12 November 2017

Legolas at Night -- C.S. Lewis and the Dreams of the Elves

The other day I was listening to one of Malcolm Guite's marvelous talks -- I say marvelous, as if, absurdly, there were talks of his that were not marvelous -- this one was on C. S. Lewis and part of a series on The Inklings. Right near the end, he read aloud Lewis' poem, The Adam at Night, to convey Lewis' sense of what the consciousness of an unfallen human being might be like. In this poem, first published in Punch in 1949, Lewis imagines Adam not sleeping, says Guite, but, 'as it were, entering into the consciousness of the world itself without losing his consciousness as a person':
Except at the making of Eve Adam slept
Not at all (as men now sleep) before the Fall;
Sin yet unborn, he was free from that dominion
04  Of the blind brother of death who occults the mind. 
Instead, when stars and twilight had him to bed
And the dutiful owl, whirring over Eden, had hooted
A warning to the other beasts to be hushed till morning
08  And curbed their plays that the Man should be undisturbed,

He would lie, relaxed, enormous, under a sky
Starry as never since; he would set ajar
The door of his mind. Into him thoughts would pour
12  Other than day's. He rejoined Earth, his mother.
He melted into her nature. Gradually he felt
As though through his own flesh the elusive growth,
The hardening and spreading of roots in the deep garden;
16  In his veins, the wells filling with silver rains, 
And, thrusting down far under his rock-crust,
Finger-like, rays from the heavens that probed, bringing
To bloom the gold and diamond in his dark womb.
20  The seething, central fires moved with his breathing. 
He guided his globe smoothly in the heaven, riding
At one with his planetary peers around the Sun;
Courteously he saluted the hard virtue of Mars
24  And Venus' liquid glory as he spun between them. 
Over Man and his mate the Hours like waters ran
Till darkness thinned in the east. The treble lark,
Carolling, awoke the common people of Paradise
28  To yawn and scratch, to bleat and whinny, in the dawn. 
Collected now in themselves, human and erect,
Lord and Lady walked on the dabbled sward,
As if two trees should arise dreadfully gifted
32  With speech and motion. The Earth's strength was in each.

The first three quatrains (lines 1-12) called at once to my mind Tolkien's characterization of the dreams of Elves:
With that [Aragorn] fell asleep. Legolas already lay motionless, his fair hands folded upon his breast, his eyes unclosed, blending living night and deep dream, as is the way with Elves.
(TT 3.ii.442)
Legolas can do the same thing, or something very like it, by day as well:
and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.  
(TT 3.ii.429)
While quatrains 4 through 7 (12-28) do not bear the same close resemblance to what we find in Tolkien, the essential closeness of Adam to the world and the creatures in it is reminiscent of how closely to Arda the Elves are bound. Even at death they do not leave it -- as do Men whose proper home is not in Arda, but somewhere beyond it -- but after a time live again. And this will be so for as long as Arda lasts. In keeping with this is their way with nature, ranging from Legolas' ability to hear the stones of Hollin and communicate with Arod, the horse loaned him by Éomer, to the Elves' power to enchant and to 'wake up' creatures and teach them to talk, as they did with the Ents. 

Even so, the reference to the 'common people of Paradise' in lines 27-28 seems far more Narnian, and it is hard not to think of Tor and Tinidril of Perelandra when Lewis calls Adam and Eve 'Lord and Lady' in line 30. Yet this also turns us back to Tolkien, since the names Tor and Tinidril are modelled on Tuor and Idril from The Silmarillion, and his Ents are very much trees 'dreadfully gifted with speech and motion'. But so, too, in a sense, are Ask and Embla, the first two humans of Norse Mythology, whom Odin, Vili, and Vé fashioned from tree-trunks they found on the seashore: '[o]ne of Bor's sons gives [them] spirit and life; the second, mind and movement; the third, appearance, speech, hearing, and vision' (Lindow, 62). Both Lewis and Tolkien of course knew this myth perfectly well.

Finally in this lovely web of influences we should not forget that Tolkien modeled the way Treebeard spoke 'on the booming voice of C. S. Lewis' (Carpenter, 1977, 194), just as Lewis drew on Tolkien to shape his hero, Ransom, the philologist and hero of his Space Trilogy.



