Monday, June 24, 2013
I eagerly went to my local bookstore on its day of publication to get a copy of The Fall of Arthur, the latest posthumous offering from the pen of J. R. R. Tolkien. To my surprise and chagrin I was told that the store did not have it in stock and indeed was not scheduled to receive any copies. I was obliged to special-order it and wait another seven days before I could finally lay eyes on the one and only work by England's master fantasist on the Matter of Britain, the legends of King Arthur. At the time I was privately angry and a little disgusted: a unique work from a great author was, I felt, being slighted. On more sober reflection (I had a week to think about it) I began to perhaps understand the circumstances behind a more restrained release for this production of the Author of the Century, and I think that reason can be summed up in one title: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was the last posthumous publication by J. R. R. T., and one with a very wide publishing release (indeed, I remember seeing copies for sale at Wal-Mart). I think it was thought that, in the wake of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings films, anything by Tolkien would sell like hot cakes. But I imagine casual fans of LOTR coming to this long verse re-telling of an ancient Norse saga were in an analogous situation to Queen Victoria in the old apocryphal anecdote. The monarch, having expressed appreciation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Through the Looking-Glass and the desire to have a copy of his next work, received in due time a volume on abstract algorithms from the mathematics professor. S&G, while a good work of its kind, did not have the wide-spread popularity that was being banked upon, and perhaps has led to the more reined in release for The Fall of Arthur.
So what do we have in The Fall of Arthur? The poem itself consists of 954 lines of alliterative verse, divided into five cantos, and occupies only forty pages of this 233 page book. The rest of the volume is fleshed out once again by Christopher Tolkien, the professor's scholarly son, and includes a Foreword (introducing and placing the poem in its personal historical context), Notes on the Text (identifying persons and old words occurring in the poem itself), a chapter explaining the poem in relation to Arthurian Tradition, a chapter explaining the poem in relation to Tolkien's own developing ideas about his mythology, and a chapter on how the poem changed through several drafts (only the last version is presented in the book). Finally, there is an appendix explaining Old English Verse, the tradition in which Tolkien was working, relying on stressed alliterative words within the poetic line rather than rhyme.
This all sounds rather dry and drasty, except that it isn't. The real meat on this bone is Tolkien's own voice in the verse, and when it starts rolling out it swells and falls, thunders and sighs like the waves breaking on a stony beach. In the beginning of the poem, Arthur (on the advice of Mordred) leads a punitive army eastward to stem the repeated Saxon invasions and raids on Britain. Here is the vaunt of Gawain in the face of what seems to be a vast army of wraiths and darkness:
"--Clear went his voice
in the rocks ringing above roaring wind
and rolling thunder: 'Ride, forth to war,
ye hosts of ruin, hate proclaiming!
Foes we fear not, nor fell shadows
of the dark mountains demon-haunted!
Hear now ye hills and hoar forest,
ye awful thrones of olden gods
huge and hopeless, hear and tremble!
From the West comes war that no wind daunteth,
might and purpose that no mist stayeth;
lord of legions, light in darkness,
east rides Arthur!' "
In this defiance of the dark we hear once more the authentic Tolkien note.
The Fall of Arthur is woven around five main characters: Arthur, who strives to maintain his kingdom and the remains of the Christian Roman world; Mordred, whose lust for power and for Guinever will make him ally with any invader or outlaw; Lancelot, whose affair with the queen has divided and weakened Arthur's court; Guinever ("as fair and fell as fay-woman/ in the world walking for the woe of men") who cares for nothing as long as she gets what she wants, and Gawain, Arthur's chief knight after Lancelot, restored here to his original British position as the paragon of loyal knighthood.
The plot of the poem (as it stands) can be very plainly summed up. Arthur and Gawaine leave for the East on their mission. They hear that back home Mordred has taken over and caused Guinever to flee, Arthur turns homeward and considers asking Lancelot for help, but Gawain counsels against it, doubting his loyalty. Lancelot wonders if he should come to their aid, but his debate keeps him from leaving in a timely manner. Arthur's forces come once more to Britain and notice woeful changes in the land. And it is here that Tolkien left his work.
