made a vow to recover them and treat anyone who withheld the silmarils from them as an enemy.  His decision to return to Middle Earth was opposed by the Valar, who declared that Feanor and any elf that left the Undying Lands with him could not return.  Feanor's pride led him to disregard the decree and he journeyed to Middle Earth.  Shockingly, his departure involved a civil war among the elves in which elves killed elves, forever staining their history.  In the end, Feanor and his followers made it to Middle Earth.  The remainder of the Quenta Silmarillion is the story of their struggle against Melkor to regain the silmarils.

Many of the stories told of that struggle contain thrilling details, but by and large they are schematic, outlining the broad history of the elves in Middle Earth.  The most well developed stories have been published in other works by Tolkien's son Christopher as part of the series of volumes entitled The History of Middle Earth and in one instance as a separate book, The Children of Hurin.  In all, the Quenta Silmarillion truly demonstrates Tolkien's expansive imagination.  If one is fascinated by the complexity and extent of his vision in The Lord of the Rings, one should be absolutely overawed by what he has given us in the Quenta Silmarillion.  Unfortunately, the idiom in which he has chose to write has not attracted the audience it deserves.  To truly appreciate the value of the work, one must give it more than a single reading.  I'm sure very few people have been so committed to understanding Tolkien's vision as to do this.

As if the Quenta Silmarillion were not enough to establish the majesty of his vision, Tolkien provides us with accounts of the Second and Third Ages of Middle Earth in The Silmarillion.  The Second Age is an account of the history of men, particularly the race of men called the Numenoreans, following the defeat of Melkor which ends the First Age.  During the Second Age, the evil of Melkor is carried on by his surviving vassal, Sauron.  Deceived by Sauron, men are induced to attack the Valar in the Undying Lands, which unsurprisingly brings about their destruction, with the exception of a dissident group, loyal to the Valar.

The final work in The Silmarillion is "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age."  This tells the story of the creation of the rings of power by Sauron and ultimate the War of the Last Alliance in which men and elves defeated Sauron and in which the prince of the Numenoreans, Isildur acquired the one ring of power, only to lose it when ambushed by orcs.  It is with the end of this last work that we are finally brought up to the time of Tolkien's more popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Undoubtedly, The Silmarillion is not everyone's cup of tea, but for anyone who loves The Lord of the Rings, the stories and history it holds give depth and meaning to that world.  It may take two or more readings to become clear about the various events and numerous figures in the legendarium, but once one has this, Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, Aragorn, and all the rest of Tolkien's familiar characters can be seen in the supremely heroic light that the author envisioned for them.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell / J.R.R. Tolkien, trans. -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Several years ago, I heard a rumor that a translation by Tolkien of Beowulf was found in his papers and that an eminent Tolkien scholar was working on editing it for publication.  Later, I heard that the scholar had abandoned the task.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find Tolkien's translation of Beowulf on sale at my campus bookstore, edited by Tolkien's son, Christopher.  Tolkien's relationship to Beowulf and Beowulf scholarship is legendary.  In 1936, he published an influential study of the entitled, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."  More than anything, that study elevated the reputation of Beowulf to the preeminent literary status that it has today.  Prior to that, Beowulf was seen mostly as a hotch-potch of story fragments which W.P. Ker described as putting peripheral matters at the center and central matters at the periphery.  According to Tolkien, the tangential narratives and allusions to other histories and legends lent depth and context to the story and that the centrality of the monsters (Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon) and how they were treated by the author offered an important insight into the poem and its telling.  For example, the reference to Grendel as being of the race of Cain and the connection between the dragon and Satan showed that Beowulf was neither fully a pagan epic nor a Christian homily.  Instead, it was a retelling of an earlier pagan legend by a Christian author.  The author's Christian world view could not help but make him (or her?) include a Christian slant on the drama.

