Friday, January 21, 2011

In which I argue against the Professor with great fear and trepidation.

So this is perhaps not the best essay that I have ever written, and it goes against the grain to disagree with Tolkien, given his great understanding of Anglo-Saxon England and its culture, as well as his knowledge which far exceeds mine. However, with that said, I deeply believe what I have written. Here follows a paper written for my Anglo-Saxon Lit. class. Perhaps not LOTR related, but definitely  Tolkien related. The translations are all my own

Ofermod or “Northern Courage”?
The Tragedy of the Heroic Germanic Code in Anglo-Saxon England

“Hyge sceal þy heardra, heorte þy cenre,
mod sceal þy mare þy ure mægen lytlaþ.”

“Mind shall be harder, heart be bolder,
spirit be greater though our strength sinks”
“The Battle of Maldon” (lines 312-13).

So spoke Byrhtwold, Byrhtnoth’s retainer, in what is perhaps the single most famous line of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Scholars had long considered both speech and “The Battle of Maldon” to be a celebration of “northern courage” until J.R.R. Tolkien argued that Byrhtnoth as a superior, and as the commander of a battle troop, had a moral obligation to his men under which “northern courage” had no place. In other words, he had no business letting the Vikings cross the river. Unlike earlier scholars, Tolkien saw the poem as a criticism of Byrhtnoth.
While I do think that Tolkien raised some very important points, and that there is a level to which Byrhtnoth’s’ ofermod drove his deeds too far, I also believe that there an extent to which this ofermod driven action might only seen as a bad thing because they lost. It is likely that had they won, this action would have made him a hero.  This same ofermod would have made the warriors famous and their deeds celebrated. Furthermore, I believe Byrhtnoth was caught in a double bind, and that the poem is a celebration of northern courage that recognises that the very system it loves is also fatally flawed.  
Tolkien argued that the doctrine of “Northern Courage” only “appears in this clarity, and (approximate) purity, precisely because it is put in the mouth of a subordinate” for whom “personal pride was … at its lowest, and love and loyalty at their highest” (Tolkien 144). Byrhtnoth, on the other hand, as the leader of these men ought to have made their lives his first priority and not let the Vikings come ashore unchallenged. However, I do not see “Maldon” as a criticism of Byrhtnoth in allowing the Vikings to cross the river, but rather a criticism that
Þa se eorl ongann for his ofermode
aliefan landes to fela laðre þeode.

“The ealdorman then undertook, for his excessive pride,
to allow too much land to the loathsome people” (89-90).

The issue does not seem to be that he allowed the Vikings to cross at all, but rather that he allowed them too much land” when they did cross. It is also highly doubtful that the Vikings would have been so intimately acquainted with Byrhtnoth himself that they could devise such a plan as they did:
“ongunnon lytigian þa laðe giestas,
bædon þæt hie upp-gangan agan mosten…”

“The abominable enemies undertook to use guile,
demanded that they be permitted passage to shore… ” (86-87).

Rather, it seems to imply that the Vikings knew that any Anglo-Saxon commander would become recklessly “honourable” when taunted thus, and therefore their request was calculated to be insulting enough to warrant such a response.  Such a reading would rely on “northern courage” as a thriving and widespread system of behaviour that encompassed kings and leaders as well as their thanes. While this view does not exonerate Byrhtnoth from sacrificing the lives of his men, it may perhaps explain why only two lines out of more than three hundred focus on Byrhtnoth’s choice to let the Vikings cross, and why the greater part of the poem details instead how bravely the men fought around the body of their fallen lord.
Tolkien, fresh from the horrors of World War I, argued that Byrhtnoth had no right to let the Vikings cross, unchecked, before engaging them in battle, “northern courage” or no. He said:
“ [T]his element of pride, in the form of the desire for honour and glory … tends to grow,
to become a chief motive, driving a man beyond the bleak heroic necessity to excess – to chivalry.
‘Excess’ certainly, even if it be approved by contemporary opinion, when it not
only goes beyond need and duty, but interferes with it” (Tolkien 144).

I do not see this choice as a fault of Byrhtnoth’s alone. Instead I see it as the tragedy of a culture built on a rigid heroic code, on “northern courage”. This is Byrhtnoth’s double bind. He cannot allow the Vikings to give up and sail away to another, worse defended, stretch of coast, he cannot retreat and let the Vikings ravage Essex, nor can he truly hope to win in a fair fight. With his original strategy, of one man defending the bridge at a time, the Vikings are still likely to out last them, or give up and sail away. If they had done the later, it could have gone well if the Vikings had not cast aspersions on their valour. By pointing out that the fight was unfair, and asking for better landing so that they might fight on level terms, the Vikings were not only stacking matters in their favour (but when have they not), they were also implying that Byrhtnoth and his men were not honourable. It is this last, I believe, that causes Byrhtnoth to act in his ofermod for it has been previously established that “her stent unforcuþ eorl mid his weorde,” or that “here stands an undisgraced ealdorman with his troop” (line 51).
Byrhtnoth can either refuse to let the Vikings pass and continue the fight as it was before, hoping that the Vikings will not sail away, or he can do what he does in the poem, let the Vikings cross and fight a “fair” fight. If he does the former and wins, he and his men will live in the knowledge that the fight was neither strictly “honorable” nor “fair”, even if the whole world praises them for turning aside the Viking threat. For, as Tolkien says, they expect everyone to behave honourably, “even if there [are] no witnesses” (Tolkien 144). Perhaps it is this idea that leads Byrhtnoth to jeopardize his “one object, the defence of the realm from an implacable foe” and leads to, as it turns out, “the ruin of his purpose and duty” (146).
It is easy to say that Byrhtnoth’s actions were “stupid” or “irresponcible” or any other negative term, but our society has so many different “norms” and places so much less emphasis on honour than did the Anglo-Saxons, that we cannot judge them on our terms. Perhaps even Tolkien, who probably could understand the Anglo-Saxon mind set better than anyone else in our time, was so – understandably – influenced by his times and his own experiences, that even he could not fully understand their society as it existed.
Perhaps Byrhtnoth was irresponsible and foolish to let the Vikings cross, and whether he was or not, he lost the battle. Perhaps the poem is a criticism of his actions, or of “northern courage”, or perhaps it is a poem that celebrates this “northern courage” even while seeing its flaws. A poem that can, like “Njal’s Saga”, offer a clear sighted critique on the culture it loves without passing judgement on those caught in the heroic tragedy of “northern courage”, for the poet dwells less on Byrhtnoth’s ofermod than he does on the fierce pride of Byrhtnoth’s retainers.

“Ic þæt gehate, þæt ic heonan nylle
fleon fotes trym, ac wille furðor gan,
wrecan on gewinne minne wine-dryhten.”

“I vow that I will not, from this place,
flee one foot’s tread, but will further go
to avenge in battle my ealdorman and friend”
(lines 246-8).

“… fram ic ne wille,
ac ic me be healfe minum hlaforde,
swa leofum menn licgan þence.”

“… I will not from hence,
for I desire to lie beside my lord,
to lie dead with the dearest of men”
(lines 371b-319).


 Tolkien, J. R. R. Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
Beorththelm’s Son. Paperback ed. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001. Print.

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.