Several Tolkien Questions

Hello AlaSTARS (I'm sticking with that name -- fight me)

I finally finished book 3 of LOTR (and I'm hoping to finish catching up before the next TABAgain), and I have a few questions that I don't want to jam up the live discussion, so I'll ask them here.

1: To what extend to Gandalf and the other Wizards know what they are (Estari [I think])? Do they remember their "life" before coming into Middle-Earth? I have so many questions about these guys, and I'm hoping once we get to the Silmarilion many will be answered.

2: What is the history of naming swords? It's a pretty common convention across fantasy (as far as I've read), but I was wondering about its origins. Are there real world examples that inform the fictitious? The only one I can think of is Excalibur, but that's not really "real world".

3: Did Tolkien ever teach is own creation in his classes? Like did he ever say "read the chapter on the Rohirrim and compare it to Anglo-Saxon culture (minimum 5 pages)"?

4: Where does the name "Narsil" show up? I don't remember it in Fellowship, but is it the Appendices, Silmarilion, etc.?

Hope to see you all Thursday


  • CaptainKearns, might I continue your list?

    5: Picking up on 1, since the Istari are sent to Middle-earth specifically and solely to aid in the fight against Sauron, and Sauron's specific and sole hope lay with recovering the One Ring, why does Gandalf not immediately try to determine whether every magic ring, and therefore Bilbo's specifically, is the One?

    6: Tolkien says somewhere (apologies for not having the reference) that LotR is about one race who are immoral but wither (Galadriel's "long defeat") and another who are instead blessedly mortal. Death of the author notwithstanding, how solid a case can be made that Frodo's quest is mere window dressing for this more central theme?
  • Ooh, good deep questions! Let me see...

    Gandalf and the other Istari have an awareness of their nature, and apparently an ability -- at least in Gandalf's case -- to hear the echoes of the music of the Ainur in much the same way as Elrond can. In Unfinished Tales, we're told: "For it is said indeed that being embodied the Istari had need to learn much anew by slow experience and though they knew whence they came the memory of the Blessed Realm was to them a vision from afar off, for which (so long as they remained true to their mission) they yearned exceedingly."

    (Of course, Gandalf is the only one who definitely remains true to his mission, so his connection to his pre-Istari life may be unique among the wizards by the end of the third age?)

    Gandalf's attitude to the One Ring is a complicated one, and we might be tempted to question his somewhat casual approach, but we have to remember the context -- it's been three thousand years since the ring disappeared, and Saruman, the greatest of Gandalf's order and one of the leading authorities in ringcraft, says that it has definitely been permanently lost. Moreover, there are "many Elven-rings" in the world, as Gandalf says to Frodo; there's no reason for Gandalf to speculate that Bilbo's magic invisibility ring is the One Ring, at least until the evidence becomes overwhelming. He has suspicions, but he doesn't know for sure until Frodo's fire reveals the inscription on the ring itself. 

    Moreover, it isn't quite accurate to say that the Ring is Sauron's only hope of victory -- he's going to do just fine in the conquest and subjugation of Middle-earth without the Ring, at least to the extent that the last bastions of Elves and Men will fall. 

    Naming weapons is a common trope in myths from all over the world, from Excalibur to Mjolnir to Naegling to Kusanagi and so on. The giving of a name to an object is intended to elevate the object, and bestow upon it a special significance. In fantasy literature -- as in real life -- we name weapons because the convention is that we name weapons in myth. Speaking of which, we get the name Narsil in the Council of Elrond, when Elrond himself is talking about the host of Gil-Galad and the Battle of Dagorlad. 

    As far as I know, Tolkien didn't teach any of his own material during his time at Oxford, and tried to maintain a certain professional separation between his academic and authorial careers. It's an engaging idea, though, to think of him teaching his own stories!

    Lastly, GaalDornick, I think you're right about Frodo's quest. As we've seen throughout TABAgain, everything is pointing to the mythic frame that Tolkien has established: the world will diminish, magic will fail, everything will become mundane. The Fourth Age is the Age of Men, and though Frodo's quest will end in a kind of victory, it will not prevent the fading of the world. We must remember, though, the description of the Ainulindale, in which the second theme is "deep and wide and beautiful, but blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came". You can't have beauty without sorrow in Tolkien's secondary creation, and so the fading of wonder from the world goes a long way toward preserving our sense of the beauty of that wonder. 

    Wow -- this got long. Great questions, thank you!
  • @Alastair, et al.

