The Dark Enchantment of Túrin and Niënor

The Dark Enchantment of Túrin and Niënor

Essay by Linda Echo-Hawk and Roger Echo-Hawk

In June of 2016 we held the premiere meeting of the Tolkien Reading Circle.  We sat down together in our Hobbit Hole and pondered how The Children of Húrin encircles Tolkien’s entire legendarium.  This was his last major creative project, and it is rooted in his first creative project, “The Story of Kullervo.”

Moving into the narrative at our next meeting, Ivan observed how a story is like a dream and readers need to be drawn in.  Feeling that the first chapter of The Children of Húrin was more of a chronicle than a story, we wondered how Tolkien would have transformed it had he lived to finish it.

Over the next ten months we traversed Tolkien’s unfinished vision of the impassioned ambitions and hopes and defeats of Elves and Men in Middle-earth.  We sat down on a mountaintop with Morgoth; we mulled the malice of Anglachel; we pondered the Elvish conquest of Beleriand; and we felt wise to make friends with fairy-like Nellas.  Then we took a break under a cheerful autumnal equinox to celebrate our Hundredweight Harvest Holiday.

When the Tolkien Reading Circle returned to Beleriand, we joined for a time with Túrin’s outlaw biker gang; we visited Mîm’s home on Amon Rûdh; we held aloft magic Fëanorian lamps to admire crystal fountains; at the great dwarrow-delving of Nargothrond we became mesmerized by Glaurung’s dark gaze; we trekked with lonely Túrin through snowy passes into Dor-lómin; we followed Túrin’s men as they carried Niënor up the Rainy Stair to the Shuddering Water… All these adventures and more we found in the pages of The Children of Húrin, as can be seen in our meeting reports from those days.

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April 13, 2017 Tolkien Reading Circle

At our April 13, 2017 meeting, we focused on the last three chapters of The Children of Húrin, giving thought to how this book compares to Tolkien’s other visits to Middle-earth.  The story does not culminate in what Tolkien described as “eucatastrophe.”  It is instead a more purified exploration of moral doom – a dark story best read with friends, we decided.  It is also a good story to read slowly, a couple chapters at a time. This brings out the strength of the succinct poetic imagery, the deft character portrayals, and the wonderfully wrought dialogues in the narrative.

It is possible to savor the powerful writing without being overwhelmed by the story.  But the story is grim, darkly textured.  The final chapters unfold gloomy suicidal realizations, not happy heroic endings.  We pondered the degree to which Tolkien intentionally took aim at portraying the solemn poetics of a doomed world – was he exploring his own inner experience in some way… a forbidding depressive state of mind?

Nicole reminded us that the wider literary context of this work must be relevant to understanding Tolkien’s creative energies.  To what degree is Túrin like Beowulf, she wondered.  Beyond the Kalevala, the tragic events of The Iliad and the aura of Ophelia could well have added some of the dark tones that we encounter in The Children of Húrin.

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April 13, 2017 Tolkien Reading Circle

Some members of our group also pondered the quality of Tolkien’s portrayals of women in this book.  If this was his final major journey into Middle-earth, why do so many women characters give in to sorrow and suicide?  The excellent – and all too brief – renderings of Melian and Nellas left us wishing that Tolkien had done more with them, giving them more to do, bestowing more narrative weight on their shoulders.

Andrea felt that the power of Tolkien’s writing redeems the bleak themes of the book and its final plunge into an unforgiving chasm.  Tolkien’s mythic tales of the First Age can prove difficult for some readers.  Several members of the Tolkien Reading Circle reported negative initial responses to The Silmarillion and to the tale of Túrin in particular – these unfinished writings provide the background mythic history for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

In the pages of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s nuance at detailing this historical backcloth imparts a sense of depth that is notable even when readers skip over the poetry where it often appears.  Readers inevitably compare the differing tonal and thematic essences of his three novels, and this range of qualities makes them difficult to compare.

Tolkien did not keep writing the same kind of book in his lifelong labors as a novelist.  The power of his magic may inspire in many readers the wish for more of the same, but when we set foot in Middle-earth, our journeys become unexpected.  And that makes the experience multi-dimensional, full of glimpsed vistas, fragmentary and mysterious.  Ultimately, to a notable degree, the richness of Middle-earth as an invented world flows from the diversity of its narrative texturing.

