Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Juxtaposition of Styles: Also Known as, Why Precisely Does Morgoth Need to Set Bounties?

                 I’d like to talk a little bit more about the intersection of myth and history, and chiefly the way that, as written in the Notion Club Papers, as you go farther back “real history becom[es] more mythical… More poetical and less prosaic, if you like.”[1] The latter part of this description seems particularly striking to me, and also seems to tie in with the previous lecture, with the way that Tolkien employed different styles of writing depending upon the perspective he was striving for. For instance, if one were to compare the elaborate poetical (or elvish) style of the “Lay of Leithian” with the much more ‘down-to-earth’ (i.e., Hobbitish/human) style of “Farmer Giles of Ham”, it can be fairly easily discerned that the two pieces are talking about a much different kind of history.
            “Farmer Giles”, regardless of whether one chooses to treat it as a joke piece or a children’s story, is written at a much lower register than the “Lay of Leithian.” Even those things that seem as though they might be attempts to ‘elevate’ it a little bit, such as the insertion of Latin texts or naming conventions, serve basically to further the joke; the joke being, of course, that anachronisms are funny, especially if you’re well-versed enough in history to get the joke. Somewhat corresponding to this, the story is essentially very realistic, if one is willing to forgive the presence of the odd dragon or giant. Farmer Giles can ultimately beat the dragon, of course, but his prowess with his sword comes down to luck, as “Tailbiter did the best it could in inexperienced hands”[2], as well as his spectacular bargaining skills[3]. The story is, I suppose, in a state of low mimesis according to Northrup Frye—Farmer Giles is a relatable character, much like men that we or Tolkien could find in everyday life. He’s a rather Hobbitish character, and the story is a rather Hobbitish story.
          The “Lay of Leithian”, of course, functions on an entirely different, arguably entirely mythical, level. Luthien and Beren are akin to Gandalf and Tom Bombadil, as they are essentially above the concerns of their environment and instead focused on conflict with something equal to themselves. Their struggle is perhaps essentially the same as that of Farmer Giles, as both are fighting to save their homes from the ‘ultimate evil’ that lurks away in the shadows, but Beren and Luthien’s evil certainly seems a lot more ultimate. Insofar as the word can be applied, the lay seems to discard any sort of realism—Luthien, for instance, can transform so that she has wings[4] (Elwing does something similar in the Later Annals of Beleriand, but I think that’s Ulmo’s work?[5]), and Beren’s sword fails to remove all three Silmarils because fate has decreed that this must not yet happen[6]. The issues that befall the pair are essentially beyond the boundaries of what could commonly be considered ‘real’ history. The two are solidly in the realm of ‘pure’ myth. This myth may be repeated as history, but it has a distinct and separate quality—one that comes through in the choice to render the story in a poetic form.  
         Neither of these two pieces is necessarily any less valid than the other, at least when it comes to the transmission of historical ‘fact’. “Farmer Giles”, though it may have been merely a comedic attempt to explain the names of two small villages outside of Oxford, still manages to evoke and maintain a certain mood within the story, something that seems a rather poetical quality. The “Lay of Leithian”, as focused as it is on retaining the mythical quality of its narrative, still treats the main characters as something less than invincible heroes—Beren, after all, is as affected by Luthien’s sleep-spell as Morgoth[7]. One of these works treats its history as prose, with only perhaps a poetic mood creeping around the outside, and the other as pure poetry, but with enough weakness thrown into the heroes to provide further depth. The two styles can obviously complement each other, though each approach seems best suited to tell a certain kind of story.
          I found myself fascinated by the annals of Valinor and Beleriand in the recommended readings for this lecture because of an issue of precisely this sort. One would think, perhaps, that given Tolkien’s obvious talents at verse and the sort of events that are described, especially in the annals of Valinor, that these would lend themselves to be poetical works—after all, they feature war involving literal gods. Instead, the events are merely laid down in a chronicle. I admit that the chronicle certainly makes its best attempt at trying to make the events entailed sound suitably epic, but at least personally, the list format seems almost to dull the impact of the events. Even the emendation of the names of the scribes of the annals of Valinor, Pengolod and the earlier Rumil, seems almost to break the immersion of the events.[8] This is the same attention to detail and veracity to his internal universe that Tolkien basically always employs, but it seems almost out of place when events of such magnitude are being described.
          This sort of tension between ‘poetic’ aspects of history and ‘prosaic’ aspects can also be seen in the Later Annals of Beleriand, though, at least personally, the oddity stems from the disparity between what seems to be the intended capability of Morgoth to his actions. I suppose this could be seen as either a reflection of how great the might of those elves who had seen Valinor was, or how far Morgoth had ‘fallen’ when he rebelled against the Valar, but the disparity seems, to me at least, odd. This might not be the most succinct way to make my argument, but I suppose what I’m trying to arrive at is that is seems odd for the one who “destroyed the Trees… and began murder in the world”[9], to later be reduced to “put[ting] a great price on [Beren’s] head.”[10] (This is an irrelevant aside that does nothing to advance my point, so feel free to ignore it, but I’m really uncertain what good money is supposed to do anyone in this society? There don’t seem to be economies anywhere, but even supposing there were, where precisely are you going to spend your Morgoth-money? I doubt the elves or men will talk to you, and I don’t think the dwarves are much more than grumpy talking rocks in Tolkien’s mind at this point, so money seems spectacularly pointless.)
          Essentially, though the two can be mixed to a certain extent, there seem to be two sorts of history within Tolkien’s legendarium, the ‘poetic’ and the ‘prosaic’. The two can be used to communicate what are essentially different scales of history, with different stakes and issue entailed by each style. However, just as it might seem disingenuous to construct a heroic epic akin to Beowulf to immortalize Farmer Giles’ exploits, it similarly seems odd to depict grand events, such as the tales of life before the destruction of the Trees or the endless wars between the first elves and Morgoth in a simple chronicle that is at points both too terse and devoid of life. This is certainly not an incorrect format in which to write history, but it seems perhaps best suited to a particular type of story. The mythicality of history is certainly evident at least in the early history of Tolkien’s world, and it seems to give a quality to the events that would best be expressed in verse, or at least not in such dry prose.

