Tolkien’s riddles

The Riddles of the Hobbit is a riddling book about a riddling writer, a philological exercise concerning the works of a philologist. I wish there were more books like this. Literary critics tend to stick firmly (ruthlessly) with the standard critical idiom even when the texts they’re writing about are fundamentally incompatible with that idiom. I admire Adam for letting Tolkien’s habits of mind pull his (Adam’s) prose into an eccentric orbit. There’s a very funny imaginary dialogue between the Sphinx and Oedipus in which Oedipus refuses the Sphinx’s interpretation of its own riddle (“your riddle mixes metaphor and literal application in an inconsistent manner”); and an especially nice turn near the end where Adam comments that “the early medieval romance Ringe describes its hero as ’ane hubbity-duppety fellowe yclepit Fraodo, þat wiþ greete heorte did þe Ringe of powre destrowe” — to which he adds, in a helpful footnote, the information that “There is, of course, no actual medieval romance entitled Ringe.”

But these are not mere jokes, though they’re good jokes: they’re also ways of reflecting on riddling and the pursuit of riddles (including the kind of riddle-pursuit that in humanistic scholarship we call “source-hunting”). The book offers much more sober insights into Tolkien’s tale-telling and language-playing habits, too, but it always wears its critical hat at a rakish angle. I loved it and felt that it did more to get me thinking tolkienially (to coin a term) than almost anything I’ve read about old JRRT, Tom Shippey’s wonderful work alone excepted.

Here I just want to take up one of the secondary themes in the book, which is the relation between Tolkien’s preference for riddles and his deep commitment to a religion, Catholic Christianity, which has at its heart certain mysteries. Adam is quite clear that riddles and mysteries are not the same, but he doesn’t say what I’m going to say here, which is that each is the mirror image of the other. The proper relation between riddle and mystery is absolute opposition.

We can start with two points. First, Adam quotes Robin Chapman Stacey’s claim that “riddles function, in almost every culture in which they appear, as a means by which one person lays claim to power over another”; and second, at one point he pauses to comment that “one of the things this book is trying to do is … to engage imaginative ingenuity as the proper idiom of riddles.” Putting these two points together we see that in contests of riddles ingenuity is the form that power takes: especially since, as Adam also points out, the stakes of riddle-games are so often life and death, to pose a riddle to someone — and equally to accept a riddle-challenge — is to bet your life than you are more ingenious than the other person.

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

Paul returns to this theme in the very last verses of the letter to the Romans, where he looks forward again to the apokalypsin mystēriou — the unveiling of the mystery, the sacramentum. And when will this happen? In 1 Timothy 6 we learn that God the Father will bring the “manifestation” or “revealing” of Jesus Christ, kairois idiois, in his own good time, at the opportune moment. And that cannot be forced or hurried or even known by anyone else.

It sounds like I’m preaching a sermon here, but I’m actually trying to lay out a semantic field, one part of which is occupied by riddles, enigmas, which human beings can at least in principle solve, and the other part of which is occupied by mysteries that are not even in principle soluble, by obscurity that we cannot dissipate: rather we must wait for God to unveil those mysteries in his own time. This is the sense in which I claim that riddles and mysteries oppose one another.

I said in my previous post that Pynchon is a riddling writer, but he is also concerned with those insoluble obscurities that cannot be fought but must simply be waited out. Thus in the last paragraph of Inherent Vice Doc Sportello is simply waiting out a thick California coastal fog — and hoping that when it clears there will be something else there, something other and better than the world he knows. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa Maas — Oedipa! — simply takes a deep breath and awaits what the “crying of Lot 49” will reveal. And in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Pynchon’s fiction, the passage that I think will give my book on Pynchon its title, we hear a (relatively minor) character say:

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.” … He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible.

Waiting — waiting “for some affirmation from the far invisible” — not striving. No ingenuity here; just patient hope.

After all this it is interesting to return to The Hobbit, and especially the conclusion of the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum. Bilbo wins “more by luck (as it seemed) than by wits,” Tolkien says in his Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, and in more than one way. First of all, he can only even get his last chance to stump Gollum because, in trying to ask for more Time to think, he stumbles on the answer to the game’s penultimate riddle. (He finds the answer but never knows the answer.) And then, of course, “What have I got in my pocket?” is even more problematic, within the rules of the game, than the Sphinx’s inconsistencies. Again from the Prologue to LOTR: “The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ according to the strict rules of the Game; but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise.” And by so accepting Gollum put himself in a position where his power over Bilbo — his superior physical strength and shrewdness of riddling — are trumped by … well, by something else.

