Rarely it happens for a common mortal to flee from some terror to stumble into pure beauty, verily as the first meeting between Beren and Luthien. Yet, the sensation is closely similar as one gets a copy of the recent scholarly work titled “Amid Weeping There Is Joy: Orthodox Perspectives on Tolkien’s Fantastic Realm”, a volume the cover of which consistently presents itself with Gabriel Wilson’s artwork representing the same first meeting of the couple.
As one delves deeper into the several chapters here collected from conference papers or written for the occasion, multiple focuses are offered, behind all of which one discerns the scholarly minds of many authors pertaining to the US Orthodox Church.
Thus, editor Cyril Gary Jenkins’ contextual frame envisioning the whole history and philosophy of modern age, culminating in the Great War, introduces the reader to Tolkien’s youth and education.
Michael Haldas recaptures the theme of Divine Providence in Tolkien’s works, also hinting at the everyday importance of maintaining such faith as any Christian should.
William J. Tighe offers a shorter account of Tolkien’s opposition to Gnosticism than Jonathan McIntosh in his volume “The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faerie”, and yet it conveys consideration of both ancient and modern Gnosticism, lacking in McIntosh.
Paul Siewers brilliantly highlights how Tolkien’s narrative works as an antidote for both individuals and groups to social isolation produced by technology, economics, and politics. Tolkien is unique and felt as such because untouched by contemporary totalitarianism, the progeny of both 20th century antecedents, Communism and Nazism.
Richard Seraphim Rohlins splendidly adds to the best of Tolkien scholarship by explaining in close detail the reference to Medieval Church architecture made by Tolkien in a comment to an exchange of his with Clive Staples Lewis, underlining their different Christian confessions (Tolkien was a Catholic, Lewis an Anglican) and their different approach to Middle Ages and their literature, especially the Middle English poem “Pearl”.
Nicholas Kotar defends both Tolkien and Christianity from the attacks of contemporary Christian misomyths, who seem to forget how Christ himself spoke in a fictional form called parable.
Frederic Putnam extensively comments the concept of “Fantasy” in both Tolkien e CS Lewis.
A further interesting writing by Paul Siewers reads Tolkien as a nuptial author, then to utilize such traits as a neat explanation for the large following the English writer has in Orthodoxy, since their faith is strongly founded on the institution of the earthly marriage as a figure of the mystical Wedding of the Lamb.
Cyril Cary Jenkins then culminates the entire collection by his analysis of different aspects of the Vision of God in comparing Tolkien’s Niggle with St. Gregory of Nyssa, Dante, and Plato.
The essays are all very readable, and, although some theses here found are closer to Tolkien’s mind than others, at least as long as we know at the moment, all contributions invite reflection, and call for further research, in a way I feel comfortable to declare Tolkien would appreciate.
Two critical notes: it feels awkward to read Tighe asking the reader which race are Trolls a counterfeit of, since Treebeard himself clearly states Trolls are counterfeit versions of Ents, made in their mimicry. Secondly, it is also perplexing when Siewers almost declares how Tolkien would have liked the “filioque” to be erased from the Creed, however unintentionally on the scholar’s part the impression of the reader might stem.
Instead, I highly appreciated all the efforts to contextualize Tolkien in the cultural history of the West, both to clarify his role in the 20th century AD, and to suggest all of us, even and especially today, still have a lot to learn from him. Nothwithstanding the minor flaws just mentioned, in fact, both Siewers and Tighe, as well as other papers in the volume, offer the reader precious indications relevant to the case.
To conclude, I could never overstate my appreciation for Rohlin’s chapter on the poem “Pearl”, a chapter worthy as a critical pearl in its own right, and not only for its brilliance, nor because it is in the volume the chief reference to Medieval Literature and source criticism, but mostly because of its hinting at the book-title, taken from the first paragraph of the chapter in “The Silmarillion” dedicated to Beren and Luthien.
Thus may come together the consolation of the “Pearl”-Poet, being reassured his daughter is safe in Jesus’ arms, and the vision of Beren of Luthien’s dance as the consolation from his nightmare of being chased by Morgoth’s servants throughout his escape southward after his father’s death, for “Tinuviel was dancing there, to music of a pipe unseen, and light of stars was in her hair, and in her raiment glimmering”.
Recent rumours concerning the upcoming Amazon TV series titled The Lord of the Rings gave rise to violent outbursts and riots on social networks and other media, generating such clamour nobody seems to be able to just sit idly unless they made sure they somehow let us know their position. Reason of the protests seems to consist in the news according to which the Amazon show apparently is set to showing us several sex scenes and other explicit pictures, which thing disturbs Tolkien fandom, seemingly prone to disassociating Tolkien’s works from any sexual hint. In light of such blundering views, I think a proper exploration of sex in Tolkien’s works, after Tyellas’ example, is due.
First of all, it is necessary to investigate Tolkien’s biography to understand his own mind as far as sex is concerned, in terms of upbringing, the building of a personal mindset, and both behaviour and views of his throughout his life, in his historical context. Victorian times, Michel Foucault explains, were not at all times when any allusion to sex in good society was forbidden. On the contrary, as the French philosopher argues, sexual speech was even encouraged, as long as its uttering remained confined to its proper locations: suburbs, asylums, hospitals, sometimes theatres, and, more rarely, in art products of other sorts, such as poems, novels, romances, ballets, drawings, sculptures, and the like.
Thus, Foucault explains, actually Victorian Age is a contraddictory time, when opposing forces clash and melt into each other in often unforeseen ways: for example, on one hand, we have the femme fatale fears of many male writers, as perhaps best incarned in Arthur Machen’s novel Great God Pan; on the other hand, men and women alike across society were frightened by tragical news such as Jack the Ripper’s exploits, as a clear symbol of unrestrained male desire gone mad. Another of such oppositions might counterpose the reemergence of Fairy beliefs from times past, a witness to the necessity of a medium of virtue between both excesses in austerity and wantonness, with modern images of artificial femininity as automaton, as especially shown in French, or Swiss, “animated” dolls.
Nonetheless, as already hinted at, such oppositions were often apparent, too: average men and women from all classes were still men and women, so that restraints inevitably had their loosenings, while excess might usually be mildened back into some “acceptable” norm. Men were not all patriarchs, nor were they all brothel-slaughterers. Women were not all maneaters whose lust knew no boundaries, although they were not all graceful as Fairies either, nor were they all so polite as being deemed comparable to automotive devices.
Indeed, although Tolkien’s own dispositions are often depicted as somewhat prudish, it only takes to consider the preeminence of feminine figures as both powerful and object of desire in predominantly male-ruled art movements such as Preraphaelitism (Swinburn’s Ode to Venus is tantamount), or William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement, to get a clearer idea of the reason why 2019 Tolkien film was not as off-track as critics would have in depicting Tolkien’s youth as reckless and passionate in a romantic sense.
The basic details in Tolkien’s romance with his then-to-be wife Edith Bratt are well known: meeting in their teens, they have to face three years apart from each other as Father Francis Morgan, Tolkien’s fostercarer, commands. Then, Tolkien writes Edith, learns she would be supposed to marry another man, convinces her to meet him once more to win her hand back: they eventually get married in 1916, soon before Tolkien joins the fightings in France in the Great War.
Quite an adventurous background to ponder questions concerning the justly famous letter 43 Tolkien years later, 6-8 March 1941, will write to his second son, Michael, concerning sexual relationships and marriage in a Christian view: statements such as the stronger character of sexual pulse in men, the relational natural disposition in women, the hardships of maintaining a longlasting friendship between single male and female, the “dislocation” of sexual desire toward improper objects as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s Fall in Eden, Catholic marriage as the only way to restore balance between sexes in mutual fidelity and service.
It is in fact quite difficult to argue, based on Tolkien’s life-experience and views, he might not be talking experience lived first-hand and felt on his own skin. His are no words of a theoretical thinker displaced from his own seat: as he recognizes, the subject is difficult both in real life and to meaningfully argue about, yet he treats it in his bright mind, ink running happily from his pen as waters flow under bridges, notions being clarified as such, as real-life events are described in their essence as the protagonists have it, melancholy stirred by a soft smile hanging from the edge of a memory, love wakened by the live conscience of what was and could have been, in a few hopes only for the long-lost prospects of years gone by to be yet accomplishable in some future after World War II was eventually over.
As he was forced in his teenage to live parted from his future wife, he had no doubt a lot to struggle with, aptly pictured in the film as a night he got drunk in Oxford in the company of his TCBS friends, refusing to join their boastful flirting with easy-going girls. The necessity to pursue his studies, as well as the hard times keeping at bay rampant teenage feelings of masculinity in renewed singleness, while still doing his best to keep true to Edith, who might have just as well given up all trust in their future together, although eventually he found out she had not, made for a whole lot of business to such a young lad. He was certainly tempted by the ghost of some other possible relationship, as well as by beautiful faces and slender features, yet he always maintained his faith in her alive as a beacon of hope not too long after to win him the looked-for prize of her approval.
Later, in married life, he would soon have to struggle with a strongminded, indipendent woman who loved him way more than he might think, even enough to convert to Catholicism after his creed, yet resented his only-male intellectual circles, defrauding her of his time, while he apparently was more active than her sexually, since for a long time they had to arrange separate beds to sleep in at home. Raising as many as four children undoubtedly was no picnic either, as Edith had to take care of most related business, while her husband spent much more time in colleges, even to spare an evening or two at famous local pub “Eagle and Child” to entertain the company of his Inklings friends.
The event mostly shaping Tolkien’s imagination was Edith’s barefoot dance upon a hemlock-flowered green clearing at Roos in late 1917, as he was convalescing from trench-fever contracted in the Somme battle. The vision inspired him to conceive the story of Beren watching elven maiden Lúthien dancing in the woods of Doriath and winning her love. Many readers pointed out the sexual innuendos of the scene, especially pointing out the evident craving of Beren’s for Lúthien’s body transparent in his excited invocations of her: “Ah! Tinúviel! Tinúviel!”, but also revealed by the narrator’s sharp focus on each appealing part of her appearance, thus manifesting Tolkien’s own attraction to Edith.
Specifical attention, however in part explicable by dance setting, is devoted to Lúthien’s feet, lightly treading over hemlock-umbels and cold grass under bright moonlight. I do think, in fact, that the setting may only make as a framework wherein to picture the happening, whereas it is certainly possible to describe any dance without appointedly focusing on dancing feet, which instead Tolkien repeatedly does. Of course, Tolkien’s focus on feet was not at all new, as he already had written a poem titled Goblin Feet in 1915, describing the march of many Fairy creatures passing by the poet, who then calls for them, singing the allure of their tiny enchanted feet after they are gone. Yet, Lúthien’s feet deserve way more enthusiastic remarks in their white tenderness, fluttering about the awake dream Beren manages to behold, so to get his own heart forever stolen by her Fairy glamour of the daughter of an Elvenking and a Maia Angel.
However typically sources suggested to be taken into account concerning Lúthien the character amount to, Edith aside, the Virgin Mary, Eurydice-Orpheus, and Olwen from The Mabinogion, I think hardly anybody took her amazing Elven feet into account as far as the search had to go. In fact, on one hand there are Hindu scriptures, even more so in Tantra religion, describing the thousand-petaled white lotus at Goddess Shakti’s feet. In a version among many of the description, she is Jagadamba:
Suta said: “Seeing all these wonderful forms of Jagadamba, Vyasa, the great Muni and son of Parashara, knew the sublime Brahmatattva, and became free from the condition of a Jiva. Then, knowing the desire of Vyasa, Devi Bhagavati, the dweller in all hearts, showed him the thousand-petalled lotus lying under Her feet. In the petals of the lotus Vyasa, the great Rishi, saw the great Purana named Mahabhagavata replete with sublime letters. Thus blessed, he praised the Devi in various ways, bowed to the earth before her, and returned to his hermitage”. “He then disclosed the Mahabhagavata Purana, most sacred and full of sublime letters, just as he had found it in the thousand-petalled lotus lying under the lotus feet of Jagadamba”.
Shakti, or Jagadamba, in Hindu mythology is the consort of Shiva, the third head of the Sacred Trimurti. In Tantraism, more in particular, she is the feminine form corresponding to the highest Feminine Principle, female counterpart to the God above all gods, Brahman, informing all lower feminine essences, or shaktis, each of which is conjugated to each lower masculine principle compatible, even as partners may join in loving union. Tantraism goes as far as to state that Brahman’s own Supreme Shakti, i.e. the female side of God, is higher than his male part, for only femininity as the vessel may be all-encompassing, as God is, whereas male nature of determination and definition only grants for God’s ability to shape the formless, which in its own turn entails both Supreme God and Goddess may be seen as one another’s Form.
The encounter between the enlightened Vyasa, a much lower being, and Shakti, appears somewhat comparable to Beren and Lúthien’s, as both chances occur between an uniquely-blissed man and a way higher female being whose blessed feet touch white flowers, resulting in both cases in the beholder’s unending dedication to the Woman’s cause in the witness of their encounter as a source of gladness and wonder arising love in one’s heart as well as the hope to be able at some point to be forever united with Her.
Moreover, it must be pointed out how such a concept of a thousand-petalled white lotus is in Hindu mythology closely associated with the highest and seventh of the Seven Chakras, Sahasrara. Chakras are typically thought of as energy wheels rotating counterclockwise within all human bodies, roughly corresponding to a series of bodily organs or areas under their control, ranging from the headtop of Sahasrara to the coccyx of Muladhara, passing along the famous third eye in the forehead, Ajna; then throat, Vishuddi; Anahata is the heart; Manipura the navel; and Svadhisthana corresponds to sexual organs. Since energy is supposed to be able to pass through a central channel called Sushumna, connecting all seven wheels, the full circulation of which should be unblocked by releasing the upward flow, it may apparently also happen to some people to have it upside-down, so that the roots are seated in Sahasrara, and the thousand petals at one’s feet, precisely as it is for the highest God Brahman whose road is descent, and for his supreme Shakti, as we saw, who all encompasses.
Beren may perhaps be enchanted by Lúthien’s dance, as we saw, also because he may have a function, not only of a Vyasa, as a beggar contriving to happen before a rich banquet, in a food metaphor, but also as a representative of Shiva, the Lord, devoted husband of his Shakti, or even Brahman, whose Shakti is Supreme. In this case, the abscent or descent through the Seven Chakras may be pictured by elements crucial to the story:
Beren and Lúthien
Beren watches her
Beren is enchanted
Beren calls her Tinúviel
Beren seizes her
Beren kisses her
This way, Tolkien’s most beloved romance may become an image of the entire unfolding of the universe, which after all comes no surprise whatsoever, since in famous Letter no. 131 Tolkien describes his own mythology in its developing in words the such as:
Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd. (Letters, no. 131)
Therefore, it is clear how the hypothesis according to which Tolkien could actually have been influenced by Hindu scriptures, and Tantra especially, should not perhaps be so easily discarded as may perhaps at times seem. After all, as a philologist trained in both Germanic and Romance, as well as Celtic linguistic families, he clearly had definite awareness of Proto-Indoeuropean and Sanskrit, entailing he could not ignore India at all.
