23 September 2017

Impossible Dates, in Greece, Rome and the Shire.





Today (23 September) is the birthday of Augustus Caesar, and yesterday was the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. So it is entirely meet, fitting, and proper to write about a little known parallel between the Rome and the Shire. 

cum aliquos numquam soluturos significare uult, 'ad K(a)l(endas) Graecas soluturos' ait. 

When [Augustus] wished to indicate that some people would never pay their debts, he said that they would pay them 'on the Greek Kalends.' 
Suetonius, Augustus, 87.1

The first day of every Roman month was known as 'the Kalends' of that month (hence our 'calendar'). Since Greeks did not use the Roman calendar, there could be no 'Greek Kalends'. 

Meanwhile in the Shire the first day of a non-existent month also gave rise to a joke:

It will be noted if one glances at a Shire Calendar, that the only weekday on which no month began was Friday. It thus became a jesting idiom in the Shire to speak of 'on Friday the first' when referring to a day that did not exist. or to a day on which very unlikely events such as the flying of pigs or (in the Shire) the walking of trees might occur. In full the expression was 'on Friday the first of Summerfilth'.
(RK App. D 1109 n. 2)

The month 'Summerfilth' does not exist. It is a play on 'Winterfilth', which is roughly equivalent with October, a name Tolkien derived, Winterfylleþ, the first month of Winter among the Anglo-Saxons.


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A Low Place in the Hedge -- FR 1.i.36


'The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water' -- © The Tolkien Estate

He paused, silent for a moment. Then without another word he turned away from the lights and voices in the fields and tents, and followed by his three companions went round into his garden, and trotted down the long sloping path. He jumped over a low place in the hedge at the bottom, and took to the meadows, passing into the night like a rustle of wind in the grass.

Frodo, Sam, and Pippin jump over the same low spot seventeen years later (FR 1.iii.70).  Now I had never really thought about this until now, but we're talking hobbits here. That must have been a very low spot indeed for Bilbo and the others to jump over it. 

Think about it.

Like a foot tall.

More of a shrubbery, really.

With Tolkien's eye for detail it is no surprise to find just such a low spot () in the hedge in his painting of the Hill. 

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21 September 2017

ἄειδε δ’ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν, or not



By the time the Iliad reaches Book 9 the war is going so badly for the Achaeans without Achilles that even Agamemnon is willing to beg him to come back. Since great kings do not generally do their own begging -- see Book 24, however -- Agamemnon sends Aias, Odysseus, and Phoenix, Achilles' old tutor, with promises of vast amends, to win Achilles over. When the three emissaries reach the tent of Achilles, they find him preoccupied with the very sort of heroics they hope for from him:
Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ᾽ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν Ἠετίωνος ὀλέσσας:
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ᾽ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν
They came to the huts and ships of the Myrmidons,
And found him taking pleasure in a clear toned lyre,
both fair and ingenious, and upon it was a silver bridge.
He chose it from the spoils when he took the city of Eëtion;
With this he delighted his heart, and sang the glorious deeds of men.
(Iliad ix.185-89)
Over a thousand years later another poet far from Troy was singing of men's glory, but not only that. In The Battle of Maldon the anonymous poet takes a moment to make sure that others remembered the names and lineage of three brothers who ran away:
Hi bugon þa fram beaduwe þe þær beon noldon.
þær wearð Oddan bearn ærest on fleame,
Godric fram guþe, and þone godan forlet
þe him mænigne oft mear gesealde;
he gehleop þone eoh þe ahte his hlaford,
on þam gerædum þe hit riht ne wæs,
and his broðru mid him begen ærndon,
Godwine and Godwig, guþe ne gymdon,
ac wendon fram þam wige and þone wudu sohton,
flugon on þæt fæsten and hyra feore burgon,
and manna ma þonne hit ænig mæð wære,
gyf hi þa geearnunga ealle gemundon
þe he him to duguþe gedon hæfde.
Swa him Offa on dæg ær asæde
on þam meþelstede, þa he gemot hæfde,
þæt þær modiglice manega spræcon
þe eft æt þearfe þolian noldon. 
Then those who had no wish to be there turned from the battle.
There, Godric, the son of Odda, proved first in flight
From battle, and forsook the good man
Who had often given him many a horse;
Godric leaped on the horse which his lord owned,
Onto the saddle which it was not his right to mount,
And both his brothers galloped off with him:
Godwin and Godwig, of battle they took no heed,
And went from the conflict and headed for the woods;
They fled to its fastness and saved their lives,
And more men than was at all right followed,
Had they kept in mind all gracious acts
Which their lord had done for them and their benefit.
So Offa had told Byrthnoth one day
At the meeting place, when he held an assembly,
That many would speak boldly there
Words they would not live up to at need.
(185-201)

Nor was this the poet's last word on the feckless sons of Odda. He returned to them twice more in the extant text. At lines 237-42 he points out that Godric's flight on his lord's horse had misled his men into thinking that it was Byrtnoth himself who was deserting them. This caused the shield-wall to break. And he later mentioned another man named Godric, son of Æþelgar, whom he hastens to identify as 'not the Godric who avoided the battle' (325).

