A Tolkien calendar – Part 4: My own estimate

Allow your Editor now to present the final installment of of Joe Bartram‘s four-part article series on Middle-Earth’s calendars, in which he concludes his investigations and establishes a calendar for the Society. Joe, frequently known as Gandalf, has been the Society’s President since 2014.

Well, it’s been a long road since I first set out on this absurd enterprise, and while I like to think I’ve kept my feet, I never would have imagined the places I was swept off to in the course of it.  Still, with few words spared in the pursuit of the enterprise, we can now finally begin to work out a chronology for the events after the end of the Third Age.  Of course, if you’ve read my first article, you’ll know I’ve already come up with an answer to this particular question, making that statement null and void.  Still, allow me the mercy of an indulgent rhetorical device.

Before we go further, lets recapitulate the canon information we’ve established to calibrate our dating.  From various sources, we know that in the region of 6000 to 8000 years have elapsed since the end of the Third Age.  We can further be reasonably certain that we have but recently entered the Seventh Age (circa 1958), and that the ages themselves have been “quickening”, since the Elder Days.  Finally, thanks to the Prophecy of Eldarion, we know that the Fourth Age itself ought to have endured for a full 100 generations after the end of the reign of Eldarion, and so ought to have lasted about 2220, 2720 or 4220 years.  I previously postponed a decision regarding a definitive duration for this age, however here I will go out on a limb and state that it should be 2720 years.  Since we are dealing with prophesy here, I think traditional concept more likely than a biologically-realistic one, so I discount the 20 year value for a generation.  As for the Hebrew value, I discount it as it leads to an age grossly larger than any of the preceding ages, which strikes my mind as untidy.

While in the previous post I rejected the conclusions reached by Tony Steele in his article, his basic methodology for dating the later ages has a lot going for it.  Working within the approximate temporal framework given by Tolkien, Steele’s approach is to assign the remaining transitions to events of historic or symbolic significance.  Martinez does something similar, dating the end of the 6th age to the end of World War Two, though he leaves the duration of the Fifth Age uncertain.  When combined with the more extensive canonical information I have available, this becomes quite a powerful method for ascertaining the lengths of all of the latter ages, and I follow it here.

In the course of my research, I was kindly provided with a great many suggestions for dates to mark the transitions between the Ages by society members.  A few I rejected out of hand, but most went into the stirring pot.  At an early stage I assembled all of these that I had into a timeline, running from 2500BCE up until the present.  Interestingly, when assembled on a to-scale chronology, I found that the proposed dates clustered into a few loose groups – about 2400-2100BCE, 1100BCE, 1CE, and 1500-2000CE.  This might sound like quite a significant spread, but on paper the effect is marked.  I (belatedly) tidied up my original sketch into something legible to the eye unaccustomed to my abysmal handwriting, and have included it here as figure 1.  This done, I realised that there could only be a limited number of ways to fit four ages into this chronology, if I considered each cluster of events as a single approximate date.  While exact dates would still have to be fitted, this let me consider a large (but manageable) number of hypothetical alternative timelines.

Laying all the alternative scenarios out like this allowed me to quantify the approximate length of each Age under all the alternative scenarios, and from that calculate the length of the Fourth Age, assuming that 6000 or 7000 years had elapsed since the end of the Third Age.  This approach gave me two metrics to estimate the quality of a scenario.  Firstly, how well did the calculated length of the Fourth Age match the prediction derived from Eldarion’s prophesy?  Secondly, how well did the chronology exhibit the “quickening” described by Tolkien?   This approach netted me a shortlist of timelines that fitted my requirements, a sampling of which are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Possible dates to mark the passage of the latter ages, on a to-scale timeline of the past 4500 years.  Below are shown certain possible “average” timelines based on the event clusters.

Figure 1: Possible dates to mark the passage of the latter ages, on a to-scale timeline of the past 4500 years. Below are shown certain possible “average” timelines based on the event clusters.

Having narrowed down the possibilities this far, I realised that this approach would be as nought if the chosen events from each cluster didn’t make sense in context.  Further to this, I went back to considering the suitability of the proposed events themselves.  In the interests of this, let us go over those canon events known to have marked the passage of the earlier ages:

Unnamed years: Began when the Valar enter the as-yet unformed physical world, and ended with the illumination of the Lamps of the Valar

VY 1-1900, solar units 0-18,718

Years of the Lamps: Began as the Lamps of the Valar were illuminated, and ended with the first flowering of Telperion, significantly after the destruction of the Lamps

VY 1901-3500, solar years 18,718-34,482

Years of the Trees: Began with first flowering of Telperion, and ended with the first rise of the moon, significantly after the destruction of the Two Trees

VY 3501-5000 or solar years 34,482-47,910

First Age: Began with the arrival of the second contingent of Noldor in Middle-Earth, the awakening of Men and the first rising of the sun.  It ended with casting of Morgoth into the void, significantly after the War of Wrath

FA 1-590

Second Age: Began with the founding of the Grey Heavens in Lindon, and ended with first defeat of Sauron at the conclusion of the Battle of the Last Alliance, significantly after the foundering of Númenor

SA 1-3441

Third Age: Began with the taking of the One Ring, and ended when Elrond passed over the sea to the uttermost west, symbolising the start of the dominion of man, significantly after the final defeat of Sauron

TA 1-3021, 29th September or 25th March

We can draw out two key conclusions from this.  Firstly, that the passage of ages is marked by events of great world significance.  Secondly, that the end of an age generally occurs at some significant point after the associated event, as matters are concluded.  The Years of the Lamps ended not with the destruction of said lamps, but with the first flowering of the Two Trees.  The Year of the Trees themselves ended not with their destruction, but five (Valian) years later, as the moon first rose.  The Second Age ended with the Battle of the Last Alliance, not with the Downfall of Númenor and the Changing of the World (though these were globally more significant events).  You get the picture.

The key question is of course, what events might be considered of significance?  The replacement of our Sun by the newest upgrade in planetary illumination solutions aside, we must ultimately look to the Professor as the arbiter of significance, difficult as it might be to put ourselves in such shoes.  Consider the Battle of Camlann, a suggestion kindly put forward by Amrit.  In many ways, this choice would seem to suit the Professor’s vision well.  The Arthurian legends are one of the few pieces of fairytale (or mythology, pick a label that suits you) that could be considered to be truly British, and thus they mesh well with the Professor’s vision of his work acting as a body of British fairytale.  Furthermore, while the Battle of Camlann is not strictly (or, to be honest, even loosely) historical, it occupies a rather nice turning point between myth and fact in the history of the isles, sitting as it does at the beginning of Saxon England.  However, it seems to me that events that marking the turn of Ages would have more global significance, even if only at one degree of remove.  Furthermore, Tolkien’s fancy of creating a body of British myth only really extended to Book of Lost Tales, and cannot be generalised to the Legendarium itself.  Hopefully this example gives some idea of the difficulty of the task I had at hand.

This leads on to another notion that should be dispelled at this point.  While the Book of Lost Tales is pagan in spirit, the Legendarium proper must be considered in the context of the Professor’s Catholic faith.  I don’t want to become mired in theological discussion, and am certainly not here to discuss the Legendarium as Christian symbolism (having been adequately covered by far more qualified authorities).  However, the importance of Tolkien’s faith cannot be denied.  If you need evidence of this, you need look no further than the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth – “The dialogue of Finrod and Andreth”.  This is an obscure work that was only published posthumously as part of volume 10 of the HoME series (Morgoth’s Ring).  Set late during the First Age, the content is (predictably) a discourse between Finrod Felagund, a lord of the Noldor, and Andreth, a human wise woman of the house of Bëor.  The discussion itself is somewhat prolonged, and covers a great many topics of discussion, including human mortality, the body-soul duality, and the relationship of both the kindreds to the firmament of Arda.  Of especial significance are clear references to a moral Fall at some forgotten time in the history of men, and a prediction that the creator will physically enter the world in order to restore it.  There is even a stab at the Trinity in there.  As an introduction to Middle-Earth metaphysics, there is none finer, and it establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Tolkien intended his creation to be compatible within the Catholic worldview.

