Saturday, 12 March 2011

Mythlore issue 111/112

So, I finally managed to find the time to read the last of the Tolkien-related material in this volume of Mythlore (the journal of the Mythopoiec Society) — I am not really a fast reader in English, and I didn't start until the start of this year (and this issue is almost entirely dedicated to Tolkien — there is a single essay on Lewis and one on Le Guin, but otherwise it's all about Tolkien's work). With so much good Tolkien scholarship in one place, I just had to write a few words about it ;-)

So without further ado:

Jason Fisher: ‘Dwarves, Spiders, and Murky Woods: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Wonderful Web of Words’
Jason takes a look at the incident from The Hobbit with the spiders in Mirkwood, and the reader is taken along on a playful journey into the world of words from Sanskrit and Old Church Slavonic to Finnish and modern English with stops nearly everywhere in-between. I dearly love words and thus I enjoyed every bit of the ride (my only complaint would be a small sigh that the modern Danish word for a spider is nowhere mentioned: we call it ‘edderkop’ and so I had to have it pointed out to me that there was something special about Tolkien's use of Attercop). Whether Tolkien was aware of all of the connections that Jason's joyous deluge of philological ingenuity uncovers is, in my opinion, highly doubtful. Jason does a good job at showing that Tolkien could have known about them, but in the end it doesn't really matter for me whether he did and whether he was aware of them. For me the main quality of this essay is not whether it tells me anything new about Tolkien's work, but to experience, and share, the joy in the linguistic puzzles. Even had I found it more difficult, Jason would certainly have got me ‘drunk on words’.

Robert T. Tally, Jr.: ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Orcs: Simple Humanity in Tolkien’s Inhuman Creatures’
There is something about the roles of the Orcs in Tolkien's legendarium that attracts me. This has to do both with the ethical questions and philosophical reflections that arose out of Tolkien's speculations concerning the Orcs, but also the fascinating development on the nature and origin of the Orcs. Robert T. Tally Jr. dives into the portrayal of Orcs in The Lord of the Rings in particular, addressing both the humanised aspect of their portrayal as well as the demonization, which he relates to the traditional demonization of the enemy seen in the wars of the Primary World — not least in the two great wars of the twentieth century. The essay is well written and interesting, and my only complaint (vague and vain as it is) would be that Tally doesn't address take into account the shift in Tolkien's view on the Orcs that occurred while he was writing The Lord of the Rings (for a brief summary of this, see my blog entry, ‘“The Lord of the Rings” as a transitionary work’.

Lynn Whitaker: ‘Corrupting Beauty: Rape Narrative in The Silmarillion
I freely admit that I started off being very sceptic of this essay - I was somewhat put me off by the title, but I ended up thinking that Lynn Whitaker easily could have gone a step or two further in her analysis. Whitaker analyses the rape narratives (understood in the broadest possible way) of both Aredhel, the sister of Turgon, and Lúthien, and though she asserts in her conclusion that ‘[i]t is in the story of Luthien, however, that the true significance of rape narrative (and the role of beauty within it) as myth is explored by Tolkien’ more space is devoted to the analysis of Aredhel, whose story is, admittedly, also more interesting because of the moral nuances expressed here (what degree of consent is, for instance, implied when Tolkien's narrator states that ‘[i]t is not said that Aredhel was wholly unwilling’?). All in all a well-written paper that manages to convince me of its raison d'être and its premise despite my initial scepticism, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. What praise can I say more?

Jesse Mitchell: ‘Master of Doom by Doom Mastered: Heroism, Fate, and Death in The Children of Húrin’
Mitchell, in my honest opinion, comes off to a very bad start. He starts out by heavily criticising Richard West's view on Túrin, but cites only the very brief reference found in West's essay, ‘Setting the Rocket Off in Story: The Kalevala as the Germ of Tolkien's Legendarium1. A check in the list of references does not turn out either West's main piece on Túrin, ‘Túrin's Ofermod: An Old English Theme in the Development of the Story of Túrin’2 or Tolkien's essay on Ofermod3. The main thrust of the paper is to employ specific romantic heroic types to describe Túrin, but this, unfortunately, becomes a limitation rather than a help as Mr Mitchell seems overly concerned with these labels and boxes, and so the analysis is brought to a halt against the walls of the boxes: Túrin is forcibly squeezed into the box of the ‘Byronic Hero’, and very little is said of the points where he deviates from this model (which is at least as interesting, if not more, as where he fits the model). This is a pity because it means that the approaches to interesting insights into Túrin's character that are genuinely present in the paper are brought to a stop before they are developed far enough to contribute with new understanding of Túrin. The overall impression is that Mr Mitchell has been more concerned with demonstrating his own understanding of this particular interpretative model and his command of a post-modern jingo than with actually understanding Tolkien's text.

