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Mark Adderley
Here's the next entry about The Lord of the Rings--discussion topics for the Youth Group's book club at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, Lander, Wyoming, on Sunday, October 25, 2009.

Who is Tom Bombadil, and what is his role in The Lord of the Rings?  Many readers find him to be completely extraneous—the adventure in which the hobbits encounter Tom can be cut from the book without disturbing the narrative line at all.  This is indeed what Peter Jackson does in his movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring.  And what does Tom do, exactly?  Tom tells the hobbits something of the Old Forest when they sojourn in his house:

Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers.  . . . The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice.  But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river.  His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs.  (1.7)

This is ominous indeed.  Old Man Willow has grown so old, his malevolent influence has extended so far, that the entire forest has become filled with darkness and strangeness, hostility towards legged creatures.  So why does Tom, who lives in the middle of this forest, and is evidently so good that the Ring has no effect on him, allow this evil to persist?  Tom speaks stern words to Old Man Willow, but he does not uproot him.  He does not destroy him, even though he knows he is evil and that his evil has affected the whole forest.

 

Tolkien visits this theme also in The Silmarillion, where Ilúvatar allows Morgoth to sing discordant notes that mar the song that is bringing Middle earth into being.  Ilúvatar does not uncreate Morgoth, but simply weaves his discordant themes into the tapestry of the whole, making a good out of his evil.  But the evil persists, and eventually Morgoth brings death and destruction to Middle earth through his theft of the Silmarils.  So why does Ilúvatar allow Morgoth to continue doing evil things and affecting others with his evil?

 

We can expand the discussion a little further.  Why does God allow evil to exist in the world, and to affect the innocent?  This is one of the great questions philosophers have always asked.  Evil seems to win in the world, and good suffers.  If God is good, why does He let that happen?

 

Talking of evil, what about the Ringwraiths?  Tom Shippey, in his book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, suggests that we can learn a lot about the Ringwraiths by looking at exactly what the word means.  Remember, Tolkien was a philologist.  He studied words, and taught language and literature.  So he loved words and what they mean.  Shippey says that the word wraith is derived from the Old English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) word wriðan, meaning “to writhe.”  He adds:

“Writhe” has given rise to several [other words]: “wreath” (something that is twisted), but less obviously and more suggestively, “wroth” (the old adjective meaning “angry”), and “wrath” (the corresponding noun which still survives).  (Shippey 122)

What is it like to writhe?  Under what circumstances do you writhe?  Try it.  When you writhe, you feel tension in your body, asymmetry, you find you have a limited range of motion.  It feels unnatural, uncomfortable.  You find you can focus only on one thing—it gives you tunnel vision.  What does this tell us about the Ringwraiths?  More largely, what does it tell us about evil?

 

Later in The Fellowship of the Ring, Legolas refers to a “wreath of snow.”  Shippey says,

By “wreath” here Legolas clearly means something like “wisp,” something barely substantial, and . . . that is also part of the meaning of “wraith”—one could say, “a wraith of mist,” “a wraith of smoke.”  (Shippey 122)

This hints at something else—evil is insubstantial.  The medieval philosopher Boethius, in his Consolation of Philosophy, written at the beginning of the sixth century, suggests that existence is good, and so God, who is good, must be pure existence.  This means that evil makes you less and less substantial—absolute evil is absolute non-existence.  This idea too is built into Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

 
 
Mark Adderley

We must endure evil and hardship, Theseus says, and we must turn it to what good we can.  Who does otherwise is a fool and a rebel:

And take it weel, that we may nat eschue;

And namely, that to us alle is due.

And who so gruccheth ought, he dooth folye,

And rebel is to hym that al may gye.

And certeinly, a man hath moost honour

To dyen in his excellence and flour,

Whan he is siker of his goode name,

Thanne hath he doon his freend ne hym no shame.

And gladder oghte his freend been of his deeth,

Whan with honour upyolden in his breeth,

Than whan his name apalled is for age;

For al forgeten is his vassellage.

Thanne is it best as for a worthy fame,

To dyen whan that he is best of name.

The contrarie of al this is wilfulnesse:

Why grucchen we, why have we hevinesse?

This is the extent of Theseus’ consolation: that one who laments his misfortunes is a rebel against the universe arranged by God, and that the only thing for him to do is to be glad of dying at the height of his fame, before old age has plunged him into a decline.  Theseus’ conclusion is that “after wo I rede us to be merye,” that we must seize the opportunity to be merry when we have it, and “thanken Juppiter of al his grace.”

 

Notice that Theseus does not deny the existence of a single god.  The difference between pagan and Christian is not the difference between many and one.  It’s a difference in outlook.  Theseus’ attitude is pretty much one which concludes, “We must put up with what the gods throw at us; we can’t do any more.”  It’s a focus upon the power of God, not His mercy.  And the power is the power to sweep away—to sweep away Arcite, as he had also swept away on third of Europe’s population.

 

This is not Chaucer’s view, of course.  It’s the view of Theseus, a character in Chaucer’s poem.  Chaucer’s view is not expressed directly.  He never takes the reader aside, as the Beowulf-poet does, and says, “They weren’t Christians—you can’t really expect much of them.”  So you have to infer Chaucer’s point of view from what his characters say and do not say.

 

How can we tell what it is that Chaucer doesn’t say?  It seems obvious what he did say—it’s written right there in the manuscript.  But how can you figure out what he deliberately chose to leave out?

