domingo, 20 de fevereiro de 2011


Tolkien, Undset, Laxness. Terry Gunnell: 13.09.2002

Málþing í Norræna húsinu
Tolkien, Laxness, Undset
13.-14. sept. 2002

Terry Gunnell, University of Iceland


(Note: The following is a lecture rather than an article:
it thus lacks references and acknowledgements)

I have just reached the end of a particularly active summer, one which has involved me going through five different countries - ranging from the Baltic to the Meditteranean. In the process, I have passed through far too many cities, towns, and villages, where like any run-of-the-mill jet-lagged academic, I have tended to find myself aimlessly wandering into bookshops. And it was here, amidst the mad rush of images, smells and sounds that have been going by me, that I found a cultural constant, something that seemed to remain steady amidst the confusion of travel. It was the anguished face of Frodo Baggins, staring out through shopwindow after shopwindow, slapped across posters, video cassettes, the sleeves of CDs, DVD covers and countless editions of Lord of the Rings. While the language of the accompanying wording varied by country, the face remained the same. Now, all of this is of course linked to this summer's arrival of the Lord of the Rings video, and the build up towards the coming of the second film, The Two Towers, but the mere fact that the face is on show everywhere serves to remind us of the quite incredible international popularity that Tolkien's child has gained, and at the same time the stunning range of cultural and geographical environments in which the book is read. Standing there, in a Cretan village, facing a German copy of the book, I was drawn to consider what exactly it is that makes this supposedly most English of books accessible to all of these people? As an Englishman like Tolkien himself, I think I know how he imagined Mordor, Hobbiton and Lothlórien, but how does everyone else see each of these places and various peoples that inhabit them before the film arrived? Tolkien's powers of description are well known, but at the same time, his narrative deliberately plays off our own experiences, our own memories and dreams, and not least our own cultural backgrounds. There can be little doubt that each nation - if not each person - has his/ her own subtley different vision of Middle-earth and its inhabitants, one that fits in with their own local body of folklore and mythology, thus connecting it to their own culture. This may be regarded as one of Tolkien's greatest achievements: the worldwide attraction of the book coming precisely from the fact that he draws on such a wide range of mythological, folkloristic, and early literary material that once lived within the international oral tradition. In many ways, his technique in this regard closely resembles that of Albert Lord's Singer of Tales, the kind of oral storyteller that could be found behind the early works that Tolkien was so enamoured of, like Beowulf, the Kalevala, the Welsh Mabinogian, and the Old Icelandic Eddic poetry and sagas: it is a technique of creation from both new and old building blocks, a process that involves the adoption of known formulæ, motifs, stock scenes and characters that produce echoes in our heads, because they bring to mind other works that we have encountered elsewhere in myths, heroic legends or wonder tales ranging from Ancient Greece to Eastern Finland. Tolkien, however, seems to have been attempting to go one step further. While attempting to recreate a lost mythology for England in the Silmarillion, he was simultaneously proposing a form of ur-mythology - in Tom Shippey's words, we might call it an "asterisk mythology" - that might help explain the range of fragmented jigsaw pieces that form the mythologies of the western world, and join them into one. In other words, he might have argued that it was they rather than he that was the borrower: that all the western mythologies went back to the mythology that he was positing. Of course this was all a game that he was playing.

Whatever the case, it should not be surprising that much of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings has achieved stems from the fact that all we recognise elements of it in each of our own cultures. This of course especially applies to Iceland, and explains, for example, why The Hobbit has been such a popular textbook for almost thirty years in Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð. For the teachers the book has served as an effective bridge between Icelandic literature and English culture at the same time as introducing students to a range of English language and basic poetic forms. But its winning feature is simply that the students like it. It isn´t foreign to them.

As has already been shown today, the "borrowed" elements from Old and modern Icelandic culture in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are countless, ranging from the Ring itself, to Smaug-Fáfnir and Gollum-Gestumblindi, to Bjorn the Werebear, the Dvergatal dwarves, Aragorn's broken sword, Beren's wolf-gulped hand, the all-seeing Hliðskjálf seat of Amon Hen, the lava-like wilderness of Mordor, and last but not least, the distant flames of Mount Doom, which Tolkien's pen reached at just around the same time that Mount Hekla erupted here in 1947. One could go on for ever.

