Category Archives: Tolkien

Macbeth doth murder sleep

This post is an old post the waters of which i have just muddied. i originally included the opening scene with the witches from Polanski’s Macbeth, which my English class at school saw at the Odeon in Muswell Hill, and then recalled Polanski’s name is now mud, and has made this movie version of the play itself a strange instance fair and foul. Passing over that instance leads us to Star Trek… and I lose sight of the old insight…

Macbeth has no echo in The Hobbit; the image of Necromancy cast by its three witches gives the spell of the sequel.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;

A woman, unsexed? Of course, sex is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, but drawn through a very dark mirror, so one elvish Lady is the reflection of four women of the Scottish play. JRR Tolkien is trying, in his literary way, to reconstruct an image of fairy-others who are friends not monsters that he detected on the edge of Beowulf (those who send the infant king to his people). The Lady Galadriel is creative power held back, as it were, unsexed as in relinquishing – tempted by power no less than Lady Macbeth. (Not a dagger but a Ring one sees before one, pointing the way to heaven, or to hell.)

Galadriel is an elvish opposite of an ancient English idea of Necromancy indubitably bound up with sex – a union of mortal man or woman with monsters in the shadow lands, a realm of exile from the human community and the voice of God, here began the second sin of Cain. Saruman and Sauron breed Orcs, and JRRT leaves his readers with ambiguous opinions as to the origins of Orcs because that ambiguity is found in the oldest records and, indeed, seem to be what the ancient idea of Necromancy is born from.

Macbeth opens with the weird sisters, shows us the state of Scotland at the end of a rebellion (a political history comparable to an Anglo-Saxon poet’s portrait of Heorot), and in scene 3 we meet Macbeth and Banquo, victorious generals of the king, returning a great battle with the Norwegians. Interested  in echoes of days when Norsemen played with the crown of Scotland, what arrested Tolkien’s interest was this meeting of mortal travelers with denizens of Fairy – a meeting on the shadow lands, the blasted heath.

Macbeth speaks for the first time: act 1, scene 3: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” The three witches have already closed scene 1:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Frodo in Bree says: a servant of the Enemy would seem fairer and feel fouler. Fair and foul is what the One Ring is (this precious Ring is absent in The Hobbit). Fair and foul play out on the faces of Boromir, his father, and his brother. The difference is what Aragorn and the Third Marshall of the Mark discuss on the plains of Rohan, and is seen in Meduseld – Wormtongue gives a face to the foul Unfriend. Lady Macbeth is the monster within the walls, as is her husband, while the Lady Galadriel paints the spell of Necromancy JRRT read in this Scottish story as rendered in a mirror through an elvish stone.

One way of pointing to the echoes is to draw the conclusion about fantasy that Tolkien reads in Shakespeare but will not permit himself to quite say himself, namely that it provides a fine way to understand the ‘real world’. Macbeth and his lady, spurred only by naked ambition, cross a border they cannot handle – Macbeth takes the crown by murder and both fall.

Tom Shippey somewhere insists – and his insistence is something to be grateful for – that Tolkien believed a key line of Lady Macbeth’s a corruption: and if we fail? asks her irresolute husband:

We fail! But Screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.

Here was a printers error, or something, said Tolkien. The line once began: We fall!

Shippey draws for us a scribal intervention by the man who wrote a great story of the fall of the house of the kings. His kings of Atlantis also talked with the Necromancer, to their doom – they heard the foul word and saw it fair, as do Macbeth and his Lady. Shakespeare’s Macbeth reminds us that, while it arises present to our sober sense on the border of Fairy (the blasted heath, the Forest), the urgency of avoiding foul while passing fair is a deep part too of our ordinary waking lives.

Macbeth is another of Shakespeare’s historical plays about kings of old, only this is the Scottish play. As with other historical matters, Shakespeare drew the story of Macbeth he found in Hollinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ (1577). Hollinshed tells of the three witches, whom he describes as:

feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science.

Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-stories (1947) does not quote  this line and yet reads as a meditation upon it. Tolkien tells us that Hollinshed has lost the wit of Gower who, some two centuries earlier, knew feirie was a title, a definite description given as a second or in place of the proper name, a mark, moreoever, which turns on a queer quality of appearance. Within what passes for Fairy, necromanticall science is indeed one part, but so too is the enchantment of the Lady of the elves.

As Tolkien reads modern English history, Hollinshed’s confusions became ever more characteristic of conventional loss of memory as the centuries wore down, until the wise clerks of Oxenford define Fantasy as an impossible elvish art, Tolkien’s ex-Pembroke colleague, R. Collingwood, sees English magic as withered – Church hymns and washing our hands before eating cannot remotely prepare us for the evil magic unleashed by and in Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, and Sam Gamgee had asked to see some ‘real elvish magic.’

Magic is foul while enchantment is of the feiries, and a traveler had better guess right the root of this enchantment. The Anglo-Saxon man who wrote Beowulf knew this full well, and Shakespeare and Gower and others still saw this, but after the English abandoned necromancy  they also came to forget its living opposite, the elvish art.

This creature is a fairy. The OED quotes Gower as an early usage of Fairy, points out JRRT in his essay; but he is included as a result of ‘a double error’ – Gower says of the appearance of a young man that he seems to be of Fairy

This creature seems of Fairy. All this can mean is that we should be on our guard because what we have before us is, shall we say, uncanny. Conspiracy theories are fairy-stories; and it is through looking at a fairy story that we can glimpse the truth that inhabits conspiracy theories, which includes an appreciation that all is not quite what it seems. The only thing to expect is the unexpected – the fairy – at least as it appeared in the minds of that generation that went to war in or soon after 1914 – was the genie in the bottle of the modern world; fairy is as credible a response as one could wish for to Chapter 12 of the General Theory of Money, Interest, and Employment by J.M. Keynes. There Keynes points out that expectations cannot be rational because the future is unknown; Keynes was but articulating a now old idea of Fairy another way.

But just as the concept, the very idea, of Fairy became significant for understanding the ‘real’ world so the English forgot completely the old stories of their old homeland, the oral inheritance of a people who did clearly understand the idea of Fairy, or at least so thought a young John Ronald Ruel Tolkien.

But Shakespeare saw the issue, and Tolkien, holding his nose a little as he handles this play of this Protestant bard, saw that Macbeth presents necromancy for what it is in the body politic. Let us be clear about Tolkien’s religious faith: it is not merely a historical fact that the man who wrote Beowulf was a Catholic, his biblical reading of the old and ancient pagan stories is a correct reading, or at least as good a step toward truth as a man is likely to make in his life. Necromancy for Tolkien, is not bound up with the early stories of the Bible by accident: where there is necromancy there is a story awaiting about the Fall.

Shakespeare introduces necromancy as words put in the mind of one who has already daydreamed of power, but perhaps not yet even spoken the path of murder to his self. What is already in the mind of Macbeth concerning his subsequent shenanigans is an image of murder, but likely not yet the silently spoken word murder.

Tolkien makes the One Ring and, holding it between his fingers and peering through it, sees the spell of a word as metaphorical jewel holding a communion of two and more minds, and pinpoints like a search light the historical impact of a keen will to power…

… the drop of necromancy that will unleash the whirlwind of human affairs.

Macbeth meets the three weird sisters twice. Two of the prophecies he receives on his second meeting appear in revised form in LOTR:  (i) Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane became the Ents marching on Isengard; (ii) no man of woman born shall harm Macbeth became the dispatch of the chief Ringwraith by a woman and a hobbit.

My concern is with the first meeting. Here, when they hail Banquo as the father of kings to be, there is a reference to James I of England, who was James VI of Scotland, the father of the line that would be exiled. Ripples of this definite description of Banquo, the lost line of Catholic kings of the united kingdom of England and Scotland, play out in vision of the Numenorean kings-in-exile culminating in Aragorn, seen by the hobbits as they listen to Tom Bombadil on the Barrow-downs.