 

One way is by figuring out what books Chaucer had read, and comparing the contents of those books to the contents of Chaucer’s poem.  One of the books we know he read, since he translated it from Latin into English, is the Consolation of Philosophy, by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.  Boethius is in prison, facing a death sentence on a trumped-up charge of treason.  Lady Philosophy appears before him, and attempts to console him in a way very similar to the way Theseus consoles Palamon and Emily.  Evil men only appear to succeed in the world, she says, because in fact they have attained only a partial good.  We cannot see the whole good, because our perspective is limited.  God has a plan, but our minds, being finite, cannot perceive all of it; the little we perceive, we perceive as chaotic.

 

Now The Consolation of Philosophy is not a consolation of theology.  It’s an attempt to find out what are the limits of human reason.  Philosophy uses reason to deduce the existence of God and His goodness, but philosophy must be completed by theology, because reason will not take us to revealed truth.  That is something beyond reason.  So it’s appropriate that Chaucer uses Boethius in a pre-Christian setting.  Chaucer’s characters have reason, but they don’t have revelation.  Theseus’ stoic conclusion that we must all make a virtue of necessity is not a Christian one.  It’s untouched by divine revelation, by knowledge of the Incarnation.  The optimism and hope of Christianity is implicit only in the Knight’s Tale—it’s there, conspicuous by its absence.

 

So, just as the Beowulf-poet contrasted the sacrificial warrior culture with the Christian culture in which Christ’s sacrifice paid for all, Chaucer contrasts the world of the Knight’s Tale, which is ruled by Reason alone, with the Christian world, ruled by Reason and Revelation.  The despair with which he was surrounded, he seems to be saying, is a pre-Christian despair.  It can lead only to suffering—at best to a stoic acceptance of one’s allotted suffering.  But it can give no meaning to such suffering, and therefore offers no relief from it.

 

Shakespeare takes a difference approach in King Lear.  This is the play that actually ranges both sides, one against the other.

 

King Lear was written probably in 1605, the same year that Guy Fawkes and his conspirators planted kegs of gunpowder in the basement of the palace at Westminster, in an attempt to blow up not only King James I, but his wife, children, and all the Members of Parliament as well.  It was a kind of Renaissance 9/11, an act of terrorism that shocked the whole nation, and galvanized them against the minority that had perpetrated this crime.

 

Guy Fawkes and his conspirators were, of course, Catholics.

 

The most momentous event in English history was the Reformation.  Henry VIII’s initial aim had not been to separate from the Roman Catholic Church at all, just to set himself up as the head of the English Catholic Church, a kind of mini-pope.  But you can’t start something like that up and expect it to finish exactly where you wanted it to be.  Before long, the persecution of  Catholics by Henry’s son Edward, and of Protestants by Queen Mary, his daughter, had galvanized England and made religion a political concern.  When Elizabeth, Henry’s other daughter, became queen in 1558, her initial policy was one of tolerance towards Catholics.  But the numerous conspiracies centering around the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, the threat of invasion from Catholic Spain and, more importantly, Pope Pius V’s bull in 1570 that announced that Elizabeth was illegitimate and therefore not the legal monarch and that Catholics were obliged to oppose and even assassinate her cause royal opinion to turn against Catholics, and inaugurated a period of persecution. 

 

But James I offered hope to Catholics.  His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, had been Catholic, and his wife, Henrietta, was a Catholic.  Catholics expected a wider tolerance when he ascended the throne in 1603.  When these changes were slow in coming, Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators took their own form of action.

 

Let’s look a little more closely at what the opposition to Catholicism in England looked like.  The rites that Henry inaugurated were little different from Roman Catholic rites; but his son Edward VI attempted a wholesale conversion to Protestantism, including the use of the Book of Common Prayer for the liturgy—English, that is, instead of Latin.  Edward’s sister, Mary, attempted to reverse this, but died early, and Elizabeth established the Church of England as the official state religion.

 

One group opposed to the Church of England but not Catholic was the Puritans.  These were extreme Protestants, influenced by the theology of John Calvin.  They were initially very popular in England, and established themselves as the major voice on the campus of the University of Cambridge.  Their most important belief was Predestination—the idea that God had chosen, at the beginning of time, who was going to be saved (the Elect) and who was going to be damned (the Reprobate).  Nothing one could do in one’s lifetime could change that predestined decision.

 

One of the consequences of such a theology was, of course, profound fear.  It’s a terrifying thought that you might not be able to effect the outcome of your own salvation, that nothing you can do can possibly raise you to Heaven, that you’re doomed through no fault of your own to eternal damnation.

 

The other effect, oddly enough, was a kind of reckless hedonism.  After all, if nothing I can do can affect my salvation or damnation, what’s the point in worrying about my behavior right now?  These people decided to eat, drink, and be merry—better to enjoy life now than to be miserable for your lifetime AND eternity too.

 

It’s pretty clearly established that Shakespeare was a Catholic.  His father, John, was identified as a recusant in 1592.  His mother, Mary Arden, came from a fiercely Catholic family in the neighborhood of Stratford-upon-Avon.  During the period of Shakespeare’s childhood, at least two Catholics, Simon Hunt and John Cottom, taught at King’s New School, where Shakespeare almost certainly received his education.  John Frith, who presided at Shakespeare’s wedding to Anne Hathaway in 1582, was identified by Elizabeth’s government as a Catholic in 1586.  It’s also possible that Shakespeare, under the alias of William Shakeshaft, lived with the Catholic Alexander Hoghton for some years after his departure from Stratford, and during this time inherited some costumes and stage properties that may have made his entrance into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men easier.  He almost certainly spent some years in Italy, where he learned the Italian form of comedy, commedia dell’arte, and gained a certain sympathy with, for example, Franciscan friars that is visible in some of his plays.  That, and the satirical light in which he paints Puritans, indicates that Shakespeare’s sympathies were more likely towards the Catholic than the Puritan pole.