Moreover, his own familiarity with the issues of British colonialism in India is undisputable since their being-at-hand over any English table for breakfast between the second half of the 19th century and the Independence is simply unquestionable. Thirdly, and even most importantly, one among the earliest translators of Tantra writs in English, who strongly contributed to their diffusion in Europe, was the Oxford-trained Arthur Avalon, in English John Woodroffe, who in 1913 published the first English edition of the Mahanirvana Tantra, also named The Great Liberation. Interestingly, the lay in verse narrating the gests of Beren and Lúthien is comparably titled The Lay of Leithian, meaning Song of Liberation.
Interestingly, as far as Chakras are concerned, it is even wilful deniers of any Oriental connection of Tolkien’s who often, however perhaps ignoring the Tantric nexus among feet, roots, flowers, bodily bottom, and the absolute, still resort to questionable ways of depicting Lúthien’s dance as a sort of striptease watched from behind. However Tantric temples may feature lovemaking godly statues, in fact, the way of depicting the action was typified in such fashion as not to offend bystanders, which is not at all the same case as with intended provocation.
Concerning aforecited Letter 131, since Tolkien seems so prone to “purge the gross” off the shoes of his own mythology, a further reference from a Tantric text translated by Avalon, Kularnava Tantra, seems quite apt:
And of Yoga, Dhyana, meditation, is an important limb. Dhyana is of two kinds, gross and subtle. When the meditation is upon a Form, it is the gross, and when it is without Form, it is subtle. The grosser kind of meditation with Form is resorted to when the mind is very unsteady and needs to be given a prop, a concrete object on which to fix itself so that it may not wander away. But the object of both the gross and the subtle kinds of Dhyana is the same: steadiness, immobility of mind. (Kularnava Tantra, translated by Arthur Avalon, Delhi: Motilaal Banarssidass, 2007. 1st edition 1965, p. 61)
Since Tolkien in Letter 131 intends the gross as related to the excess in explicit Christianity of the Arthurian Legend, by which he could even reference the episode of Lancelot making a cross sign before his passion bed he shared with Guinevere, as related by Chrétien de Troyes, and scandalizing C.S. Lewis, one wonders whether Tolkien as a learned Catholic, curious in other cultures too, might have even gotten the inspiration for his notion of “gross” in literature as explicit from Kularnava Tantra. On a related note, one cannot but recall Jonathan McIntosh’ explanation of the One Ring in his 2017 study The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie:
Even considered as a material object, however, Sauron’s Ring might be compared to what Thomas describes in his Summa, in an article on “Whether the adornment of women is devoid of mortal sin,” as a case of “art directed to the production of good which men cannot use without sin” (ST 2-2.169.2 ad 4), a passage Jacques Maritain refers to in his Art and Scholasticism and thus one that Tolkien may have been at least indirectly familiar with. In such cases, Thomas argues, “it follows that the workmen sin in making such things, as directly affording others an occasion of sin; for instance, if a man were to make idols or anything pertaining to idolatrous worship.” In addition to it being the mythical embodiment of Sauron’s corrupted will, therefore, the Ring in and of itself is evil in the sense that it is was made for one purpose alone, namely the tyrannous domination of others, and therefore has this evil as its only “proper” use (for which it is indeed useful, and therefore in that sense “good”). (Jonathan McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie. New York: Angelico Press, 2017: 356)
It is essential to be straightforward on this point: neither does it mean nudity in all forms should be banished, nor is it a blaming of women. Rather, it should be taken as implying precisely the aforesaid: any artwork, but even any action, is vividly and appointedly imbued, whether consciously or not, by mind, body, spirit, and soul, of its maker or doer, thus entailing it is only lewd dresses, pictures, items, or any action meant for anybody’s ill which, only as such, is sinful, whereas, conceivably, the very same item, or artwork, or action, when imbued with good purpose, is just the same but entirely devoid of sin, however it may be a representation of lovemaking, even as critics may say contrarily, which criticism at that point is the only real sin. This is the meaning of Sauron’s “One Ring”: an item so imbued with evil intentions as to be unattainable to any good will, which, of course, by itself implies the unavoidable consequence to be concealing the highest good on earth. In other words, the Ring is any form of a right to a pretence to be speaking and acting the Almighty’s will in our finite world. The ultimate power, to rule the kingdoms of the world from West to East, to dominate all lands, to subdue all peoples, to master all women and men, to be crowned by stars, and hold the sceptre of mountains.
As about “mastering all women and men”, it is evident how such is a way to return to a sexual sort of allpower too: in such senses, we may well see how Tolkien may wish to both state sex is one of Satan’s favourite tools and a thing by itself good in its own right, however its most advisable application to avoid suffering is monogamous marriage, which, by the way, Tolkien points out, makes for the best and mostly pleasurable enjoyment of the mutual gift between partners as well.
Actually, in Laws and Customs of the Eldar, the text detailing usages and rules determining spontaneously Elvish behaviour out of their own souls and minds in necessary fashion, Tolkien states how the very gift of one’s virginity to another person is in and by itself the only real marriage to count, so that in a natural way bodily, sentimental, emotional, sensitive, spiritual, civil, and religious senses of marriage and love, human and superhuman, earthly and divine, sacred and profane, all coincide.
The conjunction of two souls and bodies on all levels clearly implies the necessity not to privilege anything over one’s beloved: even one’s occupation, children, or very less if at all other people, however parents, siblings, or relatives, should never come before nor get in the way of one’s partner, unless both in the couple so agree. Such is the tragic lesson of another Tolkien love story from Unfinished Tales: Aldarion and Erendis never manage to get in good terms with each other concerning Aldarion’s propension for sailing, necessarily entailing long times spent in open seas, away from his wife’s embrace, which she so intensely resents. Eventually, they break up precisely out of such growing resentment.
To contrast an exactly opposite way of handling a relationship, Aragorn spends decades away from Arwen in the effort to find it within himself to claim the throne of Gondor, as condition to marry her, yet they always keep loyal to each other throughout the whole unfolding of events leading up to their marriage only after Sauron is defeated and Arwen, resemblance of Lúthien in the Third Age, is brought him once more and forever.
So, to return to sources of Beren and Lúthien in their tale, it happened several times to read interpreters point out how she might be an image of the Virgin Mary in her motherhood of Dior as the hope of Middle-earth, like Jesus in our world, but nobody, as far as I recall, ever pointed out how her defeating Morgoth by the dance of her light feet actually is an even stronger and clearer pointer to Our Divine Lady crushing the Serpent’s head under her foot, as even prophetized in Genesis: “Thou shalt put its head under thy foot, however the Serpent shall threaten thy heel”.
What is the Serpent, though? Who is Morgoth? Who is Satan? Which is the original sin before the original sin? What was the cause leading to the Fall of Angels, then to entail Adam’s Fall? Usually the answer one gets to hear to such question is pride, wishing to make oneself God above God. As a consequence, Adam and Eve must necessarily have fallen through sex, daring to pluck a fruit believed to coincide with the flower of woman’s love, whom God would rather spare untouched by her own only partner, and yet things are evidently not so at all.
Rather, we should say that such views as mirrors speculate quite freely on the matter, whereas it only takes to really delve into Scriptures to find the actual sense of the question: Saint Paul’s epistles, as much as Old Testament writings, straightforwardly state the real state of things, given as refusal by Lucifer to adore Man as a creature superior to the Angels themselves. In many other mythologies throughout the world, such ideas are repeated in many variants, as much as the New Testament says Christ to intend Man, while the Old Testament has Adam in his stead, meaning Adam unfallen, Adam Kadmon in Hebrew. In Islamic tradition, it is even the very Prophet Muhammad, or rather Allah by his pen, repeating the same story concerning the fallen angel Iblis. In Hindu Tantras, it is once more to Kularnava Tantra one should turn to:
The text opens with a question by the Devi, the compassionate Mother of the universe,to Her eternal Spouse, as to the possible way by which all these creatures involved in an endless round of suffering, birth and death, could obtain release. There is One Real, says the Lord, He is Shiva the Parabrahman, Featureless, AllKnower, All-Doer, Sovereign of All, Stainless, One without a second. Self-luminous, without beginning or end, without attribute, without change, beyond the highest, He is the Saccidananda. All the jivas, the myriad creatures, are portions of Him, like sparks of the Fire. Attached to the Ancient Ignorance and regulated by their own volition and action, influenced by their environment, they go on passing from birth to birth. Many are the kinds of births taken by each jiva which passes through the several gradations of life on earth e.g. immobile creation, the mobile ranging from insects, the egg-born, birds, animals, men in different stages of development, gods, to the liberated beings†. Of these the human birth is the most important for it is then that one becomes awake, aware of his state of bondage and the necessity of release and is in a position to take steps for his liberation from its hold. He has a self-will and is not totally subject to the impulses and drive of Nature as are beings lower than him in the scale of evolution. He has a mind that can see and organise. The Tantras have it that the human birth is got after going through as many as eighty-four lakhs of inferior births. And even beings higher than man envy his birth† because it is only human life on this earth, which is a field of evolution, that holds the possibility of change, progress and release. The Purana declares that the very gods have to come down on earth and embody themselves here if they wish to go up the ladder of Cosmic Existence. All other worlds in creation, the worlds of the gods, of angels and other hierarchies, are set to type; they have a fixed mould and one can only stagnate in that mould however perfect it might seem. It is only on this earth – and that too in a human body endowed with a soul – that one can choose one’s line of development and take the means to progress accordingly. It is the articulate soul of man that holds the impulse to progress and gives the direction that makes for his superiority over other orders in creation. (Kularnava Tantra, translated by Arthur Avalon, Delhi: Motilaal Banarssidass, 2007. 1st edition 1965, pp. 18-19)
The following details the self-deception enacting Angelic Fall, however expressing it in human terms:
But not all are aware of the precious opportunity afforded by this human birth which is verily the ladder to liberation, sopanabhuta moksasya. The value of the human body which is the base for progress and realisation is not fully recognised. Wealth , merit and demerit, visits to holy places, all these can be had again and again but not so a happy birth and a sound body. One who is so endowed with a noble birth and rounded limbs and yet fails to avail of it for his uplift is indeed a self-slayer, atmaghataka. This body is meant to be guarded, nourished and built up with a view to achieve the highest end, Liberation. This is the impelling motive for the universal urge for self-preservation which persists in spite of all suffering and misery. One should preserve oneself with utmost effort in order to live according to the right Law, Dharma. Dharma leads to Jnana, Jnana to Dhyana and Yoga which inevitably lead to Mukti, Liberation. Therefore tend the body till you realise the truth of existence. For the Truth is to be realised here in this life. If here you do not find and work out the means for your release where else is it possible? It is possible nowhere. “Great is the perdition,” says the Upanishad, “if here one comes not to the Knowledge.” It is vain to expect that things will change and improve after death in worlds which are happier than ours. As here so there. “What is in this world, is also in the other.” (Katha Up.) The condition in which you live here pursues you elsewhere also; the change or improvement cannot come from outside of yourself. It has to be worked out by yourself from within yourself. The state of your consciousness attained while in the body is also the state of your consciousness elsewhere. The world you reach after the body is shed is determined by the level of the consciousness reached while in the body. “If in this world of men and before thy body fall from thee, thou wert able to apprehend it, then thou availeth for embodiment in the worlds that He creates.” (Katha Up.) So, as long as the body lasts, exert yourself towards the goal of liberation. (Kularnava Tantra, translated by Arthur Avalon, Delhi: Motilaal Banarssidass, 2007. 1st edition 1965, pp. 20-21)
It is further and mostly appropriate to take into account St. Thomas Aquinas’ position, as he was the 13th century theologian, named also the Angelicus Doctor, whom Tolkien clearly read as a copy of his Summa Theologiae belonged to his library, which is stated in Cilli 2019.
Whether no venereal acts can be had without sin? Objection 1. It would seem that no venereal act can be without sin. For nothing but sin would seem to hinder virtue. Now every venereal act is a great hindrance to virtue. For Augustine says (Soliloq. i, 10): “I consider that nothing so casts down the manly mind from its height as the fondling of a woman, and those bodily contacts.” Therefore, seemingly, no venereal act is without sin. Objection 2. Further, any excess that makes one forsake the good of reason is sinful, because virtue is corrupted by “excess” and “deficiency” as stated in Ethic. ii, 2. Now in every venereal act there is excess of pleasure, since it so absorbs the mind, that “it is incompatible with the act of understanding,” as the Philosopher observes (Ethic. vii, 11); and as Jerome, Origen, Hom. vi in Num.; Cf. Jerome, Ep.cxxiii ad Ageruch.] states, rendered the hearts of the prophets, for the moment, insensible to the spirit of prophecy. Therefore no venereal act can be without sin. Objection 3. Further, the cause is more powerful than its effect. Now original sin is transmitted to children by concupiscence, without which no venereal act is possible, as Augustine declares (De Nup. et Concup. i, 24). Therefore no venereal act can be without sin. On the contrary, Augustine says (De Bono Conjug. xxv): “This is a sufficient answer to heretics, if only they will understand that no sin is committed in that which is against neither nature, nor morals, nor a commandment”: and he refers to the act of sexual intercourse between the patriarchs of old and their several wives. Therefore not every venereal act is a sin. I answer that, A sin, in human acts, is that which is against the order of reason. Now the order of reason consists in its ordering everything to its end in a fitting manner. Wherefore it is no sin if one, by the dictate of reason, makes use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted, provided this end be something truly good. Now just as the preservation of the bodily nature of one individual is a true good, so, too, is the preservation of the nature of the human species a very great good. And just as the use of food is directed to the preservation of life in the individual, so is the use of venereal acts directed to the preservation of the whole human race. Hence Augustine says (De Bono Conjug. xvi): “What food is to a man’s well being, such is sexual intercourse to the welfare of the whole human race.” Wherefore just as the use of food can be without sin, if it be taken in due manner and order, as required for the welfare of the body, so also the use of venereal acts can be without sin, provided they be performed in due manner and order, in keeping with the end of human procreation. (Summa Theologiæ, II-II, q. 153)
Therefore, as procreation is the proper object of marriage and goal, it is evident, however things may be in patriarchal times, sex may only take place within marriage, entailing both that sex in marriage is allowed and even prescribed, also in different forms than the actual childmaking, as long as both intention and actuality of childbearing is shown, and, on the other hand, sex outside marriage is also possible, as long as the outcome of early consummation is, as soon as possible, the wedding. Therefore, Tolkien’s Laws and Customs of the Eldar is clearly, apart from a description of Elven marital and bridal conduct, also, and even foremost, the Professor’s irony on Modern society, viewing people holding such behaviour and view as Elves of some sort, both because they would like to label them as outdated relics of begotten times, and according to their wish to make fun of them, in its turn clearly meant by the author of Laws to be fighting against both human happiness and wellbeing, and balance between sexes.