The heirs of Banquo are the kind afterthought of the three witches (which seal Banquo’s doom), and follow their strange greeting of Macbeth.

When the witches so touch with words Macbeth here is Necromancy. Hail king hereafter. The man awakes with a guilty start. Just as does Boromir after his silent communication with the Lady Galadriel? (But while Boromir sees for the first time what he wants, Macbeth hears words he had glimpsed before but dared not speak even to himself. The spell that is cast, however, is in both cases the same – the story of an overleaping fall.)

Fair is foul and foul is fair.

A man finds in the the realm of the Lady of the elves only what evil he brings into her land. She is pure fair, yet a man may look upon her face and see the unspoken desire of his own heart.

Tolkien in his commentary on Beowulf invokes the waste land, the blasted heath, in his picture of ancient northern necromancers – begat on  a border of a union with monsters; a meeting in an uncanny mirror.

The ancient Goths told that the dread race of the Huns was begat from the union of witches expelled from their own camp and the evil spirits of the waste. Chambers teases out the two landscapes that Grendel haunts – the fens as well as the wooded hills. The Beowulf-poet intimates that in such shadow lands Cain cavorted with the daughters of giants and begat all the monsters: necromancers are human and demonic – they are the union of the two, monsters.

Tolkien remixed fair and foul: the (precious) Ring and Boromir, for example. But (as Aragorn reminds Eomer) what we find in Fairy and on its borders is no less true in our own house: all selves are hidden and all bodies dissemble and fair and foul are discovered in the meetings of incarnate minds.

The first meeting: the three sisters greet Macbeth by his present title, as the Thane of Cawdor, and as the man who will be ‘king hereafter’. The theme of interiority – as I learned at school – is struck at once by Banquo who, turning to Macbeth, asks:

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

Banquo reads in the face of his comrade in arms that an untoward ambition has played as an image before his mind. –> Macbeth soon says, aside: “why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair?” Macbeth has already stepped a path of evil fantasy, if only in his day dreams.

Yet the king, Duncan, told in scene II of the execution of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, a man in whom he had placed absolute trust, bewails:

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

Duncan, a woeful judge of character: he now bestows the title- Thane of Cawdor – on the man who will murder him in his sleep.

Here, I put to you, JRRT drew the Palantír. A Seeing Stone – an artifact of high elvish art, sub-creative art, maybe wrought by the hand of the greatest elvish craftsmen: an art that allows you or I, and Peregrin Took, to read a mind’s construction in a face.

Pippin looks into the Stone of Orthanc and sees the face of Sauron, whose eyes gaze back into his; Sauron silently questions Pippin, reading his unspoken thoughts in his face. The ‘magic’ here is not that of Sauron but of the elvish art that made such stones as allow each to speak aloud the thoughts in the other’s mind by reading them in his face (but it does seem that a magic of the Stone is used by Sauron to control the other mind – by looking in the Stone the mind is opened to the other…

Duncan, declares the art non-existent, which it evidently is for him, but Lady Macbeth is of different metal, and before the murder reads both the situation and the face of her husband all too well. To her husband she warns:

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

Really, a Palantír is born as a simile of a simile (really, a metaphor of a metaphor). A face is as a book, says Lady Macbeth, and JRRT says a book is as a crystal ball.

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

The dark art of dissembling complicates any reading of a face. We all learn to put on a face to meet the faces that we meet and so know all faces as made up (a lesson well understood in the eighteenth century thanks to Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees.) We wish to appear virtuous. Fairy stories and real political dramas offer us naked truth, but even here only buried within fantasy of one kind or another. Tolkien says of Ingeld and Freawaru – the doomed lovers of the last legend of the ancient homeland – that they themselves were likely under the spell of an ancient tradition concerning the king and his fairy bride; their story turned out a political drama with the old songs shown up as fantasies.

The Mirror of Galadriel plays disenchantment the other way and draws the good spell of ordinary communication in a fantasy of ideal communication between mortal and elf-lady. The temptation of the Ring replays the temptation of Eve; but this immortal woman passes this test.

