Sunday, January 30, 2011

Her WHAT?!?!

#17 in the series "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

In all this talk of love and lust in the Lord of the Rings, one poor guy seems to have been left out completely. Our wallflower's name: Frodo.

My personal fave
Frodo is, on one level (of the many possible) the story's Christ-figure. We might expect a devout Christian to weave a Jesus into his tale; plenty of others more talented than C.S. Lewis have done so, and even agnostics like Faulkner have had a go. But Tolkien goes beyond them all by giving us not one but three Christs: there's Gandalf, master of elemental powers and ageless wisdom, and Aragorn, rightful and righteous king, and Frodo . . . sacrificial lamb. We might also expect a typical Christian not to attach any sexual energy to Jesus. Though the Bible portrays him as an ordinary human man who like good food, good wine, and good foot-rubs, the traditional view of Jesus was of someone who--despite being awful chummy with Mary Magdalene--had not the slightest sexual aura

By Tim Kirk, from the 1975 Tolkien Calendar
Surely Frodo has no such aura. He isn't as much as chummy with a single female of any species throughout the entire story. Galadriel is one of only three women with whom he has any kind of contact, and she is more mother than mate. (Recall that Frodo is an orphan and was raised by his uncle. And of the other females, Goldberry is a Maia, and Arwen he talks to only after she's married.) I've already asserted that the Phial of Galadriel is not a sexual symbol, and I believe the above data reinforce this view. Frodo's suffering, his receipt of the Phial, and his lack of any percepti- ble libido, make him otherworldly in a way that even Elves are not: other- worldly in the way of wizards. After his wounding with the Morgul blade he even becomes slightly dematerialized: there is a certain transparency about him that can be detected by those with eyes to see like Gandalf. As a Catholic, Tolkien was taught that sexuality and spirituality are not compatible: note St. Paul's "I would that all men were like me." And Paul means not merely abstinent, nor celibate, but "chaste": not even thinking about sex. This was the ideal of the "spiritual" life that Tolkien lived with on a daily basis from childhood--between the ages of 12 and 21 he was even raised by a priest. We can say, then, that the kind of otherworldliness we find in Frodo is a defining characteristic of "spirituality" as Tolkien understood the term. "My kingdom is not of this world," said Jesus, and neither is Frodo's, in the end.

But all that Frodo might have had in this world he bequeaths to Sam. And unlike his ethereal master, Sam is . . . well, Sam is downright earthy. Sure, he's a gardener, but that in itself should clue us in to the central role fertility plays in his life. We've already seen the overtly sexual nature of his temptation by Galadriel, and his powerful reaction to it. We know exactly with what Galadriel is tempting him--or rather, with whom--and we also know he's been fantasizing about this certain someone throughout the story. He thinks about her in Lorien, he thinks about her in Mordor--on the very slopes of Orodruin!--and no sooner is he back in Bywater than he's getting his mack on with Rosie Cotton before the War of the Ring is even over. Shy stumble-bum he may be, but he knows what he wants. And he wants it bad.

And Galadriel knows it. Which is why her gift to Sam is particularly dirty. Literally.

"G" marks the spot
It's . . . dare I say it? . . . a box. Her box. It's even got a G-rune on it. A box full of dirt. A bunch of dirt with a seed in it. A white seed. And Sam knows just what to do with his seed. After marrying Rosie, that is. Forget the darn mallorn--and remember that Sam and Rosie end up with thirteen children.

La vala Manwe! No more! I can't go on . . . it's all too smutty . . . her box . . . oh, the humanity . . . parents, tell your children. . . .

And how does our "gardener and lover of trees" respond to Galadriel's act of generos- ity? "Sam went red to the ears and muttered something inaudible." So, I imagine, have many young men upon receiving the gift of a lady's . . . box.

Galadriel devotes more time to describing Sam's gift (and telling him what to do with it) than she spends on any other gift she bestows--with one exception. That exception is the entire (paperback) page she spends on her gift to Gimli. And at first she doesn't even know what she's going to give him. But if the previous interaction between the Elf-queen and the Dwarf is any guide, we know that--in the immortal words of James Brown--whatever it is, it's got to be funky. . . .

to be continued

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


#16 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

"Vagina." Given what we know about that Tolkien fella and his devilish hidden agenda, that was a no-brainer, wasn't it?

OK, so the sheath that Galadriel gives Aragorn is magical. (Aren't they all?) "The sword that is drawn from this sheath shall not be broken or stained even in de- feat," she says. We should hope not--ouch! But precisely whose "sheath" is the Elf-queen offering? Not her own, certainly. A clue to the identity of this Mysterious Lady lies in the other gift Aragorn receives. For the future king of Gondor is the only member of the Fellowship to receive more than one gift, and his rank isn't the reason. But enough of these sexual speculations--let's have some real fun and talk Elvish.

