Tag Archives: jrr tolkien

The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

I almost entitled this post ‘The Mighty Thor as told and drawn by Walter Simonson’, but the drawing is part of the essence of the medium of the comic book; it is part of how the story is ‘told’ in a broad understanding of the verb ‘to tell’. And Simonson both wrote and drew The Mighty Thor, issues 337-382 (Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987).

I recently finished the fifth volume of the collected work of Simonson’s Thor saga by Marvel Comics. It was a great ride. I like comic books from the 1980s. There was a strong emphasis upon telling a story, as well as about making each issue count; you don’t have to buy four issues to get a story. However, if you do read four issues of Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor, you’ll find yourself reading many stages of one big story. Any issue can be your first, but if you stick with it, the story continually expands from the point where you began.

It is, of course, this interconnectedness that makes Simonson’s telling of Thor strong. From the first issue, we see the sword of Surtur being forged, but have no idea what this means, who this is, where this is going — or even what is being forged, at first. Only over the span of multiple issues does this become clear. Meanwhile, we have Thor and Beta Ray Bill; we have Loki scheming; we have monster battles in New York; we have Malekith the Accursed. Yet there is a trajectory for each individual story, tying it into the wider story.

Thus, Malekith leads to Surtur which leads, on the one hand, to Loki almost succeeding at his conquest of Asgard, and on the other hand, Thor and co. riding to Hel. This latter leads to Thor’s curse, which leads ultimately to new armour, Jormungand, and the end of Simonson’s run. Loki seeking Odin’s throne connects us with Balder the Brave (whose miniseries is included in the collected volumes). As I say, it’ s a good ride.

And it should be! J.R.R. Tolkien presents the argument in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that English literature, because it’s greatest writer was a poet and playwright (Shakespeare), has missed the importance of good stories, with real plots (good plots, complex plots, entertaining plots), overvaluing the internal psychology of characters, which is the sort of thing plays lend themselves to. It’s an interesting hypothesis. Simonson has given us plot, story, a wild ride.

And this makes sense. Super hero comics were originally born as light reading for young boys. That mature women now also read them is good. But the increased sophistication of comic books should not mean a concurrent abandonment of story. Simonson shows us how you can tell a somewhat narratologically complex story through the visual medium of comics.

Such emphasis on a quality plot also makes sense because this is Thor. Walter Simonson knows his Norse myths. He draws his Asgard with an eye on Viking-age Scandinavian material culture. And he interweaves various aspects of Ragnarok into his run in The Mighty Thor, as well as other, broader characters, settings, themes, and stories from Old Norse mythology. There is a narrative realism to the mediaeval sagas — they and the Eddic poetry still tell good stories, whether we think of Njal’s Saga or the Volsunga Saga or the Voluspa.

Simonson also knows his superhero books. So we have traditional superhero tales alongside Viking-style tales alongside some sci-fi. It’s great.

In a very mediaeval sense, it’s romantic. And that’s, alongside the epic, is just what I love.

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Beowulf and The Hobbit III: On Hero-Stories (with reference to Joseph Campbell)

Joseph Campbell

Yesterday I got a library discard of John Gardner’s Grendel for 50p. And then I realised that I wasn’t done this series on Beowulf and The Hobbit. If you haven’t been around for the whole ride, we began with Beowulf and the Hobbit I: The Epic and the Episodes, then the tripartite series ‘The Monsters and the Magic’: Grendel and Goblins, Dragons (with reference to Fafnir), and Magical Items. We come now to the long-awaited third and final segment of this series: ‘On Hero-Stories’.

This entire series was spurred on by a desire to retrace territory covered by an essay I wrote in OAC (‘Grade 13’) English. I now bring into the discussion something else I first encountered in high school English class — Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

In said book, Campbell seeks to find the deep, psychological recesses of the collective unconscious, whence spring (he maintains) the mythology of the world. I’ve not actually read the entirety of this most famous of Campbell’s works, but I started once, and find this quotation compelling:

In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream. The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.

The most famous bit of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Campbell’s discussion of ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ It is a discussion many have found useful, including its application to stories as diverse as Star Wars and Byzantine hagiography. The Hero’s Journey, in one of its simpler forms, looks like this:

In case that image vanishes, the stages of the The Hero’s Journey are Call to Adventure, Supernatural Aid, Threshold Guardian(s), Threshold of the Unknown, Challenges and Temptations, REVELATION (Abyss: death and rebirth), Transformation, Atonement, Return to the Known (with possible gifts of the goddess). Shortly after crossing the Threshold come a Helper and a Mentor, and a Helper again just before REVELATION.