 

Back to King Lear.  The story tells of an aging king who wants to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, two who sycophantically flatter him for material gain, and one who is honest.  Paralleling this story is the story of the Duke of Gloucester, who has one faithful son, Edgar, and one faithless illegitimate son, Edmund.  Edmund is so bad that, at one point, he betrays his father, handing him over to torture that includes having his eyes gouged out.

 

What makes Edmund so bad?  He gives us some clues in his early scene, in which he frames his brother, accusing him of wanting to murder the gullible Duke of Gloucester:

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law

My services are bound. Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true,

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,

Got ’tween asleep and wake? Well, then,

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:

Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund

As to the legitimate: fine word, legitimate!

Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,

And my invention thrive, Edmund the base

Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:

Now, gods, stand up for bastards!  (1.2..1-22)

When Edmund invokes Nature, he doesn’t seem to mean it in the way most Elizabethans meant the word.  When they referred to Nature, they meant a force that was essentially orderly and benign, connected with reason, custom and religion. This concept reflects both external harmony and the harmony within man and society. Eclipses and so forth are not merely natural phenomena, but “symptoms of a disease which affects all nature” (Danby).  To Edmund, by contrast, Nature is a force indifferent to social custom and order; it’s more akin to the Romantic conception of the force from which springs strength of mind and animal vigor. The aspirations of Edmund and his party are an illustration of the materialistic philosophy that Thomas Hobbes expressed some years later in Leviathan: “I put for a general inclination of mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (Ch.XI).

 

Later in the scene, Edmund’s father Gloucester expresses his belief in the benign view of nature, where astronomical phenomena are outgrowths of happenings in the world:

            GLOUCESTER           These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there’s son against father: the king falls from bias of nature; there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing; do it carefully. And the noble and true-hearted Kent banished! his offence, honesty! ’Tis strange.  [Exit]

            EDMUND       This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa Major; so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.  (1.2.100-130)

Edmund sees nothing but material causes and effects, and holds his father’s view in considerable contempt.  Edmund allows the heavens to accept no responsibility for his actions—he is exactly what he desires to be.  He chooses villainy.  There is no Christian god in his world, but the heavens, equivalent to the Puritan god, have nothing to do with how he conducts himself in the world.  So, for his own gain, he frames his brother, delivers his father up to torture, two-times a pair of princesses, who kill themselves for his so-called love, and orders the execution of the king’s daughter Cordelia, as well as Lear himself.

 

This is the reckless hedonism that we saw was a direct result of belief in Predestination.  On the surface, the two worldviews appear wildly different.  Predestination assumes a God in complete control of the world and its operations, and mankind as the slaves of that predestined plan.  Edmund’s universe lacks agency, and so he leaps in to fill the void with his own will.  But the effects are much the same.  One response to predestination was to recklessly embrace one’s own desires; and Edmund does the same thing.  Shakespeare’s point seems to be that whether you accept a Puritan god or no god at all, it ultimately makes no difference.  The Puritan view is a return to paganism.

 

Edmund is an expression of English Puritanism, in the only milieu other than Renaissance England that could have produced it: pagan Britain of the pre-Christian era.  At a moment of spiritual crisis, England’s greatest poet did exactly what his predecessors had done.  As the Beowulf-poet has looked to his pagan ancestors, and Chaucer had examined the darker side of Greek paganism, so Shakespeare portrays a world of ruthless Puritanism, unconcerned with God and conventional morality.

 

The poetry of spiritual crisis arises at moments when cultural stress force us to re-examine our own beliefs.  The men of the present resemble the men of the past, and the truly great poets see this resemblance, and call attention to it in their greatest works.

 

It wasn’t until relatively recently that we saw another moment of spiritual crisis.  But in Europe, at least, that crisis came with the senseless carnage of trench warfare in World War I, the consequences of which include World War II, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb, the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam, the assassinations of Ghandi, John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and the widespread poverty and despair that has accompanied these calamities.

 

I’ll leave it to you to decide which of our poets has responded to our own spiritual crisis.

 

 
 
Mark Adderley

I'm going to be posting, in several parts, the text of my lecture this evening.  Enjoy!

It’s always seemed to me odd that there should be such a fascination among Christian authors with regard to non-Christian beliefs, or pre-Christian beliefs.  I’ve observed this in some of the greatest poets who have ever lived.  The Beowulf-poet, for example, observed time and again that his characters believe not in God, but in a hard-to-define entity called Wyrd.  The characters in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale pray to pagan gods, and end up surrounded with death and despair, their only consolation that they must put up with it and endure.  The conclusion of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear is that “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.”

 

These situation are much grimmer than the ways the pagan gods are normally presented in literature.  If you think of, for example, the poetry of Keats, or Shakespeare’s early comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the pagan gods are romantic figures, often whimsical, sometimes unpredictable.  But there’s no depressing aura to these works.  There’s a big difference with the works I’ve outlined above.  And when you look at real pagan literature, you can see something very similar going on.  Take the final lines of the Chorus in Oedipus the King for example:

There goes Oedipus—

he was the man who was able

to answer the riddle proposed by the Sphinx.

Mighty Oedipus—

he was an object of envy

to all for his fortune and fame.

There goes Oedipus—

now he is drowning in waves of dread and despair.

Look at Oedipus—

proof that none of us mortals

can truly be thought of as happy

until he is granted deliverance from life,

until he is dead

and must suffer no more.

Not very optimistic stuff—man is the victim of the gods.  Then there are Priam’s remarks in The Iliad, Book XXIV: “This is the lot the gods have spun for miserable men, that they should live in pain; yet themselves are sorrowless.”