It is of course in relationship to the poem that all of the ensuing scholarship derives its interest: when, how, and why Tolkien wrote it, the tradition in which he wrote and how he selected and changed things from the tradition, how it affected his own 'legendarium.' In the end we are left with a beautiful, tantalizing fragment, another 'what if' of literature, and, as Christopher Tolkien phrased it, "one of the most grievous of [Tolkien's] abandonments."
Monday, June 10, 2013
“There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of “Heaven” ridiculous by saying they do not want “to spend eternity playing harps.” The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. People who take the symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
--C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, book III, Chapter 10).
Friday, June 7, 2013
"Rabo Karabekian asked Bonnie MacMahon to tell him something about the teen-age girl on the cover of the program for the Festival of the Arts. This was the only internationally famous human being in Midland City. She was Mary Alice Miller, the Women's Two Hundred Meter Breast Stroke Champion of the World. She was only fifteen, said Bonnie.
"Mary Alice was also the Queen of the Festival of the Arts. The cover of the program showed her in a white bathing suit, with her Olympic Gold Medal hanging around her neck...
"And Bonnie MacMahon told Beatrice and Karabekian that Mary Alice's father, who was a member of the parole board out at Shepherdstown, had taught Mary Alice to swim when she was eight months old, and that he had made her swim at least four hours a day, every day, since she was three.
"Rabo Karabekian thought this over, then he said loudly, so a lot of people could hear him, 'What kind of a man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?'"
--Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Breakfast of Champions (1973).
Thursday, June 6, 2013
"The ‘protestant’ search backwards for ‘simplicity’ and directness — which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because ‘primitive Christianity’ is now and in spite of all ‘research’ will ever remain largely unknown; because ‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian ‘liturgical’ behaviour from the beginning as now. (St Paul’s strictures on eucharistic behaviour are sufficient to show this!) Still more because ‘my church’ was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history — the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the ‘mustard-seed’ and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is part of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree. Very good: but in husbandry the authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites, and so forth. (With trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!) But they will certainly do harm, if they are obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth of the plant when it was (as they imagine) pretty and unafflicted by evils."
--J. R. R. Tolkien, Letters, #306.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
"We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old. It is the custom in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before. Thus England went mad with joy over the patriotic monarchy of Elizabeth; and then (almost immediately afterwards) went mad with rage in the trap of the tyranny of Charles the First. So, again, in France the monarchy became intolerable, not just after it had been tolerated, but just after it had been adored. The son of Louis the well-beloved was Louis the guillotined. So in the same way in England in the nineteenth century the Radical manufacturer was entirely trusted as a mere tribune of the people, until suddenly we heard the cry of the Socialist that he was a tyrant eating the people like bread. So again, we have almost up to the last instant trusted the newspapers as organs of public opinion. Just recently some of us have seen (not slowly, but with a start) that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by the nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men. We have not any need to rebel against antiquity; we have to rebel against novelty."
--from Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
I just came upon this picture of J. R. R. Tolkien (which I, too, had never seen before) at http://stoneofthehapless.tumblr.com/archive , and I believe I can answer his question. From the looks of it, Tolkien is taking a book down from some shelves dedicated to different foreign editions of his works, and from the tiny picture on the back I can identify it as the Portuguese version of The Hobbit, illustrated by Antonio Quadros, and titled (in 1962) O gnomo (though later Portuguese editions from 1976 on re-title it O Hobbit).
Monday, June 3, 2013
"Do not fear death. Death is always at our side. When we show fear, it jumps at us faster than light, but if we do not show fear, it casts its eye upon us gently and then guides us into infinity..." --Laughing Bull, "The Real Folk Blues," Cowboy Bebop.