Furthermore, Hebrew tradition specifically rules every tiny detail of sexual intercourse as based on Torah first, but only as read in Talmudic interpretations:
Judaism recognizes the importance of sexual intercourse and companionship for its own sake as well. The Torah requires that a husband fulfill his wife’s need for intimacy. Exodus 21,10 lists marital intimacy as one of three basic things that a husband must provide to his wife (the other two are food and clothing). Laws governing sexual relationships are detailed in the Talmud. In fact, one of the most extensive of the six sections of the Talmud, Nashim (literally, “women”) is devoted to explicating the laws of sex and marriage, often with incredible detail. For example, the Talmud provides a detailed schedule for men’s conjugal duties, organized by profession. While a man of independent means is obliged to sleep with his wife every day, a camel driver is obligated only once in 30 days, and a sailor once in six months. That being said, a woman is allowed to reject her husband’s sexual advances, and Judaism forbids a man from pressuring his wife sexually. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-and-sexuality/?utm_source=mjl_maropost&utm_campaign=MJL&utm_medium=email)
Another Biblical passage to detail penalties for trespassers in sexual affairs is the following:
13 If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her 14 and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” 15 then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. 16 Her father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. 17 Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, 18 and the elders shall take the man and punish him. 19 They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives. 20 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you. 22 If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel. 23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you. 25 But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. 26 Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, 27 for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her. 28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. 30 A man is not to marry his father’s wife; he must not dishonor his father’s bed. (Deuteronomy 21)
It is then immediately apparent how the real issue at hand, generally speaking, though in accordance to Tolkien’s own view, consists in a matter of principles, which I can certainly confirm to also be the equal standard in all surveyed traditions and even all: it is Love the only purpose worthy of pursuit, the ultimate end of life, death, sex, marriage, and even knowledge, violation, and betrayal. Everything else is made of our disputes concerning how best we might honour it, and, although the suffering such disagreements may cause, at times appearing to be overwhelming, in the end the most atrocious quarrels themselves, not to mention whatever trivial business anybody might find in a necessity of sex or abstinence in any guise, after all, for a believer like Tolkien, are only a fleeting mist soon to be lost “over the hills, into shadow”, instead to come to the place where “the veil shall be lifted, so we may see”, and we may see, of course, “green shores under a swift sunrise”.
No point whatsoever in protesting against the idea for the Amazon series to include nudes or even proper sex. It is even puzzling to have to point that out to people mostly criticizing the very idea of any series from the announcement on. But, even more appointedly, the matter people should get aware of is the everpresent flavour of loving care the Professor devoted to his work, which transpires from the page to get under skin and right into the hearts of readers, verily as all literary fruits of love for one’s neighbour, such as the Bible, but also many expressions of affectionate care for mankind found throughout cultures, bear testimony, witness to such vibrant passions as to awaken desire in both writer and reader, a desire for elevation so acute to have one fall, and a care for the miserable so intense to have one raised, in the interplay described by God himself in both Testaments: “he has brought down the mighty from their thronesand exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1, 52); “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29, 23). As commentators long pointed out, such is not only a love dynamics, but a specifically sexual one.
The very article aforecited is a nice last word to describe such views, which, as just shown, very well apply to Tolkien’s works too:
A view not at all in contrast with Christian and Catholic readings, as just proved, nor with Pagan, or Eastern, views altogether, however arguments more appointedly rather involve iconography and iconoclasm. Did Tolkien oppose any sort of lovemaking picture, in colours, words, or sound? Is that what he meant by “dislocation of sex instinct” due to the Devil? I would rather suppose not, for both his Middle English favoured subjects of study, i.e. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are works either depicting love scenes or transpiring a sexual tension so palpable you may “cut a slice off thin air and eat”, as saying has it.
“We have long looked for the origins of The Faerie Queene in Renaissance palaces and Platonic academies, and forgotten that it has humbler origins of at least equal importance in the Lord Mayor’s show, the chap-book, the bedtime story, the family Bible, and the village church. What lies next beneath the surface in Spenser’s poem is the world of popular imagination: almost, a popular mythology. And this world is not called up, as Ariosto may call up a fragment of folk lore, in order to amuse us. On the contrary, it is used for the sake of something yet deeper which it brings up with it and which is Spenser’s real concern; the primitive or instinctive mind, with all its terrors and ecstasies—that part in the mind of each of us which we should never dream of showing to a man of the world like Ariosto. Archimago and Una, in their opposite ways, are true creations of that mind. When we first meet them we seem to have known them long before; and so in a sense we have, but only the poet could have clothed them for us in form and colour. The same may be said of Despair and Malengin, of Busirane’s appalling house, and of the garden of Adonis. For all of these are translations into the visible of feelings else blind and inarticulate; and they are translations made with singular accuracy, with singularly little loss. The secret of this accuracy in which, to my mind, Spenser excels nearly all poets, is partly to be sought in his humble fidelity to the popular symbols which he found ready made to his hand; but much more in his profound sympathy with that which makes the symbols, with the fundamental tendencies of human imagination as such. Like the writers of the New Testament (to whom, in the character of his symbolism, he is the closest of all English poets) he is endlessly preoccupied with such ultimate antitheses as Light and Darkness or Life and Death. It has not often been noticed and, indeed, save for a special purpose it ought not to be noticed— that Night is hardly even mentioned by Spenser without aversion. His story leads him to describe innumerable nightfalls, and his feeling about them is always the same:
So soone as Night had with her pallid hew Defaste the beautie of the shyning skye. And refte from men the worldes desired vew—
whenas chearelesse Night ycovered had Fayre heaven with an universall cloud. That every wight dismayed with darkenes sad—
when as daies faire shinie-beame, yclowded With fearefull shadowes of deformed night, Warnd man and beast in quiet rest be shrowded—
And, answering to this, in his descriptions of morning we have a never failing rapture : mere light is as sweet to Spenser as if it were a new creation. Such passages are too numerous and too widely scattered (often at unimportant places in the story) to be the result of any conscious plan : they are spontaneous and the better proof of the flawless health, the paradisal naiveté, of his imagination.
They form a background, hardly noticed at a first reading, to those great passages where the conflict of light and dark becomes explicit. Such is the sleepless night of Prince Arthur in the third book, where the old description of lover’s insomnia is heightened and spiritualized into a ‘statement’ (as the musicians say) of one of Spenser’s main themes;
Dayes dearest children be the blessed seed Which darknesse shall subdue and heaven win Truth is his daughter; he her first did breed Most sacred virgin without spot of sinne.
It is no accident that Truth, or Una, should be mentioned here, for she is indeed the daughter of Light, and through the whole First Book runs the antithesis between her father as emperor of the East and Duessa as queen of the West— conception possibly borrowed from Reason and Sensuality—and in the Fifth canto of that book we meet Night face to face. The contrast between her ‘visage deadly sad’ as she comes forth from her ‘darksome mew’ and Duessa
sunny bright Adomd with gold and jewels shining cleare,
(though Duessa is but pretended, reflected light!) is, of course, a familiar example of that pictorial quality which critics have often praised in Spenser—^but praised without a full understanding of those very unpictorial, unpicturable, depths from which it rises. Spenser is no dilettante, and has a low opinion ofthe painter’s art as compared with his own. He is not playing mere tricks with light and shade; and few speeches in our poetry arc more serious than Night’s sad sentence (the very accent of a creature ‘dreame bedoetled’)
The sonnes of Day he favoureth, I see
And yet it is characteristic of him that the constant pressure of this day and night antithesis on his imagination never tempts him into dualism. He is impressed, more perhaps than any other poet, with the conflict of two mighty opposites—aware that our world is dualistic for all practical purposes, dualistic in all but the very last resort : but from the final heresy he abstains, drawing back from the verge of dualism to remind us that though the conflict seems ultimate, one of the opposites really contains, and is not contained in, the other. Truth and falsehood are opposed; but truth is the norm not of truth only but of falsehood also. That is why we find that Una’s father. King of the East and enemy of the West, is yet de jure King of the West as well as of the East. I That is why Love and Hatred, whom the poet borrows no doubt from Empedocles, are opposites but not, as in Empedocles, mere opposites : they are both the sons of Concord. And that, again, in the passage we were discussing, is why Aesculapius, a creature of Night’s party, asks Night the formidable question.
Can Night defray The wrath of thundring Jove that rules both night and day
The other antithesis—^that of Life and Death, or, in its inferior degrees, of Health and Sickness—enables Spenser to avoid the insipidity of representing good as arbitrary law and evil as spontaneity. His evils are all dead or dying things. Each of his deadly sins has a mortal disease.” Aesculapius sits in the bowels of the earth endlessly seeking remedies for an incurable fever Archimago makes Guyon *the object of his spight, and deadly food’, Despair is an immortal suicide, Malbecco lives transfixed with ‘deathes eternall dart’. The porter of the garden of intemperance, the evil genius, is foe of life and so are the violent passions, red-headed and adust, who attack Guyon in the earlier stages of his pilgrimage.
Over against these mortal shapes are set forces of life and health and fecundity. St. George, in combat with
the beast who was deadly made And al that life preserved did detest
is refreshed with water from the well of life and saved by the shadow of the tree of life. Babies cluster at Charissa’s breasts: Belphoebe’s lilly handes twaine crush virtuous herbs for the healing of wounds in the garden of Adonis
Ne needs there Gardiner to sett or sow, No plant or prune: for of their owne accord All things, as they created were, doe grow. And yet remember well the mighty word Which first was spoken by th’ Almighty hord. That bad them to increase and multiply — and throughout the whole garden “frankly each paramor his leman knowes”
The love of Britomart is enobled by prophecies of famous offspring. The poem is full of marriages. Una’s face unveiled shines ‘as the great eye of heaven’, and Cambina carries a cup of Nepenthe. The whole shining company of Spenser’s vital shapes make up such a picture of ‘life’s golden tree’ that it is difficult not to fancy that our bodily, no less than our mental, health is refreshed by reading him.
If all this is true, it will follow that we must approach Spenser in a spirit widely different from that of the last age in criticism. We must recognize the humility and seriousness of his poetry, and we must be humble and serious ourselves. A young lady whom I once had the honour to examine advanced the view that Charissa suckling her babies was a figure, in its own way, no less disgusting than Error vomiting. If there is any lingering sympathy with this attitude in us, we shall do well to leave The Faerie Queene unread. It is a twofold offence against Spenser’s poem. It is a blasphemy against Life and fertility, and it is the sin of pride, of nicety; and Spenser will tolerate neither. He himself has nobly practised and praised the humility which he demands of his readers.
Entire affection hateth nicer hands—
So love does loathe disdainefull nicetee—
No service lothsome to a gentle kind
If these lines occurred in a set ‘Legend of Humilitie’ we might distrust them ; but in fact they slip unnoticed from his pen when he is writing of other virtues. That dislike and distrust of the court and courtly life which one critic finds only in the Sixth Book is really characteristic of the poem from the beginning, as we shall presently see. And in the House of Holinesse, the name of the groom who lays us ‘in easie bedd’ is ‘meek Obedience’. Infine, as Hegel said of a very different matter, it is ‘no good putting on airs’ about The Faerie Queene, Misconceptions about the real merit and limitation of Spenser’s genius have led to his present neglect. The very phrase ‘poets’ poet’, I believe, has done incalculable damage. The genitive of poets is taken to have an intensive force and the phrase is interpreted on the analogy of Holy of Holies. Readers trained on such a conception open their Spenser expecting to find some quintessential ‘poeticalness’ in the lowest and most obvious sense of that word, something more mellifluous than Shakespeare’s sonnets, more airy than Shelley, more swooningly sensuous than Keats, more dreamlike than William Morris: and then, as likely as not, what first meets their eye is something of this sort:
But I with better reason him aviz’d. And shewed him how, through error and misthought Of our like persons, eath to be disguiz’d. Or his exchange or freedom might be wrought. Whereto full loth was he, ne would for ought Consent that I, who stood all fearlesse free. Should wilfully be into thraldome brought. Till fortune did perforce it so decree: Yet, over-ruld at last, he did to me agree.
Such a reader, at this point, excusably throws the book away. Now you may say that I have selected a specimen of Spenser at his worst; and so I have. But this ‘worst’ would not matter unless Spenser had a false reputation for sheer ‘poeticalness’. The reader, unless he were a fool, would be prepared for flats in a long poem : he would not be put off by one such experience from making the acquaintance of Wordsworth or Chaucer. The real trouble is that he cannot be prepared for such a flat as this in a poem such as The Faerie Queene is commonly supposed to be: he has been taught not to look for vigorous thought or serious issues or even coherence and sanity in his Spenser — taught that the man’s only merit is voluptuousness and day dream. And if Spenser can, in any passage, do so badly the only thing he is supposed to be able to do at all, he is naturally rejected. We tolerate bad manners in a learned, or a funny, or a good man ; but how if the man admittedly has no claim on us except his reputed good breeding, and then turns out to be deficient even in that? In order to avoid such false judgements we must revise the popular opinion of Spenser. So far from being a poet whose excellent and sustained mastery of language is his only merit, he is a poet whose chief fault is the uncertainty of his style. He can be as prosaic as Wordsworth: he can be clumsy, unmusical, and flat. On this side, and on this side only, his work requires historical extenuation. He wrote in an age when English poetry had reached its stylistic nadir, the age of ‘hunting the letter’, of violent over-emphasis and exquisitely bad taste, the age in which that most ignoble metre, the Poulter’s measure, was popular. It was an age which produced such poetry as
Slash off his head ! as though Albinius’ head Were then so easy to be slash off
And for revenge thereof I vow and swear thereto, A thousand spoils I shall commit I never thought to do. And if to light on you my luck so good shall be I shall be glad to feed on that which would have fed on me*
It was an age in which even Peele could make Venus speak thus to Paris in description of Helen:
A gallant girl, a lusty minion true That can give sport to thee thy bellyful
—lines of which we can but exclaim, ‘No, this is not the face that launched a thousand ships’. Spenser himself is, of course, one of the principal agents in the recovery which our poetry made from this clownish period; but just as Wordsworth retains to the end many traces of the diction he revolted against, so Spenser is always liable to give us ‘huge heaps of words uphoarded hideously’. His excessive alliteration is a disease of the period, and so is his tendency to abandon true poetic presentation in favour of mere eulogistic or dyslogistic adjectives. Such words as ‘direfull’, ‘goodly’, ‘foul’, ‘fair’, ‘filthie’, and the like (abdications of the poet’s true office) are far too common in his work. And even when he is at his best the merits of his verse are not always those which critical tradition —generalizing too hastily from the Cave of Sleep and the Bower of Bliss— has led us to expect. Let us dip our hands into the lucky-bag again.
Nought under heaven so strongly doth allure The sence of man, and ah his minde possesse. As beauties lovely baite that doth procure Great warriours oft their rigour to represse. And mighty hands forget their manlinesse; Drawn with the powxe of an heart-robbing eye. And wrapt in fetters of a golden tresse. And troubled blood through his pale face was seen To come and goe with tidings from the heart. What time the native Belman of the night The bird that warned Peter of his fall—
In all these there is undoubted poetry ; but it is a poetry far more nervous and masculine —a drier flavour and a wine with more body— than the modern reader has been taught to anticipate. Even more remarkable in this context, are those passages where the pungence of the writing depends on a deliberate approximation to the prosaic, as this, of the amazon Radigund:
For all those knights, the which hy force or guile She doth subdue, she fowly doth entreate. First, she doth them of warlike armes despoile. And cloth in womens weedes: and then with threate Doth them compeh to worke, to earne their meate. To spin, to card, to sew, to wash, to wring—
A few stanzas later, the same amazon, sending her ambassadors to Arthegall, whom she hopes to conquer on the morrow and to set to washing and wringing (how admirably the verbs were chosen!), bids them
bear with you both wine and juncates fit And bid him eate: henceforth he oft shall hungry sit.
