Túrin: “Simple Twist of Fate”, or “Freewill”

Yes, I referenced both Bob Dylan and Rush in the title of this essay. Fair warning: that may very well be the essay’s high point. After all, philosophers have been debating—without a certain answer—the nature of free will for centuries, and I’m unlikely to solve it here. (Spoiler alert: I don’t really try.) But it’s such a fascinating subject in the context of Professor Tolkien’s legendarium—and, especially, in the life of Túrin Turambar—that I cannot help but offer my thoughts on the matter.1

If you’ve been listening to the podcasts, you know that Shawn and I have recently released our Túrin Turambar trilogy of episodes. In the course of preparing for those recordings, I wanted to explore the way that Tolkien addressed the apparent paradox between the way he presents ‘fate’ and the exercise of free will — both among Men in general, and in Túrin in particular. Continue reading

The Road

I’ve probably admitted to this on the podcast at some point; if not, let this serve as my confession. Way back when I first started reading Tolkien as a teenager, I… uh… I often used to skip—or, at best, merely skim—the passages of verse.

Maybe this was my instinctual reaction to poetry as an uneducated youth; perhaps it was just my impatient teenage self anxious to just get on with the story. I don’t know; I can hardly remember those years anymore! In point of fact, it probably has something to do with my more prosy nature — though, like Mr. Baggins, I’m not quite as prosy as I like to believe.

As you’ll soon hear in our special Tolkien Reading Day episode next week, I’ve come a long way since then. And so, as we look forward to this year’s Reading Day theme of “Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to take an extended look at one of the repeating verses found in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Continue reading

Doom, doom, doom.

If you’ve listened to the podcast enough, you’ve probably heard Alan and I make the bold claim that J. R. R. Tolkien never, ever made an accidental word choice in his writing.  Every single word was chosen quite deliberately, we like to believe, and so there’s no shame in delving deep into every single word choice to determine exactly what was in the Professor’s head at the moment of writing.  Of course, while we can’t know for sure, this is likely an exaggeration — surely even Tolkien occasionally chose words “just because” — but we’ll never know for sure, and we’ll keep on saying it. One thing that we do know for sure is that Tolkien understood words, and the history of words, well enough to know which one was right for his intended purpose; and that if he wanted to, he could use their histories and multiple shades of meaning to great effect.

One of our favorite words to delve into is doom.  Continue reading

Inspiration

Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of The Lord of the Rings is familiar with the “found manuscript” concept at the heart of Tolkien’s mythology: the idea that the books of the Middle-earth legendarium were not inventions, but translations of the Red Book of Westmarch, penned by the Hobbits of the stories themselves.  It’s easy to see why this concept would be attractive to Tolkien. The claim, however tongue-in-cheek, that his stories were miraculously preserved firsthand accounts of prehistoric events — not just the flights of fancy of some bloke who taught Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College — lent his work a mysterious air of historicity like that of the most beloved real-world myths, from the Trojan War to the Arthurian cycle. In addition, setting his stories in the distant past of our primary world helped Tolkien in his effort to make “a Secondary World which your mind can enter,” (“On Fairy-Stories,” Tree and Leaf, p. 37) a story which the reader can remain inside as long as they choose to.

But it seems very likely that Tolkien believed his stories truly did come from somewhere beyond himself.  In several of his letters, Tolkien is careful to distinguish his artistic process from mere invention Continue reading

Hope and Despair

By now, you’ve likely noticed that there are certain themes that Tolkien touches on frequently in the Legendarium that I’m quick to notice and talk about during the podcast — or even here in our Ponderings. Not surprisingly, then, this is another one of those moments, as I finally have a chance to write briefly on one of the most recognizable themes in Tolkien’s works: hope and despair, and the choice we have to embrace one or the other. We’ll even touch a little on the fulfillment of hope in the eucatastrophe. Admittedly, we we’ve been spending the last year or so discussing The Silmarillion in the podcast, and there are plenty of moments of hope and despair in this work. But today I want to focus on two characters from The Lord of the Rings — Denethor and Théoden. Continue reading

The Moment (or, What’s in a Blade?)

I like to think of myself as well rounded, and I try not to have a single “favorite” anything. I love most flavors of ice cream, I look forward equally to Halloween and Christmas, and depending on my mood I can listen to anything from classical to classic rock. But as much as I try to be above the concept of favorites, I have to admit that I have a favorite passage in The Lord of the Rings. I call it “the Moment.”

Every time I read The Lord of the Rings, I start counting pages to the Moment as soon as I pick up my well-worn paperback of The Return of the King. Each time the Rohirrim appear, my heart races faster because I know the Moment is getting closer. By the time the Riders reach the Pelennor Fields, my heart is pounding. I can’t put the book down. The Moment is coming. Continue reading

Boromir’s Greatest Victory

Those of you who have been paying attention during the podcasts so far have probably noticed that the passages I am often drawn to (or at least the ones I’m drawn to discuss) are the ones that strongly illustrate some of Tolkien’s most recurrent themes: hope and despair, temptation and fall, isolation and teamwork, and so on. Well, today’s Prancing Pony Pondering is no different. Today, I want to look at the theme of humility and pride by looking into the last moments of the life of Boromir.

We begin, then, where Book Three of The Lord of the Rings (in The Two Towers) begins, with Chapter 1: The Departure of Boromir. Continue reading

Turning Point

In my previous essay for the Prancing Pony Ponderings series, I wrote of Frodo’s meeting with the Elves of Gildor Inglorion’s company in the Woody End in Book I of The Lord of the Rings as an initiation into the mythic world, and found in that topic an excuse to count pages and words. This time around, I turn to another transition point later in the story; and not to be outdone by myself, I am not only counting pages, but I have also prepared a line graph. (In my next Prancing Pony Pondering, I intend to use integral calculus to prove that Tom Bombadil is Eru Ilúvatar.¹)

There are approximately 1145 pages in the standard paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings – including appendices, indices and forewords – making the midpoint of the text the chapter encompassing pp. 562-573: Book III, Chapter X, “The Voice of Saruman.” Continue reading

Elessar

In this Prancing Pony Pondering, I want to take a look at just one example of how deep and rich Tolkien’s backstories often were. As he pointed out in On Fairy-Stories, when an author can do this well,

[T]he story maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.

In Chapter 8 of Book Two of The Lord of the Rings, “Farewell to Lórien,” the Fellowship are finally (and reluctantly) getting ready to depart Lothlórien after their time of renewal and mourning — and they have just drunk the cup of parting with Galadriel and Celeborn. Galadriel then commences her generous gift-giving, beginning with a beautiful sheath that she gives to Aragorn for Andúril. Continue reading

People of the Stars

When considering the place of the stars in the Middle-earth legendarium, two things likely come to mind: the figure of Varda/Elbereth, the Queen of the Stars who looms large in the pantheon of the Valar; and the name by which the Elves refer to themselves: Eldar, literally the “People of the Stars,” a name related to the Quenya word for star (elen) and whose roots lie in the exclamation ele, the first word spoken by the Elves when they awoke at Cuiviénen (The Silmarillion, p. 358).

But the Elves are not the only people associated with the stars; in fact, the legendarium began with a completely different “person of the stars.” Tolkien’s first mythic sub-creation that would become part of the later legendarium was the poem “The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star” in 1914. Though it later served to connect the myths of the Elder Days with those of the Second and Third Ages through the character of Eärendil the Mariner, the concept of the traveler to Faërie with a star on his brow would bookend Tolkien’s literary career, repeated in the last work Tolkien would see published in his lifetime, Smith of Wootton Major, in 1967. Continue reading