Even Sauron appeared virtuous when he could. So Tolkien imagined he had fooled the Men of Atlantis and the Elvish smiths of Eregion. The lie of friend, immortalized in the riddle on the Western Door of Moria, and echoed in and on the border of Rohan, is played out in the new hobbit story in lessor necromancers – Saruman and Wormtongue.

Tolkien erected much of The Two Towers on the twin themes of interiority and dissembling. Saruman’s voice is an enchantment, a face of Melkor and Sauron when they cloaked their Foul intentions under a Fair face. And before we meet Wormtongue, who like his master cloaks craven counsel in words of peace and friendship.

In Middle-earth in the Third Age is drawn JRRT’s most concentrated picture of the meeting of fair and foul –  not on the borderland where the monsters walk but within the heart of a myth made by the Lady of the Golden Wood. The Lady “read many hearts and desires” when the Company were in Lorien. She does not read hears and minds in the face, for she looks directly, mind to mind. Her Mirror is something quite different from a Seeing Stone that reads the mind’s construction in the face; silent communication with the Lady does not involve transformation of thought by linguistic form – no words are even said to oneself.

Her Mirror shows us something of what this queen of Fairy sees when she looks at us. (Frodo then shows her what is before us in this person of the Lady – he has his gentle revenge after their first meeting of mind-looking.)

What did Boromir see that Galadriel saw when she looked into his heart?  A wish that Boromir had not even spoken silently to himself? And did she seal his fate any less than did the three witches when they hailed Macbeth as one who would be king?

Galadriel simply looked, and showed what she saw to the one in whose heart and mind she looked; no language was used and Boromir had still to speak to himself the name of that now pictured in his mind: the One Ring.

It took the Seeing Stones for Tolkien to establish this distinction between communications in Fairy, and by the time he had placed them within their towers his attention had moved beyond Macbeth and back to Beowulf (and its author, the man who built a tower). So in the Seeing Stones we see Macbeth only, as it were, in a rear window: in the visions of black-sailed ships that send Denethor into despair, for example. But the confrontations of the story are all with Sauron: Saruman, Pippin, Denethor, and Aragorn all communicate with the Necromancer and this direct confrontation with evil unmasked puts the themes of dissembling completely into the shade: the relationship is as Saruman to Sauron, the broken staff, lost Stone and surrendered key to the Eye in the Dark Tower.

Biography & Canon

Research into the thought of J.R.R. Tolkien now benefits from an enormous wealth of posthumous writings, largely (not solely) the legacy of the editorial work of the late Christopher Tolkien. We may call this collected body of writings the canon. At the same time, such work as well as other studies (e.g. John Garth on Tolkien and the Great War) reveals more of Tolkien’s biography. Putting two and two together here is my biographical reading of the situation of The Lord of the Rings in this canon.

A mid-life crisis of sorts is discernible in the unfinished Lost Road novel of 1936, with its fantasy of a drab and impoverished series of father-son scholars, by turns philologists and historians, who travel back in time to discover the end of myth and the dawn of history in the drowning of Atlantis.

The lasting legacy of the Lost Road was precisely this reworking of Plato’s myth of Atlantis as the story of how and why the world was made round and Númenor drowned beneath the waves. The legacy consists in the fact that Elendil escaped the deluge and arrived on the shores of our Middle-earth (as dimly recalled in modern times in stories of a king, Sheaf, who was sent to his people as a babe in a boat over the ocean), thereby providing the ancestry of Strider, who is Aragorn, heir Elendil and his son Isildur. But the enormous importance of this story for the imagination of The Lord of the Rings obscures, however, its significance to Tolkien at the time of its composition (which I have investigated in depth here). What we fail to register is that this story is intended as a conclusion to the Silmarillion stories – ‘here ends the history of the ancient world as told by the Elves’, as the 1936 myth concludes. In 1936 J.R.R. Tolkien was in some sense putting away his youthful fairy stories by way of making an end in the story of Númenor.