A few notes: I realize that the annals of Valinor and Beleriand that we read were written at an early stage in Tolkien’s writings, and are incomplete drafts of other things, and that as such it is perhaps not entirely fair to Tolkien’s creative process to call them terse or devoid of life. I do feel that the juxtaposition of ‘prose historical’ details with ‘poetic historical’ ones, such as, again, Morgoth setting a price on Beren’s head (a very mundane thing) soon after creating dragons (dragons are many things, but cannot generally be accused of being mundane) is still a legitimate complaint with regards to the style of story he is attempting to tell, however.

Smaller things—I really don’t know if it’s a fault of the organization of the chronicle since it just shoves names at the reader in quick succession, or if I just didn’t pay enough attention, but it’s an absolute nightmare to keep track of who is who’s son and who actually lived where in Beleriand. Also, wow, Elrond is really old and I’m impressed.

[1] Notion Club Papers, pp. 227
[2] Farmer Giles of Ham, pp. 156
[3] Ibid., pp. 171
[4] Lay of Leithian, pp. 296
[5] Later Annals of Beleriand, pp. 157
[6] Lay of Leithian, pp. 303
[7] Ibid., pp. 302
[8] The Later Annals of Valinor, pp. 125
[9] Ibid., pp. 126
[10] The Later Annals of Beleriand, pp. 148

1 comment:

  1. Elrond is old! Nicely observed on the tension between history, myth, and genre. What is myth if it is conveyed in annals? What is history if it told in poetry? How much does our sense of what is "historical" and what is "mythical" depend not on the events as such but on the way in which they are conveyed as stories? RLFB