So.

Beowulf. Is Beowulf one of Campbell’s hero’s thousand faces? A little bit, but largely in relation to Grendel’s mother. One of the important points about the initial Grendel encounter is the raw humanness of it. Beowulf stays put, and then, in his nightclothes, he takes on in single combat with no weapons this monster and is victorious. This encounter does not fit.

Grendel’s Mom fits better — he sets off to the lakey bog thing and descends to attack her. This is not unlike the Abyss — indeed, Hrothgar and his men in the world above believe Beowulf to be dead. And he does almost die, but when his own sword fails, he is able to take up a new, magic blade and gain the victory. Is this not supernatural intervention? He comes back to the world above, back to the Known victorious, bringing the gifts to his people.

Or is all of Denmark the Unknown for Beowulf? Thus, he leaves Geatland and his own people and sails off to come to the aid of Hrothgar. His first challenge is Grendel. Then Grendel’s Mother is the Abyss. With supernatural aid, he is victorious. He and his men then return to Geatland with the literal gifts of material goods bestowed upon him Hrothgar, which is a fulfilment of one of the social roles of kings in Anglo-Saxon culture (the characters may be Scandinavian, but the poet is Anglo-Saxon!).

Then again — is the encounter with Grendel’s Mother an Early Mediaeval, Christianised, Germanic katabasis?

Tolkien would probably shudder at the above. And he would shudder even more at what I’m about to do. Nevertheless, if Campbell’s paradigms work — even if clunkily — on many traditional stories, then there is no surprise that someone who had immersed himself in the world of traditional stories, especially Germanic and Finnish ones from Beowulf to the Volsunga Saga to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the Kalevala, would have these basic archetypal stories imprinted on his mind and that they would leak through into his writing.

Bilbo Baggins lives in Warwickshire — I mean, the Shire. This is the Known. Gandalf and the Unexpected Party are the Call to Adventure. Gandalf’s rescue of them from the Trolls, although achieved through trickery rather than through magic, is Supernatural Intervention. They cross the Threshold into the Unknown (Wilderland, the Misty Mountains) at Elrond’s. Elrond is a friendly vision of the Guardian.

In the Unknown, Bilbo’s transformation (mentioned way back in my first post) really begins. Here, they have many challenges, from Goblins to Wargs to Mirkwood to Elves right up to the base of the Lonely Mountain, Erebor. They have Mentors and Helpers in Gandalf, the Eagles, and Beorn. Bilbo gains a magic ring (more Supernatural Aid — a gift from the goddess???) and is of enormous help to his companions.

All that business with Smaug — more challenges.

From the moment Bilbo steals the Arkenstone to his attempted brokering of peace between Elves, Men, and Dwarves, he goes through a rebirth. He becomes a new Hobbit. Then we have the Battle of the Five Armies. Then Bilbo returns home, leaves Wilderland (the Unknown) and brings back with him a ring and some gold into the Known.

But the greater gifts he brings with him are the gifts of adventure and challenging expectations. Bilbo is no longer a respectable hobbit because his gallivanting with wizards and dwarves. He shakes up the community of Hobbiton. And this is precisely what modern, middle-class, comfortable folk like you and me need — a bit of adventure, a bit of shaking up. This is Bilbo’s gift to the people of the Shire — would that it had prepared them for the coming of Saruman all those years thence!

And so we come to the end of this series of posts. We have seen how The Hobbit bears within it many of the traits of a traditional mediaeval romance-saga-epic, yet even in the midst of the drive to tell a story and the episodic nature thereof, we see the modern character of Bilbo who undergoes an inner transformation through his journey. We have seen the conceptual similarities between Grendel and the Goblins, between Smaug and the Beowulf dragon (although Fafnir is a better point of comparison), and noted the magical items. And now we have seen how both stories are similar by following Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ to some degree — although I think The Hobbit runs closer than Beowulf.

It is clear to me that Tolkien’s epic imagination was indelibly marked by all of the mediaeval literature he read, but especially by Beowulf. This comes out in the above ways, none of which, I reckon, was on purpose.

Beowulf and The Hobbit I: The Epic and the Episodes

Sutton Hoo Helmet

My photo of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, pre-dating the composition of Beowulf but still awesome

When I was in Grade 13 (‘OAC’) English, I wrote a comparison of The Hobbit and Beowulf. I do not wish to resurface that essay. However, I recently read The Hobbit for the fifth time, and over the summer was my second reading of Beowulf,* so I feel like revisiting the topic.

