Saturday, January 1, 2011

Survival of the Tolkienist.

Firstly, Happy New Year all! Secondly, dear me! I have gotten frightfully quiet lately. I blame it on exams. They were cruel. 

However, this is all quite beside the point. I have four reaction papers to share.

October 27, 2010
Ask For No Quarter, and No Quarter Shall Be Given:
Rohan, Gondor and the Appendices
            If one really thinks about the Rohirrim, one realizes that they really aren’t always the most pleasant of peoples, and I think this is one of the many areas where Tolkien’s world building excels. He makes you genuinely love a culture, he sets up the Gondorians/Numenorians and the Rohirrim especially to be noble, heroic people and we love them as we have seen them in The Lord of the Rings. But dig into the appendices, and one finds that some of the Kings of Numenor, Gondor and of Rohan were downright unpleasant and unsavory. Helm and Fengel would not perhaps be the most charming people to hang around, and a few of the later kings of Gondor were unbearable arrogant and grasping (to say nothing of Ar-Pharazon of Akallabeth fame), not to mention remarkably shortsighted for a race of men usually so remarkably forsighted.
            Rohan recovers from these bad kings with a swiftness that lines up well with the exceptional vitality of their culture (I believe the slow recovery after Helm is not a recovery from his rather …violent ruling style, but from the war which wasn’t necessarily his fault. After all, Helm was not a particularly bad king as kings go, though I’m sure there were better ways of resolving quarrels then punching people’s brains out…). In Gondor, the collective failures of the kings led to their eventual extinction.
            These problems, especially in Rohan, did not necessarily lead to a lasting effect on the values of the two countries in question. In Rohan, it seems that their values were not at all affected, but in Gondor, the high values of the Numenorians did devolve into the more “Middle Men, of the Twilight” that Faramir describes in The Two Towers (IV, v, 663), but values such as justice, mercy, loyalty and valor are still very much important to both countries, one of the most important ones being mercy. In class, I recently made the clumsy argument that Tolkien’s characters did not always mercilessly slaughter evil men, that they often spared them. While the timing of the argument was bad, I believe that it is still a valid one. There are three instances in which the Rohirrim or Gondorians fight men in the armies of Sauron or Saruman. At Helm’s Deep, the Rohirrim extend mercy to all the Dunlendings who ask for it. At the battle at the gates of Mordor, Aragorn and the Lords of the West extend this same mercy to all the human soldiers of Sauron who surrender. Yes, on the Fields of the Pelennor, very few, if any men survive, however, Tolkien explicitly says that the Easterlings and Southrons “asked for no quarter” so they got none (RK, V, vi, 830). Perhaps Sauron forced or coerced them into fighting to begin with, as Sam speculates in The Two Towers (V, iv, 646), but at this point, they chose to fight to the death. Had they asked for quarter, I have very little doubt that the Rohirrim would have granted it to them. While I am not prepared at this time to tackle the question of whether or not Tolkien was racist in his depiction of Easterlings, Southrons, Dunlendings and the like in general – perhaps he was – I do not think his treatment of them in “The Battle of Pelennor Fields” specifically, deserves to be judged as such. This is a war on a huge scale after all. People are going to get killed. If they ask for mercy, it has been demonstrated before that they will probably receive it. Personally I stand by Tolkien’s statement that the book breathes mercy from beginning to end. It has other flaws, but it does not lack mercy. Besides, where would they put all those captured men? And more importantly, with their pathetic numbers, how on earth were they supposed to march on Mordor, defend Minas Tirith against the possibility of other attacks, and guard a recently defeated and probably rather bitter and sizable number of enemy prisoners? 