From this discussion I hope it has now become plain in what sense Spenser is the poets’ poet. He is so called in virtue of the historical fact that most of the poets have liked him very much. And with this conclusion comes the important corollary that perhaps poets, when they read poetry, do not demand that it should be specially ‘poetical’— perhaps, indeed, this demand is one of the marks of the prosaic reader who secretly suspects that poetry is at bottom nonsensical and, if he is in for a penny, would fain be in for a pound. In the same way, those who have least real sympathy with childhood become most laboriously childish when they talk to children ; and no one has such high-flown notions of refinement as the temporarily converted boor. But these are generalities. For the study of Spenser himself, I think the most useful thing we can do as a preparative (‘Laughing to teach the truth, what hinders?’) is to draw up two lists of epithets after the manner of Rabelais. The first would run something like this:
All that I have hitherto said has been directed to persuading the reader that the second of these lists is quite as fully justified as the first—that Spenser is the master of Milton in a far deeper sense than we had supposed. It is the measure of his greatness that he deserves the epithets of both lists.”
CS Lewis, letter to his father, 13 February 1915:
“My dear Papy, As Spenser naively remarks at the beginning of about the thousandth canto of his poem
‘Oh, what an endlesse work I have in hand’,
so might a parent doomed to supply an ignorant philosopher with the forgotten necessities of life echo the sentiment. Or in other words there is ‘still one river to cross’, and I really do think this will be the end. What I want is a copy of the Helena of Euripides,16 which you will find kicking its heels somewhere in the little end room. The shoes have just arrived, for which many thanks: and by the way, when I want to pay for anything, we’ll let you know boss, don’t worry.”
CS Lewis, letter to Arthur Greeves, 12 October 1915:
“You ask me whether I have ever been in love: fool as I am, I am not quite such a fool as all that. But if one is only to talk from firsthand experience on any subject, conversation would be a very poor business. But though I have no personal experience of the thing they call love, I have what is better–the experience of Sapho, of Euripides of Catullus of Shakespeare of Spenser of Austen of Bronte of, of–anyone else I have read. We see through their eyes. And as the greater includes the less, the passion of a great mind includes all the qualities of the passion of a small one. Accordingly, we have every right to talk about it. And if you read any of the great love-literature of any time or country, you will find they all agree with me, and have nothing to say about your theory that ‘love=friendship+sensual feelings’. Take the case I mentioned before. Were Louis & Shirley ever friends, or could they ever be? Bah! Don’t talk twaddle. On the contrary, the mental love may exist without the sensual or vice versa, but I doubt if either could exist together with friendship. What nonsense we both talk, don’t we? If any third person saw our letters they would have great ‘diversion’ wouldn’t they?”
CS Lewis, letter to his father, 15 November 1915:
“I am still busy with my ‘heavy winged Pegasus’ as you call Spenser, and still find him delightful. He is a very lotus land, a garden of Proserpine to people who like pure romance and the ‘stretched metre of an antique song’.113 You should give him another trial some time, though not in our abridged edition which leaves out a lot of valuable stuff. I have also been reading in library copies, Schopenhauer’s ‘Will and idea’,114 and Swinburne’s ‘Erectheus’ which is another tragedy on Greek lines like ‘Atalanta’,115 though not so good in my opinion. Schopenhauer is abstruse and depressing, but has some very interesting remarks on the theory of music and poetry. Kirk, I need hardly say, is strong on him, and will talk on the subject for hours–by the way, the real subject to get him on just now is the Mons angels.116 You should drop him a cue in your next letter: you know–‘a man was telling me the other day that he had seen with his own eyes’ or something of the kind. And while we are on the subject of the war, I am sure you have noticed the excellent blank verse poem in this week’s ‘Punch’ entitled ‘Killed in action’. I read it with great pleasure, and thought at the time that it would appeal to you.”
Walter Hooper’s commentary to Lewis’ “Letters”, Vol.1, pp. 868-9:
After Lewis read a paper about Spenser on 9 February 1923 Coghill wrote the minutes in some of the same Chaucerian verse for which he was to become famous. Describing Lewis’s paper on Spenser, he said:
Sir Lewis was ther; a good philosópher He hade a noblé paper for to offer. Well couthe he speken in the Greeké tongue; And yet, his countenance was swythé yong”
CS Lewis, letter to Leo Baker, 14 August 1920:
“I was glad to hear that you are reading my two canonical poets: though how you can take Milton and Spenser together, I do not at all understand. All historians of literature have told me, like you, of their points in common: but, tho’ interesting, how artificial do these verbal likenesses appear compared with the real difference of the faery atmosphere and the divine. Spenser says ‘The waies thro which my wearie steps I guide in this delightful launde of faerie, are so exceedingly spatious, and wide, and sprinkled with such swete varietie…etc’,68 but the other ‘Sad task!–yet argument not less but more heroic than the tale of’ 69–I forget the words but you can find them. Or again, to take a passage where the Miltonic thunder seems somehow wearisome and forced beside the ‘falling close’ of Spenser, compare ‘Hurled headlong flaming from the etherial sky to bottomless perdition–there to dwell, with adamantine chains and penal fire’ 70 with ‘And Nature’s selfe was vanished whither no man wist’71–surely the most wonderful alexandrine ever written. To see Milton’s real greatness one need but notice the fresh joy and reality of his Eden after the over-ripe stanzas which describe the garden of Acasia, tho’ that is partly in the subject. I do, however, like to pick up in the Faerie Queene the germs of Milton’s phrazes.”
CS Lewis, letter to Owen Barfield, 16 March 1932:
“Somehow prurient doesn’t seem to be the right word for Spenser. Delicatus–relaxed in will–of course he is.”
CS Lewis, letter to Janet Spens concerning her study on Spenser, 16 March 1932:
“Dear Miss Spens, I had envisaged this as a letter of discussion, but I am finding so few disagreements with you that I have less to discuss, and more to re-echo, than I had supposed. The only thing I almost regret in your book is the inevitable prominence of the thesis developed in Chap 1: not because I dissent from it (indeed without a careful re-reading of the whole F.Q.29 I hardly could) but because I foresee that it will draw off attention from succeeding chapters which seem to me very much more important, and that the question ‘What do you think of Miss Spens’ book?’ will come among careless people to mean simply and solely ‘Do you agree with this theory about the composition of the F.Q.?’ However, there is no help for this. As regards the thesis itself I certainly think you have made a good prima facie case; the part about Orgoglio’s castle (pp. 24, 25) seems to me very strong–so strong that here at any rate the onus probandi now almost rests on the supporters of the traditional view. But chap 2 really interests me more, and I have learned a good deal from your analysis of the Mutability cantos. Can you tell me something more about Professor Nygren’s Eros and Agape? I haven’t heard of it. But chap 3 is the best of all. It was the second paragraph on p. 55 that delivered me from an old error: incredible as it now seems to me I had never before realised that the figures were to the Elizabethans what the landscape was to the 19th century. For this and for the four pages that follow I cannot thank you enough: they open doors, and your treatment of Una and Superstition (pp. 58, 59) is that rare sort of criticism which, as I believe, does truly and substantially create new qualities in the poem criticised. (Whom are you quoting at the bottom of p. 61?) The explanation of the importance of the clothes of Spenser’s figures (62, ad fin.) must, I think, be right, and ought to silence a deal of misguided censure. Addisonian on p. 68 is delicious: the one right epithet out of a score of possibles. And I’m glad you have inserted a cooling card for the ‘new poet’ business on p. 71. Personally I find the whole of Renwick’s treatment curiously antipathetic. Chap 5, I think, stands next in importance. The main contention that the predominance of the love theme is mainly due to the allegory–i.e. that it is ever-present in the symbols precisely because it is not the thing symbolised–convinced me at once: and this again opens doors, gives me the feeling of being more free within the world of the F.Q. than I was .
I am not at all sure where, in detail, your interpretation of Busyrane is right, but of course I must wait till I have re-read the poem. But ought not the conflicts to be mainly those of the Soul herself rather than those of one soul against another in particular human relationships? By the bye I disagree with you about ‘an unconvincing attempt’ to distinguish the two people called Genius (top of p. 22). Although Lewis & Short do not distinguish, I am pretty certain that Genius always did mean two quite distinct people:
A. Genius (still retaining his connection with gigno) the spirit of Reproduction or Generation (cf. ‘torus genialis’ etc). This is the ‘Genius’ of Alanus De Planctu, the Rom. of the Rose, the Confessio Amantis, and the Garden of Adonis. B. Genius (as translation of Gk. δαιμων), guardian spirit of a place or person > guardian angel > higher self > ‘genius’ of a poet. This is the ‘genius’ of Shakespeare’s Troil. IV. iv. 50 etc, and of the bower of bliss.
On p. 65 at the top, might one add Deut. XXXIII 2,42 as a common influence on both.
But it is time I stopped. I have no other points even of trivial disagreement, and if I continued I should only pile up praises in a way you might reasonably dislike. I will only say that you have left me longing to re-read the F.Q.–and all previous books on Spenser have produced just the opposite effect. I suppose you got my second note agreeing to take one pair of gaseous but intelligent scholars? yours sincerely C. S. Lewis”
CS Lewis, letter to Ruth Pitter, 24 June 1946
“Nothing is more offensive, as I know by repeated experience, than the man who prefers the last book but one to the last book. But I’m going to do so. The Garland is the one that pleases me least of all four. This may not have much to do with its merits. One reason, anyway, is that I don’t like Spenser’s minor poems (I love the F.Q.) nor Drayton’s Nymphidia nor the whole genre which you are lovingly and very dexterously parodying.”
“TO RHONA BODLE (BOD):17 Magdalen 9/1/50
Dear Miss Bodle,
Yes. Charles Williams often used the words ‘holy luck’.18 Compare Spenser ‘It chanced, Almighty God that chance did guide’.19 Bless you.
Yours sincerely C. S. Lewis”
“In May 1952 John H. McCallum of Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, invited Lewis to contribute an article on Edmund Spenser to Volume I of Major British Writers, under the general editorship of G. B. Harrison. Lewis accepted, and his extant correspondence with Harcourt, Brace & World begins with the following letter:
TO JOHN H. MCCALLUM (P): Magdalen College, Oxford. May 21st 1952 Dear Mr. McCallum, Thank you for yours of the 16th. I think I shall be able to keep all your ‘suggested rules’ except the first. The proportion 15, 45, 20 for Life, General Essay, Particular Analysis wd. not really be suitable for Spenser. The materials for his life do not really add up to a ‘character’: I don’t mean that I couldn’t write one, but if I did I should be contributing to historical fiction. Nor is his kind of poetry one which would yield much under detailed analysis of short passages. The chief thing we must do, indeed, is to encourage readers to remember that he is a romancier, à long haleine.97 I cd. accept your suggested proportions alright if I were doing Milton: but they’d ruin an Introduction to Spenser. My selections will be all from Faerie Queene and Epithalamion:98 there’s no room for anything else. The bits from F.Q. will be often arranged so as to yield something like continuous narrative: as soon as I looked into the matter I saw that a mere conglomeration of the best single stanzas wd. give no idea of his quality and wd., indeed, be almost unreadable. I hope this meets with your approval. Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis”
“TO WILLIAM L. KINTER (BOD): TS 54/407. Magdalen College, Oxford. 28th October 1954.
Dear Kinter, Thanks for your most interesting letter. I simply don’t know how my Lion is related to Spenser’s. Aslan is the Turkish word for a lion: I chose it for the sound. I can’t see the misprint on p. 392. With all good wishes, Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis”
“TO DEREK BREWER (P): Magdalen College, Oxford. April 8th 1941
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton are certainties whatever shortened course or ordinary course you take. Next to these in importance come Malory, Spenser, Donne, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Wordsworth. After that it becomes more a matter of taste. The great thing is to be always reading but not to get bored–treat it not like work, more as a vice! Your book bill ought to be your biggest extravagance. Write freely again if I can help. Yours sincerely C. S. Lewis”
J.R.R. Tolkien, Note * on ‘Elves’ in “Letters”, no. 131, to Milton Waldman:
*Intending the word to be understood in its ancient meanings, which continued as late as Spenser – a murrain on Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs.
J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”:
“Fairy, as a noun more or less equivalent to elf, is a relatively modern word, hardly used until the Tudor period. The first quotation in the Oxford Dictionary (the only one before A.D. 1450) is significant. It is taken from the poet Gower: as he were a faierie. But this Gower did not say. He wrote as he were of faierie, ‘as if he were come from Faerie’. Gower was describing a young gallant who seeks to bewitch the hearts of the maidens in church.
His croket kembd and thereon set A Nouche with a chapelet, Or elles one of grene leves Which late com out of the greves, Al for he sholde seme freissh; And thus he loketh on the fleissh, Riht as an hauk which hath a sihte Upon the foul ther he schal lihte, And as he were of faierie He scheweth him tofore here yhe.
This is a young man of mortal blood and bone; but he gives a much better picture of the inhabitants of Elfland than the definition of a ‘fairy’ under which he is, by a double error, placed. For the trouble with the real folk of Faerie is that they do not always look like what they are; and they put on the pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves. At least part of the magic that they wield for the good or evil of man is power to play on the desires of his body and his heart. The Queen of Elfland, who carried off Thomas the Rhymer upon her milk-white steed swifter than the wind, came riding by the Eildon Tree as a lady, if one of enchanting beauty. So that Spenser was in the true tradition when he called the knights of his Faerie by the name of Elfe. It belonged to such knights as Sir Guyon rather than to Pigwiggen armed with a hornet’s sting.”
J.R.R. Tolkien as quoted from by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond:
“Tolkien told William Cater that ‘elves were large, formidable … Spenser wrote about knights who were elves. By writing about elves as tall as men I am restoring tradition, trying to rescue them from the nursery’ (‘Lord of the Hobbits’, Daily Express, 22 November 1966, p. 10). There is little doubt that Tolkien succeeded, and that today most people are likely to visualize elves as they appear in his created world.”
J.R.R. Tolkien as quoted from by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond:
“In regard to the Allen & Unwin blurb, Tolkien feels ‘that comparisons with Spenser, Malory, and Ariosto (not to mention super Science Fiction) are too much for my vanity! I showed your draft notice to Geoffrey Mure (Warden) [of Merton], who was being tiresome this morning and threatening to eject me from my room in favour of a mere tutor. He was visibly shaken. Anyway my stock went up sufficiently to obtain me an even better room, even at the cost of ejecting one so magnificent as the Steward’ (Letters, p. 181-2, corrected from Tolkien-George Allen & Unwin archive, HarperCollins).”
