Sunday Night Journal, July 9, 2017
Johnson said of Paradise Lost that "No one ever wished it longer." I can't give my opinion on that, since I've never read more than excerpts from it. But on the basis of those I suspect I'd agree. And by that standard I would have to rate J.R.R. Tolkien's Lay of Leithian at least as high as Paradise Lost, because I've just read a substantial portion of it in a newly released book, Beren and Lúthien, and I definitely wished it longer.
This book is Christopher Tolkien's attempt to publish as one semi-coherent narrative the story of those two lovers, which is an important part of his father's mythology. He tells us in his introduction that he is now ninety-two years old (which surprised me, though it shouldn't have, as my father would be almost that old now if he were still alive). Accordingly, he expects that this will be the last of the books he has edited and published from his father's many scattered and unfinished manuscripts. I am not a Tolkien...what?...I'm trying to find an alternative to "geek" and not succeeding. "Fanatic" I guess would do, but it has a slightly unpleasant connotation, while "fan" doesn't suggest the same zeal and dedication. And "scholar" is too formal. "Nerd" is a little derogatory. "Geek" suggests, nowadays, an innocent sort of enthusiasm, while "enthusiast" doesn't convey the absorption in minute detail which "geek" does. (The development of the term is interesting: how did it go from denoting a person who performs disgusting acts in a carnival show to its current sense denoting intense and maybe obsessive interest in the details of something or other?)
Anyway: I am not one of the people who has pursued extensive knowledge of Tolkien's entire created world and languages. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite books, also to a lesser degree The Hobbit. I read The Silmarillion in the early 1980s and found it not much more than interesting, though I had young children and a new job at the time and might have gotten more involved with it had there been fewer other demands on my attention. Of the many later books (more than a dozen) compiled by Christopher Tolkien, I've read no more than bits and pieces, though there are one or two on my shelf. I probably wouldn't have read this one if my wife hadn't given it to me for Father's Day.
It's a nicely produced volume, with illustrations by Alan Lee, whose illustrations for other Tolkien volumes I've liked more than most. I took it up because I thought it might be a pleasant diversion, maybe just shy of escapism. I found myself more involved than I expected to be, and more moved. It's something of a hodge-podge, as the attempt to put the entire narrative in one volume requires grabbing bits and pieces from a number of manuscripts composed over a period of decades, some in prose and some in verse, and in many instances varying significantly in details about the characters and events, .
And so, back to the poem: it's by far the longest sustained piece in the book, comprising more than half of the actual J.R.R. Tolkien material (as opposed to Christopher's explanatory material). It tells, in brief, how the man Beren and the elf-maiden Lúthien met, fell in love, and, in order to gain her father's permission to wed, undertook to steal a Silmaril, one of the fabulous jewels for which The Silmarillion is named, from the crown of the evil lord Morgoth. Frankly, I expected all this verse to be rather tedious, especially as I had greatly enjoyed the first piece in the book, an early prose version of the legend called The Tale of Tinúviel (Tinúviel being another name for Lúthien).
Well, I didn't find it tedious at all. First I was impressed by the skill with which Tolkien handled his form: tetrameter couplets. Granted, there are vast quantities of 20th century literature I've never read, but I don't know of anything else in it which sustains such a strict form so well for so long. And it's no empty technical feat: the story is a good one, the narrative moves well, and the verse is skillful and powerful. Here's a sample. Luthien and Beren have come in disguise, he as a wolf and she as a bat, to Morgoth's fortress and are challenged by a great supernatural wolf, Carcharoth. Luthien is wearing a cloak which gives her the power of casting a man or beast into an enchanted sleep.
.... The vampire dark
she flung aside, and like a lark
cleaving through night to dawn she sprang,
while sheer, heart-piercing silver, rang
her voice, as those long trumpets keen
thrilling, unbearable, unseen
in the cold aisles of morn. Her cloak
by white hands woven, like a smoke,
like all-bewildering, all-enthralling
all-enfolding evening, falling
from lifted arms, as forth she stepped
across those awful eyes she swept,
a shadow and a mist of dreams
whereon entangled starlight gleams.
Okay, maybe you find that archaic--well, it is archaic, but maybe you also find it corny, maybe even funny. I could quote some passages that might strike you even more that way. He makes use of all the old-fashioned artifice required to maintain the form he has chosen; conversational or prosy this poem decidedly is not. And then there is the whole legendary-mythological subject. But I think it's good.
