Monthly Archives: February 2017


The View from the Tower

In my last post I suggested a connection between the reading of modern literature and an Elvish vision that discerns the hearts and minds of others. While this might seem an outlandish claim, I think a related connection emerges into view if we approach Tolkien’s thought from a quite different perspective, namely the allegory of the tower set out in his famous lecture on Beowulf.

‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ was delivered as a lecture before the British Academy in late 1936. Early in the lecture Tolkien criticized then dominant approaches to the Old English poem by way of the following allegory:

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower.

The man’s friends do not climb the tower; rather, perceiving that its stones had once belonged to a more ancient building, they push it over, and search among the rubble for hidden carvings and descriptions. And, surveying the rubble, they all declare that the tower, while very interesting, is in a terrible muddle!

And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea. (‘Monsters and the Critics’, 7-8)

The allegory establishes a straightforward – albeit metaphorical – connection between the written word and (a fairy-tale) vision. But I think we can push this a little further by inquiring into the origins of the allegory.

The British Academy lecture was worked up from older material (dated by Michael Drout, who has edited these manuscripts, to 1933-1935). In this earlier material Tolkien likens the Old English poem, not to a tower but (believe it or not) a rock-garden:

A man found a mass of old stone: it was part of the old wall of his small house and garden which had recently been considerably altered and enlarged. Of this stone he made a rock-garden… And even the gardener’s best friend… was heard to say: ‘He’s such a tiresome fellow – imagine using these beautiful old stones just to set off commonplace flowers that are found in every back-garden: he has no sense of proportion, poor man!’ (Beowulf & the Critics, 81).

The difference between the two allegories is so striking – the one presenting a fairy-tale tower, the other a suburban English rock-garden – that a comment on the original allegory seems in order. As I read it, the commonplace rock-garden, back-garden, and flowers work to situate the Beowulf poet as belonging firmly on our side of the great divide that separates a modern, literate, and Christian English civilization from its ancient, oral, and pagan Germanic past – a past that the Old English poet was writing about. It reflects Tolkien’s conviction that the author of Beowulf was rather like him: a man of learning, who read books and composed a story by writing it down.

Be that as it may, the question arises as to what Tolkien was doing when, in preparing his British Academy lecture, he substituted the image of the rock-garden for that of the tower.

I think we can find an answer in the ‘Fall of Númenor’, which Tolkien also composed in 1936 – presumably before he worked up his British Academy lecture for delivery in late November. The tale is concerned with another great temporal divide – not the historical division between oral and literate society, but between Myth and History itself. The tale, presented as the last of those told by the Elves, tells how the Númenóreans attempted to conquer Valinor, thereby changing the very nature of the world: not only was Númenor destroyed but the world was bent into a globe so that mortals can no longer find the straight road over the ocean to the undying lands. Yet a remnant of the Númenóreans escape the deluge and settle in Middle-earth, where a few could still:

half see the paths to the True West, and believed that at times from a high place they could descry the peaks of Taniquetil at the end of the straight road, high above the world. Therefore they built very high towers in those days.

In his editorial notes to the ‘Fall of Númenor’ (Lost Road 33), Christopher Tolkien identifies the high towers built by the righteous exiles of Númenor as his father’s first reference to the Elf-towers of Emyn Beraid described in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings. I concur, but would suggest that we can also discern in these Númenórean towers the source of the revised allegory of the British Academy lecture.

Both the Beowulf poet and the exiled Númenóreans are doing the same thing: peering into the abyss, straining to catch a glimpse of a now vanished world. But Beowulf is not simply a work of ‘historical fiction’, it is also a fairy tale, and Tolkien evidently believed that the poem provides a glimpse, not simply of a vanished past, but also of a lost world of Faërie.

So far we have not stepped beyond allegory and metaphor: it is as if the Beowulf poet, by the power of his word craft, has allowed us to see Faërie. Yet if we accept that the Númenórean towers are the origin of both the allegory of the tower in the 1936 lecture and the Elf-towers of Emyn Beraid to the west of the Shire, then we must conclude that in writing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien took what was an allegory in his British Academy lecture and realized it within his fantasy world.

