23 June 2017

Sand of Pearls in Elvenland, or, Boethius on the Shore

Being a lifelong lover of the Sea and the shore, I have always found Tolkien's evocation of the home of the Teleri beyond the Sea appealing. So the moment in The Silmarillion in which Finrod conjures this place in song, only to have it turned against him by Sauron in his song has always been for me, not surprisingly, one of great enchantment and dismay:

Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.
     Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn --
And Finrod fell before the throne. 
                                                                 (Silm. 171)

In these lines the most striking have always been the turning point: 
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls on Elvenland. 
Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea...
The sound of the water sighing as it slides up the beach is one well known and well loved by me. And there's always this instant, this caesura if you will, when the water pauses ever so briefly as it reaches its highest point before slipping away down the slope.  The words 'on sand, / On sand of pearls in Elvenland' mark that instant of nature and peripety, both for the Sea as Finrod conjures it and for Finrod in his battle against Sauron. The cunning of Sauron turns the memory of Finrod against itself by recalling the Kinslaying.

It is a sweeping moment and the image of 'sand of pearls' is vivid and powerful not only in itself, but more importantly in its contrast to the gloom and 'red blood flowing' which is the next wave, as it were. The very images that Finrod conjures to combat the darkness themselves end in darkness. They do so now because they did so then. Paradoxically, Sauron is here the Undeceiver. He will not allow Finrod to see the pearls shining on the jeweled strand, but forget the blood which stains them. That it was the quest to regain other jewels that led to their staining only increases the irony, and the force of what may be an implicit lesson.

For in one of the poems in The Consolation of Philosophy Lady Philosophy bids all those taken prisoner by the desire to possess (libido) to come to her (Book 3, poem 10):

huc omnes pariter venite capti,
quos fallax ligat improbis catenis,
terrenas habitans libido mentes:
haec erit vobis requies laborum
05    hic portus placida manens quiete
hoc patens unum miseris asylum.
non quicquid Tagus aureis harenis
donat aut Hermus rutilante ripa
aut Indus calido propinquus orbi
10    candidis miscens virides lapillos*
inlustrent aciem magisque caecos
in suas condunt animos tenebras.
hoc, quicquid placet excitatque mentes,
infimis tellus aluit cavernis;
15    splendor quo regitur vigetque caelum**
vitat obscuras animae ruinas;
hanc quisqe poterit notare lucem
candidos Phoebi radios negabit.

Which I render:

Come here all you prisoners,
Whom deceitful lust, which dwells in earthbound minds,
Binds in chains of wickedness.
Here you will find rest from labors,
05   Here a haven waiting in gentle peace,
Here a single refuge open to all the wretched.
No gift which the Tagus bestows with its sands of gold,
Or the Hermus with its red-gold banks,
Or the Indus which, at the edge of the Torrid Zone,***
10  Mixes emeralds with shining white pearls --
None of these gifts could illuminate your vision rather than
fixing your blind minds in a darkness of their own.
Whatever pleases and stirs our minds,
This the earth nurtures in its deepest caverns;
15  But the splendor by which the heavens** are ruled and flourish
Shuns the dark ruins of our minds;
Whoever takes note of this light,
Will deny that Phoebus' rays shine bright. 

It is with the image of just such a haven (portus) or refuge (asylum) that Finrod, the exile and prisoner, seeks to combat the darkness in which he finds himself. But he is as deceived as those whom the brightness of jewels deludes. Their splendor does not illuminate the mind but darkens it, because they themselves come from the lowest deeps of the earth (line 14: infimis tellus aluit cavernis). Even the pearls found on the banks of the Indus at the far side of the world lead only to darkness, as Finrod, mutatis mutandis, finds to his cost. In the context of Finrod's tragic failure it is surely worth pointing out that of all the princes of the Noldor in exile he was the one who 'had brought more treasures out of Tirion' (Silm. 114). Wise and noble, kind and generous he may have been, but also not without fault.

The sand, the pearls, the water, the farthest shores of the inhabited world, the false promise of shiny things that offer neither refuge nor enlightenment, all find themselves transformed in Tolkien's hands from philosophy into the setting for tragedy. Through Fëanor's greedy love of the Silmarils and Morgoth's lust to possess them solely (Silm. 67, 69) -- or libido as Lady Philosophy would call it -- moral and physical darkness come first to Valinor, and then to Middle-earth.  Conversely, it is also not until Beren and Lúthien seek a silmaril out of love, not in order to possess it, but only to give it away, that it begins to become something whose splendor will bring hope to the world and illuminate, however briefly, even the oath-blind minds of the sons of Fëanor (Silm. 250).  And this, too, fits, because in an earlier poem, Lady Philosophy had pointed out that love (amor) binds (ligat) the world together properly (Book 2, poem 8.1-15), and that without love the very mechanism by which the world is moved would be destroyed (16-21). Moreover, she concludes (28-30) in words that line 15 of Book 3, poem 10 echoes:

O felix hominum genus,
Si vestros animos amor,
Quo caelum** regitur, regat. 
O fortunate human race,
If the love, by which the heavens** are ruled,
Also ruled your minds!
It is nothing new of course to note that Tolkien knew his Boethius, but he also seems to have drawn on him for one of his most vivid and exotic images in such away that it allowed him to give dramatic life to the ideas expressed by Lady Philosophy in her dialogue with Boethius.

*  This line appears to be an allusion to Horace Serm. 1.2.80, where he refers to a woman 'inter niveos viridesque lapillos', that is, ‘amid her pearls and emeralds’. 'Niveos' -- 'white as snow' -- emphasizes the shining brightness of the color, just as 'candidis' does in Boethius. Roman politicians would wear a specially whitened toga, the toga candidata, to make themselves more visible. 

Given Tolkien's extensive reading in Classics, it is quite possible, even likely, that he will have read this satire of Horace, and so recognized Boethius' allusion.

** 'Caelum' is singular in Latin, but I have translated it as plural to avoid the suggestion that Boethius is talking about Heaven.

*** The Torrid Zone was the area nearest the equator which was commonly thought too hot to sustain life.



My Bentley's Horace

16 June 2017

'Our king, we call him' -- The Identity of the Speaker at RK App. A 1043-44

In the section of Appendix A called The North Kingdom and the Dúnedain an anonymous speaker tells something of the return of King Elessar to the North:

There were fourteen Chieftains, before the fifteenth and last was born, Aragorn II, who became again King of both Gondor and Arnor. 'Our King, we call him; and when he comes north to his house in Annúminas restored and stays for a while by Lake Evendim, then everyone in the Shire is glad. But he does not enter this land and binds himself by the law that he has made, that none of the Big People shall pass its borders. But he rides often with many fair people to the Great Bridge, and there he welcomes his friends, and any others who wish to see him; and some ride away with him and stay in his house as long as they have a mind. Thain Peregrin has been there many times; and so has Master Samwise the Mayor. His daughter Elanor the Fair is one of the maids of Queen Evenstar.' 

(RK App A 1043-44)
Let's look at the facts of this quote and see if we can make an educated guess about the identity of the speaker here.