November 4th
Green Knight, Green Cloak, Precious Pearl and Pleasant Place:
Jumbled thoughts on Faramir, Sir Gawain, ‘Pearl’ and Lothlorien
            I am reasonably sure Tolkien did not intentionally make Faramir anything like Sir Gawain – especially since Tolkien was reportedly as surprised as the Hobbits when Faramir stepped out of Ithilien – and I’ll admit, the differences are as many as the similarities, but after reading SGGK it was their similarities that struck me (though it is mostly in their persons and not so much in their actions). They are both pious men in their own ways, after all, one of the only “religious” scenes of LOTR occurs in the company of Faramir, and their people love them. They both are outstandingly courteous and noble, even in the company of other remarkably courteous and noble men, and for the love of their lords, they dare seemingly impossible military feats that by rights should have left them both dead. Gawain may hold himself of less worth to others than does Faramir, but Faramir, having so long been willingly in Boromir’s shadow, also does not value himself at his full worth. They are both men of their word, if they vow to do something, then they will do it, however unpleasant the consequences may be for them personally. Added to this, they both meet with temptation and resist it determinedly, though Faramir does so with surprising ease, unlike Gawain. (There are, of course, other big differences, for example, Faramir tends to think things through very carefully and give his word knowing the consequences, where as Gawain dives in head first, and then bravely endures the consequences of his often reckless actions.)
            I found Tolkien’s essay on SGGK interesting and enlightening as I had not at first fully appreciated the importance of the third ‘fit’ and had been unsure how to view Gawain’s promise to keep the girdle a secret, among other things, given his previous high nobility and purity. I now fully agree with Tolkien that the Pearl poet knew what he was doing. Otherwise much of the third ‘fit’ does seem a little lacking.
            Speaking of Pearl, now that it has been mentioned in class, I must do the obligatory Lorien/Pearl discussion. While I do think that Lothlorien is possibly a very creepy and definitely a dangerous place, I also want to mention the heartbreaking beauty of it, and emphasize the theme of loss that permeates it and also Pearl. 
            I think that in some ways Lorien represents loss just as much as it represents beauty: the loss of Valinor, the loss of true perfection, the loss of the world as it once was, all of these are very near the heart of the Golden Wood. After all, Lothlorien is, in some respects, a copy of the garden of the Vala Lorien, but has lost the effortless perfection of the Blessed Realm. In Pearl, obviously the loss lies in that of the narrator, though I wonder if there are perhaps other levels of loss that I have yet to notice, and do not have room here to ponder.
            There are, of course, other parallels, especially in the beauty of Lorien and of Heaven. Both are light filled, and in both, everything is beautiful to the point of piercing the hearts of those who enter. In Pearl the beauty does not comfort the narrator or the reader. It is unattainable except through death, which does not appear to be an immediate option for said narrator, and the beauty all the more keen for being unobtainable. Similarly Lorien is otherworldly beautiful, but the Fellowship cannot linger there, and after they leave, Lorien will never again be the same. Even should they return, neither they nor the reader will ever see the same Lorien again. It is fading in a winter in which there is no spring. They and the narrator of Pearl must wake up and walk once more in the living world, forever longing for something that is out of reach this side of death or Valinor.

November 11, 2010

Daunting Eyes, Cursed Treasure, Doomed Wife:
The Legend of Sigurd, the Lay of Turin, and Beowulf
            Prior to this, I did know that Tolkien had gained a good deal of inspiration from the Norse sagas, but did not appreciate how much of The Silmarillion in general, and The Children of Hurin in particular, owed to them.  There is, in both The Children of Hurin and in Sigurd and Gudrun, that feel of fierce, dark, wild “northern-ness” (for lack of better terms) in both, with the discomfort or strangeness of kin slaying, incest, oaths, doom or fate and, of course, the cursed gold and the dragon. There are also such parallels such as vengeful dwarves and the daunting eyes. In The Children of Hurin, it is of course Gaurung who daunts Turin and Nianor with his eyes, ensnaring them with his malice. In Gudrun’s case, it is her mother, who, interestingly enough, is said to daunt people, especially Gudrun, with her eyes – perhaps a draconian trait for a draconian woman?
            However, in “Guðrunarkviða en Nyja” especially, there is a good deal in common with the peace weavers of Beowulf who get the worst of the deal regardless of the outcome when their husband’s family fights their birth family. Gudrun is married off, in this case completely against her will, and to one who is an enemy, in hopes of buying peace. In this case, Gudrun’s brothers flat out refuse to send the gold that is Gudrun’s dowery, to Atli and then begin a war in which, despite the fact that Gudrun is not particularly fond of either her brothers or her husband, could potentially leave her widowed (again) and brotherless (it does, in fact, do both). Like Freawaru and Hildeburg, she stands to loose everything she has left, though unlike them, she has more of a say in the events, and in the end, takes active part in the destruction of her life and in the lives of those around her.
            I very much look forward to discussing this at length, especially when we properly get to The Silmarillion stuff.