 

What prompts these very realistic, very accurate, very grim depictions of the pagan world?

 

If you look at the historical and social circumstances that produced them, you can see that each work of serious literature on the pagan theme was produced during a moment of intense spiritual upheaval, in which previously held beliefs have been challenges and found lacking in some way or another.  Beowulf was written shortly after the conversion of England to Christianity, the Knight’s Tale shortly after the Black Death, and King Lear at the moment when the Reformation seemed finally to have taken hold once and for all in England.  Each author sets up two worldviews in his text, one Christian and one non-Christian.  The non-Christian worldview in the tale is an implicit criticism of the author’s contemporaries.

 

Let’s take each one in turn, and first of all, the conversion.  This wasn’t an overnight affair, nor was it particularly smooth.  Although St. Augustine, arriving in England in 597, enjoyed some early success, many kings either refused to convert or else relapsed into paganism after an initial conversion.  Kign Rædwals of East Anglia, for example, converted and then relapsed.  King Edwin of Northumbria, a very powerful nobleman, converted, but then his kingdom was overrun by the pagan Penda of Mercia and his Christian ally Cadwallon of Gwynedd.  The pagan gods clung on, leaving even an indelible mark upon the language: the gods Twi, Woden, Thunor and Frig gave their names to the days of the week, the goddess Eostre to a Christian festival, and the midwinter festival Giuli remained as the season of Yule or Yuletide.

 

Shortly after this upheaval, an anonymous English poet composed—probably orally—the epic we’ve come to name after its central character, Beowulf.  It’s a story of monster-slaying—Beowulf kills Grendel, the troll who is murdering the warriors of King Hrothgar, then Grendel’s mother.  Finally, in the days of his advanced old age, Beowulf kills and is killed by a dragon that is destroying the Geats, the people he rules as king.  Beowulf is such a ferocious warrior that he’s also kept the Geats’ enemies at bay too—notably the Swedes.  But once he’s dead, his people fully expect the Swedes to kill them all and have no mercy whatever.

 

Beowulf is the greatest man of his age, and his age is simultaneously a warrior society and a pagan society.  Let’s take those in reverse order.

 

First, the pagan society.  The Beowulf-poet never mentions Christ.  He mentions God several times, but always with a lower-case G.  (There was actually no capitalization in the Beowulf-manuscript, except for everything in the first line of text.)  He mentions Cain and Abel, and he mentions that Hrothgar’s people, terrorized by Grendel, resort to the worship of idols in their despair.  And yet there are frequent reflections that seem very Christian in orientation.  This has long puzzled scholars, until J. R. R. Tolkien, the novelist, pointed out in 1936 that the poet might have been a Christian himself, writing a poem about a pagan society.

 

If the poet didn’t mention Christ, neither did he mention Woden or Thunor.  He mentions no god by name, except one, and that one we have no record of.  It’s name is Wyrd.  usually, the Old English word wyrd is translated by modern scholars as “fate,” but this is inadequate.  There are a number of other words for fate in Old English, and Wyrd does not behave like any of them.  If you look closely at where the poet uses the term wyrd, you can see that Wyrd protects Beowulf when, as a youth, he does something very foolish that nearly gets him killed.  At the same time, Wyrd helps Grendel to terrorize Hrothgar and his people.  What is Wyrd’s motive?  Clearly, Beowulf must survive, and so must Grendel—both the good and the evil must survive.  When Grendel comes to Hrothgar’s hall for the final visit, the poet records that Wyrd has left him.  So, clearly, Grendel has been supported by Wyrd so that Beowulf can slay him.  And that means that Wyrd had supported Beowulf earlier so that he could slay Grendel.  The slaying of Grendel by Beowulf is the event that Wyrd has wished to occur.  Why?  Clearly, so that Beowulf could become the king of the Geats.

 

The point here is that Wyrd participates in human history.  Wyrd has a plan and, when human beings attempt to deviate from that plan, as Beowulf did in his early life, then Wyrd has to interfere directly in human affairs and makes things work out.  In other words, Wyrd, a pagan goddess, behaves exactly like Providence in Christian thought.

 

But Beowulf’s ways are not enough.  The warrior culture that has produced him is not sufficient to protect his people once he has gone.  To explain.  In his book Violence and the Sacred, René Girard asks, “Why . . . do we never explore the relationship between sacrifice and violence?” (2)  Girard’s answer is that sacrifice—whether human or animal—arises as a social practice due to the ability of violence to accept a substitute.  He suggests that societies which practice sacrifice do so in an attempt to purge their members of their tendencies to violent behavior towards “appropriate” targets, and re-channel that violence towards a substitute victim.

 

Girard’s identifies three models, three ways in which human societies utilize violence: the sacrificial, in which “rites divert the spirit of revenge into other channels” (20-21); the compensatory, in which revenge is constrained by systems of compensation, “trial by combat, etc., whose curative effects remain precarious” (21); and the judicial, our current social system, which he calls “the most efficient of all the curative procedures.”

 

The fourth system, not mentioned by Girard, but definitely mentioned by MY WIFE, and therefore very important, is the warrior culture, in which victims of sacrifice are voluntary, chosen apparently at random by the fortunes of war.  Being a warrior society purges members of that society of their tendencies towards violence among themselves, directing that violence outwards onto other communities.

 

In Beowulf, the hero is the symbol of his age: a warrior culture, with the ultimate warrior, slayer of enemies both human and monster, at its head.  Beowulf, when he faces the dragon, is the king, the shield of his people.  When he dies, the messenger to the Geats makes it very clear that their civilization is at an end.  Beowulf has long kept their enemies at bay, but now the Swedes will sweep in, killing and destroying, and the Geats can expect no mercy from them.