If what Bilbo has is luck it is extraordinary luck — too extraordinary for Gandalf to accept that explanation, as he says to Frodo: “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it.” In fact, then, the riddle-game is resolved not by ingenuity (which Bilbo lacks), and not even by luck, but by some unnamed force who has decided that the kairos moment, the Appointed Time, has come. What we have in Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring is not cleverness or skill or bravery or any other human virtue, but an apokalypsin mystēriou, the unveiling of a mystery. The riddle-game marks the end, in this tale, of the sovereignty of riddling.

accommodation and perversion

I wrote recently that I see world-building in SF and fantasy as coming in two chief varieties, the speculative and the meticulous, and that those varieties offer different kinds of literary interest and pleasure. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea falls on the speculative end of the spectrum, Tolkien on the meticulous end. Here’s another binary: the accommodating and the perverse.

The distinction applies to all kinds of writing, but I think it especially evident in SF or fantasy or any other kind of writing that evades the constraints of standard-issue realistic fiction. The accommodating writer is one who is content to work within the common shapes of story, the expected arcs and structures of human tale-telling throughout history and across cultures, while the perverse writer suspects those arcs and structures and strives to avoid or subvert them when possible. (So when I recently called Adam Roberts “perverse” I was describing, not criticizing. I think Adam’s fiction is very usefully perverse.)

It strikes me that these two binaries may usefully be juxtaposed to each other. These are distinctions of degree, not kind, so some Cartesian plotting is required, thus:

I’m not sure that I’ve placed any of these texts with precision, but it’s a start. Most of them will be familiar to most of my readers, but perhaps not China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. I was tempted to identify Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series as strongly meticulous and strongly perverse but then decided that both of those designations are potentially misleading. I’ve also been re-reading Thomas Pynchon lately, and was tempted to mark Gravity’s Rainbow as strongly speculative and off-the-chart perverse, but that needs more thought also.

I’m happy to entertain any corrections or suggestions in the comments below.

insders and outsiders

One of the stories often told by fans of the Inklings — C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and their friends — is that their great success is a kind of “revenge of the outsiders” story: writers whose ideas were rejected by the cultural elite end in triumph. The story’s origins lie with the Inklings themselves: so they conceived themselves, as a ragged group of oddballs tending the flame of old tales and old ways while the cultural elite went its corrupt modernist way. Lewis returns to this theme often in his letters.

But were Lewis and Tolkien really outside the mainstream? Consider:

  • Each of them was a fellow of an ancient and prestigious college in one of England’s two elite universities
  • They were the two leading authors of the English curriculum at that university (a curriculum that lasted longer than they did)
  • Each of them published books for that university’s prestigious press
  • One of them (Tolkien) shared a publisher with Bertrand Russell
  • One of them (Lewis) gave immensely popular radio talks for the BBC

Even Owen Barfield, in some ways the most culturally marginal of the major Inklings, early in his career wrote articles for the New Statesman and had a book (Poetic Diction) published by Faber. (After that he was largely self-exiled from the mainstream by his commitment to Anthroposophy.)

To be sure, there were important ways that both Lewis and Tolkien were, in the eyes of some, not quite the right thing at Oxford: neither of them attended an elite public school; Lewis was Irish; Tolkien was Catholic; each of them stood for ideas about literature that were palpably old-fashioned; and Lewis was (in addition to being generally assertive, sometimes to the point of bullying) vocal about being a Christian in ways that struck many of his colleagues as being ill-bred at best. But considering such impediments to insider status, they did amazingly well at finding their way into the midst of things, and they did so before either of them had written anything for which they’re now famous.

the desolation of Peter Jackson

My son and I went to see The Dissolution of Smog The Desecration of Snog The Desolation of Smaug today. I am infuriated.

Let me begin my talking about what I liked. The barrels-down-the-river scene was fun and funny. Laketown was delightfully shabby. Smaug looked really cool.