This extended aside probably gives away one of the events I consider paramount in this chronology, that being the life of the figure of Jesus.  Within a Catholic context there can be no time more significant, and the direct prediction of the incarnation within the Athrabeth settles the matter, in my eyes.  Since we are considering the religious rather than historical figure, I won’t quibble over historicity as I ordinarily might, and will be content with 1CE and 33CE as dates.  Of these, I tend towards the Crucifixion, since it can be regarded as “wrapping up” that period of history.  Some contributors have suggested the founding of the Catholic Church as an alternative, but this constitutes a somewhat messy part of history I am loathe to dive into, and furthermore seems to me to be a less important event within the paradigm.

Having anchored ourselves to one definite date to mark the passage of an Age, we are now able to return to the approximate timelines I generated earlier.  Of the shortlist shown in figure 1, only A, B and C are compatible with an age ending in 33CE, and of these, only two (A and C) exhibit the smooth decline in the length of the Ages described by the Professor.  I agonised over the decision of whether to put the crucifixion at the end of the Fourth or Fifth Age for some time, but in the end it was a foregone conclusion.  While scenario C does exhibit a quickening of the Ages from the Fourth Age onward, I am uncomfortable bumping the length of the Fourth Age up to 4000 or 5000 years in duration, and it conflicts with our understanding of the prophesy of Eldarion.  Conversely, scenario A puts the Fourth Age at between about 2000 and 3000 years, which can more readily be reconciled.  Furthermore, according to the prophecy, some vestige of Middle-Earth civilisation would survive at least until the end of the Fourth Age, which would be a little close for comfort if we put the end of the Fourth Age at 33CE (a concern which the Professor himself raised in letter #211).

Thus, we have an approximate timeline, and a fixed date for the end of the Fifth Age at 33CE.  All that remains at this point is to choose a date for the end of the Fourth and Sixth Ages, somewhere in the brackets of 2400-1700BCE and 1500-2000CE respectively.  The matter of the Fourth Age was one of significant difficulty for me.  There were very few “Tolkien-friendly” events suggested for the period 2500-1700BCE, partly because dates for this time become more a matter of conjecture and speculation than historical fact.   I’ve agonised long and hard over the choice for this date, and finally decided to select the Abrahamic Covenant.  I’m not going to claim that the Abrahamic covenant is remotely historical – there is no real reason to regard it as anything more than a religious fiction.  However, Abraham is one of the most important figures in Christianity after that of Jesus, and the pairing of the Old and New Covenants is rather pleasing.  Furthermore, I rather like the idea that as we go further back in time, the events described become progressively more imaginary and less historical.  Thus we have the entirely imaginary world of the Legendarium, the figure of Abraham whose life – while mythological – can be related to real historical events, and the figure of Jesus, who very likely represents a real historical figure.  Dating the covenant caused me some further concern, but I eventually settled on the date given in Bishop Ussher’s chronology, at 1921BCE.  I had to visit creationist websites in order to track this information down, an experience I have no eagerness to repeat.  Let us say I now have an uncontrollable desire to wash all over and leave it at that.  Now, while I am aware that Ussher was a Church of Ireland Bishop rather than a Catholic one, and that Tolkien was far too sophisticated to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible, the Ussher date is the closest thing to a widely-accepted Biblical chronology, and will function well enough symbolically.

In the case of the end of the Sixth Age, I must bow to the popular opinion of the Society as a whole.  Both 1918 (the end of the First World War) and 1946 (the end of the Nuremberg trials) were discussed favourably, but over the course of numerous discussions, the single date which came closest to representing a consensus was that of the French Revolution of 1789.  As such, this date will henceforth be regarded as official.

Thus, with oddly little ceremony we have reached the end of our road.  By this calculation, 2015CE constitutes the 226th year of the Seventh Age, or the year 8077 in the Shire Reckoning.  This is especially fortuitous (and, believe it or not, unplanned), since in most years (excluding the last of either century) Shire Reckoning leap years will synchronise with those of the Gregorian calendar.  If you want to see how this compares to other estimates, have a look at figure 2 .  My calculation throws the end of the Third Age to 4641BCE, rather further back in time than either Steele or Martinez would have reckoned, largely by value of construing a much longer Fifth Age.

Now, some of the more observant among you may have noticed that according to figure 2, we are in fact in the Eighth Age, not the Seventh.  Having essentially finished writing this series of articles, it was brought to my attention that back in the depths of the Society’s history, the Society calendar was (or at least meetings of the White Council were) run according to a Shire calendar.  I have been able to find rather little information on this calendar, but according to the society annals the Eighth Age began in association with the founding of Taruithorn.  For honesty’s sake, I should mention that the details of this calendar seem to have been in some dispute, to the point that there was an article in the 1995 Michaelmas edition of Miruvor clarifying the matter.  According to this document, the Eighth Age only began at the point when the White Council no longer contained in its ranks any of the founding members.  According to records, this seems to have occurred at the 1992 Annual General Meeting, which took place on 28th Solmath, or the 28th of February in the Gregorian calendar.  Note that this small conceit dovetails quite pleasingly with the idea of ages passing after the conclusion of great events of history.  Thus, by this reckoning 2015CE is the 23rd year of the Eighth Age.  I naturally approve of this self-important attitude to Society history (and, after all, who am I to break with hallowed tradition?), and as such I have adopted this convention in all my calendars1.

And so, we reach the conclusion of our efforts.  As I close, I believe in an earlier article, I promised to produce a functional Shire calendar for the use of the society.  Strangely, formulating a simple reference sheet to convert between four different calendar systems (New Reckoning, Shire Reckoning, Gregorian calendar and Oxford weeks) proved rather more difficult than I anticipated.  However, after much agonising, the task was completed, and a sample for this year is here presented as figure 3 (a small part of the figure is included below).  A fuller version covering a full cycle of leap years will be hosted on the society website, and as of Trinity term 2015CE society events will be advertised and in all four calendar systems.  In addition, I’m currently preparing templates for a Shire Calendar of the wall-calendar, and depending on the level of interest (and society finances) I’m considering a print run of these, illustrated with artistic contributions from society members.  For now, thanks you all for sticking with me through this, and I hope you have all learned as much as I did in the process.

Figure 3: [this is a small part of Joe’s Figure 3, a calendar for the whole of 2015, this part showing only the weeks around the Anniversary Party this year. The full version will be available on the web version - Editor] A partial reference calendar allowing direct comparison between dates in the Shire Reckoning, New Reckoning and Gregorian calendar.

Figure 3: [this is a small part of Joe’s Figure 3, a calendar for the whole of 2015, this part showing only the weeks around the Anniversary Party this year. The full version wouldn’t fit in this blog post; it is available here.] A partial reference calendar allowing direct comparison between dates in the Shire Reckoning, New Reckoning and Gregorian calendar.

Bibliography:

                   Carpenter, H. (1977). JRR Tolkien: a Biography.  London: George Allen & Unwin

Carpenter, H. (1979). The Inklings: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Carpenter, H. & C. Tolkien (1981). The Letters of JRR Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Duriez, C. & D. Porter (2001).  The Inklings Handbook: The Lives, Thought and Writings of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and their Friends.  Saint Lewis: Chalice Press

Garth, J. (2003). Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth.  New York: HarperCollins

Lewis, C.S. (1945). That Hideous Strength. London: The Bodley Head

Michael Martinez (2013). When did the Third Age end in our Calendar? The Middle-Earth and JRR Tolkien Blog

Steele, T. (2004). The Chronology of Middle-Earth. Mallorn 42: 43-46

Tolkien, C. History of Middle-Earth. (series)

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1955).  The Lord of the Rings. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Tolkien J.R.R. (1977). The Silmarillion. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

 

Many thanks also to the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Archive (http://www.lotrplaza.com), the website of the Elendili (http://3rings.webs.com/) for hosting Tony Steele’s Mallorn article, the Middle-Earth & J.R.R. Tolkien Blog written by Michael Martinez (http://middle-earth.xenite.org/), the sci-fi and fantasy StackExchange (http://scifi.stackexchange.com/) and more generally to the Tolkien Gateway (http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Main_Page) for information used in this article series.