I know there are a lot of people, people of intelligence and taste, who find Tolkien's whole enterprise ridiculous, who are so formed by and committed to the naturalistic methods of modern literature (as I see it), that they can't take this sort of thing seriously outside of its natural element in time, which is to say some centuries ago. I do understand that; Tolkien was certainly something of a freak, and he knew it. But I can enlist Auden on the side of those of us who do like it--The Lord of the Rings, at least, of which Auden said "If someone dislikes it, I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again." I won't go that far, but I do take a dislike or dismissal of The Lord of the Rings as a mysterious and odd gap in taste which one neither approves nor disapproves but as a quirk, like hating the taste of beer.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I believe there is at least a fair possibility that a time will come, say at least a century or two in the future, when this poem of Tolkien's will be of more interest to critics than many of our lesser contemporaries. The poem is, sad to say, unfinished: only seventeen of a projected twenty cantos were written. They run to something over 4,000 lines of verse, less than half of Milton's 10,000-plus, and, as I said earlier, I'm sorry there aren't more.
I think the entire poem can be found in one of the other Christopher-edited Tolkien volumes, so I guess I'm going to have to find out which one and read it. I see a slight but real possibility of my becoming a Tolkien geek. Perhaps fortunately, I don't really have time.
Whatever one thinks of Tolkien's work as literature, the sheer scope of his invention is rather stunning. Until you've delved into it a bit, beyond The Lord of the Rings, you don't appreciate just how vast and detailed his invented world is. It is simply astonishing that one man could have invented so much, while maintaining a respected career as an Oxford professor and raising a family.
Another Fourth of July has come and gone, and with it the usual round of meditations and appreciations. I particularly liked this one by Charles Cooke, a young British expat. I like it not because I agree with his admiration of this or that specific thing about America, much less his general view of the world (he's a secular libertarian-leaning conservative--or conservative-leaning libertarian), but because I like his enthusiasm, and in general share it.
I don’t know why I love the open spaces in the Southwest or Grand Central Terminal or the fading Atomic Age Googie architecture you see sometimes when driving. I don’t know why merely glimpsing the Statue of Liberty brings tears to my eyes, or why a single phrase on an Etta James or Patsy Cline record does what it does to me. It just does. I have spoken to other immigrants about this, and I have noticed that there is generally a satisfactory explanation — religious freedom, the chance at self-expression, the country’s size — and then there is the wistful stuff that moistens the eyes. Show me a picture of two canyons, and the fact that one of them is American will make all the difference. Just because it is American. Is this so peculiar? Perhaps.
I have to say, though, that I always thought this Oscar Wilde remark that he criticizes is actually quite funny: "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." I'd heard it before but didn't realize it was Wilde.
When I read that piece and came across the term "Googie architecture" I thought at first it was a misprint for "Google" and wondered what sort of architecture was associated with Google. So I googled (of course) the term and found that according to Wikipedia "Googie architecture is a form of modern architecture, a subdivision of futurist architecture influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age." For instance:
(By Cogart Strangehill - Ext. Car Wash, San Bernardino, CA, CC BY-SA 2.0)
I like it, too. I mean, in a backwards sort of way. Or more accurately I feel a kind of affection for it, even though it's pretty ugly.
Here's an image from my Fourth of July. From here we have a great view of the fireworks launched after dark from the end of the big pier, three-quarters of a mile or so away over the water.
As I said in my 52 authors post on Tolkien, I, like Mac, don't much care for most of the backstory books. There are a few exceptions. This is what I said in 52 authors:I would recommend this book highly, unless you are struggling to get out of a deep depression.
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 07/10/2017 at 09:55 AM
I just got a little more interested in the backstory stuff, but I don't know how far it will go.
Here is Robert's excellent 52 Authors piece:
Posted by: Mac | 07/10/2017 at 12:04 PM
I've never read Tolkien, simply because I don't "get" elves and suchlike -- never have, not even as a kid; obviously something defective in me :). But I was just reading about the romance of Tolkien and his wife Edith and that captivates me. They were both orphans and lodgers in the same boarding house, where he fell with love with her when he was 16 and she was 19; they married eight years later. The characters of Beren and Lúthien are based on them, and those names are inscribed under their own on their shared gravestone. All simply lovely.
Posted by: Marianne | 07/11/2017 at 08:27 PM
Yes, he was inspired by watching her dance in a woodland glade. Better than fiction.
I thought I might be able to get B&L from Audible, but no. Then I thought I could get it from the library, so I was in the process of saving it when I realized I have got so many things I have to read that I can't begin to start reading anything else. And then I remembered that I have an overdue book, so I can't reserve anything anyway.
I thought this was a good piece until you accused me of having a mysterious and odd gap in taste.
Posted by: Janet | 07/11/2017 at 08:33 PM
Now, I went out of my way to try to be non-judgmental about that. I mean, what would you think about someone who didn't like coffee?
Posted by: Mac | 07/11/2017 at 09:24 PM
Yes, the Tolkiens love story is very sweet. He says a little about it in his letters. I seem to remember something about how their early struggles had really bonded them.
B&L is certainly not something of which I'd say "You MUST read this." But I think Tolkien fans would at minimum enjoy it.