And then The Hobbit was published and they asked for a sequel and at first Tolkien tried to make it into the sequel to a 1934 poem, ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,’ but in the autumn of 1939 began to think that it might make a continuation of the story of the exiles of Númenor, told in the last pages of the 1936 myth and, as such, an alternative ending to the Silmarillion stories.

An idea that emerges in the wake of a radio announcement on September 3, 1939: Britain has declared war on Germany, and a vision of the tale of the Great War of the Ring begins to unveil itself in JRRT’s mind.

And that, really, was that, as poor Edith must have seen all too clearly. With a world shattering turn to war, Tolkien grasped at that creative imagination vital to his inner survival and found in writing a story, and glimpsed that his new hobbit story might make a fitting (protracted) ending to the Silmarillion stories: a tale of how Three Elvish Rings connected Myth and History in the Third Age of Middle-earth and the hole in reality inadvertently opened out of which Sauron made a back door by incarnating himself in a tiny gold ring. A suitably grand finale. But one has to sympathize with his colleagues, who still hoped the great philologist would produce a definitive tome, not to mention his wife, who must have been hoping her husband would soon spend more time with her in the garden.

On the good side, of course, Tolkien’s fairy-story-making addiction (if one may so put it) gave us The Lord of the Rings.

Seeing The Lord of the Rings as a more elaborate version of the 1936 closure invites especially meditation on the legendary appendage to the myth, which tells of a king of the mortal exiles in history, Elendil, whose people built high coastal towers and who made a last alliance with the Elf-king and confronted Sauron outside his hold in Mordor, and vanquished him but died. And it brings into view, too, the story of a tower built by the sea told also in 1936 by a man who did not yet know that thanks to Bilbo Baggins he would build a tower to rival the Beowulf.

the week before christmas – the story of the Ring begins

79 years ago to this day – it is the evening of the 19th of December, 2016 that i write this – the lord of the rings had begun as a story (though the story did not yet bear this title). we know that on the 16th of December, Tolkien had yet to begin a sequel to The Hobbit, which had been published with much success earlier in September of the year, but that three days later – on the 19th of December, 1937- he wrote in a letter: ‘I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – “A long expected party.”‘

I’d read this before – the narrative of first composition is set out in Christopher Tolkien’s introduction to Return of the Shadow, which volume itself presents many of the drafts of the book that emerged over the next decade and beyond; and which indeed begins with the original 5 page manuscript composition that had been composed in the days before or of the 19th of December, 1937.

But it was only recalling the date last night that i realised that Tolkien began his new story in the week before Christmas.

This timing, I feel sure, played a vital role in the imagination of the great party of special magnificance: the party thrown by Bilbo Baggins on the occasion of his final vanishing from Hobbiton, some several decades after his unlooked for return from adventure in forgien parts. For that is what Tolkien bascially wrote 79 years ago today, or yesterday (the manuscript is short enough that it was surely written in one sitting, or two at the most – say, over Dec. 18th and 19th): an account of how Bilbo gave a banquet to remember, made an announcement, and then disappeared – in order to allow a new story to begin that would be told of Bilbo’s (as yet unamed) heir (for the end of The Hobbit suggested that Bilbo himself had had no more adventures). So what Tolkien basically wrote – his ‘first chapter of a new story’ – was essentially a curtain-call on Bilbo, his final disappearing act, which, fittingly, was to come as the culmination of a great feast.

And as Tolkien described Bilbo’s party – many lines from this first version are familiar to readers of the published book – what he conjured up was a birthday party and a christmas party rolled into one – with everyone receiving presents and eating until they are fit to burst (it only really rains and snows food and drink at christmas).

In this first version Bilbo is only 70 on the day of the party – the 22nd of the ‘pleasant’ month of September, but it is indeed his birthday that is being celebrated. Birthday party, indeed! This was a feast imagined in days when academic routine had ground to a halt, the house was full of children’s voices, a tree had been erected inside the house and preparations were already afoot for a day of winter feasting soon to come.

The Shadow in the Nameless East

Over the weekend a couple of people sent me links to ‘All the East is Moving‘, an online essay by the British popular historian Tom Holland. His long essay is thought provoking and flawed.