Timelines made using Aeon timeline, published by Scribblecode: http://www.scribblecode.com/

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Arda’s Worst Fathers

Eleanor Simmons, Society Lembas Rep (as well as Secretary 2009-10 and Publicity Officer 2013-15, and Society Hero), gives us a possibly-slightly-satirical countdown of Arda’s least adequate fathers.

Few of Tolkien’s heroes can be said to have “daddy issues” – certainly not to the overwhelming extent the trope comes up in later books and films. Faramir (and arguably Sam) are the only ones who explicitly struggle for their fathers’ good opinion, while Peter Jackson’s Aragorn worries incessantly about making the mistakes of his forebears. A multitude of characters suffer from dead or absent fathers , such that it sometimes becomes easier to count how many protagonists do not lost their fathers at a young age. Biographical critics take note – though you may not go as far as Raymond Edwards in asserting that “The Fall of Arthur” actually half-refers to Arthur Tolkien’s untimely death, it is certainly true that mothers take a much more active role in the upbringing of Arda’s heroes.

But who among the neglectful, critical or pyromanical father figures can be said to be The Absolute Worst?

Elrond

I wonder what lessons Elrond learned from Thingol’s example when setting his own conditions for Aragorn and Arwen? “Don’t set impossible conditions, just really, really difficult ones”, perhaps? In any case, Elrond does alright by his children, none of whom turn out particularly murderous.

Bad daddy rating: 0/10 flaming sons.

 Eärendil

Eärendil spent years journeying on the sea looking for his own parents, while his young family waited for his return, but in fairness, he did then bring light and  hope to the entire world. I think we can cut him some slack for not being around to watch his children grow up.

Bad daddy rating 1/10

Gil-galad’s father

It is appropriate, given that the last High King of the Noldor’s name simply means “Scion of Kings”, that there is no shortage of royals apparently desperate to escape parental responsibility. Fingon, Orodreth,  Finrod Felagund and an anonymous son of Fëanor were all fingered by Tolkien as possible candidates at one time or another. Who knows, perhaps with more stable parenting, he wouldn’t have gone and got himself killed on the slopes of Mount Doom?

Bad daddy rating: 3/10 for abandonment.

Gaffer Gamgee

“Nowt but a ninnyhammer”, likely to “come to a bad end” and “When ever you open your big mouth you put your foot in it”; we never hear of the Gaffer having a kind word for his son. And it certainly impacts on Sam’s self-confidence, for whenever he makes a mistake, he thinks of his father’s doubts and “hard names”.  But as demanding, strict and small-minded the Gaffer may be, he is clearly also an enormous positive influence on Sam. His folk wisdom is a large part of Sam’s moral compass, to say nothing of his “plain hobbit-sense”.

Bad daddy rating: 4/10 flaming sons

Thingol

“I married a woman of a different race who is countless years older and wiser than me, but that was different!”; “As soon as Beren dies than we can all go back to becoming one happy family!”; “If I shut you in a treehouse than you will never be able to meet unsanctioned boys!”, Thingol does not come off well in the ‘sane and balanced father’ stakes. To his credit, he learns from his mistakes and not only accepts Beren as one of the family, but later raises Turin as his own son – an uphill struggle if ever there was one – declaring “I took Húrin’s son as my son, and so he shall remain, unless Húrin himself should return out of the shadows to claim his own”.

Bad daddy rating: 6/10

Fëanor

It isn’t easy being a father of seven. Though it does mean, whatever feuds you start with the rest of your family, you have seven people guaranteed to be on your side, even to the extent of swearing an oath damning their souls to eternal darkness. With the exception of said damnation, however, Feanor doesn’t seem to have been a bad father – I mean, he only burned his youngest son to death unintentionally, after all

Bad daddy rating: 8/10 flaming sons.

Denethor

You can’t stoop much lower than explicitly telling your son you wish he was dead, but Denethor succeeds in finding new depths deciding that the best expression of his love for Faramir is to set him on fire.  Even a stalwart Steward-defender such as myself can’t really find much to say for his parenting skills.

Bad daddy rating: 10/10 flaming sons.

Eöl

“I killed my wife, but I was aiming at my son” is not an excuse, Eol. Nor is anti-colonialist rhetoric a valid reason to threaten to imprison your child if he wants to meet his relatives. When you don’t even name your son until he is twelve years old, frankly, alarm bells should start ringing.

In the over-possessive love stakes, feeling your child belongs to you and you have a right to kill him is, I think, our winner!

10/10 flaming (or posionned javelinned) sons.

Bilbo Baggins’ bequest labels

Hebe Stanton (Secretary 2014-15) and your humble Editor here present to you a translation of some long-lost Middle-Earth manuscript fragments.

Researches in the Bodleian Library have recently unearthed previously undocumented examples of Bilbo Baggins’ famously passive-aggressive gift labels dating from the time of his Eleventy-First Birthday Party (1401 Shire-reckoning). Despite our imperfect command of the Westron tongue, we have here attempted to present English renderings of some of the more facetious examples.

To TARQUIN, in the hope that his life is improved. – on a hatstand

 To MELODY GOODENOUGH, for the amusement of her parents.  – on a mouth organ

 To ELPHANORA BRANDYBUCK, for the nourishment of her greatest friends. – on a marrowbone1

1 Elphanora was inordinately fond of her dogs

 For PRISCILLA BRACEGIRDLE, in the hopes that it is edifying. – on a copy of Toby Tobold the Third’s On Wooing

 To TERENCE SADDLEBOTTOM, in recognition of ten years of impeccable service. – on a leather satchel and three pouches of Old Toby2

2 Terence Saddlebottom was Hobbiton’s most diligent postal worker; the sound of his whistling at 7:15 am sharp had woken the tenants of Bagshot Row for well over a decade.

 To FARMER MAGGOT of THE MARISH, in recompense for many fine dinners. – on a bundle of dried mushrooms

 To MARIGOLD TOOK, for its instructive qualities. – on a small golden pocket-watch.

 For HANNA GREENHAND, to fill empty spaces. – on an assortment of small and usually worthless articles3

3 Hanna Greenhand was one of the primary collectors of mathoms in the Shire; her home was unusually cluttered even by hobbit standards, making visits perilous for the unsuspecting guest.

  To PENELOPE, for her comfort – on a pair of earmuffs and a assortment of embroidered shawls, gloves and scarves.

 To FOLCO OAKSEED, for his collection – on a pouch of old coins4

4 Folco was notoriously tight-fisted.

 

A Tolkien calendar – Part 3: Previous attempts to date the War of the Ring

Here is the third of Joe Bartram‘s, monumental four-part essay series on the calendars of Middle-Earth, with the objective of establishing a calendar for the Society. Joe, frequently known as Gandalf, has been the Society’s President since 2014.

Since the publication of the Lord of the Rings, many different authors have speculated about the timing of the events concerned, of which I am only the most recent.  Having examined as many of these as I could find, I’ve seen many different methods employed, most of which can be discarded without consideration, truth be told.  Still, a few are sufficiently interesting that they bear mention, before I move on to my own analysis, and those will be the focus of this article.

