Showing posts with label Tolkien. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tolkien. Show all posts

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving, 2013

With apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Out with the schola and toss out the chant!
     Graduals down and hymnals up!
There's no tradition we can't replant,
     You'll love it til your all grown up!

Sunder the altar and rip off the rail!
     Hands apart and up in the air!
Now reach across and shake without fail:
     Pray by yourself? Now don't you dare!

So dump the trads in a boiling bowl;
     Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you've finished, if any are whole,
     Send them down the hall to roll!

That's what every Catholic does hate!
So, carefully! carefully with the faith!

This year I'm grateful for the Latin mass, for everyone who has preserved it, and for everyone with whom I have shared it. In thanksgiving, my Top Ten Chants.

10. Creator Alme Siderum [YouTube]

9. Pange Lingua Gloriosi [YouTube]

8. Asolis Ortus Cardine [YouTube]

7. Viderunt Omnes [YouTube]

6. Miserere [YouTube]

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Artwork of Middle Earth: Three By John Howe

John Howe is today most famous for his collaboration with fellow illustrator Alan Lee on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, but both artists have for decades illustrated the fantastic realms of J. R. R. Tolkien. I imagine there's a special pleasure in bringing Middle Earth to visual life, chiefly because of the coherence of the geography and its importance to the story. Tolkien crafted a combination of narrative and topographic detail which gives each place a story and story a setting. The result is an interconnected web of context which unifies place, people, and time across Middle Earth into, well, a world. The author's affection for this world shows through more strongly, though, in the minute details of time, texture, and color which describe everything from the mighty Numenorean towers to the hills and dales of the Shire. The result is a rich and exiting picture ripe for painting.

The following are my favorites from Howe's less known paintings, scenes from the Silmarillion. In each, Howe captures the plain narrative of the story, the details of the geography, and the emotional or thematic significance of the action.

The Fleet of Al-Pharazaon
Here Howe tells the story of Al-Pharazaon (Ar-Phharazôn), the last king of Numenor, and his prideful challenge to the Valar in which he sailed for their promised land, forbidden to men. Of foremost prominence are the king's vast sable sails, fully puffed and propelling its haughty golden prow through the sea. The sails cast a menacing shadow of azure–another heraldic color–on the water before it, contrasting the soft blues which pull your eyes back to the rest of the king's fleet and the setting sun, which brings your eyes back to those terrible sails which blot it out.

Slowly the fleets passed out of the sight of the watchers in the havens, and their lights faded, and night took them. . . and the Eldar mourned, for the light of the setting sun was cut off by the cloud of the Numenoreans. . . Ar-Pharazôn wavered at the end, and he almost turned back. . . But pride was now his master. . . [The Silmarillion, 278]

Morgoth's Forces before Gondolin
This is my favorite of the Howe's three paintings of Turgon's hidden city of Gondolin. At play here are the contrasts among the foreground, middle, and background. In the back we see the frosty veins running through the mountains as their peaks glisten in the golden sunrise. Yet for their size and beauty they no longer protect the city from Morgoth's forces, dark in the foreground. The dragon's limbs all arch menacingly toward the white city as troops pour into the valley's snowy mist that surrounds the white city. Both the mountains and mist pull your eyes toward the dragon who in turn points you down toward the city's citadel where all three colors and areas meet, connoting Gondolin's exposure and trapped fate.

The host of Morgoth came over the northern hills where the height was greatest and the watch least vigilant, and it came at night upon a time of festival, when all the people of Gondolin were upon the walls to await the rising sun, and sing their songs at its uplifting. . . [The Silmarillion, 242]

Fingolfin's Challenge
Clockwise motion directs all of the energy of the moment as Morgoth bears his hammer down on Fingolfin, the Noldor king who upon foreseeing the imminent destruction of the Elves in Beleriand, challenged in rage and despair the Dark Lord himself to a duel. Starting at the bottom, the craggy earth points up to the mountains on the left which lean toward the peaks of Thangorodrim in the right background and Morgoth in the right foreground, who points down to Fingolfin, whose shield points back toward the ground and completes the circle. This sense of motion puts great weight into Morgoth's blow as he swings Grond, blurred slightly to heighten the motion, onto Fingolfin. Yet the elven king seems prepared to resist the blow with a triangular, architectural, stability beneath his shield, a stability heightened by the parallel lines of his sword and shield. Notice too how Morgoth's bilious cape, feathered softly into the distance, seems ready to swallow Fingolfin, whose own cape defiantly splays out behind him as he prepares to wound the most powerful, the mighty and accursed of the Valar.