My first reaction as I read about the feckless sons of Odda was amusement. I thought of 'Brave Sir Robin' in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and of the scene in the Star Trek (TOS) episode, 'Bread and Circuses', where the master of ceremonies threatens a gladiator who will not fight with 'You bring this networks ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you.' But as I read on, one warrior after another, old and young, stepped forward and was named with his lineage. Each vowed to avenge his lord, then plunged into the battle and died. The more I read of these men, the more hostile and personal the lines directed at Godric, Godwin, and Godwig seemed. The author of Maldon is unknown, and the poem's date disputed, but anger at treachery can linger for generations. And it can linger even longer in the memory of a people that feels disinherited and oppressed. Whenever the poet wrote it, his wrath at Odda's sons seems keen. He tried to make sure that the evil these men did lived after them, as surely as he sang the glorious deeds of the other men who died that day. For today at least he has done both. 

15 September 2017

The Silmarillion, published 15 September 1977



That is my Silmarillion pictured above, the one I bought forty years ago today. I took an hour and a half bus trip that day after school to go get it. The anticipation on that endless, meandering local bus trip, in which the bus stopped every two blocks whether it needed to or not, would likely have been a lot worse had not my best friend of those days, Tricia, been along for the ride (the bookstore was right down the way from her house). I talked to her all the way there about books and school and school friends, as one does at seventeen. As the bus pulled up on the corner where the bookstore was, it was like seeing a far green country under a swift sunrise. The trip back -- if there was one -- I didn't notice, because I had a new book by Tolkien, the last anyone (except perhaps Christopher Tolkien and Rayner Unwin) thought there would ever be. 

I stayed up all night reading it because here at last were those tales alluded to in The Lord of the Rings, most importantly Beren and Lúthien, but which till now I could only hunger for, and try to puzzle out from the text I had. I think I started reading it again the moment I finished it, scrawling notes in the margins and inside the covers, thrilled to see the names Olórin and Galadriel, trying to figure out the metaphysics and theology of The Ainulindalë, and weeping more times than I ever would have admitted then at the beauties and sorrows of Arda Marred. Nothing I had gleaned from Carpenter's biography or Clyde Kilby's Tolkien and the Silmarillion had prepared me for the full impact. And I was lucky. I only had to wait six years from the time I first read The Lord of the Rings. Others had to wait over twenty. And it exceeded all my hopes. I was fortunate not to be put off as some were by its very different style and almost total want of hobbits.

So that is my Silmarillion. We have gotten older and shabbier together, and equally unappealing to collectors. Do I wish I'd been more careful with the wrapper? No doubt. Not because that would increase its value today -- nothing could increase its value to me -- but because it deserved a better fate than tatters. And yet:
From a locked drawer, smelling of moth-balls, he took out an old cloak and hood. They had been locked up as if they were very precious, but they were so patched and weatherstained that their original colour could hardly be guessed: it might have been dark green. 
(FR 1.i.31)

11 September 2017

The evolution of a commonplace

I discovered Tolkien when I was eleven and, as you've probably gathered, I rather liked his work. From then until I went to college seven years later, I read The Lord of the Rings probably three times a year. When I got to college I meant to study English as well as Classics, but to go to graduate school and write a dissertation on Tolkien. I must have mentioned this to someone on the English Faculty because somebody, I no longer remember whom, made it clear to me how very little chance there was that I would be allowed to write such a dissertation, and how doing so would be academic suicide. As I said, I don't recall who told me this or whether it was meant kindly or contemptuously, but it was enough to decide not to be an English Major.

Fifteen or so years later, with a doctorate in Classics firmly stitched into the lining of my then spiffy ego, I was sitting in a paper session at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (then called The American Philological Association) listening to another young scholar answer questions about his paper. He was doing fine. His paper had been good, and he had handled the questions deftly. Then he chose to illustrate a point he was making by reference to an episode of Star Trek. Again, I don't recall the particulars, but I remember recognizing (as a lifelong Trekker) that the allusion he was making was absolutely appropriate to his subject, but utterly wrong for this audience. As I was thinking "No, no, no, don't pick that", I felt the room slip away from him.

Another twenty-five years down the line, popular culture has a much wider acceptance within the academic world. Indeed the flowering of disciplines unheard of as little as three decades ago astonishes me. Some of them speak to me, and some don't. Some I don't understand at all, but understanding is not necessary. Not everyone that speaks, speaks to me. Not every message is meant for me. That's okay. I try not to be so arrogant as to think that something has no value if I don't understand it or like it. 

But recently I was chatting with someone about a forthcoming article on Tolkien I had written, the main title of which is 'These Are Not the Elves You're Looking For', a rather obvious allusion to the famous line in Star Wars: Episode IV: 'These are not the droids you're looking for.' The person I was speaking to suggested that I would be wise to change it, since an allusion to Star Wars might put some people off.