Presenting this tale as an independent project is a debatable choice by Christopher Tolkien.  His father evolved the Silmarillion legends together as a coherent project, and although The Children of Húrin stands alone as a novel, the absence of any quality of “eucatastrophe” is notable.  The great denouement of the cycle of legends – the happy ending – was always designed to occur later in the scheme.

It is evident that The Children of Húrin is important because it establishes the dark magic that is merely referenced in The Lord of the Rings.  We experience first-hand the doom uttered by Morgoth.  We get entangled in an anguished narrative uttered by a desolate cosmic sorcerer who bends the world to his sullen will.  This kind of tale is difficult and unpleasant, just as we find in the weary trek of Sam and Frodo across the wastes of Mordor.

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“Túrin and Niënor” by Steamey

The tragic fate of Túrin and Niënor leaves us in the midst of an unrelieved catastrophe.  This is merely an epic moment that Tolkien designed to help perfect the coming eucatastrophe that he crafted in all his fantasy writings.  And this crucial element is missing from Christopher Tolkien’s presentation of the story.  We leap off the final edge of this story and no eagle seems willing to save us.  It is proper to sense a narrative truncation here, bereft of the dreamlike bittersweet magic of Middle-earth that we treasure, an enchantment of the imagination where despair gives way to a glimpse of fabled realms of hope.

With the forthcoming issuing of an “independent” presentation of the legend of Beren and Lúthien in June 2017, we close the pages of The Children of Húrin and make ready to open the pages of a concurrent tale that will reveal more of JRR Tolkien’s intended vision for his legendarium of the First Age.  This will hopefully provide some of the light that is missing from the dark matter of the tale of the doom of Túrin and Niënor.  The Tolkien Reading Circle looks forward to continuing this journey!

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Keeping It Real: Mundane Facts in Fantasy Settings

Keeping It Real: Mundane Facts in Fantasy Settings

Essay by Katy Colby

Fantasy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible things.”  This may be why we can enjoy Fantasy so easily; it is, by definition, impossible.  Wile E. Coyote paints a cave on a solid rock wall.  Road Runner speeds through the painted hole.  The coyote follows, and, predictably, splatters himself on solid rock.  We laugh, turn off the TV, and get on with the day.  Nothing in this story touches us.

“Wile E. Coyote” (Chuck Jones, for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes)

Then, there are the other Fantasy stories.  These are the ones that hover at the fringes of our lives like whispering shadows.  They offer insight, pose questions, and brighten what might otherwise be a mundane day by opening a world of color and texture for our enjoyment. They lend strength, treat us to laughter, and begin friendships with characters that share their lives with us, however short those lives may be.  These stories, even if they don’t involve swords or sorcery, are what I like to think of as High Fantasy.  They are the ones that make us think.  They are the ones that last.

What divides common Fantasy from High Fantasy?  I am not a literary scholar, but I have a theory formed from my own observation.  High Fantasy stories are the ones set in a world so real that it seems ordinary to us “normal” people, except for the one or two little magical bits.  Nothing in the telling makes us want to check reality.  We can accept it all and go with the tale, eager to see what happens next.

Let me illustrate this by contrasting two versions of a classic fantasy story.  The first version is the animated short Little Red Riding Hood, as told by Walt Disney.  In this story, a young girl is sent to her grandmother’s house with a basket of treats.   As she walks through the dark woods, she meets a wolf and tells him where she is going.  The wolf races ahead of her, breaks in to her grandmother’s house, eats the grandmother, and dresses in the nightgown and cap his victim was wearing.  The girl arrives, enters the house, and is nearly eaten by the wolf before a woodsman hears the commotion and rescues her.

“Little Red Riding Hood” (Silly Symphony, Walt Disney Pictures, 1934)

This story is easy to enjoy, but hard to take seriously.  For one thing, did Grandmother look enough like a wolf for the ruse to work?  That’s assuming that the wolf could kill and eat Grandmother without damaging her nightgown and cap, of course.  Then again, Red Riding Hood was willing to talk with a wolf in the forest, and the wolf could converse in human language.  Never mind the illogic of a parent sending a small child on an errand through a dangerous forest, all the while assuming that staying on the path would protect the child from danger.  Good grief!  The Reality Check bounced a long time ago.  By the time we see the wolf in Grandmother’s bed, we are so soaked in the unreal that we cannot truly share the experience with the characters.