That’s it. The rest was utter dreck. As my son commented, the only thing that could possibly rescue this movie would be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of it. (And just so you know, I really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies, and have frequently defended them against their detractors, especially Tolkien purists.) So let me just note a few of the many, many things I hated about this movie. Some semi-spoilers follow.

First of all, the video-game aesthetics that so afflicted the first Hobbit film are even worse here. When you combine the game-style action with the 48fps film rate, and then put 3D on top of that, watching this movie is like being slightly high on pot and playing a circa-2005 Xbox game while watching a 1970s sitcom marathon out of the corner of your eye. Its artifice shouts from the rooftops. The spiderwebs that looked so cool and gross when Frodo was wrapped in them in 2003 now look like cheap plastic doilies arranged on Martin Freeman’s head.

Second: speaking of Martin Freeman, who was the best thing in the first movie, he has nothing to do here. Almost no one in this movie does any real acting, but Freeman isn’t even given a chance. He has one briefly cute scene with Gandalf, and is given a few pleasant lines with Smaug, but that’s it. He’s completely wasted. Evangeline Lilly is given far more to do than Freeman — a choice that I cannot imagine any other director in the world making. The scene where Jackson has her pacing back and forth and woodenly declaiming her lines to an equally wooden Lee Pace as Thranduil would be painful in a high-school drama class.

Third: so, about Smaug. He’s awesome-looking and -sounding (Cumberbatched to the Nth degree) but seems to be highly inconsistent in his powers. For instance, whenever the dwarves and their hobbit mascot are conveniently hidden behind a wall he can blast massive shockwaves of fire in their general direction; but when they’re standing three feet away right in front of him he just chats with them. And it’s not like he alters in a discernible direction: his two moods alternate like cinematic clockwork. Chat, then blast; chat, then blast. He’s an absent-minded dragon, I guess, who can’t remember whom he wants to incinerate or why. I mean, even when people are standing right in front of him and taunting him he does nothing — but as soon as they scramble to safety he’s like the business end of a Saturn V.

Which leads me, fourth, to Gandalf. One of the problems with Jackson’s LOTR is the way Gandalf’s powers inexplicably wax and wane: in the first movie he can confront and defeat a Balrog — a Balrog, for heaven’s sake: have you seen those things? — but collapses in a heap before the leader of the Nazgul in the third one. And that was supposed to be the new and improved post-resurrection Gandalf. I guess you could argue that this movie’s pre-resurrection Gandalf is a less formidable figure, which doesn’t fit the Tolkien character, but that’s okay, let’s grant PJ and his co-authors the right to do with Gandalf what they will. But, then, why does this pantywaist Gandalf stroll right into the fortress of the Necromancer as though he’s taking his daily constitutional in Wizard’s Park? Apparently he just wants to find out who the Necromancer is, but is that really the ideal way to do it? Walk into a creepy fortress saturated with black magic and shout “Who are you people?” Just because you’re a wizard, there’s no need to be a moron also, is there?

(Parenthetically: Peter Jackson seems to think that a wizard’s power resides wholly in his staff, so that when his staff is taken away he’s helpless — which, I mean, okay, but then why is Gandalf never able, in any of the Tolkien films, to do much more with his staff than shine a bright light? In this one he does poke ineffectually at some orcs, and elsewhere he smites a couple of nasties with it, but, if you look at all the Jackson Tolkien films in toto, basically it’s just a flashlight. An inconveniently enormous flashlight. )

Fifth: it’s only for a couple of seconds, but we get Radagast’s %$#@! buggy-bunny again. And Gandalf sends Radagast away to give a message to Galadriel, even though Galadriel and he can communicate telepathically.

Sixth and lastly (as Dogberry once said), I have no idea what is going on in the last few minutes as the dwarves confront Smaug. Somehow eight or nine dwarves are able to get all the mighty furnaces of their ancestors running again in two or three minutes, and the furnaces are so powerful that it takes them only another 30 seconds or so to create rivers of molten metal, and then they make a giant golden statue of a dwarf to mesmerize Smaug — or maybe they don’t make it but just fill it with molten gold? — but whether they make it or pump it full of gold-syrup it doesn’t melt but rather shoots the gold-syrup out of its eyeballs — though Smaug has to conveniently stop and stare first at Thorin and then at the Great Idol long enough to make all the machinery work? I mean, the scene is completely nonsensical, in a way that no respectable video-game (the genre it’s trying to imitate) would ever allow to happen.