A few authors have attempted to calibrate the timing of the events described in the Lord of the Rings using the detailed information provided on the positions of the stars and moon.  I believe that such an analysis was actually published in Mensa at one point (which placed the War of the Ring TA3018-3019 in 1935-36CE), though I have been unable to track the original down (if anyone feels like doing so, the article is Donald O’Brien – A Chronological Study of the Phases of the Moon in LOTR in Beyond Bree – Newsletter of American Mensa Tolkien Special Interest Group December 1988).  However, whatever analyses one might apply, it seems Tolkien’s vision did not extend that far, for he had the following to say on the subject:

          “The moons and suns are worked out according to what they were in this part of the world [i.e. England or thereabouts] in 1942 actually…. I mean I’m not a good enough mathematician or astronomer to work out where they might have been 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, but as long as they correspond to some real configuration I thought that was good enough.” (HoME XII: Part 1, Chapter VIII)

This excerpt itself provides a clue of course, but we have already discussed in in the previous article, so I won’t give it any more attention here.  As far as I am aware, there have been only a couple of other serious attempt at dating the events of the War of the Ring with respect to the current Gregorian calendar.  One is a brief but well-researched blog post by Michael Martinez, which uses the brief sop thrown us by Tolkien (the 6000 years estimate from letter #211) to put the end of the Third Age at 4042BCE, and makes use of the prophesy of Eldarion to calculate the duration of the Fourth.  I’d recommend reading the original for a full justification, but that is the gist of it.

Another more long-winded attempt was made by Tony Steele and published in the 42nd edition of Mallorn (August 2004), the Tolkien Society’s annual scholarly journal (thanks to Amrit Sidhu-Brar for sending me this, among others).  Steele’s central thesis is that Tolkien was inspired by a system of occult “philosophy” known as theosophy.  While more-or-less extinct since its heyday in the late 1800s, theosophy was a major influence for “New Age” philosophies.  It drew principally from various forms of eastern mysticism, but honestly it picked up odd bits of conceptual rubbish like flypaper.  Think ancient wisdom of the Tibetan masters, astral bells, hollow Earth theories and a slightly worrying preoccupation with dolphins.  Not the sort of thing we might expect the good Professor – a committed Roman Catholic – to take an interest in.  I honestly can’t find any evidence for Steele’s assertion that Tolkien had an interest in Theosophy or the occult – there is no mention of Theosophy in any of the Letters, in the History of Middle-Earth series, in the Unfinished Tales, nowhere in authorised biography of the Professor (Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography), in John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, or in either of the major works on the Inklings (Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings or Colin Duriez’s The Inklings Handbook).

Still, the argument Steele puts forth is worth considering in itself.  Steele’s major piece of evidence for his assertion is that that is an interesting congruence between certain known dates in the Middle-Earth chronology and our own.  Specifically, the interval between the destruction of Beleriand at the end of the First age is separated from the beginning of the Fourth Age by a period of 6462 years [sic].  Intriguingly, in the Theosophic tradition the sinking of Atlantis occurred the same 6462 years before the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the fourth age in the Vedic Yuga cycle.  Steele thus assigns the dates of the latter two “real world” events to the former two events in the Middle-Earth chronology – specifically 9654BCE and 3102BCE respectively.

The numerical coincidence, and the fact that in both cases the earlier event was the sinking of a continent and the later the beginning of a “fourth age” is quite convincing, at first glance.  However, I find some issues with interpretation.  Firstly, the estimate of the amount of time elapsed between these events is simply off.  Steele puts the destruction of Beleriand at the very end of the First Age, or YS590 (as given in The War of The Jewels, in HoME XI).  However, the destruction of Beleriand was definitively dated as at or before YS587, which throws Steele’s estimate off by three or more years.  If one also factors in Steele’s iffy-ness regarding the length of the Third Age – disregarding several months – the congruence in duration increasingly starts to look like wishful thinking.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that Steele has plucked these two dates in Theosophic tradition somewhat at random, as they have no special association even within the bizarre system that is Theosophy.  Indeed, the two concepts come from completely different sources; Atlantis being derived from the writings of Plato and the Kali Yuga from the Indian Scriptures.   Thus, he commits the cardinal sin of cherry-picking evidence.  Of course, Atlantis was an important source for Tolkien, and he did indeed write it into the world of Arda – but his metaphorical Atlantis was not Beleriand but Númenor, which foundered at the end of the Second Age, not the first1.  In short, I find Steele’s assumptions to be deeply flawed, and am loath to trust all that follows.

That said, it is worth discussing the methodology used by Steele, as it will become relevant later.  In essence, having calibrated the beginning of the fourth age and hence total time elapsed, Steele assigns the dates for the end of the later Ages to events he judges to be significant.  This is based on an entirely valid observation that the slow turn of Ages in Middle-Earth tended to be marked by events of great significance.  While I accept the principle of this approach (as I’ll discuss in my final article), the main problem I have with Steele’s conclusions is his rather haphazard selection criteria, which lack all rhyme and reason.  So we have the start of the Fourth Age calibrated by Theosophic superstition, the Fifth Age matching Hesiod’s Iron Age, the Sixth starting at an outdated estimate for the date of an obscure Roman Battle., and the Seventh matching the year of publication of the first two volumes of the LoTR.  Here follows a summary of both chronologies.

Tony Steele’s estimate:

  • First Age (Years of the Sun only): 10,153-9563 BC, 590 Sun Years
  • Second Age: 9563–6122 BC, 3441 Sun Years
  • Third Age: 6122–3102 BC, 3020 Sun Years
  • Fourth Age: 3102–1103 BC, 1999 Sun Years (Start of Kali Yuga, according to some sources)
  • Fifth Age: 1103 BC–445 AD, 1547 Sun (start of the Iron Age according to St. Jerome and also colonization of Britain by Brutus of Troy according to Geoffrey of Monmouth)
  • Sixth Age: 445–1954 AD, 1509 Sun Years (sometime about the Battle of Catalaunian Plains)
  • Seventh Age: 1954–? (post-WW2, publishing of Fellowship/Two Towers)

Michael Martinez’s estimate:

  • First Age: 11,094 BCE – 10,504 BCE, 590 Sun years
  • Second Age: 10,504 BCE – 7,063 BCE, 3441 Sun Years
  • Third Age: 7,063 BCE – 4,042 BCE, 3021 Sun Years
  • Fourth Age: 4,042 BCE – 1,542 BCE, 3000 Sun Years (duration based on prophesy of Eldarion)
  • Fifth Age: 1,542 BCE – ?
  • Sixth Age: ? – 1945 CE
  • Seventh Age: 1945–? (end of WW2)

I should also say that if you haven’t heard of all of these events you are to be forgiven – especially in the case of Steele’s chronology, I had to look up most of the events myself (readers of history are exempt from this forgiveness).  Unfortunately, I confess I haven’t been able to find major issue with any of the dates given by Steele for the latter Ages, aside from the fact of course that two are entirely ahistorical.  Having made it this far, I feel the amount of time spent wading through ahistorical ramblings warrants presenting my predecessors’ conclusions properly.  So, for you my dear readers I present a visual comparison of the Ages as calculated by both Martinez and Steele. [unfortunately this figure could not be included in this printed edition of this article, but due to the digital glory of the Miruvor blog, it is here! – Editor]

It’s interesting that both chronologies, despite using quite different information and methodologies have converged on quite similar results.  Whether or not this is significant I cannot say – it may simply be an artefact imposed by using similar estimates for the total time elapsed, and an assumption of ages of comparable length.  Of the two, I much prefer the tentative and more canon-dependent chronology generated by Martinez, despite the lack of information for some dates.  In the article itself (which I still recommend) he exhibits what I might call a more appropriate attitude – he accepts that this is (ultimately) a futile endeavour, and is most likely contrary to the intent of the legendarium as a piece of work, but that it makes an interesting intellectual exercise.  Steele’s by contrast seems a little too certain of itself.

That then concludes my extended rant on previous chronologies for the years after the Third Age of Middle-Earth.  Hopefully, by this point a picture is beginning to emerge of my views on the matter.  I’m hoping to wrap all of that up in my final article, which will essentially run as a long (and admittedly overdue) justification for why I have adopted the calendar I outlined in my first article, and why I’ve attempted to foist it on Taruithorn.