It is clear that Tolkien's understanding of Beowulf is first rate if not second to none and so his edition of the poem can not be ignored.  Tolkien was also the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and so his mastery of Old English verse is also of the first order.  At one time in his life he wrote a poem entitled The Fall of Arthur in the alliterative verse form of Old English.  This form is composed of verses made up of two phrases each usually made up of two stressed and two unstressed units of the form:  x / x / | x / x /.   The alliteration occurs when the third stressed unit is the same sound as the sound of the fist stressed unit and sometimes also the second unit.  For example: "the Geat prince went / for Grendel's mother" or "funeral fires / fumes of wood smoke."  Of course, every line in Old English meter is not slavishly fitted to these forms, but any attempt to capture the sound of the Old English poetry would tend to follow these patterns.  Tolkien, however, chose not to write his edition of Beowulf in verse.  Instead, the narrative is presented in prose.  This permits him to more easily capture the meaning of the poem since he is able to choose Modern English expressions that do not alliterate, but what is lost in poetry is gained in semantic accuracy.  At the same time Tolkien's rendition of the story is colored by his sense of drama.  His diction and word order make the work suitably archaic and often quite stirring.  Anyone with an appreciation for his prose will thoroughly enjoy his rendition.

In addition to the rendition of the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien has included a commentary on the text that was taken from Tolkien's lecture notes.  The commentary is nearly twice the length of the poem and this more than anything will provide the reader with deep insight into the poem and to the pagan times about which the poem is written.  For example, Tolkien explains the passage, "Leave here our warlike shields" with the annotation: "Note the prohibition of weapons or accoutrements of battle in the hall.  to walk in with spear and shield was like walking in nowadays with your hat on.  The basis of these rules was of course fear and prudence amid the ever-present dangers of an heroic age, but they were made part of the ritual, of good manners."  The annotation goes on further to point out that this custom was appropriate to a king's hall and that "It was death in Scandinavia to cause a brawl in a king's hall."

The presence of the commentary in the same volume as the rendition gives a reader three extremely attractive options:  (1)  Read the narrative strait through without reference to the commentary.  This allows you to best appreciate Tolkien's own literary techniques.  (2) Read the the commentary along with the narrative.  This provides you with a deep understanding of the story with Tolkien as your guide.  (3) Read the commentary alone.  This provides you with a fascinating study of Old English and the customs of pagan Northern Europe.  It's hard to decide which of these approaches is best.  Perhaps three readings of the work would be ideal.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Hobbit / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976

A few weeks ago, I watched the concluding film of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I was not disappointed, but only because I had seen the prior two films and had low expectations.  Jackson appears to have decided to make a set of films for an audience that loved his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but has not read The Hobbit.   In order not to allow the movies to confuse my recollections of the book, I decided to re-read The Hobbit for what was probably the fifth or sixth time.  Mind you, those readings were spread over a period of 44 years, though my last reading of it was only a few years ago, prior to Jackson's first Hobbit film.  Over the course of those decades, my experience of the book has changed little. 

For me, The Hobbit ranks first among light, "escapist" reading.  It's my literary "comfort food."  In contrast, The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other works provide us with more weighty themes.  Three characters are well-developed in The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and to a lesser extent Gandalf the Grey, but character development is not really the central virtue of the book.  Instead, The Hobbit takes us on a journey through a mysterious world which has horizons that are mainly limited to the scene of its action.  Certainly, there are hints of a wider world.  Much has been made of these hints by literary critics who ascribe the attraction of the novel to those hints.  Tolkien himself thought this, but in truth the hints are quite few.  Instead, the intimation of a wider, imaginary world is mostly a consequence of the non-human cast of characters.  If the characters are so different from us, then surely their world must be different.  No hints are really required for that.  What really makes the story endearing is that the reader understands Middle Earth's horizons to be much wider than what we see, but this world is one which is revealed to us only slowly and in the course of the journey.  This is analogous to a child's experience of his or her development to adulthood.