JRR Tolkien was a scholar of Germanic philology, specialising in mediaeval literatures such as those of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse worlds; his literary interests rarely ranged to the modern or the ancient, equally rarely to the literature of the Romance languages. His was the world of ‘Northernism’, the world of the Edda and the Volsunga Saga, the world of the Ruthwell Cross and Beowulf. I have talked here about how his work on Norse philology led to the production of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (here and here).

In the realm of Anglo-Saxon philology, Prof. Tolkien’s work included an essay on Beowulf called ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ and a book on Finn and Hengest published postumously with co-author Alan Bliss, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, drawing on an episode referred to in Beowulf. It was inevitable that when Tolkien decided to write his adventure novel for boys (as I heard somewhere he thought of The Hobbit) his other life and the other worlds where he dwelt would make themselves felt.

In this first post, ‘The Epic and the Episodes’, I shall turn our attention to Beowulf and The Hobbit and the nature of mediaeval literature. Our other posts shall be ‘The Monsters and the Magic’, and ‘On Hero-Stories’. In each of these blog posts, I shall show us how Tolkien’s fiction was indelibly touched by Beowulf and the wider mediaeval world, yet at the same time, no matter how ‘anti-modernist’ the mead-drinking, Old Norse-speaking, Roman Catholic philologist was, he was in many ways inescapably of his own age.

The Epic and the Episodes

A feature of most pre-modern (and much early modern) narrative literature of any length is its tendency towards episodic storytelling. This is visible in Gilgamesh and Homer, Virgil and — especially — Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Rather than telling a single, perfectly united story that builds in tension through a series of interrelated crises that are released at the climax and resolved by the denouement, episodic literature tells us a string of stories which often have no bearing upon one another or what comes next.

They are simply interesting tales in and of themselves that happen to be about the same people — even in The Aeneid, one cannot help but wonder what role the magnificent katabasis of Book 6 plays plotwise. Aeneas knows where he must go and what he must do without visiting Anchises, does he not?

If I remember Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy correctly, such episodes are a feature especially of oral literature (and we do not move into something new until we have thoroughly technologised the word). And Beowulf is, at some stratum, oral literature. Like Homer (whose Iliad and Odyssey you should really read, as I argue here and here), the Beowulf poet stands at the end of a long string of oral poets who have been telling these same stories over and over again, each changing things for the audience, each leaving his own artistic stamp. By the time we have it, a pagan tale has been Christianised. This is sometimes called ‘primary epic’.

Beowulf is certainly episodic. Grendel. Beowulf vs. Grendel. Grendel’s Mom. The Dragon. Along the way, we have the tale of Beowulf’s full-armour swimming contest. Now, Grendel through to Grendel’s Mom is part of the same story arc, of the sorrows of Hrothgar and Heorot.  Undeniable. Yet each story is still, in its way, inescapably its own little story. You could (and sometimes do) tell Grendel without his Mom; and often people tell both without the Dragon. The swimming contest is merely incidental detail; it tells us of Beowulf, but does not contribute to the action necessarily.

And so The Hobbit. The unexpected party certainly leads into the road that goes on and on. But then the Trolls. Rivendell. The goblins which lead to the wargs. The eagles as a rescue. Beorn. Mirkwood. Spiders. Elves and escape. Laketown. From Laketown to the death of Smaug. From the death of Smaug to the Battle of the Five Armies. Back again.

These all appear, as we look at them, to be episodes. They are simply the things that happen to our merry band of fourteen-fifteen as they journey to reclaim Erebor from Smaug the Magnificent. The connecting thread seems to be the desire to get to the Lonely Mountain.

But here we see Tolkien is a man of his age. Despite his insistence in the essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, these mediaeval episodes are connected together by a very modern literary element — the development of the character of Bilbo Baggins, Esq. In said essay, Tolkien rightly proclaims that the main business of stories is telling them. Stories, that is. The main business of stories is not the exploration and development of characters. This, he says, is often forgotten in English literature because our best-known and possibly greatest author was a playwright and poet. But the psyche of Hamlet, an appropriate focus for a play, is not the appropriate focus for a story. A story should focus on the story. On the narrative.

But there we have Bilbo. He starts his journey a very comfortable Englishman — I mean, hobbit, who has no inclination for adventures and is set in his ways with little about him of ingenuity or scheming or burgling. But as the adventure continues, Bilbo emerges as a savvy burglar and even the leader of the party. He schemes and uses his wit to get them out of jam after jam, his prominence really beginning with the spiders but reaching its peak in his dealings with the elf king and the Arkenstone.

