I’ve always been particularly fascinated by the feast of the Annunciation, which we celebrate today. It’s calendrical importance cannot be overstated. You might think that it’s on March 25th because that’s nine months before Christmas, but it’s actually the other way around. The Nativity is on December 25th because that’s nine months after the Annunciation, which was thought to have taken place on March 25th because, according to widespread tradition, so did all the other major events in salvation history: the creation of Adam, the binding of Isaac, the Passover, the Crucifixion…. March 25th was even used sometimes to mark the change from one year to the next–in England, it served this purpose from 1155 to 1751 (though January 1st was still called New Years’ Day (it sounds confusing, but then, so is our having to negotiate the legal, academic, financial, and liturgical calendars, none of which begin at the same time)).
Oh, and–not coincidentally–March 25th marks the fall of Sauron due to the casting of the one ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Accordingly, here are a few scattered thoughts on Tolkien, elves, and, in a way, the Virgin Mary.
After writing recently about Tolkien’s “Ainulindalë” (here), I actually went back and re-read the Silmarillion (for the first time in too many years) and was surprised not to be disappointed. It’s no Commedia, to be sure, but it still has a certain excellence, and even a certain moral seriousness. I suggested previously that it’s too nostalgic, and I stand by that, but it’s a self-conscious and self-troubling nostalgia–a poetics of nostalgia, if you will.
The category of “elf” does a lot of the poetic work here. For the first half of the Silmarillion the elves stand in for humanity, which hasn’t yet appeared on the scene. They travel to Valinor, the land of the Valar (i.e. archangels); they create beautiful jewels, chief among them the silmarils; they accidentally assist the theft of the silmarils by Morgoth (the devil); they pursue him to Middle-Earth to retrieve them; they establish kingdoms, war against evil, and wait. And one of them weds a Maia (angel) and has a daughter. Then humans arrive and take center stage. Elves become kind foster-fathers or hostile fathers-in-law, loyal or treacherous companions, attained or unattained objects of romantic desire. That these are elves, not men, is incidental to the literal story.
In a way, that adds to its poetic significance. The point is that men own nothing, love no one, and live nowhere, until they receive them from the elves. Love, especially, comes from the elves. The human is always the man, the elf, always the woman. Elves become for men what the angels were for elves: a feminine beauty almost but not quite forbidden. Whereas the beauty of the angelic realm really is forbidden to men, as the human kingdom of Numenor (Atlantis) demonstrates when it tries to invade the Valinor and so sinks into the ocean. Soon after the fall of Numenor, the elves begin vanishing into the West; now the Numenoreans play the role of the elves to the rest of humanity.
So angels, elves, Atlanteans, each in turn fade away. As they fade they become the object of their successors’ desire, while their predecessors move from desirable liminality to prohibited sublimity.
The work the Silmarillion most closely resembles may be Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One might think that one shouldn’t force too much unity on what’s ultimately an anthology of vaguely related stories, but in a way, the literal connections between the stories are secondary. Both offer abbreviated accounts of a myriad of mythological stories from the beginning of the world up to the end of legendary history (and a bit beyond), but the account is always at the service of the artistry.
And it’s always about the artistry, even when it doesn’t seem to be; about the power of art and its danger. The Silmarillion has little practical to say about politics, romance, or economics, despite centering on the loss and recapture of three invaluable jewels, the love affairs of ten or twelve elves and men, and the rise and fall of many kingdoms. The jewels are art as it can be seen and held, the cities art as it can be lived within, the elf-maidens–perhaps the most important of all–art as it can be loved. These are the Silmarillion‘s key categories: not flux and stability, as in the Metamorphoses, but light and dark, possession and loss, entrance and exclusion, fecundity and envy.
There’s dangers here, of course. Aestheticized politics can turn into place- or race-worship, aestheticized economics into thing- or mammon-worship, aestheticized romance into sex- or passion-worship. How can beauty not lead to idolatry?
Perhaps it is idolatry, but Tolkien’s fascinations look less like Israel prostituting itself to lustful baalim than, well, like a Catholic praying to the Virgin Mary. Tolkien certainly thought so. He even borrows traditionally Marian emblems to characterize the beloved elf-maidens. One suspects he’s not thinking of the girl whom an angel unexpectedly visits, but rather of the girl whom Joseph sees and desires, the girl he can’t relate to the way he expected because that angel visited her. Under the former aspect, the Annunciation announces the entrance of God into the world; under the latter, it announces the transformation of part of the world’s beauty into something immaculate.
It’s surely difficult to see the Silmarillion as a Christian work without seeing it as specifically Catholic. Just as many Protestants think Catholics worship the Virgin Mary, they would, if they worked out his poetic logic, conclude that Tolkien idolized beauty, or, at least, held it in uncomfortably high esteem. Few Protestants believe in the immaculateness or the perpetual virginity of Mary; one doubts whether those who don’t could make complete sense of the importance Tolkien ascribes to March 25th.