Links to articles:

The blog of Michael Martinez: http://middle-earth.xenite.org/2013/09/23/when-did-the-third-age-end-in-our-calendar/

3 Rings, the website of the Elendili, which hosts a copy of Tony Steele’s article: http://3rings.webs.com/chronology

(1) As accounted in the Akallabêth, after the foundering of Westernesse the surviving Dunedain no longer referred to their lost homeland by the old Quenya name, and instead called it the Downfallen, or Akallabêth in Adûnaic.  If one translates Akallabêth to Quenya, it becomes Atalantë.

Peter Jackson’s “The Battle of the Five Armies”: A Review

Eleanor Simmons (Secretary 2009-10, Society Hero, Publicity Officer 2013-15, Banquet Chef, and Lembas Rep for a very long time) gives us her review of the final installment in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. The Society’s opinions that I’ve heard on the Hobbit films so far range from “truly awful” to “I really do like it, honest!” to which Eleanor here adds her much more considered opinion!

Five armies (and a small but strategically-placed airforce): The battle of the setpieces

Legolas: “These bats were bred for one purpose…for war!”

I am perhaps in the minority of Taruithorndrim  as someone who genuinely enjoys the Hobbit films. For all that I’d like to take an editing-machete to much of Desolation (just chop off the last half-hour, perhaps…) I like many of the thematic and practical changes from the book and from the Lord of the Rings films. Which is not to say that they are not also utterly ridiculous.

Battle of the Five Armies is certainly my favourite of the three. For all that I was utterly dreading the prospect of an entire film of fight scenes, some miracle of pacing made the jumps from battle scene to battle scene to ominous war-bats actually rather fun, even to somebody not sold on this whole nonstop-action, endless-massed-orcs concept.

The film begins with Our Heroes escaping the burning devastation Smaug is bringing to Laketown. Bard quickly but emotively dispatches the dragon, using his son as part of his bow, and the dragon falls, straight into the film’s title card. Poor Smaug. Reduced to a prologue.

Bard then leads the refugees or Laketown to safety, and Kili and Tauriel try flirting in elvish, before saying a touching goodbye. Meanwhile, back at the Mountain, Thorin’s goldsickness is growing, and he is demanding Stop And Search powers over his thirteen subjects, in case one of the should happen to have picked up the Arkenstone and not mentioned it. Which, to be fair, one of them has. Thranduil comes to town, with a large and eerily synchronised army, and gets to play good neighbour bringing supplies to the Laketown refugees, before demanding from the dwarves a particular necklace of white gems, though we will have to wait to the Extended Edition to find out why.

Bard tries to prevent his two adjoining neighbours from declaring war on one another. Meanwhile, Gandalf is being rescued from some nasty Nazgûl by the combined powers of the White Council (which mainly boil down to Galadriel glowing at Sauron, while the other Council members stand around looking vaguely supportive). Meanwhile meanwhile, Legolas and Tauriel have travelled to Mount Gundabad and back for the sole purpose of reporting an army of evil bats. After this, Dáin Connolly Ironfoot arrives, riding a giant pig, and the elves and dwarves almost fight before noting the giant orc army on the horizon and wheeling their battle lines around sharpish. Well, Dáin’s lot does. Thorin and Thranduil both require convincing. Following this, the rest of the film is one long battle scene, with occasional interludes of Touching Farewell and Defying The Laws Of Physics, Also Common Sense.

Possibly putting the emphasis on each individual army and set of fighters in turn makes each new set-piece feel rather more exciting and meaningful, as it intersperses did-you-see-that “awesome” moments  with the utterly ridiculous. One of my favourite things about the Hobbit trilogy is the gleeful sense of fun, epic is undercut by campiness in a way that simply wouldn’t have worked (and didn’t work, when it was tried) within the scope of its parent trilogy. So: bring me your party kings, bring me your improbable animal mounts, armies of “evil bats, created for one purpose” and bring me even your gravity-defying Legolas running up a video-game bridge. I welcome them all, as a refreshing silly visit to Middle-Earth, that does not need to – and should not – attempt the grandeur of Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion.

Perhaps my main complaint is the extent to which Bilbo feels marginalised. In a film where everything is over the top, the understated approach to his character arc, comprising mainly moments of quiet doubt and resolution gets drowned out by the bombast surrounding him. He is a passenger in what should be his own story. Alfrid the Utterly Inexplicable gets more screentime than our hero. I would have liked to see more of Bilbo the strategist, the riddler who manages to negotiate his way through impossible situations to save himself and his friends. Bilbo killing orcs is rather less interesting in an entire film of people killing orcs.

Something closer to Bard’s character arc might have been possible. Bard’s growth was very well done, showing him as an “ordinary” hero, battling self-doubt and quiet desperation, but lead by an innate nobility and determination to do the best he can for everyone. As Bard, to some extent, replaces Bilbo as Everyman hero, I do rather like the choice to reverse his and Thranduil’s attitudes to the dwarves, as aggressor and peacemaker respectively. Having the man who has just lost his home to the dragon trying urgently to prevent further bloodshed is very satisfying to watch, while Thranduil’s choice to start a war feels highly un-Tolkienian, but entirely in keeping with the Mirkwood off the films.

What, exactly, is the point of Alfrid? His humorous attempts to escape Esgaroth with lots of gold are given more screentime than any other protagonist, and I don’t understand why. Thematically, he adds little to the story. Purists may gripe at Tauriel’s presence, but she is made to work remarkably hard to justify her existence. Not only does she serve the important purpose of being prominent while female, Tauriel is used for various thematic and plot-driving purposes, providing an alternative Mirkwood foreign policy perspective, a partial bridging between elves and dwarves, and another voice in Bard and Bilbo’s unpopular let’s-not-kill-everybody-please camp of opinion.  By contrast, Alfrid adds comic relief. Badly.

The Kili-Tauriel romance is one of the most divisive aspects of an incredibly divisive film. I feel it works – out of context, it is sweet and demonstrates how the younger of both races have the capacity to see beyond their elders’ prejudices and effect a partial reconciliation. In the context of the Legendarium, and elf-dwarf friendships in particular, it also works – something “real”, but unfulfilled and uncertain, the Aegnor and Andreth to Legolas and Gimli’s Beren and Luthien. It prefigures the greater friendship between Legolas and Gimli without supplanting their importance as the successful, post-Sauron example of cross-species reconciliation and love.

And then, of course, we have Thranduil. Oh, Thranduil. Best beloved isolationist party king, if I am a little sad to lose your brief but poignant display of gracious Sindar  dignity in the book (“Long will I tarry ere I begin this war for gold” shifting to “You started this Mithrandir… you’ll forgive me if I finish it.”) I have the consolation of the film’s remote, alien and utterly fabulous Elvenking who, it would seem, makes his warriors drill for hours to fight in perfect unison just so that he can barge through them to make a dramatic entrance. (As you do, with your large standing army in the middle of spider-infested woodland…) Thranduil’s inhuman pride and faint air of boredom somehow make him one of the most convincingly Elvish characters in Peter Jackson’s work – if not quite Tolkien’s Elves as we usually see them, something more mercurial, combining the elegant marvels of the court of Doriath with the wildness of Faerie and the untamed woods.

Silliness interspersed with moments of fleeting richness and beauty is a very reasonable stylistic choice, given the source material – but it is true that the filmmakers struggle to find a balance, leading to the bloated unevenness of the films as a whole. Battle mostly manages to avoid this fate,  but it has its own problems with the balance of the two aspects.