Bilbo becomes an extraordinary hobbit.

Beowulf, however, is not the focus of his story. Not as a character, at least. He stands before Hrothgar an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He dies beside Wiglaf an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He is ever concerned for the well-being of his people. He is always courageous.

Yet do not chastise Beowulf and his poem on this account. Welcome to the world of ancient and mediaeval literature! This is not the point of the story. I believe Tolkien hit Beowulf on the head in ‘The Monsters and the Critics.’ The stories show us the changes, although the changes are never the focus. Beowulf stands before Grendel naked but for his God-given strength. Easily victorious. With a magic sword, he confronts Grendel’s Mom and almost dies. With a war-band and full armour, he meets the dragon and is slain at the moment he saves his people.

The lesson is to trust in the things of God, not the things of the world. This is the timeless about Beowulf, and it is not portrayed through psychology but through the story and through the episodes.

Do not fault Beowulf. It performs its function and produces its own art masterfully.

And so we see how Beowulf and mediaeval literature have left their mark upon The Hobbit at the macro-level, the level of narrative (narratology??). Tolkien writes us an episodic narrative, not unlike Beowulf, but with a modern twist in the growth of Bilbo Baggins as a protagonist and as a hero of small stature.

Next in this series: ‘The Monsters and the Magic’.

*NB: Besides this, I’ve read Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel twice and I’ve seen the film starring Christopher Lambert as well as the film Beowulf and Grendel starring Gerard Butler and the animated cartoon narrated by Derek Jacobi; I’ve also seen the stilt play, and I’ve read the novel Grendel by John Gardner.

Medievalism

For Christmas, I received a copy of the interesting and pleasant-to-read C. S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid. When I noted a copy lying about my PhD supervisor’s office, he remarked that he’s not sure it’s how he would translate the Aeneid. Indeed, neither am I.

But the thing I remarked is a very remarkable thing. Lewis’ translation, if you go through the various bits of introductory material provided by the editors, tries to stand in the same tradition as earlier, mediaeval translations of Classical literature. Lewis did not believe in trying to reproduce for the modern reader a similar effect as for the ancients — it was unattainable. He also believed firmly in rhythmic poetry, rhyme-schemes, and traditional English effects — neither foisting upon English a foreign poetry nor foisting upon ancient poetry modernist poetry.

Lewis was a medievalist of a sort that barely exists anymore. I don’t mean simply that he was an academic medievalist who sought to interpret and communicate medieval history, arts, and culture for today’s world, as several persons of my acquaintance are. I mean, rather, that he created new art inspired by and, at times, modelled on the arts and worldview of the medievals.

He was not alone.

Rossetti, 'The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Paradise'

Dorothy L. Sayers, one of Lewis’ friends (learn more about her here), translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into rhythmic, rhyming verse, something many modern translators would shudder at. Yet in so doing, she produced for the modern English reader a version of Dante that bears Dante’s content and communicates the beauty and force of the Comedy‘s poetry.

J. R. R. Tolkien, another of Lewis’ friends, created his world-famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is a modern novel that, I believe, draws much of its inspiration from the sagas and romances of the western Middle Ages — in a way, it is a mediaeval romance for moderns. One of his posthumous works, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (I’ve blogged about it here and here) takes the disparate bits of mediaeval Norse legend and puts them together in a coherent whole — not as a novel, as perhaps I would go about it, but as two narrative poems written in Old English versification (but in modern English), as well as a third that’s actually in Old English.

Another contemporary of Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers was (is?) Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of Narnia, who Lewis felt drew too prettily for her own good. Her art is self-consciously mediaeval, modelling itself upon the aesthetic of Anglo-Saxon and Persian manuscripts — a good example of what she can do with a broad canvas is her colourfully-illustrated Nicene Creed, I Believe.

In the years before these Oxbridge scholars were producing their novels and translations, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was creating art consciously in opposition to the trends of much of the high arts of the day, seeking to imitate the style and use of colour predominant in older, Late Medieval art.

Morris & Co Wallpaper

William Morris, a contemporary and friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, was a founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement; his company designed wallpapers, tapestries, objects, furnishings, textiles, and stained glass, much of which was inspired by a more ‘mediaeval’ aesthetic. Not only did he hire ‘mediaevalising’ Pre-Raphaelites as stained-glass designers for his company, he even produced Arthurian and chivalric poetry in old-fashioned English verse.