 

The warrior society is over, for the Geats.  It has ended typically, in grand and glorious fashion, in a way that will be sung about down the ages.  But it is certainly over, and this model will no longer work for them.

 

This is why Wyrd is important.  Wyrd is the liminal figure, the connector between the pagan warrior culture, and the Christian culture in which sacrifice was undertaken voluntarily by one man, on one occasion, for all men and women.  The seed of the future was sown in the past.  If Anglo-Saxon life is to have any meaning in the future, it is by means of the sacrificial system of the Christian faith.  This is no doubt why Beowulf is so melancholy a poem.  It laments the end of something very attractive.  But it ushers in an era more glorious, more gentle, more merciful, ruled over by a king who chose to be the sacrificial victim of his people.

 

In a way, the question posed by the Beowulf-poet is similar to the one posed by Christ at the end of the Gospel according to John, Chapter 6.  Having explained that no one can enter the kingdom of Heaven unless he eats Christ’s flesh and drinks his blood, Christ watches the people wander away in embarrassed silence.  Turning to his disciples, he asks, “Do you also want to leave?”  Simon Peter replies, “Master, to whom shall we go?”  The Beowulf-poet does not know fully what the alternative to the warrior culture is, but he suspects that it lies with Christianity, and Wyrd points the way to Christianity.

 

Let’s move forward in time.  Chaucer wrote the Knight’s Tale in the early 1380s, at a time when England had been twice visited in living memory by an epidemic of bubonic plague.  The first outbreak of the plague, an event known as the Black Death, was completely unexpected.  It struck Europe in late 1347 and, by the spring of 1350, had carried off somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population.  No one knew what caused it.  On several occasions, victims were quarantined, but the disease spread anyway.  We know now that it was carried by fleas that hopped from rodents to other animals and humans, so quarantining human beings would have made no difference.  They didn’t know that.  All they knew was that so many people were dying that cemeteries were too small, and there weren’t enough living to do the work.  Death was terrifying, swift, and almost 100% certain.

 

One of the effects of the Black Death was to undermine the people’s faith in the Church.  They felt that the Church and her ministers had let them down, fleeing in fear from the plague rather than staying to administer to the sick.  It wasn’t really fair.  Mortality among priests was significantly higher than among any other social class.  But the effect is really more important than the reality.  People started to doubt the effectiveness of the priests, monks, and friars—a feeling compounded by the growing corruption, especially among the monks and friars.  From the English point of view, the Pope was particularly suspicious, living not in Rome or even Ravenna, but in Avignon, a city in the land of their enemy, France.  As a result, people tended in this period to reject the Church and favour a kind of mild Arianism.  They sought their own salvation, by means of pilgrimage or mysticism—not in themselves bad, but an indication of a kind of despair that had settled upon them.  And this despair is an important part of late-fourteenth-century life.  If salvation did not come from the Church, then where did it come from?  “Master, to whom shall we go?”  Eventually, the people of England went first of all to Lollardy, the teachings of John Wyclif, and then to Protestantism.  Chaucer, in the 1380s, asked the same kind of question.

 

The Knight’s Tale is a love story, set, as I say, in pagan times.  Two young men, Palamon and Arcite, are in love with the same young lady, Emily, sister-in-law to Duke Theseus of Athens.  To settle their dispute, Theseus ordains a tournament.  On the eve of the tournament, Palamon prays to Venus, asking that he may gain the love of Emily; Arcite prays to Mars, asking for victory in combat.  The two prayers look like they’re mutually exclusive, but Saturn, the grumpiest of the pagan gods, resolves the situation.  Arcite wins the tournament, but then his horse throws him, killing him.  Everyone is devastated.

 

For Chaucer, this opened up the question of how to reconcile the fortunes that men endure, the misery and suffering of the world, with a benign God.  How can a good Creator allow such suffering to occur in His world? 

 

The suffering of Emily, Palamon, and even Theseus is an echo of the suffering of the people of Europe in the wake of the Black Death—there seems to be no pattern to the suffering, no reason behind it.  This point of view is well summed up by Egeus, Theseus’ father:

No man myghte gladen Theseus,

Savynge his olde fader, Egeus,

That knew this worldes transmutacioun,

As he hadde seyn it chaungen up and doun,

Joye after wo, and wo after gladnesse,

And shewed hem ensamples and liknesse.

“Right as ther dyed nevere man,” quod he,

“That he ne lyvede in erthe in som degree,

Right so ther lyvede never man,” he seyde,

“In al this world that somtyme he ne deyde.

This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,

And we been pilgrymes passynge to and fro.

Deeth is an ende of every worldes soore.”

And over al this yet seyde he muchel moore.

Everyone parts company for the moment; but Theseus himself calls them together again a year later, and on this occasion, he gives them some consolation.  He starts, in a sense, be reiterating what his father had said a year previously:

“The firste moevere of the cause above

Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,

Greet was theffect, and heigh was his entente;

Wel wiste he, why, and what therof he mente,

For with that faire cheyne of love he bond

The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond,

In certeyn boundes that they may nat flee.

That same prince and that same moevere,” quod he,

“Hath stablissed in this wrecched world adoun

Certeyne dayes and duracioun

To al that is engendred in this place,

Over the whiche day they may nat pace;

Al mowe they yet tho dayes wel abregge,

Ther nedeth noght noon auctoritee allegge,

For it is preeved by experience‑

But that me list declaren my sentence.

Thanne may men by this ordre wel discerne

That thilke moevere stable is and eterne.