  • 'Our King, we call him' establishes the speaker as a hobbit, likely addressing an audience from outside the Shire.
  • 'Our King, we call him' is also quite informal in tone, suggesting that the speaker is addressing someone he or she knows.
  • The need to identify Sam as the Mayor, and Peregrin as the Thain, also indicates an external audience. Hobbits would know these facts.
  • The reference to the Brandywine Bridge as the Great Bridge also points to an external audience, since the evidence from within the Tale indicates that amongst themselves the hobbits tended to call it the Brandywine Bridge, or just the Bridge (FR Pr. 5; 1.i.24; iii.71; iv.88; v.99 twice, 100, 107 twice, 108; viii.137; ix.150; RK 6.vii.996; viii.998 twice, 999, 1000, 1001, 1003; App A 1044; App B 1,096, 1097).
  • 'Thain Peregrin has been there many times' dates this comment after S.R. 1434 (FA 13), when Pippin became the Thain, perhaps much later (thus, 'many times').
  • Since Elanor became a maid of the Queen in S.R. 1436 (FA 15), we can bring forward the terminus post quem to that year.
  • 'So has Master Samwise' shows that Sam has not yet crossed the Sea, as he did in S.R. 1482 (FA 61). This fixes the terminus ante quem.
  • The speaker speaks as one explaining to an outsider, pointing out that Sam is the Mayor, that Elanor is his daughter, and that Peregrin is the Thain.
  • Identifying Elanor as the Fair and as one of Arwen's maids seems a point of local pride, like 'Our King', but claims no kinship with her.
  • The speaker seems to be none of the hobbits mentioned in the statement. 
So who is the most likely candidate in the years S.R. 1436-1482 (FA 15-61) to be familiar with these matters and addressing a known audience outside the Shire in an informal tone? By far the most obvious choice would be Merry Brandybuck, who, as friend of the King -- and after S.R.  1432 (FA 11) himself the Master of Buckland -- must have been at the Brandywine Bridge to meet the King. Whom he is addressing is impossible to say, but we might guess, not unreasonably, that he was writing to Éowyn, to Éomer, or to them both, since they never forgot their friendship with him (RK App B. 1097 twice).

14 June 2017

The Filial Piety of 'Master Samwise'

I noticed some time ago that Sam is called Master Samwise in interesting places. There is of course the chapter title, The Choices of Master Samwise, and the uniquely and curiously named Longfather Tree of Master Samwise in Appendix C. It became even more intriguing when I noticed that in Appendix B, The Tale of Years, Sam is always called 'Master Samwise' after Aragorn makes him an official Counsellor of the North-kingdom in S.R. 1434. While this might be thought to suggest the origin of the title, it isn't as easy as that. In the entries under 1436 and 1442 we read, respectively: 

King Elessar rides north, and dwells for a while by Lake Evendim. He comes to the Brandywine Bridge, and there greets his friends. He gives the Star of the Dúnedain to Master Samwise, and Elanor is made a maid of honour to Queen Arwen.
Master Samwise and his wife and Elanor ride to Gondor and stay there for a year. Master Tolman Cotton acts as deputy Mayor.

Master Tolman Cotton is Elanor's grandfather, the father of Sam's beloved wife, Rose. That he, too, is named 'Master' while serving as deputy Mayor, might suggest that the title was associated with the Office.  And it may be, but there is another detail we need here.

The first time Sam is called Master Samwise is by Mablung, one of the two Rangers of Ithilien who guard him and Frodo while Faramir and his other men are attacking the Haradrim. He does so as part of a jocular exchange between them.

'Go quietly when you must!' said Sam. 'No need to disturb my sleep. I was walking all night.' 
Mablung laughed. 'I do not think the Captain will leave you here, Master Samwise,' he said. 'But you shall see.'
(TT 4.iv.662)

Faramir of course does not leave Sam and Frodo behind, and in their discussions he calls Sam 'Master Samwise' no fewer than four times (TT 4.v.669 twice, 679, 682). Of the nine times altogether in which Faramir addresses him by name, he always calls him Samwise (4.v,668, 677. 681; vi.684; vii.695), just as Frodo had introduced him: 'Samwise son of Hamfast, a worthy hobbit in my service' (4.iv.657). Now the use of 'Samwise' here is as remarkable as the use of 'Master'.  For the present passage is only the third time we have heard Sam's full name, which does not occur within the Tale itself before this book, and both of the prior uses serve to associate Sam closely with Frodo.  In The Passage of the Marshes Frodo says 'Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit -- indeed, Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends' (4.ii.624); and in The Black Gate Is Closed the narrator reminds us that Gandalf's 'thought was ever upon Frodo and Samwise' (TT 4.iii.644). The Tale of Years, moreover, parallels the pairing the narrator has here named. For until the Fellowship is broken Frodo is always referred to alone, and Sam is not mentioned at all. Yet afterwards it is almost invariably 'Frodo and Samwise' until Frodo begins suffering the aftermath of the quest. The Tale of Years gives an added subtle emphasis to this pairing by recording the births of Frodo and Sam, but not of Merry and Pippin. History seems to have suddenly taken particular notice of Sam.

Frodo's introduction of himself and Sam to Faramir, moreover, is also only the second time in the Tale that we have ever heard the Gaffer's first name. On that first occasion, we should remember, we learned that Bilbo used to call him 'Master Hamfast', which is deemed to be 'very polite' (FR 1.i.22). So, we see that 'Master' is a title of courteous address in both the Shire and Gondor,* but it is also a great honor, because it is a great condescension in the old sense, for someone in Sam's position -- a servant -- to be addressed in this way. As such, the honor Faramir does Sam here is even greater than that which Bilbo did the Gaffer, if not without a degree of gentle irony. With this we may contrast the bitter mockery dripping from Gollum's 'kind Master Samwise, the hobbit that knows so much' (TT 4.viii.715), a characterization he offers not long after Faramir and the hobbits part company.**

I would argue that what we are seeing here, with the use of 'Samwise', and 'Hamfast', and 'Master', and all the attention paid to Sam and his family in the Appendices, is best explained by the filial piety of Elanor, daughter of Master Samwise and Mistress Rose, and her descendants, the Fairbairns of Westmarch.  Elanor no doubt heard her father addressed as 'Master Samwise' many times during the time they spent in Gondor while she was handmaiden to Queen Arwen -- a detail that is pointed out in two different Appendices. The entry in The Tale of Years we saw above.  The other mention we find in a quote embedded in Appendix A's section on the history of the North-kingdom and the Dúnedain. The quote makes clear that its source lies within the Shire:

There were fourteen Chieftains, before the fifteenth and last was born, Aragorn II, who became again King of both Gondor and Arnor. 'Our King, we call him; and when he comes north to his house in Annúminas restored and stays for a while by Lake Evendim, then everyone in the Shire is glad. But he does not enter this land and binds himself by the law that he has made, that none of the Big People shall pass its borders. But he rides often with many fair people to the Great Bridge, and there he welcomes his friends, and any others who wish to see him; and some ride away with him and stay in his house as long as they have a mind. Thain Peregrin has been there many times; and so has Master Samwise the Mayor. His daughter Elanor the Fair is one of the maids of Queen Evenstar.' 
(RK App A 1043-44)

We also know from the Note on Shire Records in the Prologue that her family not only had custody of the Red Book, but added what we call the Appendices to it:

To these four volumes there was added in Westmarch a fifth containing commentaries, genealogies, and various other matter concerning the hobbit members of the Fellowship. 
The original Red Book has not been preserved, but many copies were made, especially of the first volume, for the use of the descendants of the children of Master Samwise. 
(FR Pr. 14)
Once again we see the marvels of attention Tolkien paid to even the smallest details, investing great thought into creating not only the Tale itself, but also the commentaries upon it and the relationship between them and their author(s) and the text. 'Samwise' also occurs in the synopses attached to The Two Towers and The Return of the King, which leads me to wonder how Tolkien thought of them as connecting to the text. Did he, when compelled by the exigencies of publication costs, decide to incorporate into his work the idea that the one book had already been broken into three as part of its frequent copying by the descendants of 'Master Samwise'? And does the chapter title, The Choices of Master Samwise, suggest that all the chapter titles derive from the Fairbairns of Westmarch? 