The second version of the story is given in the film Red Riding Hood (2011).  In this tale, a village somewhere in northern Europe is terrorized by werewolves.  The heroine, at odds with her father over the man she wishes to marry, goes to stay with her grandmother in an isolated cottage.  She discovers that her father is, in fact, a werewolf.  So is her grandmother.  So is her lover, the woodsman who rescues her from her enraged father when he is in the form of a huge wolf.

“Red Riding Hood” (2011 Warner Bros Entertainment)

In the second, more adult, version of the story, everyone in the village knows there is danger in the woods.  The wolves do not talk.  The heroine realizes immediately that something is wrong with her grandmother.  Instead of staying to discuss the size of Grandma’s eyes, she does the sensible thing and runs for her life.

This version of the story is not muddled by a number of contradictions in what we consider normal in the natural world.  In Red Riding Hood, the world shown is so real that the fantastic elements of the story dance at the edges of our sight, half-realized but not entirely real.  That is, until the moment a “normal” character begins to shift into a werewolf and we can only watch, frozen, in shock.  The realistic world the story is set in makes the unreal believable.

Over the next year, with your indulgence, I plan to explore some of the realities exposed in our favorite fantasy worlds.  My essays will look at the real-world necessities our favorite characters need, and fit the real-world facts into the fantasy settings to show how the mundane bends the fantasy into a more believable shape.  My first effort will cover clothing worn in the pre-industrial world, and I hope you’ll stick with me.  Reality can be more fascinating than a dragon’s hoard.

“Little Red Riding Hood” (Vasylina, Deviantart)

Cover image: “Little Red Riding Hood” (Smlshin, Deviantart)

White Witches in Middle-earth

White Witches in Middle-earth

Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk

In the “olden times” of Cornwall, England every village had its own white witch.  A midnight ceremony bestowed upon them the power to heal and to “ill-wish,” as well as the magical ability to ride ragwort stems.  These witches wore rings with blue stones – rings made by snakes breathing on hazel-twigs.  And they could transform themselves into toads and hares.

These interesting details about white witches were set down during the 1880s by a Cornish folklorist named MA Courtney.  Just a few years before, in an 1873 book on the traditions of West Cornwall, William Bottrell discussed the doings of white witches, pellars, charmers, wise women, enchanters, conjurors, and a “white wizzard.”  I get the impression that many of these terms were interchangeable, referring to a general class of tradition keepers with special knowledge of herbs, healing rituals, and esoteric powers of mind.

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Throughout the 19th century male and female white witches could be found across the English countryside.  In my 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland, I touch on white witches in writings by Sir Walter Scott, Walter Skeat, and Sabine Baring-Gould.  And I suggest that in 1940-1942 JRR Tolkien made a decision to weave traces of this heritage into the cultural fabric of Middle-earth, conjoining his wizards with folk tradition pertaining to white witches.

Pondering his wizards sometime in late 1940, Tolkien settled on white as Saruman’s special color, electing him to serve as “chief of the White Council” – casual mention of such a council had materialized at the end of The Hobbit.  Now Tolkien gave the group more definition and depth and narrative duties.   And a year later in late 1941 Tolkien invented Galadriel and set her on this White Council.  Not long after inventing Galadriel, Tolkien decided to kill Gandalf the Grey and replace him with Gandalf the White.

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“Galadriel” by Incantata

When we first meet the Elf Queen Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings we find her surrounded with the words “white” and “wise.”  Tolkien probably accepted the idea that “witch” and “wizard” and “wise” had intertwined roots.  Noting the widespread assumed link between “witch” and “wise,” Michael Dilts has more recently questioned that construction, as well as efforts to connect the term with other Old English terms for “divination” and “bend.”  He prefers the suggestion by Calvert Watkins that the old forms of “witch” may refer instead to “the wakeful one, the watcher.”