The First Mover—God—has placed limits upon human actions, Theseus argues.  We are not infinite beings, we don’t live for ever.  Sooner or later, our agency within the world is terminated by death.  So far, this doesn’t sound very optimistic.  And worse: since God is perfect, this must be right and good.  If it seems evil to us, that’s the result of our own limitations, not His imperfections.

 

All human actions are futile, Theseus alleges:

Of man and womman seen we wel also,

That nedeth, in oon of thise termes two,

This is to seyn, in youthe or elles age,

He moot be deed, the kyng as shal a page.

Som in his bed, som in the depe see,

Som in the large feeld, as men may se;

Ther helpeth noght, al goth that ilke weye,

Thanne may I seyn that al this thyng moot deye.

What maketh this, but Juppiter the kyng,

That is prince and cause of alle thyng

Convertyng al unto his propre welle

From which it is deryved, sooth to telle,

And heer agayns no creature on lyve

Of no degree availleth for to stryve.

Human action is futile in the face of death.  And since Jupiter himself, king of the gods, has ordained this, there is no point in struggling against it.  “Thanne is it wysdom,” says Theseus, “To maken vertu of necessitee.” 
 
 
Mark Adderley

The Nibelungenlied The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is an intriguing read, but not necessarily a very pleasant one. I read it to complement my reading of The Song of Roland, and intend to read The Poem of the Cid afterwards.

The Nibelungenlied is on the list of Great Books of the Western World, but I don't quite see why. The characterization is wildly inconsistent. Kriemhild, for example, is portrayed as a virtuous woman for the first half of the tale, but then as an evil schemer for the second half. Hagen of Troneg as an evil schemer for the first half of the story (he kills Siegfried and steal Kriemhild's treasure) but as a virtuous hero in the second half.

I understand how medieval literature works. Storytellers used diverse sources to construct their own tales. The author of The Quest of the Holy Grail, for example, used sources analogous to Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval or the Story of the Grail, and its many continuations (which can be found, somewhat abridged, in Nigel Bryant's translation), as well as some material they made up themselves. But they smoothe over the joins better than the author of the Nibelungenlied.

Oddly enough, the Great Books list doesn't include Beowulf, which I would consider far better than either the Nibelungenlied or the The Song of Roland.

I'll struggle through, though, and perhaps read the The Saga of the Volsungs, its direct source, soon. I might enjoy that more.

View all my reviews >>
 
 
Mark Adderley
26 September 2009 @ 04:30 pm
Tomorrow evening, I begin a book group at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Lander, Wyoming. The topic is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’m working with two other experts—Tami Kozinski, who has an MA in English and encyclopedic knowledge of Tolkien, and Frank Milligan, a student at Wyoming Catholic College, who’s read The Lord of the Rings almost thirty times. Really. Both of my colleagues know way more than I do, but what I’m contributing to tomorrow’s meeting is a quick analysis of Tolkien’s scholarship.

Here’s the thing. Most people who read LOTR for the first time think, “Wow! That was great. I want to read some more.” Then they hurry off to the local Barnes and Noble and buy another fantasy novel.

Now, I’m not knocking that. I think you should all hurry off and buy The Hawk and the Wolf at once. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve already bought it—you can’t have enough copies of The Hawk and the Wolf. But there is a problem.

I don’t think any other fantasy novel is really as satisfying as LOTR. I don’t know anybody who’s read even a good fantasy novel—say, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King—twenty-seven times, like Frank has. Why do we keep on going back to it?

The first answer is, I think, Truth. LOTR presents us with Truth far more comprehensively than any other fantasy novel ever written—better than any other novel in the twentieth or, so far, twenty-first century. This is largely because Tolkien didn’t buy into the materialistic mishmash that masquerades as a philosophy of life for most people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And if you don’t have a guiding philosophy for your fiction, it really won’t endure. Great authors present their worldviews unapologetically, and don’t try to satisfy the masses with vague political correctness or postmodernism or whatever happens to be the philosophy du jour.

The other answer is that no other fantasy writer has ever steeped himself so completely in his subject matter. Tolkien lived in Middle earth. It happened to be located in Oxford, particularly in the garage of his house, where he did all his writing. But the real world—he would have called it the primary world—didn’t have such a real existence to Tolkien as his invented world—what he would have called his secondary world—of Middle earth.

When we write a novel, whether we know it or not, we’re creating a world. Most of us make notes on that world as we’re writing our novels, so that we don’t have our characters do anything inconsistent. But Tolkien invented the world first, and then situated his stories in it. No wonder it’s more convincing than other fantasy worlds, like the Star Wars universe. In fact, Middle earth is sometimes more convincing to me than, say, America in the early twenty-first century. It certainly makes more sense. And it’s a whole lot more attractive.

From his earliest days, Tolkien was working on Middle earth, and what he created arose out of his studies and, ultimately, his teaching. That is to say, his scholarship. This is the mistake that fantasy-readers make, I think. Having finished LOTR, they shouldn’t go off and read The Sword of Shannara. They ought to go off and read what Tolkien read.

The odd thing is that the feeling you get from reading LOTR is very similar to the feeling you get from reading Tolkien’s favourite stories—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Sir Orfeo.

Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature, specifically of Old and Middle English. Old English is the language spoken and written in England from the fifth century through to the eleventh; Middle English was spoken and written between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. (And, no, Shakespeare did not write in Old English. It might be old to you, but he actually wrote Early Modern English, which everybody spoke until the beginning of the nineteenth century.)