While much of today’s stained glass feels hopelessly (post)modern, Victorian and early-twentieth-century stained glass feels beautifully mediaeval. I recommended testing this hypothesis in any church old enough.

Beardsley, yet another Victorian, produced his masterful woodcuts for Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, clearly inspired by mediaeval illuminations.

A Beardsley Woodcut

Another example of Victorian mediaevalism was the decision to hold a tournament. But, being Victorians and not real mediaevals, they cancelled it due to rain. I hear that one can find images of them in their mediaeval garb with umbrellas over their heads.

What do we get? Who tries to produce contemporary art that wishes to be imbued by the spirit of a bygone age? Modern stained glass is helplessly modern. Illustration turns to my beloved Quentin Blake, which is fine, but why not have a Pauline Baynes in the ranks alongside him? Where has metrical verse gone? Or the wild rumpus of medieval romance? The true Romance of romance!

Alas, have we seen the last of such artistic practitioners in the ranks of the Inklings?

I hope not.

Since writing this post a couple of months ago, but being unable to post until now, I have read Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur, his modern English version of The Alliterative Morte Arthur, a Middle English alliterative poem. His translation is also in alliterative verse, and it brought joy and hope to my heart.

Q is a space fairy

I recently watched the “top 1o” episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (‘TNG’; as listed here).  Two of these episodes featured the character Q (played by John de Lancie).  Q is there at the beginning and at the end of TNG.  He is a being of great power, almost beyond limits.

He (and possibly the whole Q Continuum?) put humanity on trial for being a “dangerous, savage child-race.”  Q made the USS Enterprise-D fly all the way to the ‘Delta’ Quadrant where they encountered the Borg (the journey at full speed would take several decades; Q brought them there in a moment).  Q could make people travel through time (or seem to), create scenarios right before their very eyes that seemed very real, snatch people right off their starships — basically, mess around with how human beings interacted with what, for us, is a stable space-time continuum.

Q is also responsible for Lt. Worf’s line, “I am not a merry man!” (see it here!)

But what is Q?  I think he’s a fairy.  Trek will probably tell us that he is a highly-evolved being with powers to control things and perceptions that we, too, may some day develop.  I think, though, that he’s a fairy.  The things he does are basically magic, after all.

But not only is Q essentially a magical being, he is also capricious.  Star Trek likes to have evolved beings with, in the words of Capt. Picard in Star Trek: First Contact, “an evolved sensibility.”  Q lacks this.  But why should he mirror a more highly evolved version of human ethics and good behaviour?

Fairies don’t.

And by fairies I mean those “dancing companies of Longaevi who haunt woods, glades, and groves, and lakes and springs and brooks; whose names are Pans, Fauns . . . . Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs . . .’*  I mean the Sidhe.  I mean elves.  I mean leprechauns.  I mean the Gentry, the Children of Dana, Puck, Auberon, kelpies, wood-sprites, brownies, the Dagda, the man with the thistle-down hair and so on.  Not “little twinkly guys” who live in your garden.  Beings of great power who can perform, often with ease, what we consider “magic”, but — if you recall Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, they don’t really get what we mean by that.

Fairies are capricious.  They do things for their own realm, for themselves, not for us.  For example, to resuscitate a young woman recently deceased, a fairy may take her pinky finger.  This finger will give her a link to the realm of the Sidhe, and she will spend her nights dancing in an endless ball, never sleeping.  Or someone accidentally stumbles into a fairy ring.  He dances, has a jolly good time, finally escapes the dance, and finds it’s 200 years later.  Poor soul.  Or they’ll turn your head into that of an ass.  For fun.

They don’t operate the way humans do.  Fairies operate by their own ethics, morals, and so forth.  They sometimes play tricks on us — “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”  They sometimes use us for their own ends.  They sometimes exact a terrible price for something that seems relatively trivial to us.  They sometimes do great, magnificent things for us for no apparently good reason or benefit to them.  They operate by their own whims.  They are, then, whimsical.

Q plays games with Capt. Picard.  He says that this enables him to see how humans act much better than confrontation, and gives insight mere observation never can.  He also, as mentioned, puts humanity on trial.  He does things to Picard to show Picard insights into his own life.  He is capricious.  He is whimsical.

Q is a fairy.  A powerful being who is not God/a god who does things to humans for his own pleasure and for reasons humans do not always perceive.  He is whimsical.  He is a space fairy.

*CS Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 122, quoting Martianus Capella.