09 November 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune V (25-72)

Image 1

Als j me wente þis endres daye,
ffull faste in mynd makand my mone
In a mery mornynge of Maye,
28   By huntle bankkes my self allone,
I herde þe jaye, & þe throstyll cokke,
The Mawys meynde hir of hir songe,
Þe wodewale beryde als a belle,
32   That alle þe wode abowte me ronge.
Allone in longynge thus als j laye,
Vndyre-nethe a semely tree,
[was] j whare a lady gaye
[36   Come rydyng] over a longe lee.
If j solde sytt to domesdaye,
With my tonge, to wrobbe and wrye,
Certanely þat lady gaye,
40   Never bese scho askryede for mee.

25 -- j: as previously noted 'j' alone  = 'I'.

It is important to note that the poem begins as a first person account, as if by Thomas himself, which continues until line 72. Thereafter the poet tells the tale in the third person, with one brief reversion to first at line 276.

25 -- endres: 'other'. The statement that this all started the other day conflicts with the later statement on line 286 that Thomas spent three years in Elfland.

26 -- 'ffull faste in mynd makand my mone': 'with every intention of voicing my complaint'. Most likely an unhappy lover's complaint, since that is a commonplace of Middle English poetry. Consider Chaucer, The House of Fame, where Dido laments her abandonment by Aeneas in lines 315-60, and the narrator comments (362-63): 'Al her compleynt ne al hir moone, / Certeyn, avayleth hir not a stre'. See also Troilus and Criseyde IV.950: 'Ful tendrely he preyde and made his mone'.

28 -- huntle bankkes: Huntley Bank, a hillside near Earlston (Ercledoune), also known as Huntley Brae. The naming of an actual place begins the story firmly in this world. The references to 'the other day' (25) and the Eildon Tree (80, 84) play the same role. Thus Faërie is very close to the world we know.

29-32 -- The singing of the birds, just  as one would expect in May, also helps to root the story in the ordinary world.

29 -- þrostyll cokke: a thrush, perhaps the missel thrush (turdus viscivorus). Swainson notes that throstle cock is the name for this bird in nearby Roxburgh (2).

30 -- Mawys: the mavis or song thrush (turdus musicus).

-- meynde hir:  'reminded herself', 'recalled'.

31 -- wodewale: the woodlark (alauda arborea), says Murray. While I do not doubt this, I have been unable to find corroboration. Swainson (98-99) does not include wodewale as a local variant for woodlark, but for the Great Spotted Woodpecker (dendrocopus major) and the Green Woodpecker (gecinus viridis) in far off Hampshire and Somerset, respectively.  The OED identifies the woodwall first as archaic name for the golden oriole (oriolus galbula, which seems to be the same as the oriolus oriolus, but I cannot yet confirm this).

-- beryde: 'resounded'.

33 -- Allone in longyng: see note on line 26.

34 -- semely tree: not the same as the so-called Eildon Tree (80, 84), another landmark, whose location is commemorated by a monument. See image 1 above.

35 -- was] j whare: here and elsewhere below the Thornton MS has lacunae in the text, and I have used the other MSS to supplement. Cotton reads 'I was war', while Landsdowne has 'I saw where' and Cambridge 'Saw I where'.  Clearly there is also confusion between 'whare' (=  'aware') and 'whare' (= 'where'), and this has affected the verb. Since the lines preceding these detail the speaker's awareness of his surroundings, I am inclined to the far more vivid 'was j whare', i.e., 'I became aware', which also preserves the inverted word order suggested by the remains of this line in Thornton, and paralleled in Cambridge. 

36 -- Come rydyng]: Cotton: 'come rydyng'; Landsdowne: 'cam rydyng'; Cambridge: 'came ridand'.

-- lee: 'lea' denotes open land not currently under the plow, either used for pasturage or left fallow.  

38 -- to wrobbe and wrye: 'wrobben' means 'babble on, prattle'. 'Wry(e' means to 'move by twisting or turning', sometimes with connotations of misinterpretation or madness. 

40 -- scho: she.

-- askryede for mee: 'described by me'. True to his word, the poet spends virtually no time at all in what follows describing the Lady. Rather he focusses in detail on her horse and its saddle (42-46, 49-51, 57-64), with briefer comments on the Lady herself interspersed (47-48, 54-56).