Holland describes the First Reich as born a thousand years ago out of life-or-death struggles between Christian Germans and invading barbarian hordes – which begin as Hungarians but rapidly turn into Muslim Arabs and then Turks. This early medieval history provides Holland with his ideal of a Christian Europe, which he then uses to criticize the liberal ideal of a secular Europe embodied in the modern EU, arguing that Europe today needs to recognize its Christian heritage.

The weak point in all this is a failure to note that modern European secularism was born out of the centuries of internal religious warfare that devastated Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In the 17th century Europe learned the lesson that Islam still needs to learn today, namely, that if tolerance and freedom are not enshrined in our constitution we will kill even our co-religionists in the name of God.

But my reason for making this post is not to argue over the ideological history of Europe but to warn against what I perceive as a new and all too compelling line in Tolkien appropriation.

Holland wants to claim Tolkien as a Christian scholar who understood and embraced the ideals of the the First Reich, a point he makes by drawing a parallel between Aragorn, who relieves a besieged Minas Tirith carrying the sword Andúril, Flame of the West, and Otto the Great, the king who rode to the relief of Augsburg carrying the Holy Lance that had pierced the side of Christ.

On one level this is interesting because I don’t doubt that some elements of this early medieval Christian ideal of kingship as embodied in Otto were consciously projected onto Aragorn by Tolkien.

But in general this seems to me yet another case of someone using Tolkien’s fantasy for their own ends. A more interesting case than usual because Holland knows a lot about early medieval Germany, and also – and more importantly – because we are no doubt seeing here the birth of a new wave of Tolkien appropriation.

A generation ago the great threat from the East, against which the ‘free peoples of the West’ had to band together, was the Soviet Union.

And to the generations before that – the generations to which Tolkien and his children belonged – the evil East was Germany herself.

These different identifications surely seemed self-evident to everyone at the time – how could the ‘evil East’ be anything else?

Today, with Holland, the East has become Islam. ‘All the East is moving’ is the title of his article, a quote from Denethor intended here to invoke the influx into Europe of Syrian refugees (Holland has to turn some cartwheels to push all this home because, as he tells us, Otto delivered Augsburg from Hungarians and not from Muslims).

I’m guessing that Holland’s essay is the start of a new wave and that it will not be long before it becomes a commonplace that Mordor is Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Now, I’m not trying to tell you what you should think of Islam, or Christianity for that matter. But I do want to warn against the mistake of believing that any of these identifications of Tolkien’s ‘nameless East’ and whatever happens to be the (real or supposed) geopolitical or ideological enemy of the day have anything to do with Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth.

Tolkien’s undiscovered previously discovered laundry list with new annotations

A laundry list “from the darker side of JRR Tolkien’s washing basket,” which hints at an early version of the orc clothing that Sam and Frodo wore on the last stage of their journey in The Lord of the Rings, is due to be published for the first time in more than 70 days this November.

The Professor, possibly describing a sock he once washed.

The Professor, possibly describing a sock he once washed.

Tolkien’s laundry list, which is of no interest to anyone in their right mind, is a lengthy list of laundry items, possibly written in a novel form of alliterative verse in which each word is given its own distinct line on the page. It has previously been published in 29 different editions but has been out of print for the last week.

HarpyCollumnns, which will publish the laundry list along with Tolkien’s other writings about his collection of Cardigans on 3 November, called it “an important non Middle-earth work to set alongside his various shopping lists.”

But the laundry list has generated controversy among scholars, some of whom claim that it was in fact written by Tolkien’s wife, Edith. The consensus among Tolkieniests, however, is that, contrary to first, second, and third impressions, Tolkien wrote marvellous female characters and therefore must have written the laundry list.

The eagerly anticipated new volume includes a 55 page introduction and 324 pages of annotated commentary. The original laundry list is half a page.

A spokesperson for HarpyCollumnns said: “Tolkien fought in the Great War and this is another reason to buy a hardback collector’s edition of our new publication.”