As ever, welcome, dear readers.
The Odyssey is full of omens, usually involving birds and one of them a raptor,
(eagle, symbol of Zeus)
(hawk, symbol of Apollo)
the other a victim, usually domestic.
Each time that combination appears, it’s interpreted as meaning that Odysseus is on the way home and bringing vengeance, which, of course, eventually, he does.
In these cases, the future is being graphically—if symbolically—offered. On one occasion, however, Odysseus seeks out information about the future by visiting the Otherworld and hearing the words of the seer Tireisias.
And this visit symbolizes for me something which was a standard practice in the Classical world: the pilgrimage to what was believed to be a sacred spot to learn something of what was to come. Odysseus, in the Odyssey, lying about himself and his arrival on Ithaka, even mentions that he has gone to such a spot—Dodona, where he would have been to the little sanctuary where an oak grove grew.
(eventually whittled down to one tree)
This was an ancient site, frequented as early as the 14th century BC, but which came to a sad end at the end of the 4th century AD, when it has been traditionally said to have been closed by the order of the emperor Theodosius (347-395AD),
along with religious sites all over the Greco-Roman world. (In recent years, this view of Theodosius and his actions towards paganism have been contested, both by historians and archaeologists. If this interests you, there are a couple of useful WIKI articles here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodosius_I ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_pagans_under_Theodosius_I )
The main reason for closing such places as Dodona and the more prominent Delphi, shrine of Apollo,
whenever it happened and by the order of whom, was to remove competition from what was, increasingly, a Christian empire, but another, lesser reason, I suspect, was that the future was believed to be a closed book, its events known only to the incoming deity, and attempts to find such events out were to be considered blasphemous, at best.
Certainly the most famous Judeo-Christian attempt, that of King Saul of Israel, who tricks the Witch of Endor (even after Saul had exiled wizards and “those that had familiar spirits” from Israel) into bringing up the spirit of the prophet Samuel, ends very badly, with Saul being told by Samuel that his army will be defeated and that he himself will be dead (he kills himself after the defeat—see 1 Samuel, Chapters 28, Verses 7-20 here: https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/1-Samuel-Chapter-28/ )
This attempting to learn the future from the dead came to be called necromancy, from a combination of two Greek words, nekros, “corpse” and manteia, “the art of prophecy” and therefore its practitioners were necromancers (in the Middle Ages this necro- root became confused with Latin nigro-, “black”, creating nigromancy, “prophesying from dark things”, which, considering what happened to Saul, is not surprising).
Necromancer brings us to The Hobbit, which I’m about to teach again this spring.
Gandalf is initially very vague about leaving the dwarves and Bilbo, finally saying only “I have, as I told you, some pressing business away south…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 7, “Queer Lodgings”). In fact, it’s only by accident that Bilbo ever finds out what this business was:
“…but every now and again he would open one eye, and listen, when a part of the story which he did not yet know came in.
It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.” (Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”)
As he himself confessed, JRRT was at first unclear as to the identity of this figure, as he wrote to W.H. Auden, explaining the genesis of The Lord of the Rings:
“That of course does not mean that the main idea of the story was a war-product. That was arrived at in one of the earliest chapters still surviving (Book I, 2). It is really given, and present in the germ, from the beginning, though I had no conscious notion of what the Necromancer stood for (except ever-recurrent evil) in The Hobbit, nor of his connexion with the Ring.” (letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 216)
It was quickly clear, however, that readers were intrigued by the mention of such a figure. As early as October, 1937, not a month after the date of the original publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien can write to Stanley Unwin: “One reader wants fuller details about Gandalf and the Necromancer.” (letter to Stanley Unwin, 15 October, 1937, Letters, 24) And, in 1939, he is still commenting about “the readers young and old who clamoured for ‘more about the Necromancer’” (letter to C.A. Furth, 2 February, 1939, Letters, 42)
Although much about who this character might turn out to be may have been vague to JRRT in 1937, it’s also clear that he early made a connection between him and Sauron, as he says in this letter to Stanley Unwin:
“Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s [sic] fairy-tale dwarves, got drawn into the edge of it—so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.” (letter to Stanley Unwin, 16 December, 1937, Letters, 26)
But this still leaves us with a bit of a puzzle: if a necromancer is one who obtains knowledge of the future from the dead, when do we ever find out that Sauron does this? The simple answer is that we don’t—but, this earlier incarnation (his last, in fact, once he loses the power of the Ring), is not his first.
The long structure and chronology of his creation is far beyond the scope of this posting, but, working backwards from what Christopher Tolkien called “The Second Version of The Fall of Numenor” (I’m guessing post-1936—see CT’s introduction, “The Early History of the Legend” in The Lost Road and Other Writings, 7-10), we find this passage, where refugees from the ruined Numenor have migrated to Beleriand (“…that land in the West of the North of the Old World, where Morgoth had been overthrown…” 31):
“And they came at last even to Mordor the Black Country, where Sauron, that is in the Gnomish tongue named Thu, had rebuilt his fortresses.” (31)
Now, taking that name “Thu”, we can move back to 1928, when Tolkien was working on a long poem, “The Lay of Leithian” (to be found in The Lays of Beleriand, 183-392). In Canto VII, we find this stanza:
“Men called him Thu, and as a god
In after days beneath his rod
Bewildered bowed to him, and made
His ghastly temples in the shade.
Not yet by men enthralled adored,
Now was he Morgoth’s mightiest lord,
Master of Wolves, whose shivering howl
Forever echoed in the hills, and foul
Enchantments and dark sigaldry
Did weave and wield. In glamoury
That necromancer held his hosts
Of phantoms and of wandering ghosts,
Of misbegotten or spell-wronged
Monsters that about him thronged,
Working his bidding dark and vile:
The werewolves of the Wizard’s Isle.” (Canto VII, lines 2064-2079)
As Christopher Tolkien comments in his notes to this canto, Tolkien kept shifting the name of Thu, replacing it with “Gorthu”, but also with “Sauron”, suggesting that, even 8 years before the appearance of the name in the second draft of The Fall of Numenor, he had the name available as a substitute for Thu. (278) And here we see not only the name, but that word, “necromancer” (line 2074).
Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is frighteningly powerful, but one power he doesn’t seem to employ is the ability to raise the dead to learn the future from them. Could it be, however, that, in 1937, although Sauron can call upon no ghosts, the ghost of an earlier power haunted his creator, even as his creation’s name remained the same?
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Avoid those with unstable nomenclatures,
And, as ever, remember that there’s
I’ve been thinking about the rhythm and rhyme scheme of this “Lay” and I wonder if JRRT had been required to memorize S.T. Coleridge’s (1772-1834) “Christabel” at an earlier time in his life? Take for example, this stanza—although you’d have to add the next to get one of Tolkien’s length:
“The lovely lady, Christabel,
Whom her father loves so well,
What makes her in the wood so late,
A furlong from the castle gate?
She had dreams all yesternight
Of her own betrothèd knight;
And she in the midnight wood will pray
For the weal of her lover that’s far away.”
(In that same letter to Auden, mentioned above, JRRT claimed that he hadn’t learned English literature at
school, but this was such a well-known poem by the time of his childhood and memorizing poetry for
public performance was so common—you can see the ghost of it when Sam produces his “party piece” on
the Oliphaunt—that I would suggest that Coleridge might have been an unconscious influence.)