I could write a post three times as long as this one if I wanted to list all the absurdities and solecisms of this film. But I’ll spare you. It’s stupid and ugly, and you shouldn’t spend your money on it.


Joyce, Tolkien, and copyright

James Joyce’s Ulysses is fascinating in many ways, not least because it has proven such a magnet for controversy of all kinds: it has been at the center of hullabaloos about obscenity law, about textual editing, and — as Robert Spoo’s new book demonstrates — about copyright. I haven’t read Spoo’s book yet, but I want to after reading Caleb Crain’s lucid review of it.

As often is the case when I find myself thinking about Ulysses, my mind turns towards The Lord of the Rings. This is probably as odd as I suspect it is, but the books have some curious things in common: each seeks to renew and transfigure some inherited literary form; each tries to reconceive the idea of epic scope; each has been accused of being excessively masculine in its understanding of the world; each, thanks in part to endless authorial fiddling, has been the object of a great many controversies; and finally, each has been involved in all sorts of copyright issues.

Crain writes in his review,

Law isn’t the only way for people who do business together to keep one another in line. In most fields, there’s a faster, cheaper and simpler sanction: don’t do business with the miscreant anymore. Such self-policing by a group isn’t fail-safe. Ostracism might not cost enough to be a deterrent in markets with many participants, little reporting and few long-term relationships, and there will always be a few bad actors who choose to be disreputable. But law, no matter how absolute, doesn’t prevent every act of bad behavior either, and self-regulation is more flexible and quicker to adapt to changing circumstances. The phenomenon has been called “order without law,” and it has been detected in Maine lobstermen, who respect one another’s trapping sites; in chefs, who are ginger about knocking off one another’s recipes; and in stand-up comics, who usually refrain from stealing one another’s routines and punch lines. It has even been found, believe it or not, in publishing. Sometimes, in the absence of copyright, publishers have paid authors and have abstained from reprinting the books of authors they haven’t paid. Ulysses, by James Joyce, considered by some the greatest novel of the twentieth century, lost its copyright protection in America on a technicality soon after it was published. But from the 1930s to the ’90s, Joyce and his estate were paid royalties from its publication in America anyway, thanks to exactly this kind of happy anarchy.  

With The Lord of the Rings, things didn’t happen quite this way. In 1965, the bosses at Ace Books decided that they had discovered a loophole in the copyright law that allowed them to publish their own edition of the novel — and to pay J.R.R. Tolkien absolutely nothing for doing so. It seems hard to believe that as recently as fifty years ago the American publishing industry was sufficiently chaotic for any publishing executives to think they could get away with this, but they printed 150,000 copies — you heard that right: one hundred and fifty thousand copies — of each of the three volumes of LOTR, which of course sold like hotcakes. After some huffing and puffing by Tolkien and his American publishers the Ace guys decided that they had received enough legal threats, bad publicity, and cash on the barrelhead that they should probably send the author some money and let their edition slide grecelessly out of print. Still, they probably came out well ahead on the deal. “Order without law” indeed.

blogging re-reading

I’ve just discovered a cool thing at, the website of the SF/fantasy publisher: blogs devoted to chapter-by-chapter re-readings of classic fantasy works. There’s one on The Lord of the Rings and one on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The idea tends to be a little better than the execution, which is sometimes rather mechanical — too much time devoted to plot summary of each chapter — but I think this is great all the same. In fact, I think I may do something of the kind myself in the not-too-distant future — perhaps working off one of my classes. It’s interesting — well, it’s interesting to me, anyway — to see how my responses to books I often teach have changed over the years after many re-readings and many classroom conversations. Maybe that would be worth recording.