Richard J. Whitt: ‘Germanic Fate and Doom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion’
As is the case with the Orcs, I am also attracted to the philosophical reflections inherent in the question of free will in Tolkien's fiction, and as a Dane I am naturally favourably predisposed towards attempts to use the Old Norse world-view to aid my understanding and appreciation of Tolkien's work. Whitt does, of course, not limit himself to Old Norse, but investigates the concepts of fate and doom in Germanic thought more broadly. Still, the Old Norse and Old English sources feature prominently in our understanding of Germanic thought and world-view. Whitt investigates the sense of words with meanings in the fate / doom spectrum of meaning, wyrd, rǫk, dōme, and others from various old Germanic texts such as Beowulf, the Poetic Edda and the Heliand and compares to examples of Tolkien's use of fate and doom in The Silmarillion, both his explicit invocations of these concepts, but also his more implicit use. Whitt explains that ‘[f]ate and doom are ever present forces in Tolkien's The Silmarillion’ in several senses, and adding the Christian concepts of providence and the Will of God, he concludes that ‘[t]his combination of fate and doom on the one hand and a supposed omnipotent God on the other finds itself at home in both the Middle-earth of Tolkien and of medieval Germania. Fate and doom are key players throughout The Silmarillion, but as can be seen in Germanic texts such as the Heliand or Beowulf, they ultimately fall in accord with the will of Iluvatar.’

Janet Brennan Croft: ‘The Thread on Which Doom Hangs: Free Will, Disobedience, and Eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s Middle-earth’
One more essay contributing to the understanding the roles of free will and fate in Tolkien's fiction, Janet Brennan Croft focuses on the role of disobedience, which of course requires the freedom of will to actually disobey. Taking her outset in the concept of War in Heaven and how to describe this along several axes, Croft categorizes the War in Heaven in Tolkien's Secondary World as a ‘moderate, eschatological, pro-cosmic system in which the second principle is in rebellion against its creator.’ From there Croft moves into a discussion of obedience and disobedience in such a world, in particular considering the interplay between the obedience / disobedience dipole on one hand, and the free will / providence dipole on the other, concluding that free will is an important weapon for good in a system of the type of Tolkien's War in Heaven, and that Tolkien shows this  by repeatedly showing us eucatastrophe as the result of the right kind of disobedience. In Croft's expert handling, the categorizing becomes a useful tool for understanding Tolkien's work — and in the ensuing discussion of obedience, disobedience, free will and providence, the texts themselves take the centre stage with comparisons to the works of other authors such as Pratchett, Asimov, Bujold and the experiments of Stanley Milgam. Though in the end the conclusions are not surprising, but seem rather intuitive, Croft offers a framework for reasoning about it and thereby build rational understanding of Tolkien's use of disobedience to show the role of free will in producing eucatastrophe.

William H. Stoddard: ‘Simbelmynë: Mortality and Memory in Middle-earth’
This essay, the shortest of the Tolkien-related essays in this issue of Mythlore, deals with elegiac elements in The Lord of the Rings. The lament for the lost past, he says, is seen in e.g. the traces of the past that the Fellowship encounters (particularly the ruins), but also in the songs that remember and celebrate the past, and in the great care Men take over the dead. Stoddard asserts that ‘[m]emory seems essential to the nature of the Elves’ and further that this eternal (within Time) memory of the Eldar means that they ‘offer the closest thing to immortality that natural men can hope for’. Moving to the primary power of all the Rings of Power, to preserve and to heal, he investigates the negative side of this aspect of the role of the Elves, that they become not just preservers of Middle-earth, but embalmers. Stoddard speculates that the strong elegiac element in The Lord of the Rings is, in part, a result of Tolkien's own experiences with loss, losing both parents while still a child, and losing most of his close friends as a young man in the Great War. I could have wished that Stoddard had expanded his investigation to also encompass the negative aspects when a culture becomes too reverent of the past, such as described e.g. by Faramir to Frodo and Sam, ‘Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons’ and of course the fate of Númenor should also be recalled, when the fear of death turns the reverence for the past into an unhealthy obsession for the past and a pursuit of true immortality.

This issue of Mythlore also contains two reviews of books about Tolkien's work. Since, however, both reviews are available on-line at the Mythopoeic Society web-site, I will merely link to the reviews here.
Dimitra Fimi, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits is reviewed by Jason Fisher
Bradford Lee Eden (editor), Middle-earth Minstrel: Essays on Music in Tolkien is reviewed by Emily A. Moniz

1: In Chance, Jane (ed.). Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, The University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
2: In Flieger, Verlyn and Hostetter, Carl F. (eds). Tolkien's “Legendarium”: Essays on “The History of Middle-earth”, Greenwood Press, 2000.
3: Part of the work titled ‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son’, e.g. in Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins Publishers, several editions.

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