Hir palfraye was a dapill graye,
[42 ........................................
Swylke one ne saghe j neuer none;
Also dose þe sonne on someres daye,
48   Þat faire lady hir selfe scho shone.
Hir selle it was of roelle bone,
ffull semely was þat syghte to see!
Stefly sett with precyous stones,
52   And compaste all with crapotee,
Stones of Oryente, grete plente;
Hir hare abowte hir hede it hange;
Scho rade over þat lange lee;
56   A whylle scho blewe, anoþer scho sange;
Hir garthes of nobyll sylke þay were,
The bukylls were of Berell stone,
Hir steraps were of crystalle clere,
60   And all with perell over-by-gone.
Hir  payettrelle was a of jrale fyne,
Hir cropoure was of Orpharë,
And als clere golde hir brydill it schone,
64   One aythir syde hange bellys three.
[She led iij grehoundis in a leeshe,
viij rachis be hir fete ran;
To speke with hir wold I not seesse;
68   Hir lire was white as any swan.
Fforsothe, lordyngs, as I yow tell,
Thus was þis lady fayre begon.]
Scho bare an horne abowte hir halse,
72   And under hir belte full many a flone;

42-45 Murray places a lacuna in his printing of the Thornton, Cotton, and Cambridge Manuscripts, yet he clearly believes something resembling the text of the Lansdowne once stood here, since his numbering of the lines takes the Lansdowne into account. Yet whatever memory of the original the Lansdowne preserves is an imperfect and troublesome one, which we cannot simply insert to fill the gap, since that would disrupt the rhyme scheme and the numbering. 

[The farest Molde that any myght be;
Here sadell bryght as any day.
*44   Set with pereles to þe kne.
And furthermore of hir Aray,
Divers clothing she had upon;]

41 -- palfrey: a riding horse of the Middle Ages, known for a smooth, quick gait that made it ideal for travelling long distances.

*42 -- Molde: type, nature, character.

*45 -- furthermore: in addition.

*45-46 -- Aray...clothing: it is difficult to be sure what is being described here, since aray can refer either to the furnishings of the saddle or the apparel of the Lady, and clothing can mean 'clothing' as well as the 'trappings' of a horse. 'And furthermore', however, seems to establish a connection to *43-44, and the descriptions of the horse's tack are more detailed than those of the Lady, whom the poet calls indescribable in line 40, or describes in vague or fulsome terms: she shines like the summer sun (47-480; wears her hair loose, blows a horn, or sings (54-56). This inclines me to believe that aray and clothing refer to the saddle and its trappings.

*46 -- clothing: the trappings or caparison. In image two we see two caparisoned horses, one in blue, the other in red.

 lmage Two, by Jean Fouquet ca 1450s 1455-60.

46 -- Swylke one: 'such a one'. See next note.

-- ne saghe j neuer none: the vaporish modern prohibition against multiple negatives does not apply in Middle English. It requires a bit of gymnastics to make them all fit in: ''Nor saw I never none such as this one.' It is obviously a very strongly negative statement.

-- 49: selle also means saddle, but here may refer specifically to the seat. Cf. the same line in the Lansdowne -- 'here sege was of ryall bone' -- where sege clearly means 'seat',

-- roelle bone: walrus ivory, or possibly narwhal (OED s.v. ruel-bone). The Lewis Chessmen are likely the most famous example of work in walrus ivory. For much of the Middle Ages, elephant ivory was in short supply in northern Europe.

52 -- compaste: 'compassed', or 'surrounded', i.e., a border of gemstones ran along the edges of the saddle.

-- crapote: either toadstone -- a greenish fossil gemstone believed to be found inside the heads of toads (cf. Fr. crapaud), which could serve as an antidote to poison --  or emerald as  'Stones of Oryente' may indicate. How often is 'emerald' the more prosaic choice?

56 -- a whylle...anoþer...: sometimes...sometimes....

57 -- garthes: the girth of the saddle.

58 -- berell stone: beryl, of which emerald and aquamarine are examples.

59 -- crystalle clere: quartz crystal. Cf. Sir Orfeo 357-58, on the wall of the fairy king's castle: 'Al þe vt-mast wal / Was clere & schine as cristal'.

60 -- perell: pearl or mother of pearl.

-- over-by-gone: 'ornamented all over'.

61 -- payetrelle: peitrel, a 'protective breastplate' or 'breast collar' for a horse. See image three.

-- jrale fyne: an unknown precious stone. Murray says: 'I can get no light on iral-stane; the scribes also seem not to have understood it, and hence their alterations, rial, alarane, &c'. He guesses that iral-stane was the original reading, since that would rhyme with schone in line 63, which fyne obviously cannot.