Sunday, June 2, 2013
"My brother and I used to play with planchette, or what the Americans
call the ouija board; but we were among the few, I imagine, who played
in a mere spirit of play. Nevertheless I would not altogether
rule out the suggestion of some that we were playing with fire;
or even with hell-fire. In the words that were written for us there
was nothing ostensibly degrading, but any amount that was deceiving.
I saw quite enough of the thing to be able to testify, with complete
certainty, that something happens which is not in the ordinary
sense natural, or produced by the normal and conscious human will.
Whether it is produced by some subconscious but still human force,
or by some powers, good, bad or indifferent, which are external
to humanity, I would not myself attempt to decide. The only thing I
will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisible power,
is that it tells lies. The lies may be larks or they may be lures
to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things;
but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world;
or for that matter about this world."
--from The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
Bhagavata Puran describes that in his previous avatar as Varaha, Vishnu killed the raksha Hiranyaksha. The brother of Hiranyaksha, Hiranyakashipu, wanted revenge on Vishnu and his followers. He undertook many years of austere penance to take revenge on Vishnu: Brahma thus offers the demon a boon and Hiranyakashipu asks for immortality. Brahma tells him this is not possible, but that he could bind the death of Hiranyakashipu with conditions.
O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you. Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving created by you. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. Since no one can kill you in the battlefield, you have no competitor. Therefore, grant me the benediction that I too may have no rival. Give me sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and give me all the glories obtained by that position. Furthermore, give me all the mystic powers attained by long austerities and the practice of yoga, for these cannot be lost at any time. Brahma said, "Tatha asthu" (be it so) and vanished. Hiranyakashipu was happy thinking that he had won over death.
One day while Hiranyakashipu performed austerities at Mandaracala Mountain, his home was attacked by Indra and the other devatas. At this point the divine sage Narad intervenes to protect Kayadu, whom he describes as 'sinless'. Following this event, Narad takes Kayadu into his care and while under the guidance of Narad, her unborn child (Hiranyakashipu's son) Prahlad, becomes affected by the transcendental instructions of the sage even at such a young stage of development. Thus, Prahlad later begins to show symptoms of this earlier training by Narad, gradually becoming recognised as a devoted follower of Vishnu, much to his father's disappointment.
Hiranyakashipu furious at the devotion of his son to Vishnu, as the god had killed his brother. Finally, he decides to commit filicide.] but each time he attempts to kill the boy, Prahlad is protected by Vishnu's mystical power. When asked, Prahlad refuses to acknowledge his father as the supreme lord of the universe and claims that Vishnu is all-pervading and omnipresent. Hiranyakashipu points to a nearby pillar and asks if 'his Vishnu' is in it:
"O most unfortunate Prahlad, you have always described a supreme being other than me, a supreme being who is above everything, who is the controller of everyone, and who is all-pervading. But where is He? If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar?"
Prahlad then answers, He was, He is and He will be. In an alternate version of the story, Prahlad answers, He is in pillars, and he is in the smallest twig.
Hiranyakashipu, unable to control his anger, smashes the pillar with his mace, and following a tumultuous sound, Vishnu in the form of Narasimha appears from it and moves to attack Hiranyakashipu. in defence of Prahlad. In order to kill Hiranyakashipu and not upset the boon given by Brahma, the form of Narasimha is chosen. Hiranyakashipu can not be killed by human, deva or animal. Narasimha is neither one of these as he is a form of Vishnu incarnate as a part-human, part-animal. He comes upon Hiranyakashipu at twilight (when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither earth nor space). Using his sharp fingernails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon. Kurma Puran describes the preceding battle between the Purusha and demonic forces in which he escapes a powerful weapon called Pashupata and it describes how Prahlad's brothers headed by Anuhrada and thousands of other demons "were led to the valley of death (yamalayam) by the lion produced from the body of man-lion" avatar.
Before parting, Narasimha rewards the wise Prahlad by crowning him as the king.
--extracted from the Wikipedia entry.