Dilts makes a fascinating argument.  But it is apparent that Tolkien in his day accepted an association between wizard and wise.  Merging the invisible roots of these words together with vanishing British tradition about white witches, Tolkien elevated his wizards into transcendent figures of otherworldly power and majesty – while reserving the word “witch” for the leader of his Ringwraiths.

It is reasonable to suggest that when Tolkien sat down to write The Lord of the Rings, he was then the foremost academic expert on British folklore.  As I show in Tolkien in Pawneeland (p. 310-318), the white witches of Skeat and Baring-Gould are arguably evident in Middle-earth.  But it is less clear that Tolkien ever encountered the Cornish white witches – we can identify only a few wispy traces of MA Courtney’s witches.

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Joan the waxwork witch, Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, Cornwall

It may not be coincidence in The Fellowship of the Ring that Gandalf threatens to turn a too talkative Sam into a toad – one could read this as a subtle reference to Cornish white witchery.  And in The Two Towers when Wormtongue calls Galadriel a sorceress, Tolkien has Gandalf softly sing a poem about her, referring to the color white: “White is the star in your white hand[.]” And in The Return of the King when we notice Elrond’s “ring of gold with a great blue stone,” perhaps we are glimpsing the forgotten Cornish white witches and their magic rings mounted with blue stones.

Investigating the sources that shaped Tolkien’s White Council, others typically make mention of notable literary white witches in the novels of H Rider Haggard and CS Lewis.  But when Tolkien summoned the lords and the lady of his White Council, it is reasonable to sense that he was doing something more than referencing purely literary imagery, and that he was evoking misty British historical tradition.

In the end, it is difficult to weigh with any specificity the influence of any of these sources – a wealth of wizards and witches in European literature complicates such a task.  Even so, we can assume that at least a few white witch echoes came to Tolkien’s hand from the British countryside as he conjured the magic of Middle-earth.

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“The Witch” (Baba Yaga) by Ines-ka

 

At the Corners of the World

At the Corners of the World

A Meeting of the Tolkien Reading Circle, February 23, 2017

Tonight a wintry snowfall descended on Longmont, and the Tolkien Reading Circle hosted a special guest speaker at the Hobbit Hole.  Tiffany Beechy is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado, specializing in Anglo-Saxon studies.  She shared with us her perspective on Tolkien’s creative mingling of mythological essences, and how this idea is in fact reflected in Anglo-Saxon England.

Tiffany began by pointing out how Rohirrim names and language are rooted in Anglo-Saxon culture.  Edoras, Théoden, and Éomer are just a few examples of words borrowed from Old English to colorize Rohan.  She also mentioned a touching Peter Jackson film character, the youth “Haleth” in The Two Towers – the Old English version of this name is hæleþ, meaning “hero.”  So in the scene when Aragorn asks his name and gives him a word of encouragement on the eve of battle, the youth is really a young hero.

Tolkien framed the Rohirrim as a horse culture.  He borrowed detail from actual horse cultures, but he also referred to Anglo-Saxon tradition.  Tiffany read a passage from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the tradition of Hengest (“Stallion”) and Horsa (“Horse”) arriving on the shores of Celtic Britain and meeting Vortigern.  Scholars today see a more gradual settlement process, but this tradition does make reference to horses.

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Hengest and his brother Horsa are met by Vortigern at Ebbsfleet in Kent southern England. Artist: Mark Taylor

Tiffany told how Tolkien is sometimes dismissed in academic English studies as a kind of presumed fascist ideologue for his project of idealizing a glorious nationalistic past.  But this framing of his Middle-earth novels does not do justice to his actual cultural project, which often evokes a cultural blending that conflicts with the fascist project of asserting forms of cultural purity.

This cultural mingling can be seen in the historical storytelling we find in records set down in Anglo-Saxon literature.  Citing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Tiffany reminds us that the merging of Christian ideology with Anglo-Saxon culture was a syncretic process, a hybridization of concepts rather than a replacement.  But this ultimately did bring about an eclipse of tradition.

Everything written about Anglo-Saxons was produced by monks since the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons left no written literature, only rune sticks.  Bede has a passage that has the Chief Priest Coifi requesting King Edwin’s arms and stallion “to destroy the idols” of Northumbria.  The symbolic transition of culture thus involved horse imagery. Tiffany read an excerpt from her translation of “The Dream of the Rood” – we borrowed from it for the title of this blog.  The poem illustrates how the Anglo-Saxons were more likely to accept this new religion if Christ could be treated more like an active hero rather than a passive victim.  Tiffany also touched on the Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, a monument featuring runes, Latin inscriptions, religious imagery, and references to “The Dream of the Rood.”