63 -- cropoure: crupper, today only a strap running the back of the saddle to the horse's tail to keep the saddle from shifting; in the Middle Ages, a covering for the horse's hind quarters, often armored. See image two.

-- Orpharë: probably signifying that the crupper has an ornamental band or fringe of gold, from orfevrie, 'goldsmith's work', from Latin 'aurifaber', goldsmith.

Image Three

*65-70 -- A second lacuna, this one posited by Murray. While there is no visible gap in Thornton, Lansdowne shows one. Cotton is damaged at this point, but enough remains to show that it did not continue as Thornton does, directly from 'bellys three' to 'And sevene raches...'. Cambridge supplies the text I've inserted. This, however, is also problematic. For, as Murray points out, these lines are not in the poem itself, but 'written at the side and foot with marks of insertion'.

*66 -- rachis: a rache or ratch was a hunting dog that tracked its prey by scent, unlike greyhounds, which rely on sight.

*67 -- To speke with hir wold I not seesse: Since he has not spoken with her yet, this sentence seems unlikely to mean, 'to speak with her I would not cease'. Here 'with hir' makes more sense taken to mean 'regarding her'. He can't stop talking about her.

*68 -- lire: cheek.

*70 -- fayre begon: 'beautifully turned-out'.

71 -- halse: neck.

72 -- flone: arrows. Together with the horn and the dogs, the arrows suggest that she is hunting, but what, or whom? Arrows of course had long been associated with the god of Love. Does the poet's failure to mention a bow make it more conspicuous? Does her appearance as a huntress hark back to Venus' appearing to Aeneas as a huntress in Book One of The Aeneid? (1.379-497 Fagles). There Aeneas mistakes her for a human at first, recognizing her as his goddess mother only as she turns to go. Thomas will also mistake the Fairy Queen for someone else when he sees her (lines 85-96).


Note to the Reader:

I am not a Medievalist by training, though I've read a fair amount of Old and Middle English for someone who isn't. My goal is to make this fascinating text more readily available and more easily read than it has been so far. The text Murray published in 1875 is available from the Early English Text Society for a reasonable price. (Beware of scanned reprints put out by others.) I have also lately discovered that Ingeborg Nixon published a text and commentary in Denmark in the early 1980s, but I have not been able to find a copy of it for sale at anything like a reasonable price ($300+). For that much I should get to meet the Queen of Elfland herself. One of these days I will make a pilgrimage to consult it at the New York University library, which seems to have a copy. So, pardon any mistakes I make, and help me to correct them. I will gladly publish any comment that is civil and signed. Anything rude or anonymous I shall delete.


Works Consulted

Burnham, Josephine M, A Study of Thomas of Erceldoune, PMLA 23.3 (1908) 375-420.

Lyle, E.B., Thomas of Erceldoune: The Prophet and the Prophesied, Folklore 79 (1968) 111-121.

________, The Relationship between Thomas the Rhymer and Thomas of  Erceldoune, Leeds Studies in English 4 (1970) 23-30.

________, The Visions in St Patrick's Purgatory, Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas the Rhymer, and The Demon Lover, Neuphilologishe Mitteilungen 72 (1971) 716-722.

Paton, Lucy Alan, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance, Boston (1903).

Swainson, Charles, Provincial Names and Folklore of British Birds, London (1885).


⇦Thomas of Erceldoune IV || Thomas of Erceldoune VI⇨

26 October 2017

The More You Read, The More Jokes You Get

Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948)

A friend of mine once told me that the more you read, the more jokes you get.

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Lying down at OPHELIA's feet. 
No, my lord. 
I mean, my head upon your lap? 
Ay, my lord. 
Do you think I meant country matters? 
I think nothing, my lord. 
That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs. 
What is, my lord? 
You are merry, my lord. 
Who, I? 
Ay, my lord.

Once I was teaching Hamlet, and one of my exceptional, fun students, stopped me when we were discussing Act III Scene ii. There was an editor's note in the text, she said, which pointed out that 'country matters' was an obscene pun. She didn't get it. For a moment I stopped, trying to think of a way to suggest it to her without saying too much. You have to hear it to get it, I told her, and turned away to write on the board. A few seconds passed, in which the tap and scratch of chalk on slate seemed to fill the room. Then I heard her: "Oh..OH!" Recognition murmured its way across the room.