December 3, 2010

The Pride of the Children of Iluvatar:
They Want it All

“I want it all,
I want everything
Nothing less than this
Nothing less than eternity
Nothing less than bliss
I’ve had no success
in checking this ambition…
Simply knowing that it’s out there,
Simply knowing it exists…
I’ll be dying till I have it”
~ “I Want it All” by Stickman Jones

Having read The Silmarillion several times, and having a fairly good memory of it, I was struck by several new insights this time around. Firstly, the downfall of every major character, or very nearly every major character can be traced back to pride, whether directly through their deeds, or indirectly through their entanglement in the Doom of Mandos/The Curse of the Noldor and the Oath of Fëanor. Secondly, the elves really just want it all. They have immortality; they have beauty, great creativity, and many of them have had a blissful life in Aman, yet they create the elven rings because “they desired both to stay in Middle-earth, which indeed they loved, and yet to enjoy the bliss of those that had departed” (S, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, 287).
            In the beginning, Morgoth is the most powerful of the Ainur with Ilúvatar, yet he wants to be the greatest. He wants to “interweave matters of his own imaginings that [are] not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar” (S, Ainulindalë, 16), and have “the dominion of Arda” (ibid 22).  After him, there is Aulë, who nearly falls into the same trap that Morgoth does, for he desires to create things, namely the dwarves, who are outside of the origional song. He only excapes downfall because he is more loyal to Ilúvatar than Morgoth, who is, “jealous of him, for Aulë was most like himself” and yet “both…desired to make things of their own that should be new and unthought of by others, and delighted in the praise of their skill” (Valaquenta, 27). Then, perhaps most importantly, there is Fëanor who creates objects of his own imagining, the Silmarils, which then drive nearly, if not all, of the following actions.  Fëanor, like Morgoth works mostly alone, and like Morgoth will not submit his works to the other Valar and ultimately to Ilúvatar. Beyond Fëanor, there are a host of others among the elves alone; from Turgon, who will not abandon Gondolin because he “had become proud and Gondolin as beautiful as a memory of Elven Tirion, and he trusted still in its secret and impregnable strength” (S, XXIII, 240), to Thingol, who “in his wrath and pride…gave no heed to his peril, but spoke to [the dwarves] in scorn” (S, XXII, 233), to the elves of Nargothrond who are unwilling to “cast the stones of [their] folly into the loud river” even if it means that evil will “find the gate” (S, XII, 212). Sauron will not sue for pardon from the Valar for this reason, or Túrin from Thingol, and the list goes on. Most notable of the non-elves/ higher powers, are the men of Númenor who attack Valinor itself in their pride, and their lust for immortality.
            To move on to the next point, the elves always desire more than they already have. I mean, seriously, the leave Aman, which only happens to be the land of bliss to go to Middle-earth, many of them for no other reason than did Galadriel: “She yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will” (S, IX, 84), and once they get there and obtain these kingdoms, “refuse to return into the West,” desiring to “ever increase the skill and subtlety of their works” (S, IX, 287-8). They want to have the advantages of Aman and to “ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world” (which I might add was supposed to be part of their punishment for leaving Aman in the first place…) (288). Nearly every character wishes to have things “as they had been, in the days of [their] long fathers of old“ (or in the case of the Elves, as it was several thousand years ago, across an ocean) (RK), and they’ll go to great lengths to get it (I mean, consorting with Sauron to learn how to make shiny things? Didn’t anyone learn anything from the Númenor debacle or the whole Morgoth in Valinor business?).
            Really, in all honesty, the if everyone had been considerably less proud, and much more willing to listen to advice, so much of the bad stuff wouldn’t have happened. It is a remarkable fact that the downfall of every kingdom, and nearly every major character can be directly traced back to their pride, sometimes through oaths, curses or dooms, but mostly through their own ofermod, and their own desire for personal vengeance against those who have hurt their people and their pride.

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