Tolkien made a special study of these three poems. In the 1930s, he wrote an article on Beowulf called “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Previous scholars had plundered the poem to discover more about Anglo-Saxon culture. By reading Beowulf, they argued, you could find out a lot about Anglo-Saxon burial rituals, armour, feasting customs, and gift-giving, for example. Such critics seemed to be just a little embarrassed by the fact that the main action of Beowulf was about a man killing monsters—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. Tolkien reversed the tables on such critics, pointing out that the monsters were actually central to the poem, which should be read as a work of art in its own right, and not just as a quarry for archaeological details. He then tackled the question of whether the poet was a Christian or a pagan, a historically vexed question in Beowulf studies. His conclusion was that the poet was a Christian, but that he was writing about pagan times—in other words, the Beowulf-poet was a historically conscious writer. His article really marks the beginning of the modern study of Beowulf.

Another point that he makes in this article is about the poet’s digressions. The Beowulf-poet can’t stick to his topic. He keeps stopping the action so that he can describe something that happened in the remote past, the near future, or in legend. Tolkien’s point about these digressions was that they helped to flesh out the world Beowulf moved through, make it more convincing. Of course, Tolkien was himself busy writing such digressions for his own masterwork at the time. He had been working on what would become known as The Silmarillion since 1917. He knew what it was like to create history and traditions for a fictional world, and when he saw it in Beowulf, he recognized it. And, of course, Beowulf undoubtedly inspired him to do more in the creation of Middle earth.

The other article Tolkien wrote in the 1930s was entitled “On Fairy Stories.” The two main ideas that he described in this article are those of subcreation and eucatastrophe.

Subcreation is the act of world-building in which all creators of stories participate. It’s not creation. The primary world, the physical and spiritual world in which we live, was created by God. The world in which the events of our stories take place is not the primary world, but a secondary world that has been subcreated by an author. The author stands in relation to his subcreated world as God stands to the primary world. There is, of course, one big difference: characters in the primary world have free will, whereas characters in the secondary world do not. Even here, you can be nit-picky. Every author will attest that, sometimes, characters take on lives of their own and assert a kind of freedom over events in the secondary world. Whatever the psychological origin of such a phenomenon, it happens, and really attests to the divine nature of subcreation.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that reading poetry involved the reader in “the willing suspense of disbelief.” The reader has to make a conscious agreement to believe in the secondary world created by the poet. Tolkien was a little harsher. If the author was doing a good job, he reasoned, the reader shouldn’t need to suspend his disbelief. He wouldn’t even realize that he was in a fictional world until he reached the end of the tale and had to close the book. Anyone who has read all afternoon and not noticed the passage of time knows exactly what Tolkien was talking about!

Tolkien was writing The Hobbit at the time, and clearly, his analysis of fairy story was at the same time an analysis of what he was doing in his own fairy story. The Hobbit isn’t a great deal like LOTR. The elves are not so much the figures of veneration as they are in LOTR—they’re more frivolous, more childlike. You can make what excuses you like—we’re only seeing an aspect of their nature in The Hobbit, perhaps—but the fact is that they’re written to satisfy the same mind that finds wonder in fairy story.

The eucatastrophe is the sudden and unexpected happy ending in a story. Against all expectations, things turn out right. The hero was thought to be dead, but is not. All is better than could really have been imagined before. The Resurrection is the prime historical example of eucatastrophe, of course, and there are numerous examples in literature, including most notably the destruction of the Ring of Power at the end of LOTR.

The final aspect of Tolkien’s scholarly work I want to look at here is his work with the translation of some Middle English poems. The most important of these is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an artistically very sophisticated narrative poem written in an obscure dialect of English in about 1400. Tolkien translated the poem, but he also edited it, and his edition is still the standard one used by scholars all over the world. If you buy Tolkien’s translation of SGGK nowadays, it comes in a volume with two other Middle English poems he translated, Sir Orfeo and Pearl. Sir Orfeo is a medieval retelling of the Orpheus myth, with a happy ending. It’s a story that take the reader (or the listener—most medieval literature was oral) right into the heart of Faerie, the perilous realm Tolkien described in “On Fairy Stories.” Pearl is the account of a dream, in which the dreamer meets the soul of his dead daughter, and receives her consolation for his loss. The intensely pious poem was probably written by the same poet who wrote SGGK.

The world of Faerie is the world into which Tolkien draws us in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and LOTR. It is closely modeled on the worlds of SGGK and Sir Orfeo. The terrible nature of the fairies in Sir Orfeo, for example, who abduct Orfeo’s wife just because she falls asleep under a grafted tree, is amply mirrored in the elves who seduce the dwarves and the hobbit away from the path through Mirkwood in The Hobbit. And Gawain, the titular hero of SGGK, is mighty similar to Aragorn, unswerving in his adherence to goodness and beauty, implacable in his opposition to evil. Gawain has a flaw, of course—his sense of self-preservation leads him into an act of deception—but like Aragorn he has high ideals and holds his own behaviour to the highest of standards.

So, where do we go when we’ve read and enjoyed LOTR? Not forward into the realms of modern fantasy novels, but back—back to the wonderful realm of medieval literature, to Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to Sir Orfeo, and Pearl. And this is a journey that never leaves us wanting, and can last for the rest of our lives.
 
 
 
Mark Adderley
20 September 2009 @ 10:29 pm

We had been watching them all day, but when the ragged cliffs surrounding Leg Lake started rising over the very last boulder, I thought they were never going to stop.

Leg Lake is a cirque of granite cliffs, five hundred feet above a glacial lake of deep, still green.  On the further side, the edge of the glacier hesitates, like a white carpet.  Perhaps not like a carpet, perhaps more like the tongue of some great grey ice-creature, into whose mouth we have just ventured.

It’s hard to know whether to be ecstatic or afraid when you reach Leg Lake.