This brings us, however, to the creatures that populate Tolkien's world, which are so dear to people's hearts that they have launched a million role-playing sessions and several shops full of fantasy books. There is little question of the Germanic, and more specifically Scandinavian nature of the dwarves which sprung along with Gandalf from the words of Völuspá. Their characters throughout the books remain relatively constant. Both their names and their appearance remind us of the fact that they are close relations of Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri, and the whily makers of Þór's hammer and Freyja's Brisingamen. Admittedly there is little evidence of them lusting after young ladies like Freyja or Þór's daughter, but there again there is little hanky-panky of any kind in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. There isn´t even a Mrs Oakenshield.

The dwarves then, are stable and well recognisable, if over-tightly bound into their mithril cod-pieces. In many ways the same applies to the hobbits. They always remind me of an archetypal group of aging middle-class southern-English tourists, as full of quaint charm, floral patterns and oaken beams as a Sussex village, as fruitfully tasteful and potent as a pint of good Cornish scrumpy. The Shire is southern and middle England before the appearance of heavy industry, Aids and CD-Rom. Tolkien with his pipe and waistcoats regularly compared himself to Bilbo.

But what about the elves, those creatures that have impressed themselves most deeply on the minds of Tolkien's readers, probably more so than the hobbits themselves? Much of their attraction stems from the fact that they are the most inconstant and complex of Tolkien's creations, in a sense a microcosm of the compexity of the works themselves. While the word elf, which Tolkien chose to use instead of "fairy", is Germanic, the beings denoted by the word are much more international.

To start with, we need to realise that unlike the dwarves, the final form of the elves was developed over time, the figures we meet in The Lord of the Rings representing an intriguing blend of two images that lived side by side in Tolkien's mind until the late 1930s. And in spite of his later complaints about the awful influence of "Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs" which he felt led to the "the disastrous debasement of the word" fairy, it seems clear that Tolkien's earliest understanding of the fairy world was not so far off from that depicted in A Midsummer Night's Dream. A poem called "Wood Sunshine", written at by Tolkien at the tender age of 18, runs as follows:

Come sing ye light fairy things tripping so gay,
Like visions, like glinting reflections of joy,
All fashion'd of radiance, careless of grief,
O'er this green and brown carpet; nor hasten away.
O! come to me! dance for me! Sprites of the wood,
O! come to me! Sing to me once ere ye fade!

It´s not exactly Bob Dylan, but it has its charm. Five years later, during the First World War, another poem, called "Goblin Feet", was written. This is slightly more developed, but its image of tiny creatures remains the same:

I am off down the road
Where the fairy lanterns glowed
And the little pretty flittermice are flying:
A slender band of grey
It runs creepily away
And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing.
The air is full of wings,
Of the blundering beetle things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.

O! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padding feet of many gnomes a-coming!
O! the lights: O! the gleams: O! the little tinkly sounds:
O! the rustle of their noiseless little robes:
O! the echo of their feet - of their little happy feet:
O! their swinging lamps in little starlit globes.

The elements of little happy feet, tiny horns and little tinkly sounds would remain linked to one of Tolkien's images of fairy folk for the next twenty years, at least until the arrival of The Hobbit in the mid 1930s. In one of the Father Christmas letters written for his children in 1936, we find a message by an elf called Ilbereth accompanying a picture which indicates without question that the elves of the North Pole were somewhat vertically challenged. They might have grown in size for The Hobbit, but their nature remains similar to that imagined by the youthful J.R.R. When we first meet them in Rivendell, they carry "bright lanterns" and "laughed and sang in the trees", "Elvish singing" being "not a thing to miss, in June under the stars, not if you care for such things." And then we have the songs themselves: In The Hobbit Tolkien regularly employs songs as an effective means of expressing natural characteristics. Thus we find the mining dwarves doing early versions of the "Hi Ho Hi Ho" song, and the goblins preparing the world for the coming of the Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. As for the elves?