Following the story of The Hobbit along the journey to the Lonely Mountain, one begins in Bilbo's house.  Despite being built into the side of hill, Bilbo's house is familiar enough.  One can imagine the cozy fire, comfortable chairs, and of course plenty of food.  Soon enough, Bilbo's world is disturbed by a company of dwarves.  As a child, this intrusion from the outside was not terribly different from the appearance (in real life and on television and radio) of people from the world outside of my family and immediate friends.  They produced both interest and anxiety.  Eventually, Bilbo sets out with the Dwarves and plunges into a world that he knows little about.  In the course of his "adventure," his horizons become wider and wider, encounter challenging environments, trolls, goblins, wolves, a shape-shifting bear-man, a dismal forest, elves, men, and finally the Lonely Mountain and its dragon.  Along the way, Bilbo progressively rises to the challenges he faces.

His first real challenge comes with his encounter with the trolls.  Here Bilbo succeeds only in the sense that he musters the courage to attempt to pick the pocket of one of the trolls.  His (and the dwarves') escape is arranged by the intervention of Gandalf.  Bilbo's second challenge comes with his game of riddles with Gollum.  Again his escape is less of his own doing than, luck.  By finding a ring that makes him invisible and accidently uttering a riddle that stumps Gollum, Bilbo manages to escape the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains.  It is really not until the travelers make it into Mirkwood (a dismal forest) that Bilbo really begins to discover his capabilities.  His defeat of the spiders that have captured the dwarves is mostly a product of his invisibility, but by now, the powers of the ring can be thought of as indistinguishable from Bilbo's own evolving resources.

Bilbo's maturity as an agent in the story really begins in full when he formulates a successful plan to free the dwarves from imprisonment in the caverns of the wood elves.  It is an elegant escape, but not without sacrifice to the dwarves.  The culmination of Bilbo's progress comes at the Lonely Mountain, when he rather willingly confronts the dragon Smaug.  Bilbo is now most certainly a formidable actor in the wild and dangerous world that had been far outside his horizons at the start of his journey, but his development is more than one of adult confidence.  In the final acts of the novel, Bilbo steps out of his role as someone having an adventure when he truly acts to shape the course of events by delivering the Arkenstone (a gem prized by Thorin Oakenshield) to the armies arrayed against the dwarves.  Far from betraying his friends, Bilbo's action creates the possibility of their salvation and indeed, results in the moral salvation of Thorin Oakenshield.

What we see in The Hobbit is Bilbo's development from a childish existence to a mature adult actor.  At the same time, his maturity does not completely lose touch with his simple persona.  When the War of the Five Armies breaks out at the very end of the action, Bilbo is struck on the head with a rock and misses the greater part of the battle.  Some things remain too large for the hobbit. 

Reading the story as a child, I was fascinated, indeed enchanted, by the unfolding mysterious world and thrilled by Biblo's capacity to rise to meet its challenges.  I found strength in the idea that someone so small and unheroic might succeed in his foray into the wider world. 

The two other characters that stand out in the novel are Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf.  Gandalf clearly serves as a parental figure, wiser than Bilbo, watching out for his safety, and guiding his steps.  Still, his failure to save Bilbo, the dwarves, and even himself from the wolves and goblins east of the Misty Mountains reveals both the dangers of the wider world and the limitations of those we must rely upon.  It is noteworthy that Biblo's developing maturity only becomes manifest when Gandalf leaves the adventure. 

Thorin's character development stands as a cautionary tale.  At first Thorin is a reasonably admirable, if flawed, adult character; but he is overcome by his greed and he leads the people for whom he is responsible into needless danger.  It is Bilbo's recognition of Thorin's failing that leads him to take the final step in his own development.   Bilbo's relationship with Thorin reminds us that in the end, one must be responsible for one's own actions and know when to depart from ostensible authority. 

Again, these character developments are not really the magic in the story -- at least not for me.  Instead, it is Tolkien's ability to posit a world unlike our own and show us only what a developing character can see along his journey.   The hints of the grand stories of Middle Earth told in The Silmarillion are not what makes The Hobbit exciting.  What gives the novel its power is the slow, but progressive revelation of a mysterious world that provides a model for one's own actual coming of age.  Reading it much later in life reminds me of those days when the wide, actual world (or should I say the "unimaginary world") seemed dark and mysterious, and where all that was familiar was closely bound in space, time, and culture.  Like no other book The Hobbit allows me to recapture that exciting sense of pending discovery.