There's some subtle detail on the ground too, which seems not only rent by Grond's blows, but pock-marked and necrotizing due to Morgoth's insidious evil.

Then Morgoth hurled aloft Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld, and swung it down like a bolt of thunder. But Fingolfin sprang aside, and Grond rent a mighty pit in the earth, whence smoke and fire darted. Many times Morgoth essayed to smite him, and each time Fingolfin leaped away, as a lightning shoots from under a dark cloud; and he wounded Morgoth with seven wounds, and seven times Morgoth gave a cry of anguish, whereat the hosts of Angband fell upon their faces in dismay, and the cries echoed in the Northlands. [The Silmarillion, 154]

In painting the scene of Fingolfin's brief success, Howe creates a moment of doomed hope which turns Fingolfin's courageous, impossible stand into a microcosm of elves' entire war against Morgoth.

Extra: The Door of Night
I couldn't pass over this piece which intersects with Tolkien's cosmology as well as the narrative of The Silmarillion. In depicting the door between Arda and the Timeless Void, Howe presents motion on three axes: the huge basalt walls rise up the Y, the dragons crawl along the X, and clouds move into the Z. Combined with the enticing diagonal color gradient, Howe has created a forceful sense of boundary most appropriate for the threshold of the world.

There it still stands, utterly black and huge against the deep-blue walls. Its pillars are of the mightiest basalt and its lintel likewise, but great dragons of black stone are carved thereon, and shadowy smoke pours slowly from their jaws. Gates it has unbreakable, and none know how they were made or set, for the Eldar were not suffered to be in that dread building, and it is the last secret of the Gods; and not the onset of the world will force that door, which opens to a mystic world alone. [The Book of Lost Tales I, 243]

Howe's illustrations are not only masterly but faithful to Tolkien's spirit and detailed descriptions. They're imbued with a grandeur which recreates at once both the sprawl of Middle Earth and the details of its iconic moments. As such they're among the most important and beloved works to spring from Tolkien's realms.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Music of Middle Earth: The Fall of Gil-galad

Gil-galad was an Elven-king
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea

His sword was long, his lance was keen,
his shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven's field
were mirrored in his silver shield.

But long ago he rode away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star
in Mordor where the shadows are.

It's possible my favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is that seemingly least popular first book. You know, the slow-moving three hundred or so pages of walking, singing, and all-around hobbitry. Critics often carp about whether a story has a satisfying ending, but I love a satisfying beginning, learning names, places, and the laws of the land. A great author creates not only characters but a specific sense of time and place. The intimate opening chapters to Tolkien's romance succeed as a sumptuous introduction both to the characters and Middle Earth. One of the author's beloved poems in these pages, The Fall of Gil-galad, is a prime example of painting characters, time, and place.

Structurally, the poem is quite simple: three stanzas of two end-rhyming couplets, each line consisting of four iambs. At a slow pace, the iambs give the poem a limping, dolorous quality, appropriate to the sad tale, and apace the poem sounds a song of war.

The opening stanza sets up a character ancient and exotic to the hobbits: an elf, and a king at that. In using harpers for the more common harpists, Tolkien avoids excessive sibilance in the already alliterative line. The second couplet paints in some tantalizingly incomplete details about the tale: why was it the last realm? What's the significance of the land between the mountains and the sea? Where is 'between the mountains and the sea?'

Stanza two casts Gil-galad in a hero's relief. It's a subtle touch painting the warrior with the firmament reflecting in his glistening armor, as if Gil-galad himself emanates some pure, astral grandeur. It also foreshadows the hero's end and the metaphor of the last stanza.

Tolkien concludes by drawing Gil-galad's death in two metaphors reflecting the second stanza. The first, long ago he rode away, picks up the martial theme, and the second, into darkness fell his star, draws on the celestial imagery. The first line of this stanza throws us and Galad into ancient history and the last line, in effect, places us in the present day of the story and the dominance of Mordor.