All enjoyed a lively and enlightening evening.  Errors in this description of the meeting are due to the wandering minds of the Hobbit Hole scribes!

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Tiffany Beechy

Tolkien’s White Fire Sword

Tolkien’s White Fire Sword

Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk

Tolkien fandom must surely be one of the largest and most diverse fan groups in the world.  People who do not share religious ties, ethnic identities, politics, or languages can still share their appreciation of Middle-earth, and this diversity has helped to foster a culturally inclusive tone in Tolkiendom.  A minor segment of this fandom, however, has always preferred a more exclusive agenda.  Recent world events have suddenly cast the edge of the spotlight on this subculture.

Planning a fantasy battle at Helm’s Deep, JRR Tolkien invented a new captain to serve as a heroic savior of Anglo-Saxonish Rohan.  Wrestling with a name for this hero, Tolkien at last settled on Erkenbrand.  It is apparent that he repurposed the second part of this new name from the original name for Aragorn’s sword, Branding, which, as Christopher Tolkien reminds us, came from Old English brand, meaning sword.  Tolkien described Aragorn’s weapon in the early drafting of the Helm’s Deep chapter as “a white flame” – a sword that “flashed like white fire.”

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Surtr: “The Devil Giant with the Flaming Sword,” John Charles Dollman, 1909

Erkenbrand is also the adopted name of a recently launched Dutch white nationalist “alt-right” organization.  This pro-race activist organization has sought to establish common cause with their American intellectual cousins.  And the result is that Erkenbrand has heartened American proponents of white nationalism.  This kind of cultural appropriation of Tolkien’s legacy is not new.  As one 1998 article shows, Tolkien’s fantasy writings have long held appeal among pro-race white separatists.

These white pride organizations sense pro-white racial messaging in The Lord of the Rings, but they seem to represent a small minority in Tolkien fandom, and they have wielded very little evident influence on the general culture of Tolkiendom.  Little support for a pro-race view of Tolkien has come forward in scholarship.  In fact, over the last several decades a steady trickle of writings on Tolkien and race has given rise to a settled scholarly consensus which rejects the notion that Tolkien held racist attitudes.  The implication is that he would frown on white pride interpretations of his novels.

This consensus suffers from serious shortcomings.  Relying on a handful of statements that denounce Nazi anti-Semitism and the Nazi handling of Nordic mythmaking, Tolkienists too often ignore, minimize, or dismiss Tolkien’s actual record of literary racial usages.  My 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland features extended essays that explore the evolving manifestations of the real world traditions of race in Middle-earth.  It is clear that Tolkien intentionally deployed problematic racial imagery in The Lord of the Rings.  Pointing out shortcomings in the Tolkienist consensus, we can nevertheless conclude that it reflects a general distaste for the segregationist aspirations of white pride nationalism.

But given the convoluted and muddled nature of race in both concept and practice, awkward moments are to be expected.  In late 2015, in the course of denouncing criticism of Tolkien as a putative Nordicist, Michael Martinez recommended a 2003 article written by a man who that same year reportedly told an interviewer that “his group supported neo-Confederate groups in the United States.”  It is obvious that Martinez hoped to exonerate Tolkien from charges of harboring fascist tendencies – the implied message was that white pride ideologues should not see Middle-earth as a racially sympathetic realm.  During the year that followed, however, a new pro-race white nationalist group donned Middle-earth imagery.

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A burning sword rests at the center of Erkenbrand’s official sigil.  This can be read as a likely Tolkienian reference to brand, sword – Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull noted in a 2005 publication that the name Erkenbrand is a likely fusion of two Old English terms that mean “precious” and “fire-brand” or “sword.”

The fact that some white pride nationalists invoke Tolkien should bestow a sense of import on the scholarly project of examining Tolkien’s statements on race, his literary usages, and relevant social contexts.  When we consider the ways that race gets produced in the world and the choices made by culture-makers like JRR Tolkien, we also make space to affirm humanistic values that can challenge pro-race nationalism and promote the unraveling of racism in the world.

