11 October 2009

more on Middle-earth

I recently finished reading Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth. Here are just some of my favorite parts in his book.

Feel free to skip this post if you're not a fan, but I think Shippey had many interesting things to reveal about Tolkien's writing that aren't common knowledge to most people.

Gnomes vs. the Noldor, Trotter vs. Aragorn

[Tolkien] was stubborn to the point of pig-headedness about sticking to names, apparently in total incomprehension of their likely effect on contemporary readers. He kept using the term 'Gnomes' for the Noldor till at least 1937, in confidence that 'to some "Gnome" will still suggest knowledge', through its connection with Greek gnome, 'intelligence' (see Book of Lost Tales 1, pp.43-44). To some, possibly. However, to all but a vanishingly small proportion of English speakers, 'gnome' has lost all connection with its Greek root, and means instead a small, vulgar garden ornament, very hard to take seriously. Similarly, as remarked above, p.95, Tolkien stuck to the name 'Trotter' while the character who bore it changed from a wandering hobbit to a hobbit-Ranger to a human Ranger to the last descendant of the kings of old. Very late in the construction of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn, or 'Strider' as he eventually became, is still declaring (War of the Jewels, p.390), 'But Trotter shall be the name of my house, if ever that be established; yet perhaps in the same high tongue it shall not sound so ill...' Wrong! For 'trot', as the Oxford English Dictionary rightly says, implies 'short, quick motion in a limited area,' and is quite inconsonant with dignity when applied to a tall Man.

- Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 293.

On Macbeth and The Lord of the Rings

It is thus quite clear that whatever he said about Shakespeare's plays, Tolkien read some of them with keen attention: most of all, Macbeth. Motifs from this play are repeated prominently in The Lord of the Rings. The march of the Ents to Isengard makes true the report of the frightened messenger to the incredulous Macbeth in Act V Scene 5: 'As I did stand my watch upon the hill / I looked toward Birnam and anon methought / The wood began to move.'

.... When Denethor says that stewards do not come to be kings by the lapse of a few centuries in Gondor, but only 'in other places of less royalty', the remark is true of Scotland, and of Britain--though not of Anglo-Saxon England, ruled from the legendary past of King Cerdic to 1065 by kings descended in paternal line from one ancestor. The Return of the King is in a way a parallel, in another a reproach to Macbeth.

Tolkien, however, used the play for both more and less than motifs. There is a flash of minute observation in chapter 6 of The Two Towers. What shall we do about Saruman, asks Theoden. 'Do the deed at hand,' replies Gandalf, send every man against him at once. 'If we fail, we fall. If we succeed--then we will face the next task.' The jingle of 'fail-fall' echoes a famous crux in Macbeth, where the hero falters in front of his wife. 'If we should fail?' he asks. 'We fail?' replies she--in the Folio punctuation. Actresses have tried the line different ways: as a sarcastic question, a flat dismissal, a verbal slap. They were all wrong, implies Tolkien; it was a misprint, the word was 'fall,' meaning 'die', and it is a straight answer to a straight question.

....However, the final and strongest influence of Macbeth on The Lord of the Rings is quite obviously in theme. If there is one moral in the interlacements of the latter, it is that you must do your duty regardless of what you think is going to happen. This is exactly what Macbeth does not realise. He believes the Witches' prophecy about his own kingship, and tries to fulfil it; he believes their warning about Macduff and tries to cancel it. If he had not tried to cancel it (and so murdered Macduff's family), Macduff might not have killed him; if he had not killed Duncan, he might conceivably have become king some other way. Macbeth is a classic case of a man who does not understand about the cooperation between free will and luck. Galadriel's warning about the events in her mirror, 'Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them,' would have been well said to him. But he had no Galadriel. The only mirror he sees is controlled (Act IV Scene 1) by the Witches.

- Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 182-184.

On the Fate of the Elves

The future fate of the elves is often mentioned in The Lord of the Rings but never becomes quite clear. Some will leave Middle-earth, some will stay. Those who stay, says Galadriel, will 'dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.' 'Dwindle' could have a demographic meaning; there could be fewer of them. It could be physical too, looking forward to the 'tiny elves' of Shakespeare, and even moral, making one think of the detached, cruel, soulless elves of Scottish and Danish tradition. The best fate for the elves who stay, perhaps, would be to turn into landscape.

....It's hard to say, declares Sam Gamgee of the elves of Lothlorien, 'whether they've made the land, or the land's made them' (p.351). And his perceptions are often deep, even if his education has been neglected. His further explanations may be taken to refer to The Lord of the Rings as well as to Lothlorien: 'Nothing seems to be going on,' he says, 'and nobody seems to want it to. If there's any magic about, it's right down deep, where I can't lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.' Yes, agrees Frodo, complementing Sam's style as often with his own. Still, 'You can see and hear it everywhere.'

- Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 133-134.


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