Aside from this nice segue back to the story, the poem is effective in the narrative. First, it's a splash of  history whose gaps and mysteries give Middle Earth a lived-in quality. The fact that the poem is incomplete amplifies both the passage of time and the sense of the present as fallen era after Gil-galad's "silver age." Second, by describing the poem as translated, Tolkien suggests a multifarious Middle Earth of peoples, places, and languages. Finally, giving this little lay to Sam, a hobbit of often humble expression, paints the servant and gardener in the unexpected role of an ancient bard, and giving knowledge of the poem to Strider, whom we have already seen as far too articulate to be a mere ranger, grants him a unique, if presently unclear, claim to the past.

It's more than a narrative device, though. Whether wistful or forceful, the Fall of Gil-galad is an affecting little poem, lovingly crafted and given a happy little home in the sprawling story that completes the tale.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Word Power

There's a charming scene in J. R. R Tolkien's The Two Towers where hobbits Merry and Pippin encounter the ancient shepherd Treebeard in Fangorn Forest, surprising the prehistoric herder in more ways than one. First off, poor Treebeard has never heard of a hobbit before. "You do not seem to come in any of the old lists," he says. It's a subtle, gentle, and traditional line. Why traditional? Because in the old world and ways of Treebeard, one doesn't learn by poking one's nose around. You learn when you're young from the old lists, lists handed down and seldom added to. That's the way of things.

Second, the prehistoric herder is taken aback when the young hobbits introduce themselves by their real names. Why aren't they careful? Old Bilbo certainly didn't tell fire-breathing Smaug his real name, although he did introduce himself as Mr. Bilbo Baggins to Gollum of all people, almost to the detriment of Middle Earth when his name made its way to Sauron. So what's the big deal with a name, or any word for that matter?

It is no small feat to use a word, for to use one is to name a thing and to name a thing is to decide what it is. To name something is to de-fine it, to put ontological limits around it. Naturally just because you name something doesn't mean you are correct in defining it, but for your part you have used what concepts you have to de-termine what it is. Indeed the nominative power is nothing short of the creative   and possessive powers. Regarding names, how sensitive are we about our names.

First names, middle names, last names, nicknames, patronymics, epithets, initials, diminutives, titles, ranks. . . don't ever call someone by the wrong one. All of those nominative associations between people and places, deeds, jobs, countries, and other people are definitive and quite intimate. Consider the awkwardness when someone mispronounces your name, or when a child calls an adult by his given name. Even if we're not sure what something or who someone is, we insist on discussing and speculating until we settle on a name. We just can't abide by an unknown. Accurately or not, we have to name it. Unless we want to avoid it. How deftly we avoid names when we speak ill of people, shifting to pronouns and the passive voice: I hate her and the gun went off.

Finally, consider the fine ways we insult each other, the colorful and crude turns of phrase. Why is invective so satisfying? For much the same reason that all acts of naming are significant: they give you some power, or the impression of power, over a thing. We glory in exercising it and flee from it turned against us. Whether it's disguising the name of a god in a religious text or Catullus obfuscating the details of a romance, we have often sought in anonymity a protection from the invidious.

No, we're not as superstitious today, and how much we value our names may owe more to vanity than fear. Yet without fear, reverence is hard to come by. Recall Latin's revereor for both fearing and revering. We should then, perhaps, cultivate a certain reverence for words, that is, the act of naming, for  as in Treebeard's Old Entish language, "real names tell you the story of the things they belong to." We should try to find those stories in both the words and things. Naming, then, is a thought-ful and active task of studying the essences of things and concepts behind words. Yes, the work exacting, but it might do us some good to be less hasty and more thoughtful. Let us say of our own then, what Treebeard says of his, "It's a lovely language, but it takes a long time to say."

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Gandalf the. . . Libertarian

Sooner or later every beloved literary character falls victim to some ideologue who tries to shoehorn him into a pet philosophy. My goal here is far more modest: to observe the character of Gandalf as consistent with Tolkien's philosophy of nature. I have chosen the appellation libertarian mostly out of desperation, libertarianism being the only recognizable philosophy with any principled and pervasive antipathy toward the use of force. Tolkien's own opposition to force included the political as well as natural.