CS Lewis as quoted from by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond concerning Tolkien and Spenser:
“11 May 1926: Tolkien attends a meeting of the English Faculty in the afternoon at Merton College, Oxford. Also present is C.S. Lewis, recently elected Fellow and Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College, who will write in his diary: In to Merton for the ‘English tea’ at 4___Discussion turned on [R. F.W.] Fletcher’s proposal to co-ordinate the lecture list with the ordinary course of tutorial work. Everyone agreed, tho’ [George] Gordon spoke of the danger of making the thing too much of ‘an easy running engine which can give no pleasure to anyone except the engineer’. Miss [Margaret Lucy] Lee [tutor in English for the Society of Oxford Home-Students] talked a lot of nonsense about the need for lessons in pronunciation and beginners’ ‘outlines of literature’. Tolkien managed to get the discussion round to the proposed English Prelim [inary examination, see entry for 9 December 1926]. I had a talk with him afterwards. He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap – can’t read Spenser because of the forms – thinks the language is the real thing in the school – thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between thirty and forty…. His pet abomination is the idea of ‘liberal’ studies. Technical hobbies are more in his line. [All My Road Before Me: The Diary ofC.S. Lewis 1922-1927 (1991), pp. 392-3]”
In the growing field of Tolkien Studies, John Garth’s name found its way to the very top, the Meneltarma of our own Númenôr, in a figure of speech, his reputation preceding him as dawn does the sun, or a Silmaril is set on Eärendil’s prow, “as lantern light”, to quote from Bilbo’s song. His brilliant career as a Tolkien scholar began in 2003 when his outstanding monography, titled Tolkien and the Great War, was first published.
In 2007, John Garth’s earliest achievement was published in Italy by Marietti Editore in the translation undertaken by a team formed by Associazione Italiana Studi Tolkieniani and comprised of Roberto Arduini, Giampaolo Canzonieri, Lorenzo Gammarelli and Alberto Ladavas. One might expect that such preludes would set the stage for a wonderful sonata, and yet it is not so at all, for the Italian edition is literally filled with mistakes and imprecisions paying an awful service to the British scholar, who definitely deserves much better.
I am only going to survey the Prologue and Chapters 1 and 2, since a thorough examination of the whole book transcends the limits of a simple essay. As it should be evident, though, the analysis does not come short of the elements needed in order to evaluate the quality of the whole work based on the results thereof, because the extent and implications of the misunderstandings, both proven and generated by its inconsistencies, is overwhelming.
Already in the Prologue, “initiate” (page 6 of the English original, which shall be noted thereafter as E6) is rendered into Italian as “iniziato” (page 15 of the Italian translation, or I15 in the following). Although, as it should be recalled, both terms in the two languages come from the same word, being the past participle of Latin verb “iniziare”, meaning “to start”, nonetheless their usage is different in Italian and English. In the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, sense 1 of the entry “initiation (noun)” is defined as:
the act of somebody becoming a member of a group, often with a special ceremony; the act of introducing somebody to an activity or skill
There was an established initiation ceremony for new boys.
The gym charges an initiation fee of $125.
initiation into something
her initiation into the world of marketing
Vocabolario Treccani Online instead reports sense 1 under the entry “iniziato”:
Chi è ammesso alla conoscenza e alla pratica di determinati culti religiosi mediante rito di iniziazione:solo gli iniziati ai misteri potevano assistere agli atti del culto; frequente (anche nelle accezioni che seguono) l’uso con la negazione: a tali riti erano esclusi i non iniziati. Per estens., chi è ammesso a partecipare all’attività di sette e società segrete.
In a plausible English translation:
One who, because of his taking part in an initiation rite, is allowed to learn about, and practise, certain religious cults: only the ‘iniziati’ could witness the celebration of the mystery cults; it is a term often used to exclude everyone else: those who were not ‘iniziati’ could not take part in the celebration. In a wider sense, an iniziato is anybody who is allowed to participate in the activities of a sect or a secret society.
Although the Italian sense 1. is the original sense, already attested in Latin “initiatus”, in English it has been superseded by an even wider sense than the “wider sense” mentioned in the last sentence of the Treccani definition.
To be clearer, the implication carried by the Italian translation seems to be that the Tea Club Barrovian Society Tolkien was a member of (alongside Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Christopher Wiseman) was actually a secret society performing religious rituals of unclear nature instead of being, as it plainly was, a small gathering of student friends united by personal acquaintance, youthly extravagance and their common taste in literature. The effect is also rather weird, since in the same sentence the author specifies how, despite their previously-mentioned being “capable of intellectual seriousness” (E5), the Barrovians were “still largely devoted to drollery” (E6).
Nonetheless, it is Chapter 1 managing to completely send the reader of the Italian translation off-track, starting with John Garth’s comments on Tolkien’s early interests in Philology and Poetry, and on the future Professor’s participation in other Oxford societies, on pages E34-37.
On page E34, in fact, one is rather surprised to read the original “Ablaut” translated as “metatesi” (I48), since Ablaut is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as follows:
mass nounAlternation in the vowels of related word forms, especially in Germanic strong verbs (e.g. in sing, sang, sung)
Italian “metatesi”, instead, corresponds to English “metathesis”, which the same dictionary reports as:
mass noun The transposition of sounds or letters in a word.
‘he attributes the metathesis of the last two sounds to the Creole tendency to end words with a vowel’
Collins Dictionary also offers an example:
“clasp” developed from Middle English “clapse” by metathesis;
It is therefore evident how Ablaut and metathesis are very different linguistic phenomena, which in turn renders the Italian translation evidently mistaken and misleading, as much as it happens with “sound shifts” translated as “cambiamenti di suono”, both versions to be found on their respective pages, where also “initiate” and “iniziato” are found. In fact, although in this case the meaning is correct, it would be preferable to substitute the Italian expression with “mutamenti fonetici”, the technical phrase describing sound shifts in Italian.
Furthermore, again by looking at the same pages, both English and Italian, one reads how “regular descent of English from Germanic” is made into “regolarità del mutamento fra il germanico e l’inglese”, which in English sounds like: “regularity of changes between Germanic and English”. It is clear how the original “descent”, signifying not only linguistic continuity, but actual filiation, can be expressed neither by “regularity”, nor by “changes”.
It is quite surprissing how out of a few simple and straightforward comments by John Garth a whole team of translators supposedly well-versed in Tolkien Studies, having published two books in English on Tolkien, manage to convey the wrong idea to Italian readers, who this way could get the impression that “the familial words father, mother, brother, and daughter in ‘Vorgermanisch’, ‘Urgermanisch’, Gothic, Old Norse, and the various Old English dialects” undergo metathetical changes which, somehow, in the case of Germanic and English display particular “regularity”, in some unclear fashion which anyway does not necessarily entail the latter language deriving from the former.
In other words, according to such translation, one might expect Modern English father to become thafer, or farthe, or even fareth (which would be most confusing) in other Germanic languages, instead of simply having Modern German vater, Modern Dutch vader, and in ancient times Old Norsefaðir, Old Saxon fadar, etc., all the way down to Proto-Germanic *fadēr,and, eventually, Proto-Indoeuropean *ph₂tḗr. Such an outcome is very confusing.
As John Garth’s focus in the same chapter moves to treating Poetry, the translation does not improve. On the contrary, the original passage also found on page E34, reading “glimpses of the ancient Northern world that kept appearing in the literature with which he was dealing”, is translated as: “visioni dell’antico mondo nordico che continuavano a saltare fuori nella letteratura che stava trattando” (I48). An English version of a similar translation would be: “glimpses of the ancient Northern world that kept popping out of the literature with which he was dealing”. I have to point out the occurrence since it represents a clear debasing of the original phrasing, almost to suggest the glimpses to be sheer nonsense.
On pages E35 and I48, when Garth states how Tolkien’s desire for the ancient world “was leading him again beyond the confines of his appointed discipline”, and the translation team renders it as though Tolkien’s lust for knowledge “lo stava portando al di là dei confini della sua disciplina”, in the Italian version the original “was leading him again” is translated “lo stava portando”, only meaning “was leading him”, so to erase “again”, and the original “appointed discipline” is also simply made into “disciplina”, which apparently was not necessarily appointed to him.
There one also finds “historical Welsh grammar”, simply rendered as “Grammatica gallese”, without paying heed to “historical”, a fundamental comment since it implies Tolkien did not know Welsh only in its modern version, but also its antecedents. Nor does one understand why William Morris’ work The Life and Death Of Jason comes to be titled La vita e la morte di Jason, unexplicably keeping Jason’s name in English, although Giasone is a well known character of Greek mythology. It is also peculiar how the sentence: “in keeping with his irrepressibly ‘romantic’ sentiment” finds an incomplete translation from which any sign of rendering the adverb “irrepressibly” into Italian is missing (E35-I49).
John Garth often uses words or expressions found in the poems Tolkien wrote back then in order to convey the sense of letting the scholar speak for himself. Definitely it is not so for Sawyer unless Tolkien’s December 1913 poem is actually nonsense, which I suppose nobody would claim. A line from the poem in fact reads: “Proudly wrapt in mystic mem’ry”, and Garth shortly thereafter writes: “after the forgotten outlines of ‘mystic mem’ry’ which he believed had made the world what it is” (E35). In the Italian language the poem’s line reads: “orgogliosamente avvolta in mistiche memorie”, and yet Garth’s comments are given to say: “ai dimenticati schemi di ‘memoria mistica’ che egli reputava avessero reso il mondo qual è” (I50).
The translating team has the expression “mystic mem’ry” being put into the Italian singular first, then to have it in the plural form, while also having the adjective preceding its noun in the poem, and the noun preceding the adjective in the repetition, which Italian allows much more easily than English. Nonetheless, I think it takes quite an effort of concentration to be able to tell how the subsequent “memoria mistica” is the same as the poem’s “mistiche memorie”, almost as though they did not notice it was a quote from the poem at all.
As Tolkien’s early poem Wood sunshine is taken into account, John Garth hypothizes fairies therein simply being “wood sunshine itself”, and again part of the English meaning is left out of the picture without any clear reason for doing so. In fact, the translators inexplicably have it: “la stessa luce del sole”, meaning “sunshine itself”, as though the wood had no part in it (E36-I51). “Chlorophyll”, then, is also turned into “cloroplasti”, meaning “chloroplasts”, which, although clearly are chlorophyll synthetizers, still are indeed absent from the original text. “Radiance” is made into “radianza”, which in Italian only retains its scientific meaning, signifying the emission of energy from a given source, measured in nits,and is not at all commonly used to refer to sunlight, as it is in English.
Subsequently, Tolkien is said to have been a member of many a club, among which “Chequers Club” is twice mentioned (E36-37), and incomprehensibly left in English in the Italian translation (I51-52), so to let Italian readers completely unaware it means “Club della Dama”, since the game of chequers is called “gioco della dama” in Italy. On the same page, the college’s “Rector”, although in Italian we use exactly the same word, “Rettore”, in the translators’ version is referred to as “Direttore” instead, again, without any reason being offered for doing so.
As one gets into Chapter 2, it is quite astonishing to witness how Garth’s noun “seagreen” is translated as “mare”, meaning “sea”, since instead, being clearly a noun in the sentence, it is instead used to refer to the plant called “saxifrage”, in Italian “sassifraga”, which indeed often has “violet” flowers and leaves endowed with a “transparent” margin, as for instance it happens with the saxifraga scardica alpine variety1. Other varieties indeed grow on seacrags, thus explaining its marine reference in the given context.
Apparently, though, the team of translators is not any better versed in Sociology, since John Garth’s “middle classes”, in the plural to include the whole of the upper middle class and lower middle class, is instead translated as only the “media borghesia”, a concept which, although not altogether absent from the English mind, having to be expressed as “middle middle class”, raises more than an eyebrow, as a January 2014 BBC News Magazine article proves. The journalist in fact states:
What we joke about as middle class behaviour is often more accurately associated with the upper middle class, says Dr Jon Lawrence, reader in modern British history at Cambridge University. “A lot of the stereotypes like going skiing are in fact only for that small 10% at most,” he says. There have been attempts to codify the new, more complex class system.
So there isn’t just the middle class. There is the lower middle class, the upper middle class and – presumably – a middle middle class. (Tom De Castella, “The Evolution of the Middle Class”. BBC News Magazine. 16 January 2014: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25744526)
It is quite amusing for the author of the article to think of a “middle middle” anything, because the whole point of distinguishing “upper middle” and “lower middle”, at least in the English language, is to avoid just saying “middle class” and leaving at it, since there are further distinctions to be made, in order to specify. Clearly Italian “media borghesia”, or French “moyenne bourgeoisie”, do not face any similar issue.
But John Garth, even conceivably supposing he had the “middle middle class” in mind, would not call it “middle classes”, which instead clearly includes, properly, the aforesaid upper middle and lower middle. And it would simply take a literal translation, such as “classi medie”, in order to be faithful to the original significance intended. It is hardly understandable why the translators should diverge in multiple occasions from the original text in order to change its meaning.
On page E44, also inexplicably, scholar Wülcker is turned into Wulker (I63). Although this conceivably would be a typo, it is still weird a whole team of translators did not notice it, nor did the editors or proofreaders. Further on, “a personal grand duchy” (E51) becomes “un ducato personale” (I72), which seemingly makes for quite a weird revision of titles, since it is in the absence for an expressed reason for doing so that it debases the “grand duchy”, which would be a “granducato” in Italian, to a simple duchy.
Yet it is always when the matter gets the more philological that the translators seem to completely lose track of the sense intended, as for example it happens on the next page, E52. There John Garth, quotes Tolkien’s early 1914 comments on the Finnish epic, Kalevala, to the effect: “These mythological ballads are full of that very primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has on the whole been steadily cutting and reducing for many centuries with different and earlier completeness among different people”.
The Italian version is very hard to make any sense out of: “Queste ballate mitologiche sono piene di quel primitivo sottobosco che la letteratura europea ha tagliato, ridotto e ridisposto con diversa qualità e pienezza per molti secoli e attraverso differenti popoli” (I73). I try to offer an English version of such a rendering: “These mythological ballads are full of that primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has been cutting, reducing and resetting with different quality and completeness for many centuries and through different peoples”. It does not ring quite the same as Tolkien does.
The chief problem here, rather than being the expunction of the “very” in “very primitive”, or the addition of “resetting” to the specification of “cutting” and “reducing”, seems to lie in the interpretation of Tolkien’s phrasing “with different and earlier completeness”. What the translators seemingly failed to grasp is the fact that what Tolkien meant here was that “among different people” (and not necessarily peoples!) the “very primitive” literary “undergrowth” he knew and loved so much had been cut and reduced, in some places coming at a very early moment in time to the point of having completely eradicated it, in others coming there later, and in some places, as Finland here proves, even not having fully extirpated it at all.
The next sentence is not better translated. Tolkien declared: “I would that we had more of it left – something of the same sort that belonged to the English”. Puzzling as that may be, the Italian translation reads: “Vorrei che ci fosse restato più materiale a disposizione e qualcosa, almeno, che potesse attribuirsi alla cultura inglese” (E52-I73). The Italian could be transposed into English as: “I would that we had more of it left and that something, at least, might be tributed to English culture”. I cannot see any reason to assume Tolkien would add “at least”, as though his was despair instead of the prospect to remedy the lack of an English mythology as best he himself could.