At times, it puts me in mind of a tour through the world of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland  – a guidebook written for the benefit of tourists on a highly structured Quest, with helpful notes on the ubiquitous eating of Stew and the Reek of WrongnessTM that accompanies Fell CreaturesTM such as evil avians. Of course, the Fantasyland in question is an entire world which has been repurposed as a theme park and forced to fit itself into narrow, Tolkien-inspired parameters. Jones is making a point about the shallowness of worldbuilding that simply ticks off tropes, and I can’t help but feel that the same principle is what makes Jackson’s Battle ultimately unsatisfying to me. Billy Connelly riding a pig and Alfrid cross-dressing to escape a battle are striking enough images, but it gives the world an artificial feel, as though a shallow Fantasyland has been imposed over the top of a complex world, forcing it to move from set-piece to set-piece. Scenes like the slow killings of Azog and Thorin, (Surprise! The orc is not dead yet! Who could have guessed?) feel fundamentally unreal, and cheapen the highly successful emotive moments that surround them. This is only reinforced by the use of weapons that can be swung around like LARP kit, and battle tactics that, though they may look incredible, are in fact literally incredible.

This is perhaps an overly harsh judgement, for I did enjoy the film very much. The acting is excellent, on all sides, and the emotional journeys, feel true – I will freely admit to sobbing my way through Bilbo and Thorin’s final goodbye. The action is remarkably engaging, the additions to the story (mostly) make sense … but all the same, I cannot bring myself to believe in the world it depicts.

If this review appears at times contradictory, in what I liked and disliked, it reflects the enthusiasm coupled with ambivalence I feel towards the film project as a whole. When discussing it with friends, any given scene would have at least two people claim that it was beautiful and moving, and several more that it had been so unbelievable to jolt them out of the film. For many things, I find myself in both camps at once, appreciating the story without ever really being able to believe in it.

Taruithorn Songbook

We have a long tradition of filking in the Society, and here I’ve included some compositions more recent than the last revision of the songbook.

Erebor
(Tune: On My Own from Les Misérables)
Martha Buckley, Hebe Stanton and Amrit Sidhu-Brar

Erebor,
The mountain is a-burning;
Erebor,
Our gold has all been stolen;
Without it
Our world can’t go on turning,
For there can be no happiness without our hoarded gold.
 
Erebor,
that dragon took our happiness
Erebor,
That Smaug, he is a bastard.
I suppose
We survived with our families,
But if he’d tak’n our children then at least we’d have our gold!
 
The dragon,
we will return to kill him
The dragon,
He has destroyed our haircuts.
We’ll kill him,
And throw him from our mountain,
that oath that Fëanor swore will be nothing next to ours!
 
The dragon,
The dragon,
The dragon,
he’s taken all our gold!

~~~

The Leaving of Valinor Rag
(Tune: The Vatican Rag by Tom Lehrer)
Owen Cotton-Barratt and others

Morgoth smashed our lamps with ease
So we got some magic trees
Their wond’rous light we must instil
In Silmaril, Silmaril, Silmaril.

But then came Ungoliant
She sucked their nectar – down it went!
Things they then got really bad: Fëanor he lost his dad
The leavin’ of Valinor Rag!

Be friend or foe or seed defiled
Of Morgoth Bauglir, mortal child
In after days on earth shall dwell
No law nor love nor league of hell
Not might of gods, not moveless fate
Shall him defend from wrath or hate
6-5-4-3
Time to slay the Teleri

Valinor will not be missed
We seven sons are mighty pissed
We seek with implacable will
Our Silmaril, Silmaril, Silmaril

The boats are burned to tindersticks
The seven sons now number six
Melian the Maia – let’s go and say hiya
We’re the sons of Fëanor–
Accompaniment by Maglor

Was he a felon or
simply just tellin’ your
Leavin’ of Valinor Rag!

~~~

Gold, glorious gold
(Tune: Food, glorious food from Oliver!)
Hebe Stanton and Amrit Sidhu-Brar

Gold, glorious gold
Gold, glorious gold,
there’s nothing quite like it.
Gold, glorious, gold,
you can even take it to market
And if it gets stolen then
you can just mine more,
it’s GOLD,
wonderful GOLD,
magical GOLD,
glorious GOLD

~~~

Song of the Dwarves of Moria
(Tune: Do you hear the people sing? from Les Misérables)
Martha Buckley

(CHORUS:) Do you hear the dwarf-smiths sing?
Singing the songs they learned of old.
This is the music of a people
Who are quite obsessed with GOLD.
When the beating of our hearts
Echoes the beating of the drums
Then we know we’re about to die when the Balrog comes…

Will you join our mining party
Will you help us in our need?
There’s a tonne of Mithril ore down there just waiting to be freed!
We’ll mine and we’ll dig and we’ll die for insatiable greeeeeeeeed!

CHORUS

~~~

The Moria Song
(Tune: Ding! Dong! Merrily on high)
Various Society members at the 2009 Moria banquet

Drum-drum-drumming in the deep,
the Orcs are getting nearer.
Drum-drum-drumming in the deep
the Cave Troll’s getting clearer