O! What are you doing,
And where are you going?
Your ponies need shoeing!
The river is flowing!
Oh! tra-la-la-lally
There down in the valley!

O! What are you seeking,
And where are you making?
The faggots are reeking,
The bannocks are baking!
Oh! tril-lil-lil-lolly,
the valley is jolly,
ha! ha!

Somehow one can´t see Galadriel singing this little ditty.

The image of the elves as a bunch of all-night party-goers drinking wine and doing morris dancing on ecstacy is repeated in the description of the Elf King and his disappearing followers in Mirkwood. In short, the elven image of this time is very close to that of the archetypal English forest elves of Shakespeare, Spencer and the Middle English Sir Orfeo which Tolkien translated while he was studying for university:

There often by him would he see,
when noon was hot on leaf and tree,
he king of Færie with his rout
came hunting in the woods about
with blowing far and crying dim,
and barking hounds that were with him;
yet never a beast they took nor slew,
and where they went he never knew

The first hints of the other greater mythological world that Tolkien was creating in his spare time occur in The Hobbit's description of Elrond, but even here, the figure of the Master of The Last Homely House seems closer to the tubby barman of an old English pub than the grandson of Earendil: As Tolkien writes:
The master of the house was an elf-friend - one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginning of History, the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the north. In the days of our tale there were still some people who had both elves and heroes of the North for ancestors, and Elrond the master of the house was their chief. He was a noble and as fair in face as an elf-lord, as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard and as kind as summer. He comes into many tales… His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or storytelling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or the pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.
Compare this to the description of the same figure and his daughter Arwen given in The Lord of the Rings:
The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both old and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a king crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fulness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and mighty among both Elves and Men….
As for Arwen:
Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver.
The links to nature are still there, but the figures are of a much greater complexity. In a sense they have been elevated to the status of gods, the outlines of which are elusive, unbound by time and place.

Much of this is due to the blending of the worlds of The Hobbit and the Biblical Silmarillion which Tolkien attempted in The Lord of the Rings. As those who have read it will know, The Silmarillion, created between the two wars, describes Tolkien's version of The Creation and the Fall, the First and Second Ages of the world, in which the first-born elves exile themselves from the heavenly light of Valinor where the gods live, and move into Middle-earth where they defeat the Satan-like Morgoth and his side-kick Sauron for the first time. At the start, the elves have an essentially human role alongside the godlike Valar and the creator Iluvatar. As Humphrey Carpenter notes:
They are to all intents and purposes men: or rather, they are Man before the Fall which deprived him of his powers of achievement. Tolkien believed devoutly that there had once been an Eden on earth, and that man's original sin and subsequent dethronement were responsible for the ills of the world; but his elves, though capable of sin and error, have not "fallen" in the theological sense, and so are able to achieve much beyond the powers of men. They are craftsmen, poets, scribes, creators of works of beauty far surpassing human artefacts. Most important of all they are, unless slain in battle, immortal. Old Age, disease and eath do not bring their work to an end while it is still unfinished or imperfect. They are therefore the ideal of every artist.
These elves, however, are of at least human size, if near immortal, their strength in the face of tragedy and the ravages of destiny giving them a heroic status. Tales like those of the lovers Beren and Luthien, bring us firmly into the world of heroic ballads like that of the Scottish Thomas the Rhymer, or the Icelandic Ólafur Liljurós, a world in which the ears of the gods may be still accessible, but they themselves are no longer visible. We are moving out of the world of myth into that of heroic legend and romance like those of Arthur and Roland, a world where the activities of both elves and men have become somehow elevated to those of superhuman classical heroes, engaged in great quests, battles and acts of love. This applies especially to the final part of The Silmarillion, which tells of the final battle between the elves and the men of Numenor at the end of the Second Age. It is worth noting though, that the elves here are still essentially active figures which take part in the fighting.