This morning, twenty years after, I was reading Thomas of Erceldoune, and came across an obscene joke that was almost certainly not there, but which I got but because I had read Shakespeare.

'Come lygge thyne hede downe on my knee,
And [þou] sall se þe fayreste syghte,
þat euer sawe mane of thi contree.' (1.194-96) 
Come lie thine head down on my knee,
And thou shalt see the fairest sight
That ever saw a man of thy country.

I don't think this is what my friend meant, but in a November of the soul you take what you can get.

Sad Songs They Say So Much, or, Northrop Frye Explains It All

Northrop Frye statue outside the Moncton Public Library, not yet defaced by adherents of subsequent critical schools

In this miraculous paragraph Northrop Frye explains not only why sad songs are always the best, but also how Tolkien could write both The Hobbit and The Children of Húrin:

In literature there are two great organizing patterns. One is the natural cycle itself; the other, a final separation between an idealized and happy world and a horrifying or miserable one.  Comedy moves in the direction of the former, and traditionally closes in some traditional formula as "They lived happily ever after." Tragedy moves in the opposite direction, and towards the complementary formula "Count no man happy until he is dead."  The moral effect of literature is normally bound up with its assumption that we prefer to identify ourselves with the happy world and detach ourselves from the wretched one. The record of history, in itself, does not indicate this: it indicates that man is quite as enthusiastic about living in hell as in heaven.  To see misery as tragic, as a destroyed and perverted form of greatness and splendor, is a primary achievement of Greek literature. The Bible's vision of misery is ironic rather than tragic, but the same dialectical separation of the two worlds is quite as strongly marked. 
The Great Code, 73
It would also make a terrific passage to set for an examination essay, followed by the single word: discuss.

22 October 2017

Guest Post -- Meredith McEwen on Goldberry

Some weeks ago, following up on discussions in the class Meredith McEwen refers to below, I posted some observations on Goldberry. Soon thereafter Meredith had some astute remarks of her own to add to the conversation, and she has been gracious enough to allow me to share them with everyone. My thanks to her for allowing me to post them here. 


While discussing Goldberry and Tom Bombadil in Corey Olson’s intrepid Exploring the Lord of the Rings class, several of my fellow readers commented that “Goldberry” doesn’t sound at all like an appropriate name for a water-spirit. I wholeheartedly agree and got to thinking about who the River-woman’s daughter might truly be. What does the river nourish? Many things along its course: the flora and fauna surrounding the Withywindle. Perhaps “berry” is metaphorical for the “fruit” of the river plants- a golden flower among the reeds and lilypads. In particular, water-lilies can produce a yellow flower and the yellow iris grows in reed beds (reeds and water-lilies being the two plants explicitly named in connection with Goldberry). If you came across such a flower in the woods, might it look like a golden berry floating upon the river or swaying along the riverbank?

Goldberry’s role in Middle-Earth has always been a mystery to me, but I now strongly suspect she’s the spirit of the river flowers (the “daughters” of the river). The comparisons to a “reed by a pool” and a queen “clothed in living flowers” or wearing a gown “green as young reeds” create an undeniable connection to flowers and plant life. Tom recounts to the hobbits that he first met Goldberry “sitting in the rushes” by the pool of the Withywindle where water-lilies first bloom in the spring and “linger latest” in the autumn. The longevity of the lilies may be due to her influence as a flower spirit. Tom’s errand to collect lilies is more than the simple act of a husband bringing flowers to his wife: he uniting her home with his.

I also have to note that Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book contains an Estonian story called “The Water-lily, the Gold-Spinners”. The story is of a maiden who, after escaping a wicked witch’s cottage where she was forced to spin gold thread, is transformed by that witch into a yellow water-lily. The Prince who helped her escape asks a Finnish wizard how to rescue the maiden. The wizard explains that the Prince must transform into a crab, swim down into the river to where he can reach the water-lily’s roots, and cut the roots to remove the flower from the river. Then the prince will be able to transform both himself and maiden back into their natural forms and live happily ever after.

While it’s a tenuous connection, we know that Tolkien read Lang’s collections as a child. In Tolkien’s original Adventures of Tom Bombadil, the hero’s plunge into the river is involuntary, however he does succeed in “uprooting” Goldberry from the river bottom when they marry and she moves into his house. Perhaps the seeds of their relationship were planted in the Estonian fairy tale.