Mo-ooooo-ooooo-ooooo-oooo-ooooo-oria
Balrogs ate our children!

~~~

Aragorn!
(Tune: One Day More from Les Misérables)
Hebe Stanton, Phil Bone and Amrit Sidhu-Brar

GANDALF: Aragorn!

To claim the kingship is his destiny.

He shall restore the ancient monarchy;

Isildur’s Heir shall soon return,

the Steward’s pyre, it then shall burn

Aragorn!

ARAGORN: I must be King, Lord Elrond says.

For Arwen’s hand to be permitted

GANDALF: Aragorn!

ARAGORN & ARWEN: As Beren and his Lúthien,

Our mixed-race love shall be committed

ÉOWYN: One more day all by my self

ARAGORN & ARWEN: A mortal fate we now shall share

ÉOWYN: One more day in Arwen’s shadow

ARAGORN & ARWEN: I was born to be with you.

ÉOWYN: How I hate that stupid elf

ARAGORN & ARWEN The Kingdom shall be made anew

ÉOWYN: She stole Aragorn from me!

DENETHOR: You’re not as good as Boromir

 FARAMIR: I will ride out for you, my father

 BOROMIR: Dad, be nice to Faramir…

 FARAMIR: Our white city shall not fall

 PIPPIN: Then we’ll celebrate with beer!

 FARAMIR: Will my father then love me?

ALL: The time is now, the day is here:

 GANDALF: Aragorn!

 WITCH-KING: Sauron’s victory is assurèd

For no man can murder me,

The white city chall be razèd

Gondor’s remnants then shall flee!

GOLLUM: Watch ‘em run to her,

Rummage through the bones,

We’ll take the Precious, it will be for us alone.

Nasty hobbitses,

One of them is fat,

 The other is a Baggins , SMEAGOL: but he can’t help that!

 ALL: One day to a new beginning

[Non-linear bit with lots of simultaneous voices that can’t be adequately expressed here]

GANDALF: Tomorrow we must win the day
Tomorrow we must find a way

ALL: Tomorrow we’ll discover if the monarchy can be restored,
Aragorn.

Aragorn.

Aragorn________!

A Lament for Tolkien’s Tree

Morgan Feldman shares a poem commemmorating Tolkien’s favoured tree, recently felled from its place in the Botanic Gardens.

Through Oxford over stream and brook, under spire and stone

Blows a wind of somber thought for a pine long known.

Twisted boughs and emerald crown long stood proud and tall

Through many storms and winter frosts until they came to fall.

 

A trunk not white and regal, nor leaves of silver and gold,

Beneath its sturdy branches, many a story were told.

A dismal day has come at last to fell this mighty tree

whose branches spanned from middle-earth to our own history.

 

Yet as all woods must end at last

elven trees too must pass

from sight to memory.

Early Memories

Chris Seeman, one of the Society’s founding members, shares some reminiscences from the earliest of days.

Has it been a quarter of a century already??? I guess that makes us original Taruithorners quite ancient – dare I say “well-preserved.” 1989-1990 was most definitely a year to remember. Yankee exchange student/Middle-earth enthusiast arrives in Oxford and discovers to his amazement that there is no active smile in the heart of Tolkiendom. This cannot be borne! And so Taruithorn was born somewhere in the depths of Christ Church.

One of the things I remember from our first meeting was trying to decide what to call ourselves. “Ancalagon” was one of the first suggestions “because we’re not nice people.” (Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.) I remember lots of punting on the Cherwell and lots of role-playing into the wee hours, but most of all lots of friendship – we still keep in touch with one another after all these years. Let there be no Breaking of the Fellowship. Take care, all.

Merton Tolkien Symposium

Here is your humble Editor‘s contribution to the Anniversary issue: a report on Merton College’s symposium on Tolkien last year.

On Tuesday of 6th Week of Michaelmas Term, Merton held an all-day symposium of lectures entitled “Tolkien in Oxford” as part of its 750th anniversary celebrations. Unfortunately, most of us weren’t able to attend due to the Tuesday daytime slot, but I managed to avoid labs that day to attend the event. Speakers included John Garth and Stuart Lee, both of whom have recently spoken to Taruithorn.

Arriving in Merton’s lecture theatre in Rose Lane, I was pleasantly surprised to meet one of our newer members, and find that I wasn’t the entire Taruithorn presence. After standing around awkwardly for a few brief moments, attendees were invited to take our seats, and proceedings began. A brief safety talk by Merton’s Fellow-Librarian was followed by a welcome speech by Sir Martin Taylor, the Warden of Merton College. As one would expect, he made much of the link between Tolkien and Merton, even somewhat facetiously extending the Merton connection to include Tolkien’s childhood schools – King Edward’s because its current headmaster is a Mertonian, and the Birmingham Oratory because of its foundation by Cardinal Newman, an alumnus of an Oxford Hall later subsumed by Merton. He then shared with us tidbits from the King Edward’s archive, retrieved for him by the aforementioned headmaster, including that Tolkien once advocated the return of the stocks as a punishment in a school debate, stating that it would “benefit the greengrocers’ trade!”

Hwæt!” began the first speech of the day, just as Tolkien’s Beowulf lectures used to. This, along with the rest of the first eleven lines of Beowulf, were delivered from memory by Professor Andy Orchard, the current holder of the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon – Tolkien’s old post at Pembroke – who lectures in the English department on Old English literature and Medieval Latin. After completing his recital, and reading us Tolkien’s translation of the passage, he pointed us to the first few pages of our handouts, containing a formidable list of all the lecture series Tolkien gave during his twenty-year stint in that professorship – in some terms he did six lectures per week. We were also asked to notice the considerable number of Old Norse and Philology lectures that Tolkien gave – which weren’t his job to do!

The main body of Professor Orchard’s talk took us through Tolkien’s teaching while in Oxford, with illustrations from the segments of Tolkien’s library still present in various Oxford Libraries. We were shown the breadth of his personal linguistic reading – not only Old English and Norse, but also Faroese and Gothic, Welsh, Irish, Breton, Scottish Gaelic, and much more. He also drew our attention to some cryptic text Tolkien had written in the in the front of an Irish book that he acquired as an undergraduate: “AMDG” and “EMB”. AMDG, he told us, stands for ad maiorem Dei gloriam, the motto of the Jesuits – a reference to Father Francis Morgan, Tolkien’s guardian from the time of his mother’s death to his majority. In “EMB”, the ‘M’ was noticeably in the shape of a heart, the ‘M’ standing, of course, for the Mary in Edith Mary Bratt, Tolkien’s early love and future wife whom he was forbidden to contact at the time.

Professor Orchard finished his talk with a riddle: “What have I got in my pocket?” The answer was a personal treasure of his, a torn-off bit of paper that he found tucked inside an Old Norse book while an undergraduate at Exeter College in the eighties. On it was written some Old Norse saying, roughly, “All the Coalbiters should visit C. S. Lewis’s home Magdalen on Odin’s Day, November 20th, to read Helgakviða Hundingsbana I”. The note, which does seem to be in Lewis’s handwriting, appears to be an invitation by him to the Coalbiters, Tolkien’s little Norse sagas reading club. Looking for years in which the 20th of November fell on a Wednesday, Professor Orchard dated it to 1929, and found corroborating evidence in the form of a letter by Lewis referring to a Coalbiters meeting on that day. The Exeter Librarian of the time, he said, let him keep it because it was “written in foreign”. He then closed his lecture with a few lines of Old English from Beowulf’s funeral.

Now, I’ve been going to Professor Orchard’s Beowulf lectures this term, and I feel I should mention that in the lecture the next morning, when comparing characters in Beowulf to those in a Norse saga, he looked at me and said “just for my Tolkien friend in the audience,” this character was also described as a Kólbitr, and then proceeded to explain what the Coalbiters club was and why they were called that. I felt special…

The next lecture was by Dr Elizabeth Solopova of Brasenose, also a lecturer in the English department in mediaeval literature and the history of the book, an co-author with Stuart Lee of The Keys of Middle Earth, speaking on the subject “Tolkien and Names”. Now, I must confess that while the preceding section of this article was written a few days after the event, I then proceeded to foolishly forget about this article for about four months, and only remembered it now that the Miruvor submissions deadline approaches. I therefore apologise for any noticeable decline in the article’s quality hence noticeable, as I’m now working purely from my rather illegible and disjointed notes from the lectures…

Dr Solopova began her talk with a Tolkien quote: “To me a name comes first, the story later”, and with this launched into an examination of the roles of names in mythology and mediaeval literature.  Observing that in the Icelandic prose sagas, the place-names and personal names are usually given with great precision even for minor characters and locations, that these works will give names even when strictly unnecessary for plot or story. Specifically mentioning that editions of such works often include genealogies, indices of personal and place names, even maps, she drew the obvious link with Tolkien’s work. Dr Solopova presented that our evaluation of the role of these details depends on our interpretation of the identity of these works –  ancient literature and Tolkien’s work. She suggests that the extent to which mythological tales were seen as history as well as (or instead of) as fiction presents an explanation for the inclusion of such details –  they have intrinsic worth outside their contribution to the narrative since we’re learning about the world in that time and place, and this is what Tolkien was trying to carry out in his tales. In fact, she tells us that Tolkien once commented that some of his fans wrote to him as if his stories were real and he was misinterpreting them!

Later in her talk, Dr Solopova pointed out many interesting examples of etymologies of Tolkien place-names and people-names, especially those of the Rohirrim, which, being rendered in Anglo-Saxon, were close to her specialism. For example, she drew our attention to the names of the royal house of Rohan – Théoden, Thengel, Théodwyn &c. – which alliterate, as did the names of Anglo-Saxon royals.

I found that, as well as the talk itself, the questions from the audience after Dr Solopova’s talk raised many interesting points. One questioner, for example, pointed out the importance of nameless things in Tolkien’s work, giving the example of the Mouth of Sauron who has “forgotten his own name”, as well as the Ringwraiths –  for whom the loss of their names can be seen as showing how utterly they have given themselves up.
