Dear readers, welcome, as ever.
You probably recognize the illustration above, Hokusai’s (1760-1849)
“Great Wave Off Kanagawa” from “Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji”, (c.1830-1833). It seemed a very appropriate illustration for this posting, which is about very high tides and worse. The posting itself began when I reread this:
“At length Ar-Pharazon listened to this counsel, for he felt the waning of his days and was besotted by the fear of Death. He prepared then the greatest armament that the world had seen, and when all was ready he sounded his trumpets and set sail; and he broke the Ban of the Valar, going up with war to wrest everlasting life from the Lords of the West. But when Ar-Pharazon set foot upon the shores of Aman the Blessed, the Valar laid down their Guardianship and called upon the One, and the world was changed. Numenor
was thrown down and swallowed in the Sea,
and the Undying Lands were removed for ever from the circles of the world. So ended the glory of Numenor.” (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, I “The Numenorean Kings”)
I’m always interested in where Tolkien’s ideas come from and, although he himself related this to the myth of Atlantis (see the letter to Naomi Mitchison, 25 September, 1954, Letters (197-198), If you’ve grown up in the sort of culture, both religious and general, in which Tolkien grew up (and so did I, for that matter) probably your first thought is: “Hey—it’s Genesis, Chapters 6-8! The story of Noah’s Ark and the flood!”
(a Victorian children’s toy—pious people thought that somehow play was like work and so children were not allowed to play with their usual toys on Sunday—instead, this toy was brought out)
which is wonderfully illustrated in a series of mosaics in the late 12th-century cathedral of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily. Here’s Noah and family building the Ark
and Noah gathering the animals
and, hoping that the flood is finally over, Noah is sending out a dove as a scout—and the dove returns. The Latin text, expanded, reads: “Noah sent a dove and it returned with the branch of an olive.” (This is actually rushing things a bit—Noah sent the dove out twice and it was only on the second trip that it came back with the twig.)
(We can also note the gross realism of including several drowned people in the scene.)
I think, however, that we can see two more potential influences upon JRRT which might lie behind this story of a flooded world.
First, JRRT began his academic life as an aspiring Classicist, which means that, probably fairly early on in his training, he had encountered Ovid’s (43BC-17AD) story of the only survivors of a Greco-Roman flood, to be found in Book I, lines 163-415 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
(This is Arthur Golding’s translation of 1567, which was the one which Shakespeare must have thumbed through, looking for usable poetic material.)
Jupiter, disgusted with the Age of Bronze (and with the particularly loathsome Lycaon—for more on him see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycaon_(king_of_Arcadia) ),
floods the earth, leaving only two humans, Pyrrha and Deucalion.
(Noah and family’s repopulating the now-drying earth is well-known, being done by more or less human—and animal—means, but what happened to recreate the people of Ovid’s world is so surprising that it seemed to me worth a little detour here.
Despairing that they will be the last of their race, Pyrrha and Deucalion consult the goddess Themis (whose temple has survived, although more than a little worse for wear) and she tells them (381-382):
et velate caput cinctasque resolvite vestes
ossaque post tergum magnae iactate parentis!”
“Leave the temple
And cover your heads and loose your bound robes
And throw behind you the bones of your great mother!”
(Parens can be masculine or feminine, but the adjective modifying it is feminine, so clearly the goddess here means “mother”.)
Or, if you’d prefer Arthur Golding’s version:
“Depart you hence: Go hide your heads, and let your garmentes slake,
And both of you your Graundames bones behind your shoulders cast.”
(If you’d like your own copy of Golding, here’s W.H.D. Rouse’s 1904 facsimile for you: https://sourcetext.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/golding_ovid.pdf )
At first, the two are stumped: disturbing a parent’s bones is a form of sacrilege and these are pious people (which is why they’ve survived). Then it occurs to Deucalion that Themis is speaking in metaphors (393-394):
“magna parens terra est: lapides in corpore terrae
ossa reor dici; iacere hos post terga iubemur.”
“Our great mother is the earth: I think that the stones of the earth
Are meant to be [her] bones; we are bid to throw those behind us.”
“I take our Graundame for the earth, the stones within hir hid
I take for bones, these are the bones the which are meaned heere.”
They begin picking up stones and tossing them and, very soon, humans are back.