How little escaped his eye from the top of that tower. 



* In Rohan, too, it seems clear: Merry is called Master nine times by the men of Rohan, including by Théoden King in his final moments (RK 5.iii.796, 800 twice, 801, 802, 803; v.831; vi.842; App. B. 1097). This may be further evidence of ancient connections between hobbits and the Éothéod, since both once dwelt in the vales of Anduin. Since Gollum also originated there, his use of it may suggest the same, even if hearing Faramir use it prompted his memory.

** One of these days I mean to investigate Gollum and Faramir as antitheses in Book 4.



11 June 2017

Sir Orfeo, Faërian Drama, and the Quenta Noldorinwa

Copyright Ted Nasmith

In a forthcoming article I argue that in The Hobbit we can see Tolkien using the fairies of medieval Romance, specifically in Sir Orfeo, to recreate Elves that can be taken seriously, like those in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and unlike the gossamer-winged sprites of Victorian England. (I posted an earlier, much shorter incarnation of this paper here last September).  One of the fascinating points to be noted in studying these texts from this perspective is that in Sir Orfeo it is Orfeo, a mortal Man, who can summon up visions by means of song, while in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings this power belongs exclusively to the Elves. In my article I suggest that in the transference of this ability from Men to Elves we might be seeing the birth of what Tolkien termed 'Faërian Drama', which is 'a dream that some other mind is weaving' (OFS, 63, ¶ 74).

One of the passages I cited to illustrate this Elvish art describes the first meeting of Elves and Men, as initiated by Finrod:
Long Felagund watched them, and love for them stirred in his heart; but he remained hidden in the trees until they had all fallen asleep. Then he went among the sleeping people, and sat beside their dying fire where none kept watch; and he took up a rude harp which Bëor had laid aside, and he played music upon it such as the ears of Men had not heard; for they had as yet no teachers in the art, save only the Dark Elves in the wild lands. 
Now men awoke and listened to Felagund as he harped and sang, and each thought that he was in some fair dream, until he saw that his fellows were awake also beside him; but they did not speak or stir while Felagund still played, because of the beauty of the music and the wonder of the song. Wisdom was in the words of the Elven-king, and the hearts grew wiser that hearkened to him; for the things of which he sang, of the making of Arda, and the bliss of Aman beyond the shadows of the Sea, came as clear visions before their eyes, and his Elvish speech was interpreted in each mind according to its measure. 
(S 140-41)

Yet today I discovered in the Quenta Noldorinwa, one of the predecessors of The Silmarillion, a very interesting difference in its version of the first encounter of Elves and Men:

That night Felagund went among the sleeping men of Beor's host and sat by their dying fires where none kept watch, and he took a harp which Beor had laid aside, and he played music on it such as mortal ear had never heard, having learned the strains of music from the Dark-elves alone. Then men woke and listened and marvelled, for great wisdom was in that song, as well as beauty, and the heart grew wiser that listened to it. 
(Shaping 104-05)
In the passage from the Quenta Noldorinwa, which Christopher Tolkien dates securely to no later than 1930, the visionary experience of the Men is completely absent, however much they may have profited by Finrod's singing otherwise. The version of the tale we find in The Silmarillion dates to the 1950s, after Tolkien had finished writing The Lord of the Rings (Jewels, 173, 216-17). It is also worth noting here that one of the characteristics of Faërian Drama as portrayed in The Silmarillion passage quoted above is that the listener does not need to know the language of the Elves to comprehend their song. The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings have precisely this experience when they hear Gildor and his Elves singing in the woods of the Shire (FR 1.iii.79), an episode which dates to the earliest draft of what became the chapter Three's Company (Return 58-59).

It's as if between the two versions of this scene we can see dramatized the very transference of which I spoke above, in which Tolkien shifts the power of visionary enchantment from Orfeo to the Elves,



Three Moments of Sam in Faërie

There are many subtle things about Sam Gamgee that a reader may easily miss or neglect. Not only is he bold enough to spy on Gandalf, but he is cool-headed enough to lie to him about it (FR 1.ii.63-64; v.105). He pretends to be asleep while Frodo is talking to Gildor, and then has his own conversation with the Elves after Frodo has retired (1.iii.82. iv.87). He simply shows up at the Council of Elrond when he is not invited (2.ii.271). He even composes poetry (1.xii.208). But one thing no one overlooks is his love of Elves and 'stories of the old days'. Even before we meet him, the Gaffer is talking about it (1.i.24). From the first time we see him in The Green Dragon -- 'They are sailing, sailing, sailing' (FR 1.ii.45) -- through the Company's sojourn in Lothlórien, Elves are a common theme.  As a participant (Archimago) in Mythgard's Exploring the Lord of the Rings class (episode 10, starting at 15:20) recently pointed out, Sam's early refrain of 'Elves, sir' is almost 'like punctuation' in itself:

‘Well, sir,’ said Sam dithering a little. ‘I heard a deal that I didn’t rightly understand, about an enemy, and rings, and Mr. Bilbo, sir, and dragons, and a fiery mountain, and – and Elves, sir. I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. Lor bless me, sir, but I do love tales of that sort. And I believe them too, whatever Ted may say. Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?’
(FR 1.ii.63, emphasis added)

Another passage that has long been of interest to me, is one that shows Sam to be less susceptible to some kinds of enchantment, or at least more conscious of its effects. In the Old Forest, when Frodo, Merry, and Pippin are all overwhelmed by Old Man Willow's spells, Sam sees through them:

Sam sat down and scratched his head, and yawned like a cavern. He was worried. The afternoon was getting late, and he thought this sudden sleepiness uncanny. ‘There’s more behind this than sun and warm air,’ he muttered to himself. ‘I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won’t do at all!’
(FR 1.vi.117)
To which I would add this passage:

[Frodo] turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. 'It's sunlight and bright day, right enough,' he said. 'I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.' 
Haldir looked at them, and he seemed indeed to take the meaning of both thought and word. He smiled. 'You feel the power of the Lady of the Galadhrim,' he said. 
(FR 2.vi.351, emphasis original)
It's hard to say just why Sam seems more perceptive on this score than his fellow hobbits.  One would expect Frodo, if anyone, to be the hobbit most attuned to such things. Frodo certainly seems more learned, and his experience with the Ring expands his range of perceptions. Yet when a desire to drop everything and follow Bilbo rises up within him, he does nothing (1.ii.61). He lets months pass (1.iii.65-69), an almost fatal mistake. Sam, when granted the opportunity to go see the 'Elves, sir!', bursts into tears of joy (1.ii,64). As we also know, he openly talks about the Elves, in the face of reproofs from his Gaffer and public ridicule at the Green Dragon (1.i.24; ii.44-45). And there is something about Sam that he shares with another hobbit, who at first seemed unlikely to be so open to a wider world. Not only does Merry say of Farmer Maggot that 'a lot goes on behind his round face that does not come out in his talk' (1.v.103), words that could equally well describe Sam the gardener, but from Tom Bombadil we learn that Farmer Maggot knows more about Faërie than he lets on, and is not unlike Sam Gamgee in other ways as well:

... but [Tom] made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined. ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open,’ said Tom.
Sam and Maggot both have a connection to the earth that Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, who pretty clearly don't earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, entirely lack. The Gaffer, too, is similarly grounded in the soil of the Shire, which may be why he and Farmer Maggot can stand up to the Black Riders. In Rivendell Gandalf alludes cryptically to 'a power of another kind' in the Shire, a power that could 'withstand' evil to some degree (FR 2.i.223). He also recalls his doubts, while a prisoner of Saruman, 'that the hunters before whom all have fled or fallen would falter in the Shire far away' (2.ii.261).