After Dr Solopova’s lecture (and a break for lunch), we heard briefly from Sir Rick Trainor, the Rector of Exeter College. He told us of an occasion when, as an undergraduate at Merton in the seventies, he once met Tolkien when invited into the SCR, but their only conversation was on the subject of the American elections at the time, on which the Rector gave predictions that turned out entirely false. The Rector (who is American) is thus a little disappointed that Tolkien’s only memory of him would be as the student who didn’t know the politics of his own country…

Sir Rick was followed by a brief introduction from Dr Catherine Parker, the Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian, from whom I would have liked to hear more. She introduced the third speaker of the day, John Garth, speaking on Tolkien’s inspirations in a lecture entitled “100 years on: how Tolkien came to the brink of Middle-Earth”. A specialist in Tolkien’s undergraduate years (he recently wrote a short volume entitled “Tolkien at Exeter College” to tie in with Exeter’s 700th Anniversary celebrations), Mr Garth took us chronologically through this phase of Tolkien’s life identifying particular inspirations and his creative process, while frequently diverting to show us interesting etymological links and short anecdotes. He began his talk by mentioning Crist II, the Anglo-Saxon poem which inspired Tolkien’s first identifiable published Middle-Earth work, the poem The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star, which notably contains a reference to the character earendel. He used Exeter College’s records of Tolkien’s library borrowings during his time as an undergraduate to illustrate his interests during this period – among interesting observations were that during the first year of his degree, Tolkien borrowed only one Classics book!

Mr Garth discussed the Notion Club Papers, Tolkien’s abandoned time-travel novel featuring a fictionalised version of the Inklings, in which Tolkien’s analogue, one Alwin Arundel Lowdham, presents to the other members of the club his extraordinarily detailed dreams about Atlantis, Middle-Earth’s Númenor. In the name of this character, Mr Garth showed us that Alwin is a modernisation of Ælfwine (Elendil in Quenya), “elf-friend”, that is the name of Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon traveller to Eressëa through whom the Silmarillion tales are first recounted. Arundel meanwhile is an Anglicisation of Eärendil – here and in many other cases Mr Garth showed us the etymological references and links that Tolkien’s works contain, illustrating in many cases Tolkien’s wish to, through his narratives, create a world that might have given rise to the divergent literary traditions he studied. All these small insights were framed by the narrative of Tolkien’s undergraduate life – we were told the story of his coming up to Oxford, his discovery of Finnish, the switch to studying Classics and his winning back of Edith soon after his 21st birthday. Several biographical were present that were less familiar to me – for example we learned about an experience briefly before Tolkien’s Mods in Classics, when one of his neighbours on his staircase shot himself in his room.

After finishing relating the development of the character of Túrin drawing on those of Sigurd and Kullervo from Norse and Finnish traditions, Mr Garth ended his talk with Frodo’s words to activate Eärendil’s Light and the line from Cynewulf’s Crist II that started it all: Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima and eala earendel engla beorhtast – the one in Quenya, the other in Old English.

Speaking after Mr Garth was Edmund Weiner, the Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Fellow of Kellogg College, and professional philologist, co-author of the book The Ring of Words – J.R.R. Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. Mr Weiner’s talk illustrated Tolkien’s contributions to the OED and his use of language in his published works, focussing on three words: wan, dim, and pale. Tolkien’s contributions to the OED focussed on the letter W, and Mr Weiner was able to use as a source (and show us as a scan) Tolkien’s handwritten dictionary card for the word wan.

Of Tolkien’s six meanings listed on the card, three were listed as extinct, and three in present use – the most recent as meaning faint, dull, pale, an older meaning pallid or sickly of a face, and one meaning dark or gloomy, specifically of the sea, this preserving a much older, more general Old English meaning. Mr Weiner identified the diminution of light as the common quantity linking the two seemingly contradictory meanings dark and pale – the development of the latter into the former would appear at first to be a reversal of meaning. We were shown that one of the examples Tolkien’s entry cites for the Old English meaning dark or gloomy, and which he identifies as usually used in an ominous sense, is from Grendel’s approach to Heorot in Beowulf, and yet Tolkien’s own recently-published Beowulf translation into modern English does not use wan here, nor in the four other places where it occurs in the Old English text.

Mr Weiner then investigated Tolkien’s use of these words in his fiction, giving us many fascinating example of their usage and occurrence. It seems that Tolkien used these three words almost twenty times as often as they commonly appeared  in English at the time. Mr Weiner noted to us that Tolkien frequently used wan in the Silmarillion, the Lay of Leithian, his translation of Pearl, and other works, while he preferred dim and pale in the Lord of the Rings. His analysis of the use of pale in the Lord of the Rings showed that it is used most commonly with light, sky, face, and eyes, and Mr Weiner here noted that Tolkien uses the word almost exclusively in ominous contexts – similar to the Old English meaning of wan, yet here the word is pale, corresponding to wan’s modern sense, not its older. However, an exception is in Lothlórien, where pale describes things that are good, including Galadriel. He analysed dim in the Book of Lost Tales, where notable instances include its use describing the magic of Valinor and the fading of the Elves – in both of these cases and in many others, the word is used with a sense of vanishing past lordliness, yet in the Lord of the Rings, dim is used almost exclusively to describe the gloom of Mordor, with other words, such as grey, being used to achieve this “distancing of Faerie”. The linking concept between the meanings of wan, of diminution of light, connects much of Tolkien’s use of these three words. After showing us many more such subtle links, Mr Weiner’s talk concluded, having demonstrated that Tolkien’s use of these three words illustrates his general concept of his world as removed from us in time, as historically distant.

Mr Weiner’s talk was the last lecture of the day, the rest of which was dedicated to the BBC’s 1968 Tolkien in Oxford documentary, recently restored, which was shown after a brief introduction by Dr Stuart Lee of Merton College and the English Faculty, Lecturer in Old English, co-author with Dr Solopova of The Keys of Middle Earth, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien.

The documentary itself (available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/12237.shtml) is an extended interview with Tolkien in various locations around Oxford, on the subject of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, interspersed with sometimes-amusing short clips of students of the time giving their views on Tolkien’s works. The whole documentary is available on the internet, and I won’t summarise it here, except to say that it is extremely interesting as a source for Tolkien’s views on his own work. Here I give some of the more amusing quotes from it. One sixties student, on the hobbits’ lifestyle in the Shire, commented “I’ve never seen anything more bourgeois in my life!”. Another, after declaring that the Lord of the Rings is about the oppression of the proletarian masses, namely the Orcs, admits that he hasn’t actually read the book. Tolkien, commenting on his popularity, says “North America has always been more easily excited than England”. After reciting the One Ring poem in the Black Speech, Tolkien declares “I invented that in the bath, I remember”… “I got it right and thought ‘all right, that will do’ and jumped out”. We get a glimpse of an early OUSFG, one of whom comments “It’s always fun meeting another fan who gets your references. The obscurer the reference the better the pleasure”. Tolkien at one point notes that he’s always been fascinated by trees, and that he’d “like to make contact with a tree and see what it had to say”, before, on a less humorous note, declaring that the Lord of the Rings, like all stories, “is about death”.

After the film, Dr Lee interviewed Leslie Megahey, the documentary’s director, who was a radio and TV writer, director and producer at the BBC for decades, and Tolkien in Oxford was his first film (The interview has been put on the University’s website at http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/tolkien-oxford-bbc-1968). One of Mr Megahey told us many interesting stories about the making of the documentary, including how Tolkien later said of him that he was a “very nice, very young man, equipped with some intelligent insight”, and that though his comment on the film itself was that he didn’t like it at all, he did invite the young Mr Megahey to come back to have a drink with him in Oxford sometime.

As well as coming for his interview, Mr Megahey had brought with him some previously unseen film footage, cut from the final version, as well as the typescripts of every take and interview with Tolkien – another previously unseen priceless resource which he entrusted to Dr Lee, who may publish them at some time in the future. The day ended with the showing of the extra segments of film, which included a great many interesting comments by Tolkien. Tolkien mentions that “everyone make errors in my mythology” – citing the Valar’s taking the elves to Valinor in the hope of protecting them as a critical error. In a less serious section, on the subject of the taste of bacon, he comments that it is as if “pigs had a divine destiny to be used as bacon”, such is the taste.

As the day came to a close, the last comment, from the Professor himself speaking through the years through yet more previously unseen footage, was on the subject of language itself. He notes that it is unfortunate how little people know of language, in that most consider it only verbal communication, when in fact, language is the passing of any information from human to human. He specifically mentions that lighting candles and genuflecting are both examples of language. Now, it seems to me that if not only words, but any gesture that transfers meaning is language, then stories most certainly are, and as vehicles of transferring so much meaning, indeed they are one of its highest forms. Then it is certain that Tolkien, not only through his academic work, but also through his fiction, has phenomenally contributed to our English language that was such a large part of his life.