the desire of the Sybil

It’s generally understood that books are read differently in different generations: cultural changes bring themes and images to the forefront that might have been invisible, or wholly subdued, to a previous generation of readers. It took the rise of Romanticism and its associated revolutions to cast Milton’s Satan in a heroic light; existentialism made King Lear seem to be, not some strange figure from an obscure past, but our contemporary.This can happen to lesser works as well. Recently I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings and began to wonder how it might be read fifty years from now, assuming that our scientists are able to extend the human lifespan significantly. Might it not be that Bilbo and Gollum will become more significant figures in the minds of future readers? And might not the Ring itself take on a different aura of meanings?Think of Bilbo, in appearance “unchanged” in his eleventy-first year, who nevertheless confesses, “I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. . . Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right.” And think of Gollum, to whom the Ring has given “unnaturally long life”: in the end, “He hated it and he loved it, as he hated and loved himself.” In the lives of these two characters the One Ring does not appear as a Ring of Power so much as a Ring of Immortality, a ring that gives biological life without the means to enjoy it or profit from it. How many people in the future will identify in a particularly strong way with Bilbo and Gollum in this respect? — and maybe especially with Gollum, who unlike Bilbo is unable to relinquish the Ring, unable to escape or even lessen its power over him. Will biological life become all the more precious to people as they enjoy it less, according to the implacable law of diminishing returns?Similarly, what will future generations make of that terrifying epigraph to Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, taken from Petronius’s Satyricon? The epigraph concerns the Cumaean Sybil, who made the mistake of asking the gods for extraordinarily long life without also asking for youth, so that her body wthered and shrank almost to nothingness. One of the main characters of the Satyricon, the ludicrous Trimalchio, says, “For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a cage, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’”

Mr. Bowman and the fantasists

In a forthcoming issue of The New Atlantis, James Bowman writes:

Tolkien and the other old-time fantasists may have felt themselves to be working within the Western tradition, from which they would cite the gods and heroes of classical literature as their precedents. But to believe that is to overlook the fundamental difference between their fantastical creations and Homer’s: Homer believed in the reality of his gods and heroes and they did not. More importantly, Homer’s audience thought his gods and heroes were, or had been, real; that was why they incurred the censure of Plato. When Milton, two and a half millennia later, proposed to write the English national epic by making use of the legends of King Arthur, he reluctantly abandoned the project because he had come to think that the Arthurian stories weren’t true, weren’t real. Of the Fall of Man, which replaced them as his subject, he naturally had no such doubts.

(Before proceeding, let me pause to note that, while Milton indeed doubted the historicity of the Arthurian tales — in his History of Britain he wrote, “But who Arthur was, and whether ever any such reign’d in Britain, hath been doubted heretofore, and may again with good reason” — he never explained anywhere the reasons for his change of topic. It seems far more likely to me that in the aftermath of the Commonwealth’s failure he was scarcely in a patriotic mood. But in any case, Bowman is guessing here, not reporting.)(While I’m at it, let me also note that Tolkien certainly wouldn’t have cited classical literature as his precedent: all of his key models are medieval.)(And did Homer really believe in the personal, physical existence of Zeus, Hermes, Athena and the rest? How would one know? Okay, that’s enough. . . .)Confronted by howls of outrage from fantasy-lovers, Bowman has further developed his critique: his chief point in mentioning Tolkien et al. is that “the fantasy actually being produced in our culture today, [including] that which is, in one way or another, merely derivative from Tolkien or Lewis . . . represents a break with the Western mimetic tradition to which the fantasies of yesteryear still, more or less, belonged.” I am pretty confused by what Bowman says in elaborating this point. Is The Lord of the Rings one of those “fantasies of yesteryear” that “still, more or less belonged” to “the Western mimetic tradition”? If so, this contradicts what Bowman wrote earlier. If not, at what point do we place the historical line that separates the acceptably fantastic from the unacceptably fantastic?Again, Bowman writes, “Fairies were believed in by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as recently as a hundred years ago, and I would not take my oath that Lewis and Tolkien did not believe in them too.” But in his New Atlantis article he says flatly that Tolkien did not believe in his “fantastical creations.” So which is it?By the end of this second post Bowman seems to have shifted his critique from Lewis and Tolkien to the people he takes to be their contemporary successors. “What I objected to in our contemporary fantasists — the question of their predecessors was too complicated for me to go into in such a short article — was that they deliberately and as a precondition of their art cut me off from any possibility of belief in the worlds they represent to me because they do not believe in them themselves. And if they don’t believe in them, why should I?” But Bowman did indeed “go into” “the question of their predecessors,” as can be seen in my first quote above. So is he withdrawing the charge he made against “Tolkien and the other old-time fantasists” that they only, and erroneously, “felt themselves to be working within the Western tradition”? Or is he prepared to reassert it? If he doesn’t address these questions, then he’s not answering many (most?) the people who were angry with his article.