And yet they do falter, baffled by the Gaffer and seen off by Maggot, the two earthiest characters we meet in the Shire.  The one we know by 'Farmer' rather than a first name, and the purport of his last name, unfortunately submerged in the predominant modern understanding of 'maggot', not only describes someone as a 'fanciful' or 'whimsical' character, but is also an old word for 'magpie' in the West Midlands of England, where Tolkien was raised. It thus ties Maggot to one of the shrewdest birds in nature. As for the other, Gaffer Gamgee, his first name, Hamfast, declares the strength (OE, fæst) of his roots in the Shire as his home (OE, ham).*

So it seems a real possibility that Sam's superior perceptions of enchantment have their roots in the earth of the Shire, as it were, as much as, if not more than in his openness to Faërie. And this brings me to the last of my three passages on Sam and Faërie. On their first night in the house of Tom Bombadil Merry, Pippin, and Frodo all have very troubling dreams, though instructed by both Goldberry and Tom to 'heed no nightly noises' (1.vii.125,126). Merry and Pippin both remember (or hear again) these words when they awake from their nightmares (1.vii.127-28), and Tom chides them in the morning for not listening (1.vii.128). Sam alone has no nightmares, as the narrator goes out of his way to point this out, quite humorously so:
As far as he could remember, Sam slept through the night in deep content, if logs are contented.
Given what else we've seen, however, I can only wonder if Sam's contentment and seemingly dreamless sleep, which the narrator points out twice in one sentence, have the same source, a deep connection to the earth itself, which, as Tolkien saw it, was naturally a part of Faërie even if mortals are not (OFS 32 ¶ 10).

*I believe there is more to be said about the name Maggot, but that must await another day.



05 June 2017

Wonder Invoked -- On the Uses of Enchantment

Trying to find my room on day one of Mythmoot

The theme of the most recent Mythmoot --  held just this past weekend in the Khazad-dûm-like corridors of the nevertheless comfortable and welcoming National Conference Center, where the fish entrees were always, fittingly, tasty --  was 'invoking wonder.' To be honest, my eye is a bit jaundiced when it comes to themes, which inspire me to think of (un-)motivational posters about the unstoppable power of one's dreams. But I am too much of a romantic to be anything but an easy prey to cynicism.

And yet I knew exactly where the fair folk of Mythmoot were coming from when they spoke of the importance of wonder and the first moments in their lives that they could recall experiencing it. For me that moment came in or just after September 1966, when I heard the words "Space, the final frontier...." for the first time.  There was something about the music and the way William Shatner said these words that moved me, that opened vistas of space and time for me the way the words "Eala Earendel, engla beorhtast" did for Tolkien, and "Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead" did for C. S. Lewis.

Many years later, in an interview after Kirk died in Star Trek: Generations, William Shatner said of the moment of Kirk's death on screen that Kirk "faced death as he had faced all those aliens, which was a mixture of awe and wonderment...." Shatner also said that it did not come through on the screen. It did for me. It was perfectly clear to me, just as the sense of awe and wonder with which Kirk approached "all those aliens" always had been. There were quite a few such moments over the years. There was "second star on the right and straight on till morning at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country; there was Kirk's "young, I feel young" at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But for me perhaps the most evocative is that sine qua non of Shatner imitations, that speech both famous and infamous, as beloved as belittled, from the episode Return to Tomorrow:

For me, and for my memory, wonder began here. But it's come in a thousand different forms since then, in experiences as well as in books.

  • That beautiful late summer afternoon over two decades ago, as our boat approached the harbor. The was setting sun before us, and the land's violet shadow reaching out towards us. It was drowsy and balmy and I was standing by the transom to enjoy the breeze. My eyes were unfocused but looking over the side at the swells we were soaring through. Then something else moved that wasn't the water. Beside us a humpback whale crested the surface to take a breath. I gasped. Somewhere in my mind the crew of The Pequod were shouting "she breaches", but all I could do was gape. By the time I was able to say anything to the others on board, who were all in the cabin, the whale was gone. 
  • "And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last." (If you don't recognize these words, you're surely reading the wrong blog.)
  • Five years have past; five summers, with the length
    Of five long winters! and again I hear
    These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
    With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
    Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
    That on a wild secluded scene impress
    Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
    The landscape with the quiet of the sky. (Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey)
  • Every night in a chill Vermont winter, with the snow crunching beneath our feet as Argos and I walked past the dark wood, as the trees popped in the frigid air, and the luminous green curtain of the Northern Lights swayed and shimmered around us.
  • The day I saw an eagle lazily pivot 360 degrees on a wingtip, as if he were doing it just because he could.
  • "It may be laid down as a general rule that if a man begins to sing, no one will take any notice of his song except his fellow human beings. This is true even if his song is surpassingly beautiful. Other men may be in raptures at his skill, but the rest of creation is, by and large, unmoved. Perhaps a cat or a dog may look at him; his horse, if it is an exceptionally intelligent beast, may pause in cropping the grass, but that is the extent of it. But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak a language it understands. In the fairy's song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself" (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell).
  • Whenever I discover the joy of silence, sitting by my window with a book, listening to the birds singing and the wind in the leaves of the oak trees.
  • That day underwater in Bonaire, as I looked down at my buddy 30 feet below me, and watched his bubbles rise towards me; and when they came within a couple of feet, I realized I could see my reflection in their surface.
  • The description of the history of the dragon's hoard in Beowulf.
  • The adagio of BWV 1060, especially this version
  • How even now, eleven years after she died, I can still feel the softness and warmth of my mother's hand in mine.
  • The still, small voice that comes after the earthquake, the fire, and the whirlwind.
  • The morning star.
  • The Sea, 
  • And the Sea,
  • And the Sea.
I could easily keep going with this list, since the things on it, and a hundred other things like them, and still others of a joy or sorrow too private to tell, are the things that help me keep going. That's what wonder does. It beckons me onward and bids me hope. Following isn't always an easy thing for me. My eyes tend to look back and rest on the things that went wrong. By all rights I should have turned into a pillar of salt long ago. Yet maybe there's a place where wonder can help to balance past and future. It's a hope like this that has always made me so fond of one particular poem in The Lord of the Rings. Even as a child reading this book for the first time, and knowing nothing of what it's talking about, this poem about wonder moved me. Whether that makes my soul old or prophetic, I don't know. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been; 
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see. 
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green. 
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know. 
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

22 May 2017

Things You Find In Grammar Books

From A Guide to Old English, sixth edition (2001) by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson.