It’s well known that Tolkien disliked C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Most people (e.g. this article) suggest that he thought Narnia both too much of a mythological pastiche and too abstractly allegorical. Both sound accurate, but I suspect there a third reason: Narnia excludes the dialectic of desire and prohibition. Its beauty is never morally dangerous save when actively evil. Narnia has cute talking animals, sure, but nothing like Tolkien’s innocently fey elf-maidens; instead, it has the White Witch. Aslan takes the place of Christ, but there’s no Virgin Mary in sight, and certainly no St. Joseph. Neither does Narnia have any silmarils, or any Gondolin; possession of magical artifacts is never a point of contention, and cities may be in ruins, but they’re never destroyed from within. Even if Aslan is “not a tame lion,” Narnia’s enchantment has nevertheless been tamed. And so, Tolkien may have believed, it fails to enchant.
Some say that the best way to study a poem written in a foreign language is to translate it. I spent a few hours this weekend testing out that theory on two of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ballads, “Der Fischer” und “Der Erlkönig,” that is, “The Fisher” and “The Alder-king”; I submit the fruits of those labors here.
Both of these poems were written early in Goethe’s career, when he was around thirty years old (though he had already written the best-selling The Sorrows of Young Werther and numerous other works). They pretend to be anonymous folk ballads, but are actually extremely artful. I find it helpful to think of both as in some sense about art, about contemplating it, making it, its power to ensnare us. But the traps the two poems set are quite different from each other. One is about desire, the other about language; art as marriage, art as fatherhood.
“The Fisher” enacts an erotic seduction: the fisher sets out to lure a fish, but instead gazes Narcissus-like at the water, a lovely faerie-wife who lures him to drown in it. “The Erlkönig” enacts a hidden abduction: the father sets out to carry his son home, but for the trees fails to see the forest, a rival faerie-father who carries his child away. In the first, the poet wants to bring a poem out of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility (to anachronistically quote Wordsworth), but his desire seizes control of him. In the second, the poet wants to write a poem that will remain his own, but the spirit of poetry takes its meaning away from him just as he finishes it.
Notes on the translations. They’re quite precise, hence a few lines sounding somewhat awkward grammatically; I make no claim to their poetic excellence. It’s difficult to retain the original rhymes in translation (though easier for the German-English transition than for most language pairs). Still, I do think pleasing patterns of assonance and consonance still emerge. Choice of vocabulary for translation is always a difficult task. I’ve made three in particular that may need defending. 1) In “The Fisher,” I translate “feucht” as “foamy,” when most often it would be translated “moist”; I do this because the English word “moist” sounds disgusting and the line should instead be vaguely erotic. I would have used “dewy” and the word “Tau”=”dew” shows up later. 2) I’ve translated the title “Der Erlkönig” as “The Alder-king,” when most have “The Elf-king.” Of course the poem is about Faerie, and we associate Faerie with elfs; and perhaps Goethe came up with “Erlkönig” as a mistranslation of a Danish word “Elverkonge” when he should have put “Elfenkönig”; but that doesn’t justify ignoring what Goethe actually wrote. “Erlkönig” means “Alder-king”; the tree motif runs throughout the poem; and the specificity of “alder” lends the poem an eerie beauty that a generic “elf” would miss out on. 3) When the father in “Der Erlkönig” asks “what do you hide your face from?” I’ve completely ignored the word “bang,” which means “fearfully,” because the line is quite long enough even without three extra syllables. This is the only instance of such an excision.
The water rushed, the water swelled,
A fisher sat there,
Looked calmly at the line and rod,
Cold rising in his heart.
And as he sat, and as he harked,
The flood parted aloft;
From the passionate water rushed
Forth a foamy wife.
She sang to him, she spoke to him:
“What, do you lure my brood
With men’s wit and men’s wiles
Up into death’s heat?
Ah, if you knew how the little fish is
So toasty on the ground,
You’d climb under here, as you are,
And at last be sound.
“Don’t they feast themselves, the kind sun,
The moon, on the mere?
Don’t their wave-breathing faces turn
Doubly better here?
Doesn’t the deep heaven lure you,
The foam-transfigured blue?
Doesn’t your own visage lure you
Here in eternal dew?”
The water rushed, the water swelled,
It wet his naked feet,
His heart waxed full of longing
As when lovers meet.
She spoke to him, she sang to him;
So to him it happened;
Half she drew him, half he sank down,
And never more was seen.
Who rides so swift through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the lad well in his arm,
He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.–
My son, what do you hide your face from?–
Don’t you see, father, the alder-king?
The alder-king with crown and train?–
My son, it is a wisp of fog.–
“You dear child, come, go with me!
Quite pretty spells I’ll spell with you;
Many gaudy flowers are on the strand;
My mother has many golden threads.”
My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the alder-king quietly promises me?–
Be still, stay still, my child!
In dry leaves murmurs the wind.–
“Will you, fine lad, go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you prettily;
My daughters will lead the nightly row,
And sway and dance and sing for you.”
My father, my father, and do you not see
The alder-king’s daughters in the gloomy space?–
My son, my son, I see it true;
There shines there the old willows so grey.–
“I love you, it moves me, your fine form,
And if you’re not willing, I’ll bring you by force.”–
My father, my father, it holds me on,
The alder-king has done me harm!–
The father’s in terror, he rides full-speed,
He holds in his arms the groaning child,
He reaches the farm with toil and dread;
In his arms the child was dead.
Translating Goethe is in a way pointless, so many other and better translations have already been made. But the popularity of Goethe’s ballads has benefits too. For example, the fact that Franz Schubert wrote lieder to go along with many of them, including these two. Enjoy.
Franz Schubert – “Der Fischer”
Franz Schubert – “Der Erlkönig”