    Some Ring-related questions:

    1. Usually, merely being in the Ring's presence is insufficient for one to be tempted into taking and using it. It's safe in the Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlorien--when it is around hundreds (thousands?) of potential takers. Sauron is weakest there, but does the Ring also work only on individuals when alone or in small groups (e.g., Smeagol and Deagol, Bilbo and Gollum [if that counts], Boromir and Frodo)?

    2. Usually, the Ring's merely being on Frodo's person is insufficient for him to be tempted into using it. Are Hobbits the only race who can be Ringbearers without using it? Aragorn, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Faramir all refuse even to bear the Ring. Is that because they know how difficult it is to separate bearing from using? Boromir clearly could not.

    3. Relatedly, isn't it just a little weird that all these evil beings would be unable to resist the Ring--bearing and using would collapse--but, though he's pained by it, Elrond, etc., don't worry about Frodo's fortitude in resisting? After the breaking of the fellowship, Aragorn and Gandalf worry more about the Ring's seized more than they do about Frodo's own corruption.

    4. Contrary to 1, the Ring's merely being in the presence of Smeagol was sufficient for him to take it. Insofar as Smeagol was a Hobbit (or closely related), contrary to 2, some Hobbits cannot be Ringbearers without using it. Is Smeagol a Hobbit(ish) outlier? Finally, given Smeagol's corruption, contrary to 3, shouldn't Elrond, etc., worry about Frodo's fortitude in resisting?
  • To piggy-back on @Alastair's answers – great questions, @CaptainKearns
    2: What is the history of naming swords? It's a pretty common convention across fantasy (as far as I've read), but I was wondering about its origins. Are there real world examples that inform the fictitious? The only one I can think of is Excalibur, but that's not really "real world".
    There are two named swords in Beowulf, which is probably a proximate source, as well as many in Norse legend, plus other traditions. Interestingly, both named swords in Beowulf fail!

    3: Did Tolkien ever teach is own creation in his classes? Like did he ever say "read the chapter on the Rohirrim and compare it to Anglo-Saxon culture (minimum 5 pages)"?

    Tolkien published LOTR very close to his retirement (4 years before), so there was not a long period when he was already a literary cult superstar and also still a working professor. Also, the subjects he taught at Oxford were very much tied to a set syllabus (and still are), and the English faculty was VERY conservative, so although in theory he as a very senior academic he could have lectured on whatever he wanted, it just Was Not Done to assign other books, modern books, and especially popular fantasy books. I do wonder about the experience of some of his last students, though, who had the opportunity to study with him right at the end of his career after LOTR was published.
  • edited February 23
    Yes--good questions. Here's my attempt to answer them:
    I think Gandalf--and presumably Elrond as well--have the ability to look into the "hearts of men." They both mention having an inkling that Frodo's bearing the Ring was somehow meant to be. I imagine the faint music of the Ainur that they perceive lets them hear "karmic" harmonies that give them both a limited prophetic ability and a guide to righteous and/or wise conduct. Other characters--Faramir, Aragorn, and Frodo himself--evince these as well.

    Gandalf and Elrond have a "foreboding contest" in regard to Merry's and Pippin's joining the Fellowship. Gandalf--as he can't help mentioning in Minas Tirith--gets it right, although Elrond was right about the Shire's peril. Elrond also foresees the inescapable tragedy that will arise from the Quest of Erebor, something that Gandalf is suddenly sure is necessary.

    I view the Ring as Sauron's tool for introducing discordancies into the music of the Ainur. It distorts one's ability both to predict the future and to direct one's conduct. Its power waxes and wanes under circumstances, e.g., the Nazgul heighten these dissonances. Individual susceptibility, itself subject to "harmonic detection," varies by individual.
  • @Variag_of_Khand This helps. I'm hoping that when Wizard Dad @Alastair recovers, he'll comment (on the podcast is fine!) about how exactly he sees the Ring working. It just struck me, as per my 1-4, that it's not all that clear.

    This much however I think is clear. Because the Ring's power increases the closer it gets to its Lord, no one (save maybe Tom) could resist it in Barad-dûr. So Frodo cannot be faulted. Regardless, we should not forget--even though almost everyone (in the story and out) does--that Frodo's quest fails, even though the quest succeeds.

    I understand why this has to be the case. For Tolkien, the Ring must undue itself: evil is inherently unstable. Likewise, Frodo's failure necessitates the intercession of grace (Illuvatar is the ultimate creator of all, Sauron a merely subcreator). Finally, it completes Gollum's character arc.

    Still, I would like to hear more about Frodo's failure on its own terms. @Alastair hopefully will have a lot to say about this when we get there.
Sign In or Register to comment.