...the O[ld] E[nglish verb distinguished only two tenses ... the present and the preterite. Hence ... the two simple tenses are often used to express complicated temporal relationships. This is one of the things which made Professor Tolkien once say in a lecture that most people read OE poetry much more quickly than did the Anglo-Saxon minstrel, reciting or reading aloud as he was to an audience which needed time to pick up the implications of what he was saying. And this would apply, not only to the subject-matter, especially to the hints and allusion which frequently had great significance, but also to the relationship between paratactic sentences ... and to the actual relationship in time between two actions both of which were described by a simple tense of a verb. 
(108, emphasis added)

Most people? 


Conditions expressed by the word-order V[erb].-S[ubject] without a conjunction -- e.g., 'Had I plenty of money, I would be lying in the sun in Bermuda' -- occasionally occur in OE prose.

A sentence clearly composed in winter by someone not getting rich from writing an Old English grammar.


'It has already been pointed out in § 179.4 that unreality is timeless in OE' (109)

§ 179.4 reads:
and þæt wisete eac weroda Drihten
þæt sceolde unc Adame yfele gewurðan
ymb þæt heofonrice, þær ic ahte minra handa geweald
'and the Lord of Hosts also knew that things would turn out badly between Adam and me about that heavenly kingdom, if I had control of my hands.'
...[the sentence] here might refer to something which is impossible at the time when Satan spoke -- the implication being 'if only I had control of my hands now, but I haven't'. But it could also be translated 'God knew that trouble would arise between Adam and me if I were to have control of my hands'.
.... Does this interpretation mean that there was a possibility that Satan might have control of his hands ... or that such a thing was impossible when God spoke? The issue here is complicated by questions of God's foreknowledge, though perhaps our own knowledge of the story enables us to dismiss the latter possibility. But enough has been said to make it clear that the Anglo-Saxon 'rule' that 'unreality is timeless' is not without its advantages.
(109, emphasis added)

Nothing, and I mean nothing, screws with the mood of a verb like questions of divine foreknowledge. Had Apollo only used the subjunctive, Oedipus might have been lying in the sun in Bermuda.

Toxic Advice from C. S. Lewis

In The Discarded Image, his otherwise marvelous introduction to the medieval model of the world, C. S. Lewis tells us:
Mercury produces quicksilver. Dante gives his sphere to beneficent men of action. Isidore, on the other hand, says this planet is called Mercurius because he is the patron of profit (mercibus praeest). Gower says that the man born under Mercury will be 'studious' and ' in writinge curious', 
bot yit with somdel besinesse
his hert is set upon richesse. 
(Confessio, vn, 765.)
The Wife of Bath associates him especially with clerks (D 706). In Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis he is the bridegroom of Philologia - who is Learning or even Literature rather than what we call 'philology'. And I am pretty sure that 'the Words of Mercury' contrasted with 'the Songs of Apollo' at the end of Love's Labour's Lost are 'picked', or rhetorical prose. It is difficult to see the unity in all these characteristics. ' Skilled eagerness' or 'bright alacrity' is the best I can do. But it is better just to take some real mercury in a saucer and play with it for a few minutes. That is what 'Mercurial' means. 
The Discarded Image, 107-08.
Better to play with mercury?

07 May 2017

Dreams of Beowulf

Sometimes I have the coolest dreams.

The other night I fell asleep at my desk (as one does) leaning on my hands, trying to hold my head up and stay awake, so I could finish my daily reading in Beowulf.  First I entered that strange state where I am just awake enough to know that my eyes are closed, but I am unable to open them, no matter how I try. 

Often, even when flat on my back reading in bed I can stay in this state for a while, and have dreams while still holding up my book and aware that I am doing so. Sometimes I will wake up again and read a little while longer, until my eyes close once more.

But this night I dreamt that my head sank, slowly and irresistibly, until my face was resting on my notebook where I write out the text and vocabulary. Still in the dream, I awoke to find that the lines of the poem were now written on my face. Somehow I was now standing looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, tracing the lines of black ink with my fingers. Somehow I knew they wouldn't wash off.

I don't much like tattoos, but this one I was okay with, especially since that day's lines touched on Beowulf's fight with the dragon.

05 May 2017


 Grendel © John Howe

There was just something about the word aglæca -- 'awesome opponent, ferocious fighter' as the DOE defines it -- that seemed familiar.  From the first time I encountered it in Beowulf, it rang a bell. There the poet most frequently uses it to describe Grendel or the Dragon as, according to the gloss in Klaeber, 'one inspiring awe or misery, formidable one, afflicter, assailant, adversary, combatant' (italics original):
ac se æglæca    ehtende wæs,
deorc deaþscua    duguþe ond geogoþe
seomade ond syrede; 
but the æglæca   was after them,
a dark death shadow,    warriors old and young
he lay for and ambushed; 
(Beowulf 159-61)
Elsewhere we find it used of Satan or sundry devils, in a way that combines their characteristic wretchedness and hostility:
Satan seolua ran    ond on susle gefeol,
earm æglece. 
Satan himself ran    and fell into Hell,
wretched æglæca.
(Christ and Satan 711-12)
                                    Blace hworfon
scinnan forscepene,    sceaðan hwearfedon,
earme æglecan,    geond þæt atole scref
for ðam anmedlan    þe hy ær drugon.
                                    They turned black,
spirits transformed,     the devils wandered,**
the wretched aglæca,   through that horrid pit
because of the pride    they had formerly shown. 
(Christ and Satan, 71-73)
Beowulf and the Dragon ©John Howe
Even when the word is used, for example, of Beowulf himself, it stresses ferocity and hostility, as when the poet describes both Beowulf and the Dragon with it:

                              Næs ða long to ðon
þæt ða aglæcean    hy eft gemetton.

                                 It was not so long
before the æglæca    met each other again.
(Beowulf 2591-92)

So, clearly, the word describes a fierce opponent who inspires awe and is sometimes also seen as wretched. This would all certainly apply to Grendel, Satan, and the devils, if not to Beowulf and the Dragon. Now, as I said, there was always something about this word that seemed familiar, but it wasn't until the other night that I made the connection and realized of whom it made me think.  Both because of the harsh, guttural sound of the word and the qualities of those it describes, aglæca reminds me of Uglúk, leader of the Uruk-Hai in The Two Towers

I am quite well aware that this suggestion is entirely circumstantial. It may well be completely wrong. I haven't been able to find any direct evidence, but it seemed an intriguing possibility that I thought worth mentioning. I would welcome any evidence, for or against, as well as notice of any scholarly treatment I may have missed. 

**Here is one case in which all those who wander are indeed lost.



02 May 2017

Guest Post -- Trish Lambert -- Snow White and Bilbo Baggins

Last week an article about Tolkien's dislike of Disney's Snow White appeared at Atlas Obscura. The article quoted my friend, Trish Lambert, who had written an article of her own on Tolkien and Disney. In response to the interest many have expressed, Trish has graciously agreed to post her original article here. Below you will find some prefatory comments Trish has written for this occasion, and then the paper itself. Aside from some site-related reformatting, I have made no other alterations. If you prefer a pdf of the original, you will find one here.