Posted by: Mac | 07/11/2017 at 09:29 PM
I would say, "Why are you always so tired and grouchy?" ;-)
I have struggled so hard to like beer.
That's a beautiful picture. One day I'm just going to leave work, get in my car, drive to the nearest beach and stay there.
Posted by: Janet | 07/11/2017 at 09:40 PM
Until there's a hurricane. Then I'll just ow away.
Posted by: Janet | 07/11/2017 at 09:41 PM
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" as the debris hits you.
Posted by: Mac | 07/11/2017 at 10:36 PM
Actually I think I had intended to say "or coffee" in that sentence and got distracted or something. Maybe I'd had too much beer.
Posted by: Mac | 07/11/2017 at 10:38 PM
I'm not sure which is sadder, not liking beer or not liking coffee.
Posted by: Mac | 07/11/2017 at 10:39 PM
Into each life a little beverage sadness must fall.
However, the good thing about not liking beer is that if I did like beer, I would probably weigh 350 lbs.
Posted by: Janet | 07/12/2017 at 08:31 AM
I don't think Paradise Lost is getting enough love...I recall enjoying that in some college course decades ago!
Posted by: Stu | 07/12/2017 at 09:19 AM
Not enough love is very apt. It seems that relatively few people really love PL the way they love, for instance, Shakespeare. Though it's not really fair to compare anybody to Shakespeare. Johnson's essay is admiring on the whole, if I remember correctly. But he does have that little reservation.
Posted by: Mac | 07/12/2017 at 11:54 AM
I guess my indifference to wine is a little like your dislike of beer, Janet. I don't dislike it but don't really get the enthusiasm. And the good thing about that is that it's a potentially expensive taste.
Posted by: Mac | 07/12/2017 at 11:56 AM
Does anyone have strong opinions on Don Quixote translations? I think it is the one big hole in my "classic literature not yet read", but then you get into the big discussion of which translation does it justice, etc. etc. We've been over this ad nauseum with the Russians, but I can't remember us talking about Cervantes?
Posted by: Stu | 07/12/2017 at 03:12 PM
I apologize if this should have been placed elsewhere, Mac! It is easiest to click on the most recent link ... so we'll just say the connection is Milton>Shakespeare>Cervantes
Posted by: Stu | 07/12/2017 at 03:19 PM
No problem, this is as good a place as any. But as to Cervantes, I have no opinion on translations. It's a classic not yet read for me, too. I have a copy and considered starting it some months ago, but I think that was when I decided Dante was higher priority.
Posted by: Mac | 07/12/2017 at 04:34 PM
My copy is an old Harvard Classics edition, translated by Thomas Shelton. I'm sure there are newer ones.
Posted by: Mac | 07/12/2017 at 04:58 PM
I think have I have tried to read it at least twice, but it's been a long time.
Maybe if I drank some wine first.
Posted by: Janet | 07/12/2017 at 05:59 PM
I will admit that after reading a few pages I wondered if I really wanted to invest the time. That is, I could see it wasn't going to be easy reading, and was not sure it was going to be as enjoyable as it was demanding.
Posted by: Mac | 07/12/2017 at 10:04 PM
I read Don Quixote five or six years ago and really enjoyed it. I did it over the space of several months, reading a couple chapters a day. I forget whose translation I read -- I'll have to go back and check.
Posted by: Rob G | 07/13/2017 at 05:59 AM
Maybe a better translation?
Posted by: Janet | 07/13/2017 at 08:08 AM
I'm a little disappointed, I figured Janet would have read at least three translations of Don Quixote! :)
I have Tobias Smollett and Edith Grossman at home. The Grossman one is recent, and all the rage at the moment. Smollett was of course an 18th century English novelist. As much as I enjoy novels from that period (well, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy) I will probably go with Grossman and hope for the best.
Posted by: Stu | 07/13/2017 at 08:58 AM
The translation I read is the one from 2000 by John Rutherford, published by Penguin. As I said, I liked it, but don't really have anything to compare it to.
Posted by: Rob G | 07/14/2017 at 05:47 AM
Thanks, Rob. I am always very interested in lit translations and what people think of different ones. It would be wonderful to read Les Miserables in French, or Don Quixote in Spanish, but alas. It is really amazing how many times the very famous books are translated. I read on Wikipedia that there have been two or three more Don Quixote translations since Edith Grossman, and there seems to be a never-ending flow of Anna Karenina ones (I've read four of those). Why do publishers keep paying, do they make back their money? Is it all a game of chance to see which colleges might suddenly list their translation on syllabuses? These are all rhetorical questions, of course.
Posted by: Stu | 07/14/2017 at 07:15 AM
And it is also fun...I'll probably do this with Don Quixote also, to read one translation in book form, but tote my Nook around with an older translation on it and read passages from that one too, and compare them. I did this several years ago with Madame Bovary (where the two were very different).
Posted by: Stu | 07/14/2017 at 07:19 AM