Probably this is understood as a form of religious magic and Pyrrha and Deucalion are not supposed to see it at work, which is why:
1. they cover their heads, which is what Romans do at religious ceremonies
2. they throw the stones over their shoulders, rather than toss them in front of them. In a way, it reminds me both of the story of Cadmus and the dragon’s teeth, by which he acquired help in founding Thebes, and Aeetes’ challenge to Jason to sow dragon’s teeth which turned into warriors which Jason was then supposed to fight, both stories appearing, among other places, in the latter part of Apollonius’ Argonautica, Book 3.
(This is a 1908 illustration by Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966, and depicts Cadmus at work.)
As for loosing their garments, perhaps it is related to birthing customs? When Hera wants to delay the birth of Herakles, Lucina, a childbirth goddess, sits with her legs and fingers crossed to stop the process (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 9, lines297-300). So might loosing what was bound on Pyrrha and Deucalion allow for the free “birth” of people from the stones?)
Beyond Classics, and back to our main topic, we know that Tolkien had an abiding affection for Welsh (“I did not learn any Welsh till I was an undergraduate, and found in it an abiding linguistic-aesthetic satisfaction…” he wrote to W. H. Auden in June, 1955—Letters, 213) and there’s a medieval Welsh legend, involving two characters, named Dwyfan and Dwyfach, who survive their own flood, when a lake monster, the Afanc, inundates the world and the two, along with two of each species of animal which they’ve loaded into a boat (the boat being called Nefyd Naf Neifion—“Celestial Lord Neptune”?), are the only survivors. The story appears in a medieval collection called Trioedd Ynys Prydain, “The Triads of the Island of Britain”, printed and translated by William Probert as an appendix to his The Ancient Laws of Cambria, 1823.
“13. There were three awful events in the Isle of Britain. The first was the bursting of the Lake of Floods, and the rushing of an inundation over all the lands, until all persons were destroyed except Dwyvan and Dwyvach who escaped in an open vessel; and from them the Isle of Britain was re-peopled.” (The Ancient Laws of Cambria, page 379)
This should be read in conjunction with part of Number 97:
“the ship of Nwydd Nav Neivion, which brought in it a male and a female of all living things when the lake of floods burst forth…” (page 466)
(For your own copy of the text: https://archive.org/details/ancientlawscamb01probgoog )
Latin or Welsh were two languages with which Tolkien had significant experience, but is there yet another possible influence? In 1873, the Assyriologist George Smith (1840-1876)
published an essay in Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology (here it is: https://sacred-texts.com/ane/chad/chad.htm ) which later formed part of book which caused a great deal of controversy at the time. Entitled “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge”, it included a translation of this cuneiform tablet–
The tablet was dated to the 7th century BC and formed part of the story of the ancient Mesopotamian hero, Gilgamesh. This particular tablet carried a text which described a Noah-like figure, the boat he built, his collecting of animals to stock the boat, and the flood which that boat then survived.
(Here’s a copy of the very book for you: https://ia800900.us.archive.org/27/items/chaldeanaccounto00smit/chaldeanaccounto00smit.pdf If you want to look at the translation of material relevant to the flood, see pages 263- 273. The tablet itself is in the British Museum and you can read more about it at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_K-3375 )
That controversy was in the Victorian world, almost 20 years before Tolkien’s birth, but as an active scholar—and active Bible-reader (there are 19 references to it in Letters and JRRT was even once involved in the production of the Jerusalem Bible—see his self-deprecating comment to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, February, 1967, Letters, 378), perhaps it wouldn’t seem surprising if he were aware of an ancient Near Eastern parallel to the familiar story of Noah—although from his reactions in his correspondence, which ranged from the frustrated to the downright hostile, to some of the parallels readers and critics attempted to draw between his work and other matters, I will not suggest that there might be any connection between the questing hero of a Sumerian text and certain hobbits…
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Consider what creatures you might leave off your ark,
And remember that there’s always
If you enjoy the Hokusai, you might also enjoy Henri Riviere’s (1864-1951) turn-of-the-century “36 Views of the Eiffel Tower” which was obviously influenced by the earlier Japanese work. A useful website is: https://armstrongfineart.com/blogs/news/henri-riviere-the-thirty-six-views-of-the-eiffel-tower And here is one of the set—