Walt Disney has been part of my world since I was three years old; J.R.R. Tolkien joined me when I was twelve. In a way, Disney was a “gateway” to Tolkien, because without him fantasy would not have been such a large part of my childhood reading. My relationship to the two is now akin to two grandfathers who are worlds apart from one another. I love them both deeply, but I also recognize that the two will never get along.

In the months prior to the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, my attention was caught by an interesting juxtaposition. Disney’s release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first-ever feature-length animated film, and the first publication of Tolkien’s The Hobbit were quite close together in time. Not only that, but the portrayal the dwarves (I prefer Tolkien’s spelling) in both was a departure from the questionable (at best) or evil (at worst) nature of dwarves in traditional folklore. I wondered if there was a common reason why these two grandfathers of fantasy had made this change, and set about researching. The result is this paper.

The paper grew in the telling (apologies to Grampa Ronald for that), because there was no way to avoid looking at the relationship (or lack of same) between the two men. They were contemporaries, sharing the same world events and, to some extent, the same culture, and each made his own indelible mark on the fantasy genre. Did they know each other? Did they converse in any way? What did they think of each other? Those questions got included in my research and answered in the paper.

It may be my imagination, but in the years I’ve rubbed elbows with other Tolkien scholars, it has seemed to me that the “D” word is verboten in academic conversations about the professor and his works. I therefore kept mum after writing this one paper, but my fascination lingers. My dream is to publish a book length study of Disney, Tolkien and the impact they have had on the fantasy genre that we know today. “If you can dream it, you can do it,” Grampa Walt said. So that book may indeed become a reality someday!


Divergences and Convergences between Disney and Tolkien
Patricia Lambert

In September 1937, London publishing house Allen & Unwin released a children’s book by an obscure Oxford professor; in December 1937, Walt Disney, world famous for his animated shorts films, released the first full length animated feature ever made. The Hobbit proved so popular that a second printing had to be rushed through before Christmas; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a runaway success from the first day. The princess and the hobbit crossed the Atlantic Ocean in opposite directions in 1938; the film debuted in London in February of that year (with countrywide release in September), and Houghton Mifflin published the U.S. edition of The Hobbit in September.

Snow White and The Hobbit were launched close together in time, both emphasized dwarfs (though Bilbo Baggins’ dwarves are very different from the dwarfs of Snow White), and both creators have had significant impact on the fantasy genre over the past 75 years. What was Tolkien’s opinion of Disney? Disney’s of Tolkien? Was the common dwarf element just a coincidence or did one story impact the other? Was there ever a possibility that these two “magic makers” would team up?

This paper considers Disney and Tolkien, the approach each took as creators of fantasy stories, the impact of the environment in which each story was created, and a range of comments by Disney, Tolkien, scholars, and the media to arrive at a clearer understanding of how (or if) Snow White, Bilbo Baggins, and their creators affected one other.

The Moviemaker and the Scholar

Can two men appear more different than Walt Disney and J.R.R. Tolkien? In the first, we see a U.S. stereotype, a 20th century Horatio Algeresque hero who achieved The American Dream. In the second, we see a British stereotype: the introverted, introspective, tweeded Oxford don. Disney was an ambitious entrepreneur who was intent on (and who succeeded in) making a lasting mark on the world. Tolkien led "the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen" (Carpenter 118); he was a “stodgy old Oxford don” who took mythology and fantasy very seriously and who never aspired to be, though he became, “one of the most important authors of the twentieth century” (Olsen).

The processes by which Snow White and her dwarfs and Bilbo and his dwarves came to life are also quite different. Disney's sub-creative process was plural where Tolkien's was mainly solitary.1 The film was collaborative; in its MLA citation, there are 28 “authors” listed besides Disney (DVD).2 The process of “fairy tale to screen” was probably comparable to Peter Jackson’s in translating Tolkien's works into movies—characterized by a good team and a strong visionary leader. Thomas offers several examples of the group decision making process around various Snow White story elements (68-74).

At the other end of the spectrum, most of Tolkien’s sub-creative activities took place in solitude, though he did share his drafts as they took shape with trusted associates, like members of the Inklings. The “mutual influence and mutual interdependence” (Glyer 224) among the Inklings could be considered a collaboration of sorts, but of small impact on Tolkiens’s final result compared to the group impact on Disney’s process.

The Princess and the Hobbit

How do the stories themselves compare? Do they share similar roots? What influenced the development of each? 

"Once upon a time..."

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was basically a business venture. Though Disney and his brother and partner, Roy, had pulled themselves from the brink of a second bankruptcy with Mickey Mouse, the arrival of “talkies” and double features at America's movie houses was eroding demand for the cartoon shorts whose popularity had made the studio famous (Mouse & Man). The company needed a new direction, and Disney decided that production of a full length animated film was the right first step. He announced this intention to the world in 1934.

Disney’s choice of Snow White was from an experience as a teenager, when he saw the silent movie Snow White starring Marguerite Clark; it “remained the most vivid memory of his moviegoing childhood” (Thomas 65).

Themes and concepts for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs come from a source parallel to Tolkien’s Cauldron of Story—in Disney’s case, more accurately described as Pressure Cooker of Film. This description fits the Moviemaker’s focus on audience tastes for story line and his desire to “display what he [could] do as an animator with the latest technological and artistic developments” (Zipes 350). The Pressure Cooker was all about the 20th century, serving up popular ingredients that were folded into the movie; it “follows the pattern of the romantic comedies that were common in Hollywood in the early 1930s…[and] also expressed aspects of other genres…such as the serious romance film and the screwball comedy” (Wright).

This short synopsis offers examples of how Disney fit the film into the movie market of the time and how the story line matches or departs from the original Grimm fairy tale (DVD):

The opening credits and accompanying string-driven music match the style of live action movies of the 1930s. The story is shortened from the Grimms' tale in several places. It starts immediately with the stepmother queen (bearing a strong resemblance to Joan Crawford) and her magic mirror. In less than five minutes, we know that the queen has her sights set on doing away with Snow White.

We meet Snow White, resembling Cinderella in her ragged clothes and menial labor

(another departure from Grimm), cheerfully going about her tasks. She stops at a wishing well and sings to an audience of doves. The Prince, hearing the song, climbs over the wall in Erroll Flynn fashion and then serenades the princess Nelson Eddy-style, to which she responds with her best Jeannette McDonald. This is also a departure from the original; in the Grimm's tale, prince and princess do not meet until the end.
The story returns to the Grimm path from there for a bit, with Snow White fleeing from the huntsman (who cannot bring himself to kill her as ordered by the Queen) and into a dark and terrifying wood, with eyes everywhere and branches grabbing at her. Veering away from Grimm and into what would become a Disney signature story element, she recovers when she finds the eyes are those of friendly woodland creatures and celebrates with a song (reminiscent of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies). The cuddly animals lead her to a small cottage which (unlike the Grimm story) is a terrible mess. She directs the animals(in a voice somewhere between Betty Boop and Shirley Temple) to clean up, and sings the first of the signature songs of the movie ("Whistle While You Work"). Vignettes reminiscent of Disney's short creature cartoons characterize the house cleaning session as animals dust, clean, and launder with comic consequences. 
We are introduced to the dwarfs at work in their mine; slapstick abounds as the second signature song is introduced (Hi Ho!). By the time this scene fades we are aware of the personalities and characteristics of each of the seven dwarfs.
The film now returns a bit closer to Grimm, as Snow White falls asleep across several of the dwarfs' beds. This is where they find her upon arriving home (after a Keystone Kops-style entry). Grimm is then left behind entirely as scenes with more slapstick and Marx Brothers' style comedy follow, including music and dancing, culminating with Snow White singing the third signature song ("Someday My Prince Will Come").
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the Queen discovers that the woodsman didn't do as commanded and that Snow White still lives. She transforms into a hag, creates a poison apple (shortening the Grimm tale again by eliminating the poisoned hair comb and bodice of the original story), and sets off to kill Snow White herself. She succeeds in doing so (she believes), but the woodland creatures have warned the dwarfs, who speed toward home as quickly as possible. The witch is killed when she tries to kill the dwarfs (a departure from Grimm, where she dies when forced to dance in red hot iron shoes at the princess's wedding).
The dwarfs entomb Snow White in a clear casket, which is how the Prince finds her. Instead of carrying her away as in the original tale, where an in-transit accident revives Snow White by dislodging the poison apple from her throat, the princess is revived by true love's first kiss, “an original Disney motif” (Wright). She says goodbye to the dwarfs and goes away with the prince to his beautiful castle.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit..."