Things are different in The Lord of the Rings. Here the fairy dancing and wine carousing is over, but so too are the heroic deeds of the past. The great figures of Elrond and Galadriel remain near static in their strongholds, Legolas and Glorfindel being in more than one sense anomalies. And just as the structure of the book (like that of The Hobbit) is deliberately structured around the natural year and the death and rebirth of nature, it simultaneously reflects the fading of one world and the birth of another. The mythological worlds of the dead dwarves of Khazad-dum and the autumnal elves of Lothlorien and Rivendell are limited to the winter landscape of the first book. In the following two books, they are succeeded by a new world of warring men, and never seen by the reader again, even on the way home to the Shire and ultimately the Grey Havens. Again and again, we are reminded that the end is coming, and on the surface, the elves seem to do little about it. They send no army to Minas Tirith or The Black Gates… and accounts of them fighting Sauron's forces outside Lothlórien are mainly relegated to the Annals given at the end of The Return of the King.

While the elves are physically inactive, however, their spiritual power seems to have increased. In a world that now seems to lack completely the direct participation of Iluvatar or the Valar, the role of the elves seems to have been largely elevated from that of tragic heroes to one of godlike doners (if we use Propp's terminology), and spiritual helpers from afar. This especially applies to the Lady Galadriel who Sam manages to call on at a distance when he is fighting Shelob, whose glass phial provides light and hope in the darkness of Mordor, and whose earth and seeds bring The Shire promptly back to life after the ravages of Saruman at the end of the book. Frodo may develop Christ-like features, and Gandalf may be an All-Father, but the image of Galadriel and Lórien (which are really inseparable) runs throughout the book (not least in Sam's memories) as a godlike personification of the ancient forces of nature, cosmos and growth which Tolkien balances against the modern powers of iron, mass production, machinery, chaos and destruction as represented by Saruman and Sauron.

Developing from dancing fairies to the children of God, warrior heroes and godlike representatives, the elves of Tolkien's work are highly complex figures. And in their complexity we see reflections not only of stars and the changing seasons but also a range of international mythologies, elements of which Tolkien weaves together to create ephemeral figures that ring intimate chords in all of our minds. Certainly, as usual, there are strong Germanic and Scandinavian elements, linked essentially - and typically - with the mythological álfar of Old Norse literature, rather than those of more recent Icelandic or Scandinavian folklore. Tolkien's elves of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion may be hidden, in places like Lorien, Mirkwood, Gondolin, Rivendell and Doriath, but they are not huldufólk or underjordisk. The sagas talk of álfablót - annual sacrifices to elves - and formulae in the Eddic poems regularly rank the álfar alongside the Æsir and the Jötnar, as in expressions like "Hvað er með ásum/ hvað er með álfum" which make one wonder whether the word might even be a synonym for the Vanir gods of fertility like Freyr, Freyja and Njörður. Certainly the Vanir and álfar are closely connected. Ingvi-Freyr himself is said to have been granted Álfheimur as tannfé, and is upset about the "álfröðull", the sun, not following his whims. Furthermore, as Tolkien would have known, the apparent names Freyr and Freyja were not actually names but rather noa expressions simply meaning Lord and Lady (titles which are incidentally also given to Galadriel and Celeborn). (In this loose context, it is also hard to ignore Galadriel's note that the G on the box of soil given to Sam also means Garden, something that immediately brings the name Gerður to mind.) Finally, one cannot forget the links between Tolkien's elves and beautiful ships (bringing to mind the role of Njörður, and Freyr's ship Skíðblaðnir), or the key fact that in The Silmarillion, the name of the elf who led the first elven tribe - known incidentally as the Vanyar - is Ingwe.