On the same page (E52), another club name is altered without any reason. The “Essay Club” becomes the “Club del Dibattito” (I74), which in Italian means “Debate Club”. I cannot see why “Club dei Saggisti” could not make it, although I realize all too well how the Italian “Club dei Saggi” by many people would be taken to mean “Wisemen Club”, since in the Italian language both an essay and a wise man are called “saggi”.
Tolkien’s reading of his early Éarendel poem at the same club in November 1914 takes place during a meeting which, as John Garth reports, the young author defined: “an informal kind of last gasp” (E53), for the Great War had already begun and young people were being called to arms. In Italian the phrase is made into: “una specie di agonia informale” (I74), the English equivalent would be: “a sort of informal agony”, despite the intended meaning to be the exact opposite, implying it was the last breath of fresh air the attenders were given to breathe before being plunged into the conflict.
Since this is the last page of the chapter, one might hope to find no more mistakes in the following few paragraphs. Instead, it is in the very last sentence that another misunderstanding finds its way between the English original and the Italian reader. John Garth aptly concluded the second chapter by underlining how Tolkien’s imagination had already been at work for a while before he actually started writing, and that his decision to finally put the pen into action was influenced by “Cynewulf, the Kalevala, G. B. Smith’s probing questions, and arguably even Tolkien’s anxieties over enlistment” (E53), so that “all [of them, my note] conspired to bring them pouring out now”.
In Italian, the very final sentence reads: “tuttò cospirò per farle uscire fuori” (I75). Although clearly what is brought to pour out is also “made to come out”, as the Italian equivalent says, such an expression does not take into account the fact that the idea John Garth is expressing here, at least by way of metaphor, is that of a cup fully filled which, having still water to hold, is brought to pour it out. In Italian the image is usually expressed by the word “traboccare”, implying precisely the same sense of overwhelming fullness one expects from the original. It is a wonderful word-play by Garth, since it acutely echoes that very 1914 Éarendel poem by Tolkien which was earlier mentioned, titled The Voyage of Éarendel, the first two lines of which read:
Éarendel sprang up from the Ocean’s cup
In the gloom of the mid-world’s rim
The overall effect is the “Ocean’s cup” pouring the ship out, as though an exceedind measure of wine, and in the same way Tolkien’s mythology being poured out the chalice of Tolkien mind, upon it being filled with wartime pressure and the excitement deriving from literary discoveries. It is really a pity to have to conclude a negative report on the Italian translation of John Garth’s masterwork without at least being able to offer a final consolation note, but apparently the mood here evoked should be rather gloomy, even like “the mid-world’s rim” on the edge of war.
I say so because Italian Tolkien Studies are an unkept promise at the moment, and among clear signs of hope there is much discomfort and even strife altogether. The new Italian translation of The Lord of the Rings, flamboyantly announced and vehemently defended by its proponents, was met with more than a raised eyebrow and even fierce manifestations of distaste and the feeling of betrayal. I decided to turn to the translation of John Garth’s excellent book in the hope my analysis is taken as an incentive to study and translate Tolkien, and Tolkien Studies, into Italian as thoroughly as he deserves to be studied.
It is in that spirit that I am looking forward to the upcoming translation of the latest book by the same John Garth, The Worlds of JRR Tolkien, due next Autumn for Mondadori in the translation by Stefano Giorgianni, a writer on Tolkien and heavy metal and member of the same Associazione Italiana Studi Tolkieniani who commissioned the new Lord of the Rings version and the earlier book by Garth I just surveyed. My fondest hope is that the critique and scorn aimed at the new Tolkien translator Ottavio Fatica taught the people responsible something concerning the degree of dedication and commitment, as well as the preparation in the field, which is the absolute requirement for approaching Tolkien’s texts, and that in the light of such an enlightment they matured a new, humbler, conciliant disposition which is able to recognise one’s mistakes in order to overcome them and do better, under the shared purpose of tributing the Professor the highest honours he undoubtedly always deserves.
Garth, John. “Tolkien and the Great War”. London: Harper Collins, 2003.
Garth, John. “Tolkien e la Grande Guerra”. Trad. it. Roberto Arduini, Giampaolo Canzonieri, Lorenzo Gammarelli and Alberto Ladavas. Genova-Milano: Marietti, 2007.
Wightman,Raymond; Simon Wallis; and Paul Aston.“Leaf margin organisation and the existence of vaterite-producing hydathodes in the alpine plant Saxifraga scardica”.Flora,Vol. 241 (April 2018): 27-34.
1Wightman,Raymond; Simon Wallis; and Paul Aston. “Leaf margin organisation and the existence of vaterite-producing hydathodes in the alpine plant Saxifraga scardica”.Flora,Vol. 241 (April 2018): 27-34.
‘Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen
Is withered to a stalk…
(‘The Unquiet Grave’, popular ballad, in F.J. Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, No. 78)
Not too many days have passed since the publication of the supposed news, according to which some missing lines from the famous medieval poem titled The Romance of the Rose were found, was published in various media.
To begin with, I first read the ‘news’ in the Italian press, more specifically on the newspaper ‘La Repubblica’, in an article titled “Scoperta una copia del poema medievale censurato”, which, translated into English, reads: “Copy of censored medieval poem found”.
I immediately read the whole of the article only to find that I was not at all sure about its meaning. Something was wrong about it, although I could not precisely say what. That was due to the fact that it claimed that Dr. Nicholas Vincent from the University of East Anglia had found some fragments from the oldest extant manuscript of the Rose “scoprendo celato – ma nemmeno tanto – in quelle poche pagine l’erotismo dell’incontro finale tra l’amante e la sua rosa. Scene così esplicite da non comparire proprio per questo in alcune versioni moderne dell’opera“. In English these lines would read: “thereby discovering amid the leaves the hidden – though not so much so – eroticism of the eventual meeting between the lover and his rose. So explicit a scene that, on that account precisely, it was missing from some modern versions of the work”.
Some modern versions. What did that ‘some’ mean? How was it linked with the other adjective, i.e. ‘modern’? Did the writer mean that the scene was missing from some manuscripts, which constitute the entirety of the modern ones (whereas after this finding we would know that not all medieval manuscripts obliterate the lines)? Or did he mean that, among the modern manuscripts, the interesting lines only occur in some of them? Obviously in English it only takes to use a comma to distinguish between “some, modern, manuscripts” and “some modern manuscripts”, but often Italian is much less thorough a language, especially when general press is concerned…. so, doubts.
I decided to have a look at the foreign press, since I recalled that the lines we are talking about indeed were present in other known manuscripts, and had already been discussed by scholars. More specifically, I vaguely recalled Clive Staples Lewis mentioning them in his groundbreaking essay The Allegory of Love, which I also checked.
Meanwhile, I also found it absurd that the Italian article was not at all concerned with the authorship of the poem, since the first half of the poem was left unfinished by Guillaume de Lorris, only to be reprised and brought to its conclusion by Jean de Meun. Surely, the information concerning the authorship of the work being discussed has some public relevance, in my view. One might otherwise wonder which of the two authors wrote the aforesaid lines, although in my case I was sure it was Jean, since it was he who finished the poem, and the discussed lines belong to the ending.
Anyway, as I was saying, I checked the foreign press. The result was total, overwhelming appalment. The first article my eye fell onto was by LiveScience, titling “Lost Version of ’50 Shades’ of Medieval Erotica Is Rediscovered”. To see the Rose being compared to E.L. James’ dubious literary achievement was already bad. Nonetheless, and to my utter astonishment, I could also find “Vintage filth: a guide to history’s rudest texts”, an article on The Guardian which counted the Rose alongside Martial’s Epigrams and Marquis De Sade’s works as a paragon of filth. Knowing about the over-the-top reputation of The Guardian would not prevent aforecited critic C.S. Lewis from turning in his grave.
Although LiveScience at least informs us about the “double authorship”, as well as tells us the name of a nefarious English scholar from 1900 who reputedly “censored” our lines (actually he only omitted them from the English translation, but left the original untouched in his edition), the confusion is still there, unsolved. The author writes:
(quote) The innuendo has been raising eyebrows for centuries. In 1900, medievalist F.S. Ellis left the raunchy section in its original French, refusing to translate it to English. Explaining this choice, he wrote that he “believes that those who will read them will allow that he is justified in leaving them in the obscurity of the original.”
The standard modern edition of the poem produced by French publisher Livre de Poche also leaves out some of these lines, Ailes said in the statement. (end quote)
I am still left (or I might, assuming I did not have a clue) wondering whether Vincent and Ailes have unveiled a masked international conspiracy spanning throughout several centuries for the only purpose of forbidding readers to learn about a young lover worshipping the temple of Venus (incidentally, something the deceased writer Umberto Eco would have utterly enjoyed writing about), or the choices taken by esteemed scholar F.S. Ellis and French publisher Livre de Poche are just esteemed scholar F.S. Ellis’s and French publisher Livre de Poche’s choices, and only theirs. Again, saying only ‘some’ of the lines are at issue here is completely pointless, unless some clearer specification is provided.
The Daily Mail Online does not help either. On the contrary, it makes things worse. Here is the complete heading of their article:
A medieval ’50 Shades of Grey’? Censored pages from popular French book dating to the 1200s that describes a sexual encounter in X-rated language found in archive
Fragments from the 700-year-old novel were been found used as book binding
It relays a sexual encounter between the main characters, the lover and the rose
The manuscript is 22,000 lines long and was completed in 1280 by two authors
From this heading one could assume the Rose was completed by two authors, whereas, as previously stated, Jean de Meun only continued from the point original author Guillaume de Lorris had arrived when he left the work unfinished. At this point I am hardly surprised to see my impression confirmed in the body of the article, as the writer assumes: “The poem was started in the 1200s by two authors who worked together to finish the piece by 1280, which is 22,000 lines long”.
Pointless to say such a level of accuracy cannot help too much with the solving of my puzzle (which, at this point, has become: how is it possible that the whole of the press reports fake news on an international level, concerning matters, supposedly politically neutral, of mere literacy and scholarship?)
Anyway, I eventually find the original article whence the whole chaos arose, a University of Bristol report which is considerably more considerate, although it still might be entirely misunderstood, as it should be evident by now.
After reading this report, it is clear to an informed person what the state of the matter is. The researchers mentioned, as an item of curiosity, the fact that the Rose was the subject of great controversy in the late Middle Ages, and its subject and the way it was treated might still give rise to some scandal in some people, even scholars, in the early 20th century, as the case with Professor Ellis proves.
And it could hardly be differently than this account, since, when one begins a simple research among scholarship on the Rose with the keyword “legs as pillars” (which is how the lover’s woman is metaphorically described in the romance), the results are hardly close to those one might expect if the episode had only been revealed these days!
In 1998, in fact, David Cowling published a monography titled “Building the Text: Architecture as Metaphor in Late Medieval and Early Modern Literature” (Oxford University Press), wherein he cited the “legs as pillars” of the Rose as an instance (33). Not dissimilarly in Suzannah Biernoff’s 2002 “Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages” (Palgrave MacMillan) on page 55. Then we might cite Suzanne Lewis’s 2012 article on the journal Word and Image, as well as the most recent (2018) by David Rollo on the journal Postmedieval. Undoubtedly a more thorough search would reveal further scholarship touching on the subject in a wider span of years.
What is the problem then? Is scholarship becoming more elitarian, so much that the same press cannot follow even very simple cases such as this one? Or is the matter altogether different, and having to do with the same trend of gender criticism which has been getting more and more relevancy over the last decades? Is there an interest for somebody advocating cases of censorship, even across centuries, although the case is actually non-existing? Or is the matter even simpler, to be reduced to a sarcastic comment on the accuracy of journalists?
In these questions, though, we have lost track of something: the beauty of the rose, either the flower, or the woman, or the poem itself. A beauty which should not wither. A beauty which should not get lost over (false) words.
As C.S. Lewis wrote: “few poets have struck better than Guillaume de Lorris that note which is the peculiar charm of medieval love poetry – that boy-like blending (or so it seems) of innocence and sensuousness which could make us believe for a moment that paradise had never been lost” (The Allegory of Love, 169).
And, if Jean de Meun’s continuation of Guillaume de Lorris’s poem finished with the lover contemplating a garden more beautiful than the rose-garden of love, because it was the garden of eternity in Heaven, we also should remember how the traditional English ballad I cited from at the beginning of this article ended:
The stalk is withered dry, my love, So will our hearts decay; So make yourself content, my love, Till God calls you away.
I thought I would not join the ‘unhappy Babel’ which has been recently raised concerning Tolkien’s alleged racism starting from a polemical article by sci-fi author Andy Duncan who, may I dare, should focus more on his writing than on producing bad comedy such as reviving similar outdated quarrels.
But then I realized that even a great scholar such as Dimitra Fimi had pronounced herself on the matter, offering her, I quote from Facebook, “two pennies”. If she categorizes her excellent article in these terms, I have to wonder how can I speak my own voice against such a majestic backdrop without spoiling the scene.
Therefore I have decided that I will not give you my two pennies, I will not give you even any less; on the contrary, I will indebt myself to Professor Tolkien once more, and add some more “money” to the huge credit he for some reason tributes me despite knowing I will never be able to repay him.
Therefore, let Tolkien speak his own mind on the subject, since similar accusations were already raised in his own times and he was quite bothered by them.
Note: my bold in all citations.
From Letter 131 to Milton Wadman, probably late 1951:
“the Third Age … , a Twilight Age, a Medium Aevum, the first of the broken and changed world; the last of the lingering dominion of visible fully incarnate Elves, and the last also in which Evil assumes a single dominant incarnate shape“.
In the same letter, he also says that in The Return of the King “we are to see the overthrow of the last incarnation of Evil“.
From (draft) Letter 156 to Robert Murray, 4 November 1954:
When Numenor still was, “they were still living on the borders of myth – or rather this story exhibits ‘myth’ passing into History or the Dominion of Men; for of course the Shadow will arise again in a sense (as is clearly foretold by Gandalf), but never again (unless it be before the great End) will an evil daemon be incarnate as a physical enemy; he will direct Men and all the complications of half-evils, and defective-goods, and the twilights of doubts as to sides, such situations as he most loves (you can see them already arising in the War of the Ring, which is by no means so clear cut an issue as some critics have averred): those will be and are our more difficult fate. But if you imagine people in such a mythical state, in which Evil is largely incarnate, and in which physical resistance to it is a major act of loyalty to God, I think you would have the ‘good people’ in just such a state: concentrated on the negative: the resistance to the false, while ‘truth’ remained more historical and philosophical than religious”.
From (draft) Letter 191 to Miss J. Burn, 26 July 1956:
“After the grand crash (and the end of visibly incarnate Evil) before the Dominion of Men (or simple History) to which it all led up the mythological and elvish legends of the Elder Days will not be quite the same”.