In contrast to Disney, Tolkien was “not somebody who [was] really writing for an audience, with

a sense of an audience, for most of his life” (Olsen). The Hobbit was not originally intended for publication; in fact, Tolkien may never have finished the book if not for friendly intervention. His impetus for writing it had been his sons’ desire for stories, but “the boys were growing up and no longer asked for the ‘Winter Reads,’ so there was no reason why The Hobbit should ever be finished.” It was only because of a family friend (Elaine Griffiths) who knew someone (Susan Dagnall) who worked at Allen & Unwin that the manuscript left Tolkien’s study; further, it was because 10-year-old Rayner Unwin gave it a positive review (Carpenter 183-84).

Tolkien told Stanley Unwin that “Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimms’ fairy-tale dwarves” (Letters 19). Carpenter believes that work on The Hobbit started “in 1930 or 31…certainly there was a completed typescript in existence (lacking only the final chapters) in time for it to be shown to C.S. Lewis late in 1932” (181). Though Tolkien was reluctant to point to specific influences in his writing, ladlings from the Cauldron of Story certainly influenced The Hobbit. There are servings from the Elder Edda in the names of the dwarves (Völuspá), the conversation with Smaug (Fáfnismál), and the “tribes of orcs” and “Misty Mountains” (Skirnismál) (Shippey 345). Tolkien claimed Beowulf “among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing” and wrote that The Hobbit is “derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story” (Letters #25).

The nature of the “conventional and inconsistent Grimms’ fairy-tale dwarves” in The Hobbit is of particular interest in the context of this paper. Tolkien’s choice to make the dwarves of Bilbo Baggins into “good guys” is an unsolved mystery. Their portrayal is a departure from dwarf appearances in Tolkien's writings to date. Rateliff notes that until The Hobbit, Tolkien’s dwarves had "always been portrayed as an evil people: allies of goblins, mercenaries of Morgoth, pillagers of one of the great Elven kingdoms," and that this treatment aligns with the dwarf portrayals in the old legends from which Tolkien ladled much of his material. Rateliff goes on to observe that treating dwarves as heroes "is nothing short of amazing: no less surprising than if a company of goblin wolf-riders had ridden up to Bag-End seeking a really first-class burglar" (76).  

Nothing for Tolkien, Disdain for Disney

What about the men themselves? Were they aware of one another, and, if so, did they voice any opinions?

While there is no evidence that Disney was aware of Tolkien specifically,3 he generally appears to have had no use for scholars. When asked about his art by Aldous Huxley, his response was dismissive: “Art ?...I looked up the definition once, but I've forgotten what it is…you got to watch out for the boys with the dramatic sense and no sense of humor or they'll go arty on you…we just make a picture and then you professors come along and tell us what we do” (Walt & the Professors).

While Disney was apparently oblivious to Tolkien in the 1930s, Tolkien seems to have been painfully aware of Disney. Seven months before the US release of Snow White (nine months before the UK release), he voiced his “heartfelt loathing” of the works of Disney (Letters #13). This disdain may have been based on familiarity with the Moviemaker’s animated shorts; it also may have had roots in Disney’s aggressive promotion of the film in the UK. Between numerous newspaper and magazine articles about the film and a staggering range of tie-in merchandise that filled the shops (Kuhn), Tolkien was probably unable to ignore the looming figure of the Moviemaker as he approached the fantasy world.4

Disney was probably a topic of conversation for the Inklings in the late 1930s (and beyond). Early in 1939, a year after the film’s UK premier in London, C.S. Lewis viewed Snow White with Tolkien, who considered the heroine “to be beautiful but dislike[d] the…treatment of the dwarfs” (Companion I 224). Tolkien was mild in his criticism compared to Lewis, who had already seen the film once before with his brother Warren.5 Characteristically outspoken, Lewis noted “good originality” in the portrayal of the evil queen and “bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention” (Companion II 210).6

The full collection of available references made by Tolkien to Disney is quite short. 7 The chronological list of comments in available publications is comprised of:

1937: To C.A. Furth at Allen & Unwin about illustrations for the American edition of The Hobbit: "It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them -- as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)." (Letters #13)

1946 : Emendations to On Fairy-Stories “include the removal of a disparaging footnote reference to ‘the work of Disney,’ criticized for uniting ‘beautiful external detail with inner vulgarity’” (OFS 136).

1946: To Stanley Unwin regarding a German translation of The Hobbit: “He has sent me some illustrations…which despite certain merits…are I fear too “Disnified”… Bilbo with a dribbling nose, and Gandalf as a figure of vulgar fun rather than the Odinic wanderer that I think of…” (Letters #106)

1961: Responding to a letter from his aunt in which she praised The Pied Piper Tolkien wrote, “I am sorry about The Pied Piper. I loathe it. God help the children! I would as soon give them crude and vulgar plastic toys. Which of course they will play with, to the ruin of their taste. Terrible presage of the most vulgar elements of Disney” (Letters #234).

1964: Tolkien writes of Disney in a letter: “...I recognize his talent, but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the 'pictures' proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them is to me disgusting. Some have given me nausea...” (Sotheby’s). 8 9

The Heart of the Matter

Loathing, vulgarity, corruption, disgust, nausea—these are strong words.10 Tolkien’s anti-Disney position, which remained consistent through the years, raises a new question which drives to the heart of the matter from Tolkien’s perspective: Why did Disney’s work, beginning with Snow White, prompt such strong reactions in the Scholar?

On Fairy-Stories, the “manifesto in which [Tolkien] declared his particular concept of what fantasy is and how it ought to work,” provides some insight into the answer (OFS 9). Snow White (and virtually all of Disney’s subsequent fairy tale adaptations) is a significant departure from the story upon which the studio advertisements say it is based. In addition to the elimination or modification of original story elements, the movie incorporates other elements that have nothing to do with the plot (added to appeal to moviegoers’ tastes). The changes are much more significant than the differences (that Tolkien criticizes) between Perrault’s Red Riding Hood and re-told versions of the tale (OFS 39). Tolkien could easily be referring to Disney when he says, “The old stories are mollified or bowdlerized…the imitations are often merely silly (OFS 59).”