Reviewing Henry Gee’s The Accidental Species, biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks has made an important point about the moral momentum of scholarship in recent decades: “Gee’s historical survey of paleoanthropology is accurate, but hardly avails itself of the work that historians of the field have been grappling with of late. For example, one can readily lionize Raymond Dart and Robert Broom as proper champions of Australopithecus, as Gee does, but only at the expense of ignoring Dart’s writings about race (Derricourt 2010) and Broom’s writings about angels (Richmond 2009).”

While I don’t feel much interest in scouring the lives of culture-makers to spotlight things we might despise, I do appreciate insights that add necessary depth and perspective to valued iconic cultural productions.  To the degree that Tolkien’s morality aims at affirming the logic of our social values, it is useful to inquire into the moral nature of Tolkien’s uses of race in his novels.  In early 1956 Tolkien set forth his thinking about how questions of moral character shaped The Lord of the Rings.  Noting the existence of “conflicts about important things or ideas” he argued for “the extreme importance of being on the right side…”  And faced with conflicts between “right and wrong, or good and evil,” he felt that “the right will remain an inalienable possession of the right side…”

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“Zankantou Sword” by Sol Gravion Megazord

We must each determine for ourselves the “right side” of the social production of race and racism.  Judging from the many well-populated facebook Tolkien pages, the vast majority of fans feel attracted to Middle-earth for reasons that have nothing to do with bonding through racial pride.  But when we find some fans extracting multicultural values from the books, and we find others extracting messages of racial separatism, we must somehow sort out what is happening.

To apply a moral lens to matters of race and racism in Middle-earth, it would be helpful to have access to relevant critical inquiry.  In promoting the study of Tolkien’s uses of the real world traditions of race, we necessarily focus on the status of race in the world.  What choices did Tolkien make in his era?  What racial meanings did he inscribe in Middle-earth?  Do we see the ideology of race as a social construction to embrace and uphold, or do we see it as something to question and reject?

Tolkien’s fascination with glowing fiery weaponry most directly pertains to storytelling in which people make the heroic choice to battle potent evil in the world.  When we wrestle with the facts of Tolkien’s use of racial social narratives, we are defining our own choices, our own preferences, what we deem “heroic” and the right side of history.  We are reminding each other that it does matter what kind of meanings we attach to treasured mythological and cultural icons.

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“Gandalf and Balrog,” by Suc-of, 2013

At the Roots of Wellinghall

At the Roots of Wellinghall

Essay by Linda Echo-Hawk

When Roger told me that Tolkien had originally called Treebeard’s Wellinghall “Fonthill” and that it was based on a real place, I wanted to know more. Christopher Tolkien made brief mention of this history in a note in The Treason of Isengard.  It turns out that Fonthill – meaning spring hill – is an estate in Wiltshire, England, and it was owned by William Beckford from 1770 to 1823.

Beckford wrote a fantasy novel of his own, called Vathek, published in 1786, and in this novel he had his own version of Wellinghall, a mountain with gardens and thickets and four fountains. Vathek, the hero, drinks the water of these fountains, “of which he could never have enough,” from “capacious bowls of rock crystal.” When a stranger gives Vathek a healing potion he “instantaneously found his health restored, his thirst appeased, and his limbs as agile as ever.”

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Treebeard’s Ent-Draught has a very similar efficacy: “The effect of the draught began at the toes, and rose steadily through every limb, bringing refreshment and vigour as it coursed upwards, right to the tips of the hair.” Like the fountain of youth, the water contains restorative properties.

The similarity of these details does not escape me. Had Tolkien read Vathek? The shared elements do suggest that. And this in turn suggests that Tolkien toyed with making a direct reference to the book, using “Fonthill.” But he discarded that idea and decided to adopt a more subtle homage to Beckford.

For those who want to know more about Vathek, fantasy author Nyki Blatchley has posted a fascinating description of the book and its place as a classic of fantasy literature.

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Angus McBride “Treebeard”

The Spider’s Springs

The Spider’s Springs

Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk

The first time I noticed traces of Pawnee mythology in Middle-earth I dismissed the notion.  For many years it seemed a mere curiosity.  When I finally took a serious look, the evidence immediately grew into something that couldn’t be ignored.  It has since been a surprising journey, tracing the evidence, wondering what to make of it.