I should stress here that I am not trying to say that Tolkien's elves are meant to belong to the Vanir race, more that these are mythological notes that he consciously or unconciously plays on in the mind of at least one reader. The notes played, however, only belong to one minor tune in the elven symphony… one that if left alone would have been relatively simplistic. We must remember that the Scandinavian elves, when we later hear of their habitats, live in rocks or the earth. They do not inhabit forests or live in trees. [1] Nor - for 99% of the time - are they warriors. And while they might be fading away in the face of road builders, we never hear of them departing for the west. Furthermore, while Freyr and Freyja are twins who are supposed to have enjoyed a bit of incest, we never see them together as a regal couple. For the roots of many of these images we have to look back to the old Tolkien image of elves. Whatever he may have felt about Shakespeare, it is very difficult to ignore the parallels between the silver haired Celeborn and the golden haired Galadriel and the nature-disrupting forest figures of Oberon and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream - or at least their folkloristic forebears. Tolkien may have hated the play, but he happily quoted Puck in his letters, and as Tom Shippey has noted elsewhere, drew on motifs from Macbeth in the siege of Isengard and the final death of the King of the Nazgul. The reflections of the lantern-bearing forest elves of English folklore are thus strong, as of course they should be in a new English mythology, but even here we have not reached the end of the story. Still remaining are the the Ragnarokian feelings of elvish doom, the idea of departure to the West, and the elements of heroic warriors of the past. As Tolkien knew, English folklore - and any ur-mythology - must be a melting pot of concepts and stories drawn from a wide variety of cultural sources. And when considering the tunes that Tolkien draws on when creating his elves, we need not only to consider English and German traditions, but also those from the Gælic speaking countries

Tolkien's relationship to the Gælic languages and literatures was admittedly somewhat complex. He loved Welsh, which gave him ideas for the later Sindarin language that he created for the elves. He loved Ireland as well, but had a love-hate relationship with the language, which he was irritated to find he could not master. He was fond of Celtic literature, especially the Welsh, and admits wanting a "fair, elusive" Celtic feel to some of his stories. He comments directly in a letter that the Gælic legends and myths "have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact 'mad'." There is no question that Tolkien knew his Old Irish literature, as one can see from his references to the one-handed god Nuadu, to the land of eternal youth called Tír na Nóg, to vanishing islands, to the Imram voyages of Bran and Brendan, and to the magical world of Hy Breasail that was supposed to exist across the sea in the far west. It is here, in Old Irish literature that find a race of god-like heroes who initially came across the sea to Ireland, and take the country over after waging war against the evil monsters that had previously inhabited the land. Their time, however, is limited, and they finally agree to go into exile - many going across the sea - in the face of the coming of the Milenians, the ancestors of Man. The figures in question are the Tuatha de Danaan, the People of the Mother Goddess Danu: godlike craftsmen, warriors, poets and magicians. Over the process of time, they come to be transformed into the Irish elves, living either in hills and ancient grave mounds, or across the sea on magical disappearing islands to the west, like The Island of Promise and The Island of Youth, all of which which offer close parallels to the concept of Tolkien's Tol Eressea.

A short quote from the Old Irish Book of Invasions should serve to explain what I mean:
Though some say that the Tuatha De Danaan were demons, seeing that they came unperceived (and they themselves said that it was in dark clouds that they came, after burning their ships) and for the obsurity of their knowledge and adventures, and for the uncertainty of their genealogy as carried backwards: but that is not true, for their genealogies carried backward are sound; howbeit they learnt knowledge and poetry; for every obscurity of art and every clearness of reading, and every subtlety of crafts, for that reason derive their origin from the Tuatha de Danaan. And though the faith came, those arts were not put away, for they are good, and no demon ever did good. It is clear therefore from their dignities and their deaths that the Tuatha de Danaan were not of the demons nor were they sidh folk.
There is good reason for looking more carefully at the possible Irish backgrounds for Tolkien's material than scholars have so far done.

In short, the shimmering rainment of Tolkien's elves might be said to be an image of the author's art as a whole, reflecting not only a range of cultures, but also a diachronic development from godlike álfur to modern day fairy or huldufólk. As Frodo comments about Lothlórien:
It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as is they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful.
The same applies to Tolkien's elves as a whole. That is their cross-cultural attraction.

[1] While the Norwegian huldre, for example, are sometimes seen in forests, we have little information about them actually living on the surface of the ground there. They essentially live below the surface of the earth. Certainly the Swedish skogsrå live in forests, but they are very different beings, appearing alone rather than in groups, and looking like trees, rather than living in them.
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