Turning literature into Drama is also problematic, says Tolkien: “the characters, and even the scenes, are in Drama not imagined but actually beheld” (OFS 63). Though he is referring to live, human-acted drama here, his published comments about Disney infer that he believed that the Moviemaker was also attempting “a kind of bogus…magic” by focusing his movie machine on traditional fairy-tales.11

In light of the date it was prepared and delivered and current events, the Andrew Lang lecture itself could be a sort of direct commentary by Tolkien on Disney. According to Anderson and Flieger, the lecture that eventually became the essay was delivered in March of 1939 and was“probably written between December 1938 and March 1939” (122). Though a date is notspecified, Scull and Hammond report that Tolkien saw Snow White in Lewis’s company “early in 1939” (Companion I 224). Contemporary news reports of the lecture make no mention of Disney (OFS 161-69). In light of the unprecedented promotion and merchandising tie-ins that occurred in Great Britain in the months prior to (and continuing after) the release of Snow White in the UK, the amount of post-release attention given to the Moviemaker and the princess by the media (Kuhn), and the direct correlation between the movie and the topic of Tolkien’s lecture, Tolkien’s choice to omit any reference to Disney or cinematic portrayals of fairy-stories in general may have been a negative comment—perhaps that the Moviemaker and his vulgar film were too far beneath the notice of lecturer and audience to be acknowledged.


The subtitle of this paper refers to “divergences and convergences” between Walt Disney and J.R.R. Tolkien. In spite of commonalities of dates and dwarfs, research and analysis of information surrounding these two men and their landmark creations point to far more divergence than convergence. The apparent differences between the Moviemaker and the Scholar are in fact quite real.

The questions posed in the introduction can now be answered with a higher degree of clarity:

  • What was Tolkien’s opinion of Disney? Tolkien considered Disney’s work “vulgar,” and continued to hold (and perhaps strengthened) this opinion through the years.
  • Disney’s of Tolkien? There is no evidence that Disney personally knew or corresponded with or about Tolkien. He likely became aware of Tolkien as someone whose works might be adapted to film, but as mentioned in end note 9, the studio decided that adaptation of The Lord of the Rings would be too costly.
  • Was the common dwarf element just a coincidence or did one story impact the other? With the two works having originated in widely different circumstances and times, and in spite of the change of the nature of Tolkien’s dwarves from previous writings, the presence of dwarfs as central characters in both works can only be coincidental.
  • Was there ever a possibility that these two “magic makers” would team up? It is highly unlikely that Tolkien would ever have agreed to work with Disney, even if the studio hadshown interest in adapting his works to film. Disney, with his Pressure Cooker of Film, his corruption of the old tales, and his eye on progress and profit was likely far too much for Tolkien to stomach.

Disney appears to have demonstrated all the worst aspects of storytelling for Tolkien, and Tolkien was surely too “arty” and professorial for Disney. Still, Snow White and Bilbo Baggins both celebrated their 75th birthdays in 2012, and the princess and the hobbit, along with their creators, will be celebrated around the world in various ways. But while the Moviemaker and the Scholar each made a unique and lasting contribution to the fantasy genre, there is a chasm between them that will probably always be difficult (if not impossible) to cross.

1 The concept of sub-creation is uniquely Tolkien’s, described by Anderson and Flieger as “the creative interaction of human imagination and human language that in [Tolkien’s] opinion gives rise to myth” (OFS 11). This is probably considered by many to be far beyond Disney’s creative process, but for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to both processes as “sub-creative.”

2 A 1942 Time Magazine article quotes Disney: “Do you know how long it would have taken one man to make [Snow White]? I figured it out —just 250 years” (Walt & the Professors).

3 An Internet hoax created the impression that Disney and Tolkien were friends. “The Tale of Lossiel” is a detailed piece that claims to be a piece to be included in Volume XIII of History of Middle-earth lent to the web page’s author by Christopher Tolkien. It refers to a note scribbled by Tolkien in the margin that said, “Lent to Walt 2/13/37.” The manuscript continues as if written by Christopher, “The identity of Walt is unknown, but a loose slip found among my father's papers, torn from an Oxford lecture list for Trinity term 1939, reads (in a large and hasty scrawl) Cut Walt out of will!!!!!!” (Hicklin). I obtained a photocopy of Tolkien’s last will and testament, and, not surprisingly, neither Disney nor any other entity outside the Tolkien family is named in relation to Tolkien’s legendarium.

4 Priscilla Tolkien was eight years old at this time, and may have also been influenced by the pre-Snow White PR and merchandising that blanketed the UK. If so, Professor Tolkien may have been unable to escape Disney even in his own study.

5 Warren Lewis considered the film “first rate…It was well worth going to if only for the scene of the spring ceaning of the dwarfs’ house” (CSL Biography 160).

6 Lewis later populated Narnia with dwarfs that displayed the “right” characteristics, among whom were the black dwaarf who served the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Trumpkin the red dwarf in Prince Caspian, and the black dwarfs who end up in a sort of limbo in The Last Battle.

7 Given the ubiquity of Disney’s works from the 1930s onward, and the fact that so many animated features wereabout Disney’s Faerie as defined by the Pressure Cooker of Film, it is surprising that there are so few commentsfrom Tolkien on record. There are no references to Disney at all in Carpenter’s biography and only four references in The Letters of JRRT. It is possible that Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien, and other family members with access to the professor’s papers have chosen not to make additional commentary public because of its highly negative content.

8 The letter was sold at auction by Sotheby's London in 2001 for £17,500. As a point of interest, Tolkien also directly criticizes Disney as a person, saying that the Moviemaker is “simply a cheat: willing and even eager to defraud the less experienced by trickery sufficiently 'legal' to keep him out of jail…I should not have given any proposal from Disney any consideration at all. I am not all that poor..." Though the basis upon which Tolkien formed this opinion is not known for certain, there is speculation that it came from the loud and widespread complaints of P.L. Travers. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, felt that she had been tricked by Disney into giving him authorization to make a movie based on her books and then left out of the decision making process during its filming (Flanagan). The Disney film was released in 1964, which coincides with the period of most vehement complaining by Travers as well as the year Tolkien penned this letter.

9 As an interesting side note, in 1966 Joy Hill at Allen & Unwin, responsible for promoting Tolkien to the media, sent The Lord of the Rings to Disney Studios for consideration as a film adaptation, presumably without Tolkien’s knowledge or consent. The studio declined on the basis of the high cost to make such a film (Companion II 210).

10 Lewis was in agreement with Tolkien. In a letter to BBC producer Lance Sieveking, Lewis says “…if only Disney did not combine so much vulgarity with his genius!” (Doctorow). In a conversation with Jane Douglass, he observed, “Too bad we didn't know Walt Disney before he was spoiled, isn't it?” (An Enduring Friendship). Specific to Snow White, Lewis concluded a commentary on the film by saying, “What might have come of it if the man had been educated -- or even brought up in a decent society?” (Collected Letters 242).

11 Some modern-day scholars have offered critique of Disney worthy of the Scholar. For example, Stone echoes Tolkien’s criticism of “flower-fairies and fluttering sprites” (OFS 29) by criticizing Disney’s “portrayal of a cloying fantasy world filled with cute little beings existing among pretty flowers and singing animals” (44).  Though much more forthright, Curry is reminiscent of Tolkien’s letter to his aunt (above): “Disney’s images violently occupy the mind, gradually destroying the child’s imaginative ability to visualize for him/herself” (134).

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