"The modern world meant for [Tolkien] essentially the machine. . . He used ["machine"] very compendiously to mean. . . almost any alternative solution to the development of the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings. The machine means, for him. . . the wrong solution: the attempt to actualize our desires, like our desire to fly. It meant coercion, domination, for him the great enemy. Coercion of other minds and other wills. This is tyranny. But he also saw the characteristic activity of the modern world is the coercion, the tyrannous reformation of the earth, our place." – Christopher Tolkien
We see in Middle Earth, then, tyranny in the obvious form of Sauron's political control of the free peoples, but also from Saruman, and it is in fact this tyranny which is more instructive insofar as it is multifaceted.
  1. He controlled the land via his industrious machines.
  2. He sought political domination, by way of the One Ring, to order all things according to his special wisdom. 
  3. He through his extraordinary powers of persuasion sought to coerce people for his own ends. Tolkien calls him subtle in speech but we might appropriately call him in Greek δεινός/deinos, or great and terrible with respect to speech.
  4. He assumed political authority in heading the White Council. 
In each instance Gandalf is opposed to Saruman.
  1. Where Saruman controlled the land, Gandalf was itinerant.
  2. Where Saruman sought the One Ring, Gandalf rejected it. Moreover, while he possessed the ring Narya, its power and purpose were not domination but of preservation and rekindling hearts, Gandalf's mission.
  3. Where Saruman seeks to persuade Gandalf finds common cause and mutual self-interest (if that's not too libertarian for you) as in the case of the quest for Erebor.
  4. Gandalf refused to head the White Council, rejecting political means and preferring to have "no ties and no allegiance" except to those who sent him.
Most different of all, though, Saruman studied the "devices of Sauron of old" and the Rings of Power, their making and history. Even though he earlier sought to learn with the purpose of destroying evil, Tolkien describes Saruman's "desire of mastery" as having grown great. We cannot say for certain whether only the knowledge itself corrupted him, but surely knowing the arts of evil contributed to his downfall. Elrond's statements that, "The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman." and, "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so." suggest the corrupting influence of power. As soon as one ponders the ways of domination, they work their way into once noble plans.

We should pause on that for a moment, the perversion of noble plans. It is facile to say that "power corrupts" and "plans go awry," but think of how truly sad it is to fall from grace, to see the flame of the good die. How pitiful for a skilled and brilliant spirit tasked with the highest good, a sacred good, to have fallen to the uttermost depths of lust and tyranny and to have perverted himself and his trust. Howard Shore brought out the gravity of Saruman's fall in his score to Gandalf's confrontation with the fallen wizard in Peter Jackson's 2001 film adaptation. Jackson, not without reason, played the scene for a laugh with the dueling geezers, but Shore picked up on the profane thread of Saruman's transformation, the unholy perversion of the good.

In contrast, Gandalf tried to fulfill his limited role of "messenger" to the peoples of Middle Earth and to move, "all living things of good will to valiant deeds." Indeed Gandalf seems to be reminding Saruman of his mission when, after Saruman confesses his plans to rule with the ring, Gandalf responds that he has only heard such folly from the emissaries of Mordor, suggesting that Saruman's proposal is the very antithesis of their mission. It was not the wizards' job to to coerce, either Sauron directly or the free peoples to oppose Sauron, but to kindle, that is to cultivate, the good which would by nature oppose evil. In contrast to Saruman's obsession with means, Gandalf brought purity of purpose and, instead of a desire to oppose force with might, a faith in the agency of the good and meek.

Consider Gandalf's proposal to Elrond that Merry and Pippin be permitted to go with the ring-bearer instead of some great elf lord:

this quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. . . it would be well to trust to their friendship rather than to great wisdom.
How striking, to put all hope not in force, not in conscripting men to fight Sauron nor in matching the Dark Lord in might, but in a bond of love and fealty. To venture slightly off-canon, in his film of The Hobbit, writer-director Peter Jackson gives Gandalf a few lines which seem to sum up the wizard, and libertarian, philosophy:

Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I find. I've found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay, simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage. 
No grand plans, no machines and spies and lies and craft. No system of force, just people doing good. And how beautiful that Gandalf should take courage, what he was meant to kindle, from Bilbo, in whom the wizard awoke something Tookish and adventurous, some spirit willing to take a personal risk for the good.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Music of Middle Earth: The March of the Ents

If the success of a romance like The Lord of the Rings in the postmodern 20th century is not surprising enough, consider the love of Tolkien's songs and poems therein. Beloved by Tolkien and Middle Earth aficionados, the songs showcase not only the author's wordsmith craft but also his affection for words. Yet they're no artist's conceit because they add veracity and authenticity to the larger narrative, enshrining the deeds of Middle Earth not just in history but in lore.

Many of Tolkien's songs have been set to music and in this series I would like to compare some interpretations. So to start, The March of the Ents, from The Two Towers.