What had been a metaphor of the power of the written word in a scholarly lecture became actual Elvish vision in Middle-earth.

For as time went by, Tolkien further developed his conception of these high coastal towers. They became the work of Elves rather than mortals (who else could build a tower that allows mortals to glimpse the realm of Faërie and itself symbolizes a fairy story?) And within the tallest Tolkien now placed a palantír, an Elvish crystal ball that allows mortals to see with Elvish vision. So, in The Silmarillion, we find:

It is said that the towers of Emyn Beraid were not built indeed by the Exiles of Númenor, but were raised by Gil-galad for Elendil, his friend; and the Seeing Stone of Emyn Beraid was set in Elostirion, the tallest of the towers. Thither Elendil would repair, and thence he would gaze out over the sundering seas, when the yearning of exile was upon him…

I suggest that we can read this passage in two ways: as a literal description of how a mortal once accessed Elvish vision in an ancient fantasy world; and as a development of the allegory of the tower in the British Academy lecture: an allegory of how we ourselves might read a fairy story – weary of the world, we remove ourselves to a secluded spot and, looking into the pages of The Lord of the Rings, we cast ourselves for a brief while into a world in which mortals may still encounter Faërie.

Image credit: runmonty: ‘Robe Coastline.’


Reading ‘Lord of the Rings': Part II

In the first of this series of posts I showed how in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien drew upon and even played with the etymology of the word ‘read’. For example, when Gandalf on Caradhras makes fire and then declares –

If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them. I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin.

– he is not metaphorically comparing the signs of his magic to the words in a book but, rather, using ‘read’ in the way the word was used in Old English before the advent of the book.

Of course, the word is also used in The Lord of the Rings in our modern sense: Gandalf reads Isildur’s account of the words engraved on the One Ring and, later, the words themselves; notices declaring ‘no admittance’ are put up in the Shire; Frodo tells Sam that, in the days to come, he will ‘read things out of the Red Book’, and so on. Yet these instances of modern reading are telling. Gandalf – the great counsellor (rædbora, that is ræd-giver, in the Old English-Latin glossaries) – reads everything, and in Gondor written records are preserved, although few are now able to read them. But basically it is only in or near the Shire that we encounter obvious instances of modern reading, the most striking illustration of which occurs in Bree when Barliman Butterbur hands Gandalf’s letter to Frodo:

Frodo read the letter to himself, and then passed it to Pippin and Sam.

The reason this sentence is so striking is because Frodo reads the letter silently and silent reading is a distinctly modern practice. As we saw in my last post, Anglo-Saxon reading began as the speaking aloud of the written word, and this reading aloud was the norm elsewhere too – St. Augustine famously related the utter bewilderment aroused by the silent reading of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan; nobody, Augustine included, could understand why he chose to read so strangely. Tolkien was certainly aware of all this and Frodo’s silent reading is one of the subtle yet powerful ways in which Tolkien allows his modern readers to feel at home in (or near) the Shire before taking them off into strange lands of ancient legend and fairy story.

So far, then, we have found in The Lord of the Rings three distinct reading practices, corresponding to three historical moments: a pre-literate reading of a situation; an Old English book reading – out loud and before an audience; and a modern English reading (of the kind you are now engaged in). Yet there is one other kind of reading encountered in Tolkien’s story, one that brings us back to my previous post on Macbeth: the reading of hearts and minds. Here are a few examples:

‘You do not ask me or tell me much that concerns yourself, Frodo,’ said Gildor. ‘But I already know a little, and I can read more in your face and in the thought behind your questions.

‘You have talked long in your sleep, Frodo,’ said Gandalf gently, ‘and it has not been hard for me to read your mind and memory.

‘To me it seemed exceedingly strange,’ said Boromir. ‘Maybe it was only a test, and she thought to read our thoughts for her own good purpose;

Gandalf and (at least some) Elves are able to read people. And it is not only wizards and Elves: ‘the lords of Gondor have keener sight than lesser men’, as Denethor says, and while we encounter Denethor’s older son, Boromir –

… sitting with his eyes fixed on Frodo, as if he was trying to read the Halfling’s thoughts.