We were on the first FireWorks expedition, myself, my wife, Adrianne, three of my kids, and nine freshmen and juniors from Wyoming Catholic College.

 

I can’t claim to be the principal creative force behind FireWorks.  My wife and I collaborated on it.  The main idea of Wyoming Catholic College, though, is to combine academics and spirituality with an appreciation for nature—God’s first book (the Bible is his second).  It seemed to us a good idea to combine creative writing with an outdoor trip: in the midst of God’s creation, create a little world—a secondary world, in Tolkien’s words—that reflects just a little of the Creator’s glory.

We only planned a day-hike.  Five miles, from Worthen Meadow Reservoir, through pine forests, past glassy lakes and rushing falls, over mossy boulders and through sticky marshes, to Leg Lake.  Only a few of us made the last mile to Leg Lake, but we all got back to the camp-site at the reservoir with poems and stories and ideas to share around the campfire.  Works at the fire, or FireWorks, you see.

Thirteen faces around the fire (I couldn’t see my own, of course—I made the number lucky, like Bilbo Baggins, I suppose), all suffused with the golden glow, eyes bright.  The sparks rose from the fire, wagging this way and that, while the stars shone from above, as if God had lit some huge fire above us to show us how it was done.

I saw many things on this first FireWorks trip.  I saw a shrike poised at the very tip of a pine tree.  I saw a spring leap from the fertile rock and hurry, gushing, down a boulder-strewn hillside.  I saw aspens flecked with gold, and ruddy autumnal patches lying like anger on the hillside.

But I think the things that will stay with me are the things I saw in my mind’s eye around the campfire.  The antlered stag on the winter morning.  One brother’s jealousy, another’s wrath.  Nine ladies, each with a cat.

And the friendship, the camaraderie, the affection.

Teaching at Wyoming Catholic College isn’t like teaching anywhere else.  And I’m thankful to God—very thankful indeed—that I have that privilege.

 
 
Mark Adderley
14 September 2009 @ 09:45 pm
I just finished fencing--90 minutes of it. I haven't fenced in twenty years. Now I really admire knights.
 
 
Mark Adderley
11 September 2009 @ 11:13 pm
I’ve never taught rhetoric before, but it’s my assignment this semester. I’m enjoying it much more than I expected—fortunately, my students are intelligent and enthusiastic. Our main textbook is Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Anyway, here’s the point. Rhetoric is chiefly used today in politics and advertising. I despise politics, of course. And usually, I despise advertising too. But I thought it might be a good idea to use Aristotle’s principles to try and sell a few copies of The Hawk and the Wolf.

Aristotle says there are three different types of appeal you can make in a speech. The first is the appeal to reason—you can prove something to an audience by giving them a reasoned and logical argument. That doesn’t work for most people, of course—if you’ve ever met someone who held an opinion that logic couldn’t shake, you know what I mean. For these people, there are two other appeals. There is the appeal to emotion (emotions are very persuasive) and the appeal to ethos (not to ethics—the appeal to ethos is the appeal that ingratiates the speaker with an audience).

Anyway, here goes.

The appeal to reason. Buy The Hawk and the Wolf because it’s quite simply the best novel on Merlin ever written. By “best,” I mean most readable and original. It’s very readable because all my reviewers agree on this. (That, buy the way, is what is known as a common topic, the appeal to authority.) Cameron Lowe, for example, calls it “a joy to read . . . [the] descriptions, both of the world and in it, are ripe and vivid.” William Toliver says, “I was involved from the very first.” And it’s original because it places Merlin in a historical milieu where he’s never been placed by any writer before. As Tom Shippey says in Arthuriana, it’s “Intriguing and original . . . myth, legend, romance, and history are inextricably entwined.” Thus, assuming that you want something entertaining and unusual, you should buy The Hawk and the Wolf for yourself, your friends, and your family, and persuade them to buy it for everyone they know. In fact, don’t rest until not only everybody you know owns a copy of The Hawk and the Wolf, but everybody you’ve ever met or are likely to meet also owns a copy.

Ah, the appeal to reason! Beautiful, ain’t it?

Next, the appeal to emotion. Now, I could just say, “Buy a copy of The Hawk and the Wolf, or else you’ll die, go to Hell, and burn for ever.” That’s an appeal to emotion—the emotion of fear. But there are other emotions. Take, for example, the appeal to the need for community: “Buy The Hawk and the Wolf. Everybody else has.” The appeal to paranoia: “Exactly why don’t you have a copy of The Hawk and the Wolf?” The appeal to comfort: “The Hawk and the Wolf is just the book to snuggle down with in a plush armchair with a cup of hot chocolate and some cheesecake.” And the ever-popular appeal to sex: “Only people who have read The Hawk and the Wolf can ever get a date.” That pretty much takes care of the appeal to emotion.

Last of all comes the appeal to ethos. You can do lots of things to ingratiate yourself with an audience. You can tell a joke, for instance. “What’s the difference between Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe? The dumber one hasn’t read The Hawk and the Wolf.” You can make people feel sorry for you: “My marriage is going to fail if I don’t sell more copies of The Hawk and the Wolf.”

Sigh.

Sometimes I wonder how advertising people can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning.
 
 
Mark Adderley
05 September 2009 @ 05:38 pm
“Merlin’s Britain . . . is situated somewhere between the mystical world of legend and the cold world of modern historical imaginings. . . . Ripe reading material for Merlin enthusiasts and lovers of fantasy” (Jonathan Schindler's review of The Hawk and the Wolf, The Englewood Review of Books)
 
 
Mark Adderley
04 September 2009 @ 03:47 pm
Check out the new review of "The Hawk and the Wolf" at the Englewood Review of Books:
http://ping.fm/8Mazf