We come, we come with roll of drum: ta-runda runda runda rom!
We come, we come with horn and drum: ta-runa runa runa rom!
To Isengard! Though Isengard be ringed and barred with doors of stone;
Though Isengard be stong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars - we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom, with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!
With doom we come, with doom we come!
The Two Towers. Ch. Treebeard

The March of the Ents. Stephen Olivier. 1981.

Here we have the whole of Tolkien's Entish war song thrummed out by a chorus of basses over a walking bass line. Probably the most faithful to the simple spirit of the story, this version itself derives its considerable effect from simple means.  The deep, earthy basses are a natural fit for the Ents and the bass line, aside from mirroring the march of the Ents, provides a sense of motion under the strophic, hymn-like phrases of the text. The syllabic and almost staccato treatment of the words brings out the hard-hitting consonants of Tolkien's thumping battle hymn. Lastly, the dynamics give a terrible urgency to the fury of the Ents:
For bole and bough are burning now,
the furnace roars - we go to war!
The Ents' Marching Song. The Tolkien Ensemble. 2006.

Here, the drums with their wild rhythms create a scene of primeval danger. The ensemble here remains quite faithful to the text, deriving the rhythms from Tolkien's words. They do, however, insert a dramatic scene voiced by beloved Tolkien enthusiast and performer Christopher Lee in which Sir Christopher, presumably as Treebeard, shouts rousing commands to the marching Ents. This trick opens up the music from a simple song to a scene of action. The following brassy fanfares play up the martial theme until the bass voices return with the text. The opening and Sir Christopher's monologue are the highlights.

Isengard Unleashed. Howard Shore. 2002.

Consistent with the Wagnerian dimensions of Shore's score, the war song of the Ents is nested within the Battle of Helms Deep. Like Olivier's piece, Shore begins with bass rumblings, however he quickly builds to a small rhythmic figure which, in contrast to a simple walking bass, creates a more specifically martial theme. Next, however, Shore makes a radical departure from Tolkien and Olivier and, with both text and music, paints the scene from a third person perspective. No longer do we hear the Ents themselves sing of their tale in the making, no longer a muscular war song, rather we hear high soft voices narrate in the Elvish tongue. Shore paints the image of a people rising from an ancient slumber with a long, melismatic, conjunct line culminating in a crescendo and the entry of a solo boy soprano high above, fulfilling and releasing the musical tension and completing the narrative of the Ents' attack.

Lastly, let us hear from The Professor himself.

Shore's interpretation stands out certain for complexity and for its departure from the text, but I would argue it is quite successful. The version from Olivier and The Tolkien Ensemble are admirably faithful but still vivid and engaging interpretations. Are there any other noteworthy versions or performances we overlooked?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Essay & Review: Artwork of Middle Earth

Few modern books, if any, have inspired as much artwork as those of J. R. R. Tolkien. The obvious but incomplete reason is that Tolkien wrote some ripping battle scenes, from the defense of Helm's Deep to the ride of the Rohhirim and the siege of Gondor. I say incomplete because as much if not more attention has been lavished on the quiet and understated moments in the history of Middle Earth. So why should anyone care about the Prancing Pony, Bilbo's foyer, or Theoden's Hall? Why do these created places and spaces take on more significance than actual ones? The answer lies in Tolkien's ability to create a world, and not just a physical one.

While we do relish Tolkien's meticulous descriptions of  Bag End and the seven levels of Minas Tirith, these places also exist in time. If Orthanc, for example, were simply the home of Sauruman it would be, for all its splendor, just a place, albeit one significant to the heroes of The Lord of the Rings. Yet when Orthanc is the ancient fortress built thousands of years ago on the Northern border of the Numenoreans, who in their decline they could no longer maintain it and offered it to Sauruman, it becomes part of the history of Middle-earth, a history we gladly get swept up in. Places in Middle-earth exist not simply now, in the age we are reading about, but they have existed, and this gives them a unique authenticity. The Philosopher said that what appears to have been always what it is, is regarded as real. Indeed. Too, a place which housed great kings and outlasted many battles deserves to endure, a home which has housed generations of a family ought to be the home of their descendants. Their history gives the places of Middle-earth their authority.

Tolkien achieves this authenticity in two other ways, the plainest of which is his use of the languages he invented for Middle-earth. Yet it is not the euphony, novelty, or even uniqueness of the Elvish languages that imbues Middle-earth with authenticity but the logic of the roots and names. Whether it is Nan Curunír, "Valley of the Wizard," or the Noldor "those with knowledge," Tolkien's peoples and realms do not simply have names but feel named. This adds a human presence to all of Middle-earth even where the historical details are not painted in.