And, finally, from (draft) Letter 153 to Mr. Hastings, September 1954:
“The Author … gave special subcreative powers to certain of His highest created beings: that is a guarantee that what they devised and made should be given the reality of Creation. (…) But if they ‘fell’, as the Diabolus Morgoth did, and started making things ‘for himself, to be their Lord’, these would then ‘be’, even if Morgoth broke the supreme ban against making other ‘rational’ creatures like Elves or Men. They would at least be physical realities in the physical world, however evil they might prove, even ‘mocking’ the Children of God. They would be Morgoth’s greatest Sins, abuses of his highest privilege, and would be creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad (I nearly wrote ‘irredeemably bad’; but that would be going too far. Because by accepting or tolerating their making – necessary to their actual existence – even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good.)“
I know, I already said this elsewhere, but please let me say once more how what Tolkien writes proves the problem is theological, not socio-political. Please stop confusing the two and ignoring the former to always get into the latter.
After all, it is nothing but the nth case of what a popular UK TV song of the 80s, in times of wholesale apartheid, stated: “I’ve never met a nice South-African, and if I met one, he would be in prison”. Obviously, under racism accusations.
It has been recently argued that there is no evidence for a connection between the green men found in European churches between the 11th and the 15th century and the green man found in literature, for example in the late 14th century alliterative romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Furthermore, the same people argued that the former should only be called foliate heads, for the name ‘green men’ was only applied to them since the 1939 article “Green Men in Church Architecture” by Lady Raglan, and should not be associated with Paganism in any way, because they only appear in Christian contexts.
How well-founded, if at all, are these claims? To begin with, we have to ask ourselves what we mean by the terms implied. Although this might seem obvious, then, I shall specify that by foliate head I mean a human head which: a) is covered in foliage, entirely or partially, or b) produces foliage, either c) by growing it, usually as its hair and/or beard, or d) disgorging it from some or even all its orifices. A green man instead is: 1. a man whose skin and/or hair is green; 2. a man who : a) is covered in foliage, entirely or partially, or b) produces foliage, be it from its head, from other bodily parts, from both, or even from the entirety of its body; 3. a man showing both features of 1. and 2.
It can therefore be safely deduced that all foliate heads belong to green men, whereas not all green men must have a foliate head (though almost the entirety of cases 2. does). This is a first point which might seem banal, but in fact recently is not, since there are people who would claim that there is no connection between senses a) and b) of the foliate head, nor between senses 1. and 2. of the green man, and inside case 2. between senses 2. a) and 2. b).
Nonetheless, it is clear that to a simple mind a man covered in leaves might suggest the idea that he has grown the foliage from his skin, so that sense a) and b) of the foliate head, as much as senses 2. a) and 2. b) of the green man, are proven to be connected or liable to be connected. Even more easily, it appears evident how green man 1. and green man 2. are also suitable to be linked by sense 3., of which we have evidence: in literature through the Green Knight of the aforesaid Gawain poem, who is entirely green and has a beard like twigs; in visual art through an illustration from the Bedford Hours (picture 1).
In fact, the aforementioned critics have also claimed that the foliate head, which they erroneously assume to be different from the green man, only appears in Medieval churches, which is not simply once, but twice wrong.
First of all, it does not only appear in the Middle Ages, but is traceable to much earlier antiquity. In fact, the Green Man in the Grave Slab in St Peters Church, Northampton, dates to the 10th-11th century, which means it likely precedes the Norman Conquest and maybe even the year 1000 (picture 2). Also in the 10th century, if we move to France, we find this time not only a foliate head, but a full torso with foliate horns in the Green Man of Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers1 (picture 3). But we can trace the foliate head even earlier, since we also have the Disgorging Green Man on the tomb of St. Abre, France, from century 4th or 5th AD (picture 4), before the Dark Ages2. And our delving deeper into the origins of the Green Man is not over, since we can also reach further back into the Roman Age to find the Roman Green Man, from century 1st or 2nd AD3, in Musée de Vésone, Périguex, Dordogne, France (picture 5).
1Which means one cannot anymore claim either the foliate head or the green man originated in the Middle Ages.
2Which means one cannot anymore claim either the foliate head or the green man originated in the Dark Ages either.
3Which means one cannot even claim either the foliate head or the green man are Christian, since the Roman Empire only converted to Christianity in 313 AD.
Picture 1: Green Man from the Bedford Hours (1410-30)
Picture 2: Green Man in the Grave Slab in St Peters Church, Northampton (10th-11th century)
Picture 3: The Green Man of Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (10th century)
Picture 4: Disgorging Green Man on the tomb of St. Abre, France (4th or 5th century CE)
Picture 5: Roman Green Man (c. 1st or 2nd AD) in Musée de Vésone, Périguex, Dordogne, France
In the second place, the foliate head does not only belong to churches, which is obvious from its original Pagan character just proved, but is even more striking since the foliate head does not only belong to churches even within Christianity. Indeed, one may find them in the illuminations of Medieval manuscripts, as evident from the foliate-headed monster illumination from the Latin Bible called “Bible of Charles V” in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-590 réserve from 1300 circa (picture 6). And that is not the earliest instance either, since there are two foliate heads in Le carnet de Villard de Honnecourt (circa 1220-1230), fol. 10, in Paris, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 19093 (picture 7).
Furthermore, even in ecclesiastical architecture it is not only the foliate head which may be found in churches, but also the full-body, which I personally think I will call the green man, instead of the foliate man, which sounds rather preposterous. Full-body green men are found as:
1) A full-body ‘Green Warrior’ on a spandrel in Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England, from 1083 (photo by Mervyn W., picture 8)
2) Twin full-body Green Men in the church of St. Jacques, Conzac, Charente, France, from the 12th century (photo by Julianna Lees, picture 9)
3) Stylized full-body Green Man mating with Sheela-Na-Gig, in a capital underneath tower, St Michael’s, Melbourne, Derbyshire, from the 12th century (picture 10)
Obviously, as we have already partially seen, the same things happens in manuscript illuminations, where you have for instance:
x) Foliate-headed woman in an illumination from an undated, unidentified manuscript used as a cover for Sophie Page’s book titled Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (picture 11)
y) Foliate-headed half-man, half-monster from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 919, f. 82r, Horae ad usum Parisiensem [Grandes Heures de Jean de Berry], 1400-1410 (picture 12)
z) Foliate Knight from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1173, detail of f. 3r from Book of Hours, use of Paris, 1475-1500 (picture 13)
As a further note, I might add that the Green Man can easily be traced even before Christ, as soon as one identifies him with Dionysus, Bacchus, and the related fauns, satyrs and nymphs, who often are covered in, or carry, leaves, grapes, fruits, flowers, boughs and twigs (pictures 14, 15 and 16). These motifs are also associated with the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve in Christianity (pictures 17-18).
It is only evident, then, that the aforecited critics are entirely mistaken, and the variety and widespread character in time and space of the Green Man motifs can only be traced to an archetype of the close relationship of mankind with nature, just as Lady Raglan and the other very-unfairly-despised folklorists would have.
Appendix: In pictures 19-21 you will find the account in Latin by 12th century churchman and historian William of Newburgh of the alleged finding of two children, male and female, entirely green, who upon learning English told everybody they came from another world. No note of blame, sin nor devilry whatsoever attached to the story from the very Christian author.
Picture 6: Foliate-headed monster illumination from Latin Bible called “Bible of Charles V” Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-590 réserve (1300 circa)
Picture 7: Le carnet de Villard de Honnecourt (vers 1220-1230), fol. 10 – Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 19093
Picture 8: A full-body ‘Green Warrior’ on a spandrel in Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England, from 1083 (photo by Mervyn W.)
Picture 9: Twin full-body Green Men in the church of St. Jacques, Conzac, Charente, France, from the 12th century (photo by Julianna Lees)
Picture 10: Stylized full-body Green Man mating with Sheela-Na-Gig, in a capital underneath tower, St Michael’s, Melbourne, Derbyshire, from the 12th century
Picture 11: Foliate-headed woman in an illumination from an undated, unidentified manuscript used as a cover for Sophie Page’s book titled Magic in Medieval Manuscripts
Picture 12: Foliate-headed half-man, half-monster from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 919, f. 82r, Horae ad usum Parisiensem [Grandes Heures de Jean de Berry], 1400-1410
Picture 13: Foliate Knight from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1173, detail of f. 3r from Book of Hours, use of Paris, 1475-1500.
Picture 14: Dionysus-variant of the Apollo Lyceus statue type – Late 2nd century AD reworking of an original of the 4th century BC – Naples, Archaeological Museum
Picture 15: 420 B.C., Tarentine. Measurement: h. 22.00 cm. Materials: Terracotta and slip. Information: This half figure is of Dionysus dressed to attend a banquet.
Picture 16: Etruscan terra cotta Ante fix From Temple of Mater Matuta in Satricum
Picture 17: Christ’s Crucifixion taking place on the Tree of Knowledge while Adam and Eve commit the Original Sin, Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. Libro de horas de Leonor de la Vega (15th century).
Picture 18: Adam and Eve are born from the ground like trees, illumination from St. Augustine’s City of God by Maitre Francois, circa 1475
Picture 19: The Green Children story in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicanum, edited by Richard Howlett (1)
Picture 20: The Green Children story in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicanum, edited by Richard Howlett (2)
Picture 21: The Green Children story in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicanum, edited by Richard Howlett (3)
As some of you may already be aware of, on Tuesday 12 June I embarked on an epic journey the first destination thereof was Oxford, where I arrived at about 2.30 p.m. local time on a coach from London which was only slightly late. The purpose of the journey is essentially Tolkien research, and especially in Oxford I was going to consult Tolkien’s notes, rejected notes, commentaries, lectures and draft lectures on the interpretation, literary criticism, philology and translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, the two most important alliterative poems by an anonymous 14th century poet.
Obviously, after I arrived in Oxford, I immediately had to check in where I stayed, but soon thereafter my first preoccupation was doubtless to head straight to the Weston Library, where the Special Collections of the Bodleian Libraries are preserved, and ask for a Reader’s Card, having brought all the documents previously compiled throughout, and even having had my ID card translated into English since the Library required a proof of permanent address and Italian passports do not include detailed addresses.
Anyway it was soon cleared that this translation was not necessary at all since the Italian ID card is perfectly readable even by those who do not speak Italian, and the translation is only required for IDs written in difficultly readable languages such as Mandarin Chinese or Arabic. Well, I still have a translation of a personal document, which might come a-handy if I decide to go to Tibet and access their libraries.
Irony aside, after bringing along in a plastic bag a notebook, three freshly-sharpened pencils, a 1925 SGGK, a 1967 SGGK, Gordon’s Pearl and The Monsters and the Critics and leaving everything else behind in the Lockers Room, I stopped for a moment to contemplate my Reader’s Card: I had in fact been actually authorized to access the Special Collections and consult Tolkien’s manuscripts. Yes, I already had been formally authorized months ago by e-mail by the Special Collections Manager Catherine McIlwaine, but now I was actually there, in front of the door leading to the corridor to the 1st floor of the Weston Library, only a few moments away from handling Tolkien’s actual papers, the ones he had written (or typed) by his own hands!
I took a deep breath and let the scanner read my Reader’s Card, and I was in. Upstairs I had to pass another control, then I entered the wonderful world of the Reading Room, where I noticed Italian volumes stored on the shelves as well as others in English. In particular my eyes focused on a volume titled “An Introduction to Editing Manuscripts for Medievalists”, by JM Bak. I thought that Tolkien would definitely not have needed to read it.
Soon thereafter I approached the desk, where a young librarian was smiling at me. I said ‘hello’ to him, which was replied by his own ‘hi’, then I handed him the Reader’s Card and, after having booked it weeks earlier and having there asked for it, I received in exchange the unique and only copy of a manuscript of notes on Pearl. It is pointless to say how much I was thrilled, I think if someone had fetched me the Holy Grail I could hardly have been any happier than I then was!
And that was only the beginning: as of today, on Sunday 17 June 2018, on my sixth day as much as my first Westonless day here (sigh!), I have already checked 8 manuscripts throughout, staying in the Library almost always from its opening at 9 a.m. to its closing at 7 p.m.. I have only taken a few breaks to visit the Tolkien exhibition, buying rare first editions in Oxford’s bookshops, meeting other researchers and eat lunch (but then again, I might have forgotten to have lunch on a couple of days, providing you with a very good example of the famous Research Fasting).
Meanwhile I also manage to enjoy Oxford’s rich season of cultural, artistic, theatrical and musical events, most of which are fortunately accessible after 7 in the evening. Among these, I should at least mention that I listened to Imogen Cooper’s splendid performance of the Diabelli Variations by Beethoven and assisted to the inventive theatrical transposition of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes by a great company.
But obviously you are now wondering as to what I might have found up to now in my researches. Well, the point, besides the fact that I pronounced aloud a solemn oath on my honour not to cite anything from Tolkien’s papers (that’s the common procedure), is that I would not even know where to begin at. There is so much, and everything is so wonderful! But I will give you my three Elven Rings of sorts, to ponder.
Leden: These are called the Leden Reports after an obscure word in Pearl 874: “Lyk flode3 fele laden minnen on resse”. Neither sense nor metre seem to require it, apparently, as I have read written by an expert who knew Middle English uncomparably better than me, and whose judgement we should definitely trust. By the way, in his posthumously published translation Tolkien translates the line: “Like many floods met in pouring press”, referred to the “hue” from Heaven (since the passage echoes Revelations 14, 2, we may also compare Latin vox, Greek phoné). Gordon glosses ‘laden’as ‘voice’ and connects it to Old English ‘læden‘ as well as ‘ledden‘ in line 876. This should be in the plural, but there in the glossary also ‘lade’, connected to Old English ‘hladan‘, is glossed, as ‘laden, filled to overflowing’, which seems to be what Tolkien was thinking in his translation. If indeed it is ‘voice’, I think it would also presumably be connected to the verb ‘lieden‘ in Modern German, and to the name of the type of poem known as lay, examples of which are Tolkien’s Lay of Leithian and Marie de France’s Lais. If it is the equivalent of Modern English ‘laden’, it makes one think even more of the mythological notion of the Heavenly Waters, which are released in Noah’s Flood, constitute an Ocean in Greek Mythology, and where Eärendil sets sail in Tolkien’s Legendarium. Or perhaps something of both, a leden, an overflowing song? That is a very fascinating and powerful image!
Romance: After my readings I wonder whether it might be possible that, since in many drafts he compares SGGK with Beowulf pointing out commonalities and differences in detail, Tolkien might have thought of SGGK as weird if compared to other romances, a very peculiar representative of its own genre. I wonder, if that is the case, whether the connection of romance with the notion of love-story, which was already there in the Middle Ages, although not as pervasive as nowadays, might have something to do. SGGK, if taken as a love-story, is the impossible love-story between a very human knight aspiring to sainthood, chastity and perfection and a very fairy, sexually-provocative lady who does not love him but acts on behalf of her own husband and ultimately after the commands of an evil witch. The luf which is repeatedly mentioned in SGGK, is it most assuredly love’? And, if love, for whom or what? This is why I titled this blogpost “This Weird Romance”.