– Denethor is not altogether off the mark when he declares:

Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies.

And Faramir is spot on when he says to Frodo:

It is a hard doom and a hopeless errand. But at the least, remember my warning: beware of this guide, Smeagol. He has done murder before now. I read it in him.

Yet the lords of Gondor are Numenoreans, and as such Men who are connected with the Elves. Thus the art of reading people – attributed in the book to Gildor, Gandalf, Galadriel, Denethor, and Faramir – is evidently to be taken as something magical and Elvish.

What are we to make of this fourth sense of ‘reading’? One obvious answer is that to his three moments in the history of reading – pre-literate, Anglo-Saxon, and modern – Tolkien adds a non-historical moment, a fairy sense of reading that, as I suggested before, he derived from the first act of Macbeth. But I have an intuition that there is more to it than this.

I think that Tolkien’s fourth sense of reading – Elvish reading, we might call it – is actually a projection into fairy story of modern reading practices. We glimpsed one element of such modern reading in Frodo’s silent reading of Gandalf’s letter, but Galadriel’s silent reading of the hearts and minds of the Company is – in its magical way – even more characteristic of modern reading practices.

To the best of my knowledge (and here I would welcome correction from those who know the Old English texts), the original meaning of ræd did not encompass the reading of people, the idea of which arises in the early modern period (employed already by Shakespeare, as we have seen) by way of a metaphorical extension of the modern sense of reading a book. But the metaphor surely gained greater force as increased literacy and the development of printing technology gave rise by the nineteenth century to new kinds of books, specifically novels that explore the interior world of their characters.

While people have read the written word for well over two thousand years, it is a distinctly modern practice to sit alone and silently read a novel that explores the hearts and minds of its protagonists.

So I suggest that we revise somewhat our three distinct moments of reading as follows:

  1. A pre-literate reading of a situation (related to giving counsel and solving riddles).
  2. An Old English reading aloud before an audience (e.g. Gandalf in Moria).
  3. One instance of actual modern silent reading (Frodo reading Gandalf’s letter).
  4. And a projection of the modern practice of reading novels into a magical Elvish practice.

One reason why this reading (excuse the pun) of The Lord of the Rings appeals to me is that it provides a clue as to how Tolkien artfully combined medieval heroic and modern psychological literature. A standard – albeit erroneous – criticism of Tolkien is that the characters in his story are one-dimensional – merely literary types devoid of inner psychological conflict. (The same idea is used – with more justice – by those who criticize Peter Jackson’s movies for making Aragorn a modern hero who doubts himself rather than the archetype of a king of the kind found in medieval texts).

Such criticism rests upon the fact that Tolkien drew upon medieval sources that do not explore interiority, such exploration being a hallmark of modern literature. Yet it is erroneous for the simple reason that Tolkien does explore interiority within certain strands of his story. Indeed the nature of the Ring is such that it forces all who fall within its influence to choose between (wild and fantastic) desire and duty. Boromir is the obvious illustration, but  – as Tom Hillman has brilliantly demonstrated in a series of posts on his blog – Frodo’s quest is marked by an ever growing psychological conflict as the Ring gradually gains power over him.

But how to weave modern psychological themes of interiority into a story deliberately modelled upon pre-modern stories without marring the story with blatant anachronisms? One of the ways that Tolkien managed this, or so I suggest, was by transforming the distinctly modern psychological elements of his story into instances of Elvish magic, thus seeming to blend heroic literature, not with the modern novel, but with fairy story.


Reading in ‘Lord of the Rings': Part I

The following ruminations have their origin in an explanation of the epithet ‘Unready’ given to the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred that I encountered in Eleanor Parker’s excellent A Short History of the Danish Conquest:

Æthelred has gone down in history as the ‘unready’, an epithet which was not, in origin, a comment on his preparedness, but on an irony of his name: in Old English Æthelræd means ‘noble counsel’, and unræd therefore means ‘bad counsel, lack of wisdom’.