In Quenya, Galadriel's native language, there is a complex of words associating youth, femininity, sexuality, and the color green. Here they are, quoted from the "Etymologies," an essay on Elvish word-origins published in volume 5 of "The History of Middle-earth," The Lost Road: 

To get technical for a moment: all of these words begin with a letter of the Elvish alphabet (vilya, tengwa #24) that was originally pronounced "w" but which in the Third Age was pronounced "v" at the beginning of words. It was still a "w" after a consonant: note the Elvish spelling of the word "Arwen." The typeface used here is "Tengwar Annatar" designed by Johan Winge, and is in my view the most elegant and legible of Elvish typefonts. It is one of many such; Elvish typography is sufficiently sophisticated that there is a standard keyboard layout, and there is a proposal before the International Standards Organization to make Tengwar a Unicode character set. I have supplied the translation "virgin" for vene as it is implied in the source. By "blended with" Tolkien meant that the words ven and vende derived from different forms in proto-Elvish (reconstructed roots *GWEN and *WEN) but are felt to be related words by "modern" speakers--one of whom, we may assume, is Galadriel.

Miss April from the Tolkien Desk Calendar, 1980
Armed with a knowledge of Elf-speech, we can see Ara- gorn's second gift in a new light. It's a rock--a green rock. Specifically, it's the "Elessar," a sacred jewel with healing powers. The Elf-queen has foreseen that this stone should come to Aragorn at this time, for "Elessar" is "the name foretold for you." Or so she says. The stone itself--or rather, its color--says some- thing more. Linked with the sheath and the various ideas connected with green, the Elessar lets Aragorn know he has just received a third gift, the most valuable the Lady of Lorien has to give. Though Aragorn denies it--"it is not yours to give me, even if you would"--Galadriel is the eldest remaining member of her clan, and her opinion on a certain matter pertaining to her clan's youngest member should carry considerable weight. To put this more bluntly, Galadriel has a moral (if not strictly legal) right to control Aragorn's access to the one thing he wants above all else: Arwen. Or rather: Arwen's venya venesse.

Pinky by the Brothers Hildebrandt
By providing Aragorn with not one but two symbols of Arwen's sexuality, Galadriel blesses the union of the two lovers and signals her approval. The mes- sage is not lost on the scene's other speaker of Quenya, for Aragorn immediately draws the connection: "For the gifts that you have given me I thank you, O Lady of Lorien, of whom were sprung Celebrian and Arwen Evenstar. What praise could I say more?" The stone itself actually belongs to Arwen, who got it from her mother and she from hers; Arwen has entrusted it to Galadriel to give to her beloved should he pass through her realm. It is not just the Elessar itself but the women it came from and the blessing it symbolizes that evokes Aragorn's outpouring of gratitude. We know he needs Arwen, but he needs Galadriel, too. For Aragorn, like so many characters in the Lord of the Rings--and like its author--is an orphan, and the Lady of Lorien is the nearest thing he has to a mother.

Once again we see that a close reading of Tolkien's work--including obscure texts typically assumed (by, say, The New York Times Book Review) to be of interest only to geeks--reveals that the tweedy Sweet Old Dear of back-cover photographs is more than he seems. You don't have to play it backwards, and it won't screw up your turntable, yet "playing" the text of the Lord of the Rings the right way reveals messages far more interesting (and useful) than "I bury Paul." And if vaginas and virgins aren't sweaty enough for you, there's still what Galadriel does to that poor hobbit. . . .

to be continued

Monday, January 17, 2011

Of Bottles, Bows, and Belts

#15 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

Of the various gifts Galadriel bestows upon the members of the Fellowship of the Ring on their last day in Lorien, the easiest to interpret symbolically are those given to the "mid-ranking" characters, the ones we've already mentioned as being the least interesting (so far). Legolas receives a bow; Merry and Pippin each receive a silver belt. These gifts are physical embodiments of a gift Galadriel herself possesses: prophecy. Though she denies her own ability--"all foretelling is now vain"--everything she predicts for the various members of the Fellowship eventually comes true. Tolkien surely intends for her to be seen as (among other things) a kind of sybil or oracle. 

By Inger Edelfeldt, from "Tolkien's World"

Through her strong sense of foresight Galadriel perceives that Legolas may need a weapon powerful enough to deal with a flying Nazgul. So she gives him a bow-- and a week later he uses it to shoot down one of the dreaded winged riders. The Elf-queen also perceives that the two hobbits may one day need to take up lead- ership roles in their native culture, and so--expercising a traditional royal preroga- tive--she elevates them to the nobility. In England even today there are "belted earls," aristocrats whose badge of office is a special belt. After Merry and Pippin return home the Shire will have a similar custom, at least in their case. Matured by their journeys, the two will become "noble": not just the somewhat spoiled sons of the landed gentry they'd been when they started off, but leaders who rally their people against their enemies. "Lordly," their folk will call them--even, presumably, those who care little for elves.

