As always, dear readers, welcome.
In my last two postings, I talked about what Tolkien had once referred to as favorite passages in The Lord of the Rings, they being the departure of the Fellowship from Lorien and the sound of the Rohirrim horns at cockcrow.
I certainly agreed with JRRT about the horns, and had more to say about their owners, but I have another favorite (and very melancholy) one.
In a pause during their final approach to Mordor, Frodo and Sam are quietly talking, and, in mid-speech, Sam says:
“ ‘Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards…’
‘Why, Sam, [Frodo] said, ‘to hear you makes me laugh as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted…’
‘Now, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, ‘you shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.’
‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am. We’re going on a bit too far. You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: “Shut the book, now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.” ‘ “ (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)
This is not only melancholy, but also ironic: we’re reading from that very book when we read these words: the Red Book of Westmarch.
(This is actually one of Tolkien’s models, the Welsh Red Book of Hergest, which dates from the 1380s and contains, among other things, the cycle of mythological stories called the Mabinogi. For more about the book see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPHQGx5QAzo For an annotated translation of the whole cycle, see: https://www.mabinogi.net/translations.htm If you don’t know them, I would add here Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, based in part upon elements of the cycle, but with their own wonderful creativity.)
As Tolkien explains it, this:
“…most important source for the history of the War of the Rings was so called because it was long preserved at Undertowers, the home of the Fairbairns, Wardens of the Westmarch. It was in origin Bilbo’s private diary, which he took with him to Rivendell. Frodo brought it back to the Shire, together with many loose leaves of notes, and during S.R. 1420-1 he nearly filled its pages with his account of the War.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, “Note on the Shire Records”)
“the history of the War of the Rings” is, of course, again, the book we’re reading, The Lord of the Rings, and here JRRT is playing games with the idea that what we’re reading is:
a. a translation (he being the translator and editor)
b. real history
and not a long, complex novel which he has created over many years. What interests me at the moment, however, is the very written nature of all this. Although Sam mentions “songs or tales…put into words, you know, told by the fireside”, he also talks about “a great big book with red and black letters” and Frodo, trying to be realistic, then closes this book, implying that the story has become too dark for anyone to want to read further. But we do read further, of course, and, before or after, we add The Hobbit, which Tolkien informs us is to
“…be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself…” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, 1 Concerning Hobbits)
At base, then, of at least one part of the Red Book, which is, eventually, a whole collection of volumes—five, we’re told (“Note on the Shire Records”)—is “Bilbo’s private diary” and I’ve always wondered what was meant by that. Does Tolkien intend us to understand that, throughout the period in which Bilbo and the dwarves were involved in their quest, he kept a journal? This doesn’t seem possible, as one wonders when and where he might have kept it—everything which Bilbo and the dwarves had brought with them from the beginning of their journey had been taken by the goblins when they were captured and, even if such a thing had survived (although Bilbo never is seen writing in it and, in fact, it’s never mentioned), surely his adventure on the barrel would have meant the end of it.
(by JRRT himself)
And we should add to this Tolkien’s remark, “Frodo…nearly filled its pages with his account of the War.” Are we to assume that Frodo also kept a diary?
All of this is just a fiction about a fiction, of course. Even if both Bilbo and Frodo had kept diaries and they had somehow miraculously survived even the journey to Mount Doom, it’s past belief that all of the detailed material in the texts came directly from them—how, for example, would Frodo have known about the conversation among Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in their race to save Merry and Pippin? Or, for that matter, the conversation among the orcs they were pursuing? (Although, at a stretch, Merry and Pippin might have provided some sense of the latter.)
Thinking about this fiction of a fiction made me imagine something like the following, however—and I suppose I should post a “WARNING: SILLINESS AHEAD!” sign here.
When Odysseus returned to his home on Ithaka, in the 19th year since he’d left for Troy, it wasn’t to a peaceful retirement. Over 100 suitors were spending time in his home, consuming his food and drink and attempting to persuade his wife that they were each an excellent replacement for her husband—whom they considered long dead (or pretended to).
The house-cleaning which followed would eradicate those pests for good,
but some of their families would, not surprisingly, still need dealing with. Before Odysseus and his small band of son, father, and slaves would, with Athena’s help, settle that matter, however, he was granted a moment of reunion with his wife, Penelope.
(another Alan Lee)
Before any amorous behavior, the two exchanged stories of what had happened to them in the long years of their separation. (I suspect that Odysseus may have glossed over certain details of the year he spent at Circe’s
or the seven years with Kalypso.)
Considering that they had 19 years of experiences to recount to each other, it’s no wonder that Athena kindly lengthened the night for them. And, as they lived in an oral world, they would have been quite at home listening to and telling such long stories—or would have been even singing them, as did the two aoidoi, or professional singers, Phemios and Demodokos, who appear in the poem. And, in real life, it was generations of nameless aoidoi who actually created the later composite we know as the Odyssey.
Suppose, however, that Odysseus, like Frodo, had written the poem himself, having somehow managed to keep a diary through his entire voyage home—what would a page of that diary have looked like?
Yesterday, I took my ship over to the mainland, where some of us visited a cave which was full of cheese. Being hungry, we helped ourselves. But then the owner came home. He was very large and had only one eye, right in the middle of his forehead.
Although I reminded him that the hospitality which we looked for was a sacred right, protected by Zeus, he proceeded to eat a number of my crew, having assured me that his people (Cyclopses) weren’t in the least afraid of the Gods. Fortunately, I had brought along a really good vintage to serve at lunch and this creature had a weak head, so, after he got really hammered, we sharpened his walking stick and put out his eye with it. Ouch!
Then we stole his sheep and ran away.
It rained late in the afternoon.”
Thanks, as always, for reading.
If you’re planning to visit a new friend for lunch, be very certain that you know what’s on the menu,
And remember that, as ever, there’s