This (inevitably) set me thinking about Tolkien, where counsel is a key theme and kings can be counselled both well and ill – Theoden under the spell of Wormtongue was ‘unready’, but with Gandalf as his counsellor he becomes ‘ready’.

I asked Eleanor’s advice on further reading on ræd and she directed me to a fascinating essay by Nicholas Howe entitled ‘The Cultural Construction of Reading in Anglo-Saxon England’ (in Old English Literature, ed. R.M. Liuzza, Yale, 2002). Howe points out that the Old English ræd predates the arrival of literacy: the word, as also its Germanic cognates, originally meant to give advice or counsel and to explain something obscure, such as a riddle.

On turning to The Lord of the Rings, we find just such an early use of ‘read’ in the words of Erestor at the Council of Elrond:

‘Then,’ said Erestor, ‘there are but two courses, as Glorfindel already has declared: to hide the Ring for ever; or to unmake it. But both are beyond our power. Who will read this riddle for us?’

Erestor is not using ‘read’ metaphorically, but in its earlier, pre-literate, sense. The same applies to the many uses of the word spoken by Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they pursue the Orcs accross Rohan. To give but three examples:

‘That is true,’ said Aragorn. ‘But if I read the signs back yonder rightly, the Orcs of the White Hand prevailed…’

‘That would not baffle a Ranger,’ said Gimli. ‘A bent blade is enough for Aragorn to read. But I do not expect him to find any traces. It was an evil phantom of Saruman that we saw last night. … ‘So I thought,’ said Aragorn; ‘but I cannot read the riddle, unless they return’.

‘There was sorcery here right enough,’ said Gimli. ‘What was that old man doing? What have you to say, Aragorn, to the reading of Legolas. Can you better it?’

Tolkien is illustrating an early, pre-literate, use of ræd. So how, in fact, did this term come to be metaphorically extended to give us our modern ‘reading’?

Howe points out that in a pre-literate society both giving counsel and answering a riddle are speech acts, that is, they entail a speaking out loud to an audience. And he further points out that the first Anglo-Saxon reading (in the modern sense) occurred in the context of the monasteries, where someone who had mastered the art of reading would read out loud a Biblical text (written in Latin) and interpret its meaning to those around him.

In a culture unaccustomed to the written text, the act of reading would have seemed remarkably like solving a riddle. For it meant translating meaningless but somehow magical squiggles on a leaf of vellum into significant discourse… The squiggles must be made to speak.

I suspect that Tolkien was invoking such early English reading practices in the scene in Moria where the Company gather around Gandalf as he pores over and reads out of a battered book found near Balin’s tomb. But at the western gate, before the Company enter Moria, Tolkien clearly plays with the etymology of ‘reading’.

‘What does the writing say?’ asked Frodo, who was trying to decipher the inscription on the arch. ‘I thought I knew the elf-letters, but I cannot read these.’

‘The words are in the elven-tongue of the West of Middle earth in the Elder Days,’ answered Gandalf. ‘But they do not say anything of importance to us. They say only: The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter. And underneath small and faint is written: I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs.

Gandalf both reads and fails to read the inscription: he reads the Elf-letters in our modern sense of turning the mysterious signs into intelligible words; yet he fails (at least at first) to read the riddle made up by these words.



Fair is Foul: Macbeth and LOTR

The twin pressures of earning a living and working on Rounded Globe have left me for now with insufficient time to continue my close reading of Return of the Shadow. I hope to resume in about a month. In the meanwhile, here is a first attempt to set down some as yet inchoate thoughts about the significance to LOTR of Tolkien’s reading of Macbeth.

To help initial orientation, note that Tolkien would have been drawn to Macbeth, not only because it is a story that descends from the days when the Norse men were a substantial power in Scotland (the play begins with reports of a great battle with the Norwegians), but also because the story includes one of those encounters between mortals and fairies that so interested him. On this latter, Shakespeare himself drew upon the history he found in Hollinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ (1577), where it is suggested that the three witches were “feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science.”

