18 April 2018

Candles of the Grail, Candles of the Corpses

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery


Recently I've been reading Richard Barber's The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, and the other day I came across an intriguing passage. Barber is speaking of Wauchier's Second Continuation of Chrétien's Story of the Grail.  In doing so, he quotes from Wauchier (of which I have not yet seen a copy, but it will soon be in the mail):
Percival encounters the Grail without knowing it when he sees five lights like candles in the forest at the dead of night, 'so bright and clear that it seemed that the great, dense forest was lit up and blazing with their light on every side.' He learns the next day that this was a sign of the presence of the Grail....
(Barber, 32)
What caught my attention was the combination of Percival's quest to attain the Grail and the lights he sees in a wilderness. They find a mirror image parallel in the 'candles of corpses' Frodo, Sam, and Gollum see in the Dead Marshes on his quest to lose a treasure:

'What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.’ 
(FR 1.iii.66)
Presently it grew altogether dark: the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe. When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes: he thought his head was going queer. He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands. But neither of his companions spoke a word. 
(TT 4.ii.627)
In the one scene the candles light a nightmare of evil and a sorcerous illusion, in the other a blessed vision of darkness banished by the real presence of the Grail. Did Tolkien know this scene in Wauchier? It's not unreasonable to suppose that he did, but I have yet to find any proof. A curious parallel is all it may be, but worth noting nonetheless. 

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16 April 2018

The 'Lame' Sovereignty of Melkor and Man -- Disability and Power in 'The Children of Húrin'


Fingolfin's Challenge © John Howe 2003


Plutarch's Agesilaos tells the story of a power struggle for the throne of ancient Sparta. When Agis II died in 400, his younger brother, Agesilaos challenged the claim of Agis' son, Leotychides, on the grounds that he was illegitimate. When it was objected that Agesilaos could not succeed his brother because he had a limp, and a prophecy warned that Sparta should beware lest 'lame kingship' (χωλὴ βασιλεία) harm the state, which till then had been 'sound of foot' (ἀρτίποδος; Ages. 3.3-4), by dint of superior cleverness -- and no doubt better politicking -- the cause of Ageslaos prevailed, arguing that the real 'lame kingship' would result from an illegitimate heir taking the throne (Ages. 3.5).

Here we see the word χωλή (khōlé) employed as an insult both literally and metaphorically, to suggest that the person or thing so described is impaired and therefore inferior to the 'sound of foot.' 'Lame' in English is similar in its range and potential for giving offense. A brain or an idea can be as 'lame' as a leg. The simpler, physical meaning, even if never wholly free from negative connotations, gives rise to the metaphorical and is then eclipsed by it. Clearly this has been going on since at least the time of Homer, centuries before the events of which Plutarch speaks:

ἄσβεστος δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐνῶρτο γέλως μακάρεσσι θεοῖσιν
ὡς ἴδον Ἥφαιστον διὰ δώματα ποιπνύοντα. 
(Iliad 1.599-600) 
Unquenchable laughter was roused in the blessed gods
When they saw Hephaistos bustling through the palace.

And why does the sight of Hephaistos bustling stir up such laughter, and why is it marked by the particle ἄρα, which signifies that their laughter is what was after all only to be expected? Because he is 'περικλυτὸς ἀμφιγυήεις / Ἥφαιστος', 'famous Hephaistos, lame in both feet' (Iliad 1.607-08).

Turning from Plutarch and Homer to Shakespeare, we see the magnificent villain, Richard III, revelling in and despising the stigma which his limp inflicts upon him (1.1.12-31). We can see it elsewhere, too, spread across his comedies, tragedies, and histories as well as the sonnets and other poems (see here). However much Tolkien may have preferred Old English and Old Norse, he was far from ignorant of Homer and Shakespeare; a knowledge of the history of the Greeks in the fifth and fourth centuries and a familiarity with the Lives of Plutarch would have also been normal for an educated man of his day (cf. C.S. Lewis, Letters, of 13 May 1917, 11 January 1939, 12 October 1940, 1 January 1949).

So, if an author like Tolkien introduces a character affected by a physical disability, the author may well be using that particular disability to suggest something. When that author introduces a second character with the same disability, it becomes difficult to claim that the author is not suggesting something. But when the author brings in a third such character in a pivotal role, we have only ourselves to blame if we fail to see that some point is being made. Thus we have The Children of Húrin, in which Tolkien gives us three characters who have a limp.

Early in the tale we meet Sador. Maimed by an accident while cutting wood, and thus unable to serve Húrin, his lord, as a fighting man, Sador works as a servant in his household, making and repairing things (40-41). Morwen and Húrin treat him with indulgence, though they believe he could spend his time better than he does (49-50, 72). Young Túrin, however, loves him and spends much time talking to him and learning things about life he has not learned from his parents. He affectionately calls Sador 'Labadal', that is, 'Hopafoot', which in his childlike way Túrin means as an endearment, and at which Sador takes no offense because he knows that it is meant 'in pity not scorn' (41). Yet Labadal is Túrin's first attempt at naming, the first of many he will make in his life, and it succeeds, to the extent that it does at all, only because Sador is wise enough not to take offense at its misapprehension of reality. 'Labadal' is the beginning of a series of names through which Túrin comes to challenge the world around him, culminating in Turambar, Master of Fate.

It is late in the tale, when Túrin comes to Brethil where he will give himself the last of his names, Turambar, the Master of Fate, that Brandir enters the story, the second of the limping characters in The Children of Húrin. Unlike Sador, Brandir's disability arises from 'a leg broken in a misadventure in childhood' (193), but it also unfitted him for war, especially since he was already 'gentle in mood'. Like Sador, Brandir has more interest in wood than metal (41, 72, 193), with which we may contrast the importance of metal, both practically and symbolically, in Túrin's life -- the knife which he gives Sador as a gift, the dragon-helm that declares his identity as rightful Lord of Dor-Lómin, and the black sword with which he kills Glaurung, Brandir, and himself. Unlike Sador, however, Brandir is the lord of his people, a people at war whom he cannot lead in battle, which is of course his role.

Both Sador and Brandir also have crucial roles to play with Túrin's sisters. It is to Sador that the young Túrin turns when his beloved sister, Lalaith (Laughter), dies in childhood as a result of a plague sent by Morgoth (40-44). It is from Sador that Túrin first learns about the inevitability of death as the fate of all Men. It is from Brandir, on the other hand, that he learns that 'the feet of his doom were overtaking him' in his tragic ignorant marriage to Níniel (Maid of Tears), his 'twice-beloved' sister (250-56). And just as he had called Sador 'Labadal' in love and pity, he now calls Brandir 'club-foot' and a 'limping evil' in wrath and scorn. And just as 'Hopafoot' had told him of all that Men could learn from the Elves, it is the elf Mablung who teaches him the truth of 'Club-foot's' words. From the bewept Laughter to the beloved Maid of Tears, from the dear Hopafoot to the despised Club-foot, from the lore Men can acquire from Elves to the lesson of doom that Mablung brings, these two characters and their lameness frame this tale, both narratively by appearing at its beginning and end, and tragically by their involvement in and commentary on the life not only of Túrin, but of Man overall.

With lameness so interwoven into Túrin's tragic tale, it is impossible not to think of Oedipus and his tragic tale, which of course Tolkien himself openly acknowledged as a source of 'elements' in The Children of Húrin's (Letters, no. 131). Dimitra Fimi, moreover, has analyzed these 'elements' in her excellent '"Wildman of the Woods": inscribing tragedy on the landscape of Middle-earth in The Children of Húrin', where she comments:
Túrin is not lame or maimed himself, but two important characters in his tale are so afflicted: Sador [...] for whom young Túrin feels pity; and Brandir [...] whose position Túrin usurps as an able-bodied warrior. In Oedipus' case lameness is a sign of his real identity, while Túrin's reaction to lameness shows his change from sensitive youth to rash warrior, who associates the wilderness with aggression in order to channel his dangerous wrath. 
(Fimi, 55)
While I wholly agree with Fimi about 'Túrin's reaction' -- indeed he had previously usurped the authority of Orodreth at Nargothrond, whose leadership is also weak and who could be seen as metaphorically lame when viewed alongside Brandir's (CoH 160-65, 171-76) -- I would argue that there is more to be said about lameness in The Children of Húrin. Indeed, as Fimi has shown, the correspondences between the two stories are extensive. For anyone familiar with Oedipus, that Túrin himself is not lame is immediately noticeable but not necessarily noteworthy. After all, as Tolkien also pointed out,  Túrin owes 'elements' to Sigurd and Kullervo as well (Letters, no. 131). Yet the development of lameness as a metaphor through not two but three other characters who play important roles in Túrin's life indicates that Tolkien was after something bigger here. Considering the third of these characters will help us see what that is.

For Morgoth is the third character, whose malice towards Húrin and his family drives the tale as much as Túrin himself does. Curiously, slyly, Tolkien never openly says in The Children of Húrin that as a result of his duel with Fingolfin 'Morgoth went ever halt of one foot after that day, and the pain of his wounds could not be healed' (Silm. 154). He does, however, emphasize that 'Morgoth hated and feared the House of Fingolfin, because they had scorned him in Valinor and had the friendship of Ulmo his foe; and because of the wounds that Fingolfin gave him in battle' (CoH 60, italics mine). Note the construction of this sentence. Rather than say that he hated Fingolfin's house because of a, b, and c, which would be the common way of phrasing it, Tolkien says that he hated them because of a and b -- pause (thus, the semicolon) -- and because of c. He thus quite literally singles out the final reason and signals through the balance of the sentence that this reason is of special importance, perhaps even of equal importance. And of the eight wounds which Fingolfin inflicted on Morgoth, the only one specifically named is the last, the wound that maimed his foot.


Morgoth punishes Hurin © Ted Nasmith
So, we have seen how the lameness of Sador and Brandir is meaningfully interwoven with Túrin's misfortunes. How does Morgoth's matter? It undermines the claims to unrivaled position and power he makes in his verbal duel with Húrin, whom he can dominate and destroy, but never daunt (CoH 61-65). In this respect Húrin's encounter with Morgoth parallels Fingolfin's. They both defy, though in different ways, a power by whom they are outmatched. Yet their linked defiance refutes their defeat and marks the inner deficiency in Morgoth which his outer disability exemplifies. Their defeat may be inevitable, but so is his; and because he is cruel and cowardly and selfish, Morgoth's defeat is a refutation of all that he claims. In the end his shall prove to be a 'lame' sovereignty. For as Ilúvatar told him before the beginning:
'And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.'
(Silm. 17)
No matter Morgoth's boast to Húrin that he is 'the Master of the fates of Arda', he is not, no more than Túrin 'Turambar' is the 'Master of Doom' that he claims to be (CoH 65, 196, 218, 243-44). Their positions are analogous. Though each of them is powerful, neither one can finally prevail in thought or strength against one who is in turn mightier than he. The connections we see here between Morgoth and Túrin also call to mind another passage:

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said: ''These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.' Yet the Elves believe that Men are often a grief to Manwë, who knows most of the mind of Ilúvatar; for it seems to the Elves that Men resemble Melkor most of all the Ainur, although he has ever feared and hated them, even those that served him. 
(Silm. 42)

© Alan Lee


There is more to be said here, I believe, more to be explored at length in greater detail, and I hope to turn to that before long. For now, however, it seems clear that the 'lameness' that surrounds Túrin and connects him and Men in general to Morgoth shows, directly in Morgoth and by reflection in Túrin, what Shakespeare might have called 'a will most incorrect to heaven' (Hamlet 1.2.101) and Homer, Sophocles, and Plutarch hybris. In such a case it is little wonder that, when Mablung arrives like the fateful messenger in Oedipus Tyrannos, and says to Túrin that the years 'have been heavy on you', he receives the reply (CoH 253):
'Heavy!' said Túrin. 'Yes, as the feet of Morgoth.'

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21 March 2018

Icarus, Bruegel, Auden

Detail of "Icarus", by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
    walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
    life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
W. H. Auden (1939)





Many thanks to @EFLOxford for tweeting Auden's poem out this morning on World Poetry Day.

20 March 2018

'You are grown up now' (RK 6.vii.996)

'I am with you at present,' said Gandalf, 'but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.
(RK 6.vii.996)
Gandalf is quite right of course. When the four hobbits arrive to discover the evil that has been at work in the Shire during their absence, they handle it quickly and deftly, restoring the quiet anarchy* which had reigned there for as long as anyone could remember. They make not a single misstep. In The Scouring of the Shire the hobbits rescue themselves.

How different this all is from the first steps of their journey when -- as we were discussing recently on Exploring the Lord of the Rings -- they had to be rescued almost every day, by Gildor and his company, twice by Tom Bombadil, and finally by Strider in Bree. Even before they leave Bag End, they are saved from a Black Rider by the Gaffer's ignorance that Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are still there. Then, too, at Bucklebury Ferry, aided by Farmer Maggot and his wagon, they make it across the Brandywine just before the arrival of a Black Rider. So chance, perhaps, or direct intervention save them repeatedly. Indeed the only day they do not have a close call is the day they spend safely  under Tom Bombadil's roof, going nowhere. From Bag End to the common room at The Prancing Pony they fail to grasp the caution that is required by the perils they face. They are not yet afraid enough, as Strider points out (FR 1.x.165). Their immaturity, to borrow Gandalf's metaphor, is in keeping with their current romantic and unrealistic understanding of what an 'adventure' is. In the same way, the maturity they gain from the real griefs they suffer on their 'adventures' balances the ending of the tale against its beginning.

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* On this kind of anarchy, see Letters, no. 52 (italics mine): 'My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)....' To be sure, Tolkien is on a bit of a rant in this letter to his son, Christopher, and so his opinion here need not be taken as a considered one, but anarchy of this kind is precisely what we see in the Shire.