The most recent outcome of my research involves a project that Tolkien labored over late in his life.  In those days as he carefully crafted the forever unfinished details of his Silmarillion legends, it is evident that he consulted a Skidi Pawnee tradition titled “The Moon Medicine,” a hilltop adventure at a place called Pawnee Rock.  I have explored this in a post at Tolkienland, and at Pawneeland I have set forth how the Pawnee tradition evolved into a tale of great cultural significance for the Pawnee people.

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Pawnee Rock circa 1870s, George Wittick

It is no doubt just a coincidence that Tolkien drew on a story about the erosion and invasion of Pawneeland for a story about a Dwarf whose homeland was overwhelmed and renamed by invading Elves.  This coincidental similarity is curious, but it is also interesting to ponder the differences.  The Pawnee story is a hopeful account of the benevolent mystery of the Moon, of survival against insurmountable odds.  Tolkien was not interested in retelling this optimistic Skidi story.  He decided instead to draw from it to write a dark tale of men doomed by their evil choices, cursed by the machinations of a malevolent satanic divinity.

As far as I know, Tolkien had no interest in the esoteric dynamics of Pawnee mythmaking.  In this instance, his use of “The Moon Medicine” most likely had to do with shifting a character named Mîm the Dwarf away from association with Richard Wagner and Nazi Germany.  In my essay on this topic at Tolkienland I have drawn attention to Tolkien’s Mîm and Wagner’s Mime, and I have identified a series of convergent details between “The Moon Medicine” and Tolkien’s tale.

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Arthur Rackham, 1911, Siegfried and Mime

I suspect that what drew Tolkien’s attention to “The Moon Medicine” was mention of Spider Woman.  My research reveals that Tolkien drew on Skidi Pawnee traditions about Spider Woman as early as circa 1914 for the creation of his first monster, a spider set in a fantasy version of Vinland.  Evidence for a secret connection between the spider imagery of Pawneeland and Middle-earth can be found in The Book of Lost Tales and The Hobbit and in an almost invisible reference in The Lord of the Rings.  These hidden conjunctions receive detailed analysis in my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland.

My argument rests on comparative textual analysis – that is, assessing the degree to which echoes can be read as deliberately extracted inspiration versus coincidental independent invention.  Some potential conjunctions are difficult to evaluate.  A good example of this can be seen in how spring-water appears in association with the Skidi Spider Woman and Mîm’s Dwarf-mansion.  At Amon Rûdh Tolkien set a “spring” that flowed like “white thread” out of a wall.  And a few pages later Mîm the Dwarf paused to compare himself to a spider.  This echoes an endnote in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee specifying that Spider Women served as the source of mountainside “springs which furnished sweet water.”  Did Tolkien encounter this comment?  Did it inspire the white thread spring in his story?

In my Tolkienland essay on the topic I did not list this example as a conjunction because it seemed a little too subtle.  It is a conjunction, of course, but for it to be reasonably read as a borrowing, Tolkien would have had to scan the endnotes closely to find that comment about Spider Woman and springs.  This is possible, but I feel doubtful that he read the Skidi traditions closely, studying them, making notes.  To be sure, it isn’t very clear exactly how he went about borrowing textual materials, and we know that he drew inspiration from quite a lot of mythological narratives.

Whatever we might make of Tolkien’s creative strategies, we can readily identify a handful of more notable parallels between Pawnee Rock and Amon Rûdh.  These are diverse; some are unusual.  I conclude that coincidental independent invention is less likely than intentional borrowing.

What we make of history and myth deserves to matter.  The nuanced inner geography of our storytelling situates us in the world, nurturing our sense of wonder and our selfhood.  “The Moon Medicine” is a story of survival, and its telling once mattered in Pawneeland.  We can also appreciate the artistry of JRR Tolkien and his view that the production of mythic legendry should matter.  Finding our way in life and making meaning from that, we need many kinds of insights; we need the magic of unexpected journeys in our storytelling.

My related Pawneeland essay: “The Moon Magic

My related Tolkienland essay: “Mîm and the Moon Medicine

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