Macbeth meets with the weird sisters twice in the play, and it is well known that the prophecies he receives on his second meeting were incorporated in revised form in LOTR:  Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane became the Ents marching on Isengard; no man of woman born shall harm Macbeth became the dispatch of the chief Ringwraith by a woman and a hobbit; and – less well known – the vision of the line of Stuart kings descending from Banquo became the vision of the Numenorean kings culminating in Aragorn seen by the hobbits as they listen to Tom Bombadil on the Barrow Downs.

This invites the question of whether we can discern within LOTR elements of Macbeth’s first meeting with the witches. I think we can, but I think this only comes to light when we explore the theme of what I will call ‘interiority’ that is opened up by this first encounter.

The first meeting is straightforward enough: Returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo, two captains of the victorious army, meet the three ‘fairies,’ who hail Macbeth by his present title, by that of Thane of Cawdor, and by that of ‘king hereafter’.

The theme of interiority is struck at once by Banquo who, turning to Macbeth, exclaims:

Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?

Banquo’s question suggests that the witches have spoken aloud something that was already present within Macbeth’s inner thoughts. But while Macbeth’s subsequent aside (“why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair…”) would seem to confirm this suspicion, a suspicion it must remain – for while interior thoughts and desires may at times be discerned on the face of another, such readings can never be certain.

The relationship between the outer face and the inner thoughts and desires is in fact a prominent theme in the first act of the play. In the scene following the meeting with the witches, Duncan, King of Scotland, declares in reference to the treasonous Thane of Cawdor, in whom he had placed absolute trust:

There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.

Yet it is not quite so simple. Duncan is a lousy judge of character – betrayed by one Thane of Cawdor he gives the title to Macbeth, who promptly murders him in his sleep. And before the murder, when Macbeth first returns to his castle, his wife warns him:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.

Lady Macbeth’s words echo those of Banquo: Macbeth’s actual thoughts might not be written on his face, yet his face indicates that something untoward is going on within. Lady Macbeth therefore urges her husband to dissemble:

Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.

This is what I mean by the theme of interiority: the fact is that we do read something of the inner state of someone in their face, but such readings are inherently uncertain, and this is in part because we all learn to dissemble to varying degrees – to put on a face to meet the faces that we meet.

Tolkien certainly played with the twin themes of interiority and dissembling. Mortals in LOTR must learn in whom to place their trust. Theoden, for example, is initially deceived by Wormtongue’s fair words, but by the time he encounters Saruman in his tower at Isengard he has learned to discern the foul purpose that lies behind the wizard’s enchanting talk. Or earlier, when the hobbits first meet Strider in Bree, Frodo must judge the heart of a rather grim looking stranger. And Frodo’s choice of words in Bree points us directly to Macbeth: a servant of the Enemy, Frodo declares, would “seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.” The relationship of fair and foul is a motif running through Macbeth (the three witches, for example, together cry: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” while Macbeth’s first words in the play are: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”).

Such judgment of others is a peculiarly mortal business in LOTR. For there is, on the whole, no ambiguity about the inner natures of the fantastical creatures that we meet in Middle-earth: Orcs are foul and Elves are fair; it is only mortals who may be one or the other, or blend the two within them. And it is primarily mortals who are compelled to take the leap of faith that is trust in another; for Elves, or at least the greatest Elves, can somehow see directly into the hearts and minds of others, and so need not rely on perilous readings of the face.

And here, I think, is a key to much that we find in Lorien in the person of the Lady Galadriel.

On the face of it, the meeting of the Company with Galadriel, and her silent questioning and tempting of each of them, are far away from the meeting of Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches. Yet consider the nature of this silent questioning: Galadriel, as Gimli later recalls, “read many hearts and desires.” In other words, Tolkien imagines this encounter of mortals and fairy queen by discarding the prophetic power of Shakespeare’s witches and putting in its place precisely that power of reading the heart the near impossibility of which, for mortals, is a dominant theme in the first act of Macbeth.

What did Galadriel see when she looked into the heart of Boromir? And did she seal his fate any less than did the three witches when they hailed Macbeth as one who would be king?