Lastly, Tolkien creates his world with details in short, often rather vague, asides. These are easy enough to spot but I would quote one of my favorites from The Two Towers. Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin, who inquire about whether Fangorn Forest is like the Old Forest near the Shire,
Aye, aye, something like, but much worse. I do not doubt that there is some shadow of the Great Darkness lying there still away north; and bad memories are handed down. But there are some hollow dales in this land where the Darkness has never been lifted, but the trees are older than I am.
Tolkien has in fact not told us anything about who is doing what, when, where, or why, rather he has created a sense of the way things are, the nature of things in Middle-earth. In two sentences Tolkien sketches an ancient world full of creatures older even than hoary Treebeard himself, a world which has passed through a darkness so great that evil endures in cracks and crevices. Tolkien's use of the passive voice with," bad memories are handed down" is especially effective, suggesting both that the darkness was so great that it could not be forgotten and that those passing the memories down are still bitter. The information also comes as bit of a discovery about a place we thought we knew.

By these means Tolkien's stories come to the reader not only as romances and mythologies, but as an inheritance of rare histories which invites us to step into Middle-earth. As such, Tolkien enthusiasts have a particular fondness for drawings of Middle-earth. Here are my thoughts on a pair of collections.

Realms of Tolkien and Tolkien's World

Harper Collins published both of these volumes in the early an mid 1990s and they feature respectively 58 and 60 paintings. Fans of Peter Jackson's filmed Lord of the Rings will recognize the many by John Howe and Alan Lee and Tolkien aficionados will recognize the handful of Ted Nasmith's meticulously detailed work, but the remainder, a diverse assortment of drawings from lesser known artists and even amateurs, will be a welcome surprise to all.

In particular, Realms of Tolkien features the work of Dutch artist Cor Blok, whose work so pleased Tolkien himself that the two met and the author bought two of Blok's paintings. Blok's work draws least on the common elements of design we associate with Middle-earth, such as the Nordic look of the Rohirrim and so forth. Without the familiarizing effect of traditional visual design elements Blok's paintings focus on the essence of the action.

The bloodiness of at the Hornburg takes on a new starkness with Blok's orange slashes and tiny lopped heads. His Mûmak is a truly alien creature and our shock at it draws us closer to the fear of the humans in the picture far more than our reactions to any old elephant could. Other styles are far from antiquated, though. Nasmith's (above) captures the grandur and scale of that "moving hill," and Swedish artist Inger Edelfeldt captures its power with billowing dust clouds and scattering men. The variety here is a real pleasure.

In both volumes each painting is accompanied by the corresponding selection from Tolkien, and while some of these could have been longer it is helpful to have some of the text beside, both to have the author's description set the stage and to compare the picture. Many but not all of the paintings are full-page for reasons of aspect ratio. The wide landscape paintings are unfortunately not rotated but printed across the page so they can be viewed beside the text, a reasonable decision but one which results in a significantly smaller image and much wasted space. Yet that's a minor complaint about these volumes, both splendid and rewarding paths through Middle-earth.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tolkien on Nature: Cultivation vs Coercion

"The modern world meant for [Tolkien] essentially the machine. . . He used ["machine"] very compendiously to mean. . . almost any alternative solution to the development of the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings. The machine means, for him. . . the wrong solution: the attempt to actualize our desires, like our desire to fly. It meant coercion, domination, for him the great enemy. Coercion of other minds and other wills. This is tyranny. But he also saw the characteristic activity of the modern world is the coercion, the tyrannous reformation of the earth, our place." – Christopher Tolkien

These thoughts from Christopher Tolkien on his father's work touch on one of the more fascinating yet tantalizing inchoate strains within J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, that of a philosophy of nature. He draws primarily from a letter Tolkien wrote in the early fifties clarifying the underlying themes of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and readers are encouraged to seek this enlightening letter of some 10,000 words in the Houghton Mifflin volume, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Let us start by considering Tolkien's broad and unconventional definition of "machine" as "almost an alternative solution to the development of the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings." We must assume he means not simple machines such as levers and wheels but rather complex machines. Simple machines simply balances the loads and direct the energy applied by man. The lever puts his energy where it is most effective, the wheel balances a load so it may be pulled and so forth for simple machines. How do simple tools, "develop the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings?"