(To those of us who grew up in lands where patents of nobility are unconstitu- tional, it may be easily forgotten that once upon a time nobles really were war-leaders and not just parasitic anachronisms. And the tradition of aristocratic leadership hasn't entirely died out. During World War II a teenage noblewoman remained in London during the Blitz and made radio broadcasts rallying the British against the Nazis. Later she enlisted in the army and served in uniform as a truck-driver and mechanic. That young woman's courage, aplomb, and willingness to serve are still remembered in Britain today, though the noblewoman--a certain Princess Elizabeth--is now an old lady, and has a number "II" after her name.)

I'm going to pass lightly over Frodo's gift of the star-glass. This is not because it is too difficult to shoehorn it into my interpretive scheme, but because it's too easy: too easy to claim that the phial is a uterus and the white fluid within is seminal. I don't believe Tolkien had the slightest intention, conscious or not, of making the Phial of Galadriel a symbol of anything remotely sexual. His good buddy C.S. Lewis was famous for his critiques of Freudianism, and Tolkien certainly shared his disdain for Freud's one-dogma-fits-all approach. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; sometimes a glistening whiteness is just a star.

But the remaining gifts--those bestowed on Boromir, Aragorn, Gimli, and Sam--are definitely cigars in the Freudian sense. Given Boromir's sexual insecurities, is it not fitting that Galadriel gives him a chastity belt? It's a gilded belt, true, and without lock or key, yet unlike those of Merry and Pippin this belt ele- vates nothing, Indeed, it seems intended to prevent an elevation or two. It is a tactful reminder that our macho war-chief has a bit of a problem in the vicinity of his hips, and that he might want to get a grip, as it were. This belt, in other words, is also a prophecy-- and a warning. The only other time we hear mention of it is when Boromir is arrayed for his funeral.

The good translation.
I suspect many people have asked, "Why the heck does Galadriel give Aragorn a scabbard for his sword? Does it even need one? It doesn't seem . . . well, a fancy enough gift for the occasion. Shouldn't he have something a bit more . . . magical?" Well asked, o perspecacious reader! How to read this riddle aright? Let's do it the way Tolkien himself might have done it were he in our position: by focus- ing on the etymologies. Note that in the text the scabbard is actually called a "sheath." The use of this word instead of "scabbard" is significant. "Scabbard" is the more technical of the two terms; it is only used of coverings for swords and knives, and is only attested as far back as the Middle English period. "Sheath," on the other hand, goes back to Old English, which despite being a more generic term would still make it the more attractive choice to a dedicated fan of Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon such as Tolkien.

But there's another possible motive influencing the choice of "sheath" here: Latin. Tolkien's grandson Simon tells us that his gaffer was mighty put out by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, disliking in particular its imposition of the vernacu- lar Mass. In fact, he disliked it so much that when responses were called for in church he would respond (loudly) in Latin rather than English, to Simon's intense chagrin. Tolkien appears to have been as fluent in Latin as he was in Anglo-Saxon, and there are Latin influences present in Quenya, the language of the High Elves. So the Master of Middle-earth was certainly aware of the Latin trans- lation of the English word "sheath." Are you? I'll give you a minute here to run off to that pile of books you keep for bathroom reading and dig out your Latin dictionary. On your mark . . . get set . . . go!

to be continued

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Three Scenes for the Elven Queen

#14 in the series, "J.R.R. Tolkien--Smut Peddler!"

There are three scenes featuring Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings. We've now dealt with the first, in which the Fellowship encounters the White Lady of Lorien in her palace atop the mallorn. The second, which we won't get into just yet, involves only Frodo, Sam, Galadriel, and her Mirror. The third and final scene brings the Fellowship and their hostess together one last time for a ritual of considerable significance in the traditions of the fairy-tale: the ceremony of gift-giving.

From its beginning with William Morris's The Wood Beyond the World, fantasy literature has been firmly identified with medieval imagery. LotR is the type- specimen of the tradition. How many of us would have known (or cared) what a "vambrace" was if we hadn't encountered the word in the Return of the King? And of course Tolkien was a professional medievalist, an expert on the literature and life-ways of the western Europe of a thousand years ago. But why was he a medievalist? Why, for that matter, have all the Great Ones of fantasy--Morris, Dunsany, Eddison, Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin, and now George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling--set so many of their tales in a medieval setting?

Let's start our journey toward an answer by following the FREPE. This is a mnemonic used by anthropologists when describing any human culture. The FREPE for a fantasy medieval society would run, very broadly, something like this:
Families are extended, patriarchal, and close-knit

Religion may be important but is usually kept in the background. Diversity of religious/metaphysical opinion does not exist--everyone believes pretty much the same thing.

Education takes place at home or in cloistered settings. Books are rare and valuable.

Politics is the business of an