Miscellanea: The last ring has three stones. Quickly, so you are left even more impressed: 1) Tolkien left some Elvish inscriptions in the SGGK papers, in one of which you read Aragorn’s elvish name; 2) Tolkien the Orientalist comments on the Arabic philosopher Avicenna and on the role of Buddhism in the transmission of fairy-tales; 3) Tolkien the Italianist knew, and maybe read, Il Novellino, edited by Carlo Gualteruzzi (13th century, first published 1572), and the miracle play of St. Anthony (15th century).
I am sure there is no need to comment on the importance of all this, but if I have to, I must say I feel definitely leden with joy! And soon my good friend and research partner Oronzo Cilli is going to join me, as much as the promising student Giuseppe Scattolini, therefore I am looking forward to what is going to come up next!
In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien introduces the concept of Faërian Drama: plays which the elves present to men, with a ‘realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism,‛ where the viewer feels he is ‘bodily inside its Secondary World‛ but instead is ‘in a dream that some other mind is weaving‛ rather than a dream of his own. Faërian drama is a form of Elvish art a human can almost but not quite grasp and understand, something the witness/participant may ponder and work through for the rest of his or her life. (CROFT 31)
Examples of Faërian Drama abound in literature: they are represented in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, just as much as in Ludwig Tieck’s literary fairy tale The Elves, in George MacDonald’s The Golden Key or in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
But more important to Tolkien were medieval examples, which he could find in dream-visions such as Pearl and romances such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
What he found in both of them was a strong moral and religious sense associated with the concept of Faërian Drama: an association that he thought held a deep meaning. It inspired him the reflection which took shape in his essay On Fairy Stories, with its final focus on Happy Endings or, as he calls a particular kind of them, the Eucatastrophe, a glimpse on the Truth that we know as Evangelium, or the overcoming of death.
Tolkien distinguishes four particular points to articulate what the Fairy Story, or the Faërian Drama, provides: those are Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation.
I think that it is useful, to understand what he could have had in mind as he elaborated this theory, to consider Gawain’s confession to the Green Knight.
Gawain finds himself guilty of Cowardice, Coveting, troth-breach and treachery.
Tolkien pointed out in his W. P. Ker lecture on Sir Gawain that Gawain
thus calls ‘cowardice’ his reluctance to throw away his life without striking a blow, or to surrender a talisman that might possibly have saved him. He calls ‘covetice’ his acceptance of a gift from a lady which he could not immediately repay, though it was pressed on him after two refusals, and in spite of the fact that he did not value it for its costliness. It was indeed only ‘covetice’ within the terms of the game with the lord of the castle: keeping back any part of the waith because he wanted it for himself (for any reason). He calls ‘treachery’ a breach of the rules of a mere pastime, which he could only have regarded as jocular or whimsical (whatever lay hidden in the proposer of the game), since there could obviously be no real exchange between the gains of a hunter and those of a man idling at home! (GAWAIN 99)
Tolkien did not think that Gawain was guilty of these sins, but still retained that his confession was very important and indeed the true core of the romance, ‘for it (Lady Bertilak’s Girdle, my note), no less than the horrible Green Knight, and his faierie, and all faierie, is ultimately under God’ (OFS, 103).
If Gawain was tested on those sins, we have to ask ourselves, was it because of Gawain’s peculiar character or because of the very nature of Faërie?
It is a tricky question, because the two options don’t exclude each other: Gawain’s peculiar character motivated his being tested by the very nature of Faërie.
But then these sins reveal us something about that nature, and that is in the connection with what Tolkien states in On Fairy Stories.
We will find that Cowardice is overcome by Escape, Coveting by Recovery, troth-breach by Fantasy and treachery by Consolation.
How is that so?
Let us look at what Tolkien says about the first one, Escape:
Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. (OFS 148)
It is clear that by distinguishing the Escape of the Prisoner from the Flight of the Deserter Tolkien is saying that there is a way of overcoming the fear of death which is not Cowardice but is indeed a source of courage, as the Hobbits themselves show, with their love of Elven stories and the unexpected courage that those stories motivate.
Tolkien appreciated courage, but was sceptical about the possibility of making it into a theory as the ancient heroic ethics had done. To quote Tom Shippey: ‘he faced a problem in the theory of courage he so much admired: its mainspring is despair, its spirit often heathen ferocity’ (SHIPPEY 140).
He then thought that Escape was a better response to fear than the despair and ferocity which often are the companions of the theory of courage, both in our action and in our thought.
As with Gawain’s case, there is nothing wrong in wanting to save one’s own life.
But what about Coveting and Recovery?
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity – from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (OFS 146)
The possessiveness Tolkien talks about is indeed a form of Coveting.
Cupidity in Christian theology is every deviation from the true object of desire and love, which should be God. Loving someone, ourselves, the world or material goods more than the Good above all is the sin of Coveting. That does not mean that we should not love other people, ourselves, the world or material goods, but only that we should not let them distract us from Him (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958, Book 3.10)
Coveting results from a lack of the theological virtue of Charity. As Saint Augustine states: “Where there is no cupidity, there is the perfection of charity” (Augustine, De Diversis Quaestionibus Octoginta Tribus, source: www.augustinus.it/latino/ottantatre_questioni.htm, qu. 36).
From Coveting all the sins spring out: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Anger, Envy, Pride.
The idea that a greedily desired object in the end turns out as something for the night to keep is the main point of Tolkien’s poem The Hoard.
Coveting is one of the main themes of The Lord of the Rings, the desire to possess the Ring.
The fact that the Ring consumes the very soul of its bearer may be interpreted as the hideous consequence of completely turning away from God.
Those who turn away from God love this world instead, but love it in a way that makes this same world deprived of its true nature and essence and, in the end, meaningless at all. Tolkien thematized Coveting also in The Silmarillion, where almost nobody can resist the desire to possess the Silmarils and keeping them for themselves, and in The Hobbit, where Thorin becomes excessively greedy of his newly gained treasure and especially the Arkenstone.
Cupiditas was considered in the Middle Ages as the root of all Evil (with reference to 1 Timothy 6, 10), and the very eating of the Forbidden Fruit by Adam and Eve was motivated by an uncontrolled desire which was a form of Coveting. Tolkien, when he had to symbolize what we could call the New Fall of Men after the War of the Ring had ended and peace was restored, he decided to employ that very same imagery by making the young Saelon steal unripe apples from Borlas’ tree in his beginning of a sequel to The Lord of the Rings titled The New Shadow.
As Verlyn Flieger put it: “Tolkien has imagined a world and its peoples through which he can explore the meaning and consequences of the Fall – the long separation of humanity from the light of God” (FLIEGER 2002, 60).
I think that, in agreement with Saint Augustine and the Gawain Poet, Tolkien thematized this separation in terms of Coveting and Greed, making of its absence, or at least of its possible overcoming, a matter of enjoyment of this life.
He never directly mentions God in The Lord of the Rings (while instead he does in the Creation myth of the Ainulindalë and in the Atlantis story of the Akallabêth in The Silmarillion), but points at Him by contrast in a negative theology.
Catherine Madsen stated:
Those who are struck by this (Tolkien’s, my note) reticence will not turn to the Nicene Creed’s formula et incarnatus est but to a more obscure and paradoxical Hebrew saying: lo sh’mo bo sh’mo, «Where the Name is not uttered, there the Name is present». For some thousand pages Tolkien refrained from taking the Lord’s name in vain; invisible, it illuminates the whole (MADSEN 47).
Therefore the idea of Recovery is clearly connected with Jesus Christ as the Healer King, whose Aragorn is an image. It is linked to Coveting because it is its overcoming.
In the same way Fantasy surpasses troth-breach.
To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode (OFS 140)
Secondary Belief could be seen as a troth-breach, because it consists in (virtually) believing in something which we know not to be true. Thus Plato condemned eikasi/a, imagination, as a deceit, a shadow cast on a cave’s wall. But Tolkien instead thinks that inspiring Secondary Belief, the product of successful Fantasy, is a form of Art, indeed the most potent, and legitimate. It could almost be considered a form of faith.
Therefore, in its contrapposition to troth-breach Fantasy becomes a close relative of Middle English trawÞe, which in its OED meaning 3. is defined as ‘faith, trust, confidence’.
J. A. Burrow comments that:
TrawÞe in this sense is one of the three theological virtues, along with Hope and Charity. In the early fourteenth-century Cursor Mundi, where this sense is first recorded, the word is regularly associated with Abraham, the traditional type of Faith. (BURROW 43)
We have seen already how Recovery can be associated with Charity and Escape with Hope. Therefore the three theological virtues may be said to lie behind Tolkien’s description of the Fairy Story in a theological frame.
One cannot be too much surprised then to find Consolation as the fourth and last feature of the Fairy Story, since the Consolator is one of the names of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclitus.
Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale) : this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale -or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (OFS 153)
The dyscatastrophe is often the possible outcome of a deceit, or treachery: thus the wolf diguises himself as the grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood, thus the witch convinces Snow-White to eat the poisoned apple, thus the Green Knight never mentions he can survive his beheading, thus Gawain keeps the Girdle, thus Gollum betrays Frodo and Sam, thus Frodo decides to claim the Ring in the Sammath Naur, thus the snake tricks Eve into believing that the Forbidden Fruit will turn her into an equal to God, thus Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss.
But the eucatastrophe, with its ‘sudden joyous turn’, although it does not deny treachery and the dyscatastrophe, it overcomes them.
The artistic goal of faërian drama, like that of the fairy tale itself, is to awaken in the witness/participant an openness to Fantasy, Escape, Recovery, Consolation, and the possibility of Eucatastrophe. The one essential goal within the experience is Recovery, the ‘regaining of a clear view‛ (OFS 67), which makes the witness/participant receptive to the rest, which he or she may encounter later after waking if not within the experience itself. There is a specific moral teaching purpose designed for the chosen participant/witness. (CROFT 41-42)
The specific moral teaching designed for Gawain consisted in humility and the awareness of the limits of courtly ethics.
Burrow, J. A., A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1965)
Croft, J. B., Tolkien’s Faërian Drama: Origins and Valedictions, Mythlore, Vol. 124, No. 32.2 (Spring/Summer 2014): 31-45
Flieger, V. Splintered Light. Logos and Languages in Tolkien’s World, (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002)
Madsen, C., Light from an Invisible Lamp: Natural Religion in The Lord of the Rings, Mythlore, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Spring 1988)
Shippey, T., J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: Harper Collins, 1997)
Tolkien, J. R. R., On Fairy Stories in The Monsters and the Critics (London: Harper Collins, 1983)
Tolkien, J. R. R., W. P. Ker Lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1953) in The Monsters and the Critics (London: Harper Collins, 1983)S
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill – The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it – and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
The mother of our particular hobbit … what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit – of Bilbo Baggins, that is – was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them, – and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo’s father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed) – Gandalf came by. Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion. He had not been down that way under The Hill for ages and ages, not since his friend the Old Took died, in fact, and the hobbits had almost forgotten what he looked like. He had been away over The Hill and across The Water on business of his own since they were all small hobbit-boys and hobbit-girls.
All that the unsuspecting Bilbo saw that morning was an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.
“Good morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat. “What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is morning to be good on?”
“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain. If you have a pipe about you, sit down and have a fill of mine! There’s no hurry, we have all the day before us!” Then Bilbo sat down on a seat by his door, crossed his legs, and blew out a beautiful grey ring of smoke that sailed up into the air without breaking and floated away over The Hill.
* * *
The first thing that comes to mind when starting to read The hobbit, at least if you are a bit familiar with European medieval literature, is how the very beginning recalls in style the “incipit” of the Norse sagas, usually starting with: “There was… (this man, this warrior, this king etc.)”. In this case we don’t actually find “There was”, but that “there lived” cannot but recall that peculiar impression, especially if you know how deep was Tolkien’s knowledge (and love) of Norse literature.
The style is quite peculiar, rich in descriptions and therefore in variety (even excepting the past participles and the -ing forms used in adjectival function, you can count more than ninety adjectives, all of them different, except the most common as long, good, remarkable etc. and the colours), it manages to carry a sense of remoteness and antiquity despite its informal register, which you can detect in many idiomatic expressions, relative to: abundance (“lots and lots”), personal taste (“was fond of”), wealth (“well-to-do”), temporal duration (“for time out of mind”, “ages and ages”), confidence (“without the bother of asking”, “into the bargain”), clumsiness (“come blundering along”), distance (“a mile off”), consistency (“They are inclined to be at in the stomach”), indeterminacy (“the stuff on their heads”), tranquillity (“in the quiet of the world”), availability (“We have all the day before us”).
Given its descriptivity, the text is also quite rich in similes (“like a porthole”, “like a tunnel”, “like elephants”, “like a second edition”) and there is a long enumeration (“bedrooms, bathrooms etc.”). It presents also with a very skilled usage of rhetorics: in one place we find a rhetorical overlapping of speeches, which is studied to create expectations the text eventually will satisfy (“The mother of our particular hobbit… what is a hobbit? (…) As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit etc.”); just a few words after that, we have: “I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays”, which is of course a rhetorical supposition, when we consider a generic reader is supposed not to have ever heard of hobbits before (of course today’s “nowadays” is probably a bit different than Tolkien’s 1927’s, even more so after the films came out, but that doesn’t contradict what I’m saying). Also that “nowadays” is used rhetorically, since it is supposed to be utilized in contrast to an hypothetical past which really never existed. Moving along, we find: “except the ordinary everyday sort”, which is also a rhetorical exception, since it implies hobbits actually do possess some sort of magic, although it may be of an everyday sort in their own opinion. When presenting Gandalf, the author says: “If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him”, which again is a rhetorical hypothesis, since noone can possibly have heard anything about Gandalf from anyone but the writer who made him up. It would still be rhetorical even if we considered that Gandalf was the name of a dwarf in the Voluspà, the Seer’s prophecy in the Norse Poetic Edda, where Tolkien took the name from. And, to conclude our survey about rhetorics, what about the most wonderful of the rhetorical questions, probably the eldest: a good, old-fashioned “What do you mean?” given in reply to the most obvious of salutations, “Good morning”?
Now I would briefly consider a different phenomenon which I find quite interesting: place-names.
In this case we have a hill called “The Hill” and a river called “The Water”. The first is almost certainly inspired by a real-world place-name, Bree-hill in Oxfordshire, where Bree is an ancient celtic name meaning “hill”, therefore “Hill-hill”, or “the Hill of hills” (like “The song of songs”), or simply “The Hill”. About the second, as with “The Hill”, also in this case the author could have been influenced by his knowledge of English place-names: in Northumberland, there is a river called Tyne, meaning “river”. From “river-river” to “The River”, and eventually “The Water”, it takes but a little step. It is noteworthy, though, that this is much more hypothetical than the case of “The Hill”, which is almost certain given the presence of Bree-hill in the very same shire where Tolkien lived, and also the fact that he eventually named a town Bree in The Lord of the Rings.
To end by coming back to the beginning, it is quite noteworthy another rhetorical effect: the usage of litotes in order to state something by denying its opposite: “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell”, but “a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort”. It is quite amusing when you think about it.