Index of the Beowulf lecture

Last post was a pub rant on podcast 092 from The Prancing PonyUsually, Shawn Marchese and Alan Sisto, the Pony podcasters, read Tolkien’s mythological world with keen eyes. In this episode the allegory of the tower is read aloud, Tolkien’s dislike of allegory is noted, and the pair proceed to fall into our author’s trap. In my post, I pointed out what they had missed in the lecture and then fell into the same trap.

My initial motivation for writing the post was an irritation with Shawn and Alan’s easy criticism of the scholars – the friends and descendants of the builder, who push over and fail to value his tower. Getting carried away unveiling the hidden center of the lecture my prose tripped, without my quite noticing, into the same easy criticism of those who knock over a tower.

Tripping up on a spell.

As Giovanni Carmine Costabile has well said, we all knock over a tower or two on the journey of our lives. If we walk the road of art trying not to touch anything lest we break it we are not going to learn so much.

Pick up the Stone, Pippin!

It seems to be very hard to talk about the allegory of the tower without getting self-righteous about the vandalism of other people. I suggest this empirical observation about discussion (online and print) of the allegory is a sign of Tolkien’s workmanship. He is not tricking us; not exactly; but he is encouraging our distraction, helping us down the garden path to the barren wilderness of a critical pose.

The short story of the tower is a subversion of allegory, which makes use of this literary form to disguise another. The allegorical story makes a smoke screen by directing our gaze upon the mortal sins of others, inviting us to ponder whether they are born of blindness (friends) or murderous hate (the Enemy). Fixated by the mischief of others, we do not quite register the riddle that is posed to us at the end of the story.

But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

Like all good riddles, this one hides its meaning. Distracted by destruction, our eyes read the words but our imaginations do not follow the storyteller up the stairs and stand by his side looking on the sea.

I am unaware of any commentary on the allegory of the tower that has recognized this last line for what it is. All my complaints about this one Prancing Pony podcast apply mutatis mutandis to all the great secondary literature of the last half-century that I have read.

With the imagination fixated with the moral scandal of the destruction of the tower by the builder’s friends, the view from the tower is never examined. Rather, it is labelled, and so dismissed from further attention, as an ‘unanalyzable’ symbol of the value of art, or some such. Tom Shippey, for example, calls the view from the tower a “private” symbol of Tolkien’s own, with which word he closes down discussion. Verlyn Flieger does the same by declaring the view devoid of “allegorical correlative” and so also of definite meaning. (I am not sure if Shawn Marchese and Alan Sisto get over the violence of the scholars and climb the stairs to consider the view, I have to check.)

This is where I find it very hard to keep from blowing my top, which is irrational – why should I care what others say? But I do, and it is here that I use words like blindness in reference to all who have contributed to building the tower of Tolkien studies – which has indeed been built on a marsh.

Because it is about not looking. The problem has arisen because nobody climbs the stairs and looks.

And there is an irony of interpretation here. Those members of the British Academy leture who gathered to hear the Oxford professor’s lecture may have looked out from the tower as their speaker invited them, and may perhaps have seen a glimpse of mythical significance. But they cannot have seen the view that Tolkien had in mind, which modern readers of the lecture can hope to know, and some indeed know very well indeed. Yet a sense that we are in a different kind of writing than the fairy or hobbit stories seems to prevent those who know from looking.

Tolkien tells an allegory about a man who lived a thousand years ago because, for all that great span of time, the builder of Beowulf lived in the modern age of English history. When Tolkien uses the term myth in this lecture he has in mind, among other things, aspects of stories that were told in another homeland in an earlier age – stories that have come to us from out of the sea.

Just because this short story of the tower appears in an allegory in an academic lecture does not mean it does not relate to the world of Tolkien’s mythology.

When a keen eye looks out from the top of the tower, one who knows that deep under the dark and cold waters on the horizon lie the ruins of Atlantis may see the riddle of myth posed to us by a teller of northern story.