A hammer and chisel develops a man's coordination between his hands and his eyes and develops his visual sense of proportion and the rightness of what he cuts, such as the stone of a sculpture. The same is true for a brush which requires him uniformly to cover a material such as a canvass. Knives and scythes require him to know where and how much and how to cut, such as the stem of a flower. A whip requires him to know where and how and how hard to swing, such as in spurring a horse. Shaping the sheets with the lines on a sailboat requires careful attention to the geometry of the sail and the direction and strength of the wind. Even almost passive simple tools like lenses help man focus his attention on acute details.

All of such simple tools have in common two things. First, they develop a specific, unique individual faculty. Second, the demand a specific, unique, and firsthand knowledge of the materials with which you are working, such as the density of a piece of wood or the strength of a piece of stone.

In contrast machines alienate the user from the material. They do not require the use of cultivating any talents for interacting with nature, only for interacting with the machine. (This may not be quite so true for the inventor of the machine but it certainly is to the disinterested user.) The motor on a boat allows you to sail with disregard for currents and winds. Jackhammers and spinning saws cut without asking him to know how strong it is what he hopes to break. A glider falling gains speed and thus lift by its wings where as a a powered plane forces air across the wings. An unpowered mower requires you to know what you are cutting and thus how fast to go, how hard to push, and how high to set the blades. A powered mower simply cuts down everything in its path.

Machines have in common distancing the user from knowing by his senses what is the nature of the material he disturbs and purports to use and this prevents him from knowing the processes by which to use them. He learns only to use the machine. Complex machines, like the process of skill specialization, of course do liberate man from certain tasks and free him to perform others. They also allow him more liberty to manipulate nature. According to Tolkien's definition, though, despite this gain we see man does lose something.

Notice it is here not only concerned with nature itself but the effect of machines on man. In the Silmarillion, Tolkien, discussing the Ents, the shepherds of the trees, writes that while the Ents will guard the trees, "there will be need of wood." Tolkien is, I think more than is obvious in the Silmarillion which does not seem to revolve around man, concerned also with man and that he harms himself in coercing nature instead of cultivating himself. As his son Christopher points out in the above documentary the One Ring is the machine mythologized. The Ring allows the individual to bypass the means and simply and immediately actualize his will. It is this distance from, or blindness of, the means which, in part, dooms any attempt to use the ring, whether for good or ill.

Yet Tolkien does express disapproval of wantonly changing, "bulldozing" he says, the real world. Yet the theory we just discussed is mostly centered on man. By what principle ought man change his world?

Tolkien contrasts mechanical "re-creation" with artistic "sub-creation." Whereas mechanical re-creation seeks to make without regard for means, that is to say with no limiting principle, artistic sub-creation is content to create a secondary world which does not infringe on the primary world. The world of a symphony or painting reflects some truth of the primary world but does not replace it, moreover it derives its significance from it. Recall that the great jewels, the Silmarils, are not merely works of art but  composed of the light of the Two Trees of Valinor. They are in a sense containers or distillations of the best of nature while they are the unique fruits of their artistic creator. In contrast, philosopher Roger Scruton has observed, "The ugliest of modern art and architecture does not show reality but takes revenge on it." We may conclude then that beauty is the principle by which man's actions as creator and crafter are governed. His highest pursuit is not after the useful, which becomes a tyranny over nature and himself, but "useless" beauty. Man cultivates the beautiful in himself by himself cultivating the beauty of nature.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Short Books, Long on Wisdom: II

Your esteemed blogger Mr. Northcutt recently composed a short list which only someone with his erudite catholicity could have assembled. It's theme is "short and insightful" and soon I am sure you will be spurred on by the exciting contents of his admirable collection.

In the meanwhile please settle for my imitation. My brief captions are, I hope, the essence of each, but at least what I learned (or learned to ask.) I would add but one observation, one only apparent to me after grouping these books together: they all possess an aesthetic dimension. They all suggest that to think, or write, or be so, is not just good, but beautiful, and in being so, necessary.

1. Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations/Exhortations [To Myself]
  • Work hard at who you are.
2. Moorman, George J. The Mass Explained
  • The Mass in black and white. Period.
3. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Laelius: On Friendship
  • You need a friend and you need to be one.
4. Clor, Harry. On Moderation
  • See as much as you can and find you way through. 
5. Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays
  • What is a poem? A poet?
6. Feynman, Richard. Character of Physical Law
  • The world works. 
7. Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos
  1. How a great artist handles ideas.
  2. You should expect that they do it well.
8. Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words
  • Words matter. Use with caution, knowledge, and affection.
9. Newman, John Henry. Meditations and Devotions
  • Pray!
10. Santayana, George. Three Philosophical Poets
  • What does your world look like?
11. Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy-Stories
  • Why tell a story?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Notable Conservatives: A Crossword

More fun! Again, I think I made it moderately difficult. All answers are last names. Click to enlarge. It's an 8.5x11 image if you want to print it out. As usual please post any questions, comments, or corrections in the comments section below. Have fun and good luck!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tom Shippey on Tolkien

Medievalist and scholar of modern fantasy and science fiction Tom Shippey on J. R. R. Tolkien and "filling the gaps" of medieval English literature.

Part I | Part II

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mozartian Eucatastrophe

"I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary 'truth' on the second plane (....) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made."

---J.R.R. Tolkein 'Letter 89'*

 The final allegro assai may be as fizzing as the overture which inaugurated his folle journée, but the true climax is the andante that precedes it, as the Count twice begs forgiveness (the second phrase intensifying the first), the Countess grants it in six bars of noble magnanimity, completing the melody he began, and the whole company takes it up in words that are banal - "Ah tutti contenti saremo cosi" ("Then let us all be happy") - but in music that is on the heights.
Mozart's reconciliations are real. They invoke the good in human nature. His vision embraces the pain and cruelty as well as the compassion - the darkness and the light; but it is the light that prevails.
 --- David Cairns Mozart and His Operas, p. 131-132

*see further, On Fairy-Stories

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wagner and The Lord of the Rings

The music of Richard Wagner and the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien are both considerable interests of mine so you can expect substantial writing on both topics in the future. For now, I was recently watching Peter Jackson's spectacular film adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and came upon two rather striking similarities. The first is of set design and the second of music.

 Leif Roar as Klingsor in Parsifal, about to set Kundry against Parsifal.
Stage design and artistic supervision by Wolfgang Wagner. 1981

 Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring,
invoking the spirit of the mountain against the Fellowship.
Artwork and conceptual drawing by Alan Lee and John Howe, 2001.

Parsifal, Act I.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,
The Great River

The scene (using the word loosely since Wagner did not divide the acts into smaller scenes) in Parsifal is quite complex, with multiple choruses, the Knights marching up Montsalvat to the bells, and many themes including those of the Grail, the Eucharist, and the Lance. Shore's scene is considerably simpler but they function in not dissimilar manners. In Fellowship Aragorn catches sight of enormous statues of kings of old, his ancestors. This is simultaneously a reminder of their grandeur and weakness, and also his, that he is the rightful heir but turned from the path since he shares his ancestors' weakness to be tempted by the Ring of Power. Likewise the themes demonstrate Amfortas' mixed feelings, his sacred duty, his suffering, and his sin.

Likewise the figures of Klingsor and Saruman more than superficial relations. Generally, neither managed his tendency to sin and each turned to dark arts. In his classic work on Wagner, Albert Lavignac describes Klingsor:
[he] has vainly sought to root out of his heart the tendencies to sin; and, not succeeding, he has destroyed his animal instincts by laying violent hands on himself. . . he has listened to the Evil Spirit, and received from him unhallowed instructions in the art of magic. . . [Lavignac, 212]
That Saruman succumbed to a natural weakness and was not simply corrupted by studying "too deeply the arts of the enemy" requires some explication, handily provided by Tolkien himself in a letter c. 1956:
In the view of this tale and mythology Power–when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)–is evil, these "wizards" were incarnated in the life forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains of both mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of "fall," of sin, if you will. [Tolkien, 237]
Likewise where Klingsor "Layed violent hands on himself" Gandalf rebukes Saruman for his unnatural machinations, saying, "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of reason." [The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond."]

Yet we ought not to read too much into these similarities and we should avoid trying to craft analogies and allegories here. The characters are themselves different and function differently in the plots of their respective stories. I do not suggest one was a model for the other but rather point out the noteworthy similarities of style and fundamental themes of two artists exploring man's nature in these particular scenes.



Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and his Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dood, Mead, and Company. New York. 1901.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter No. 181, an unfinished letter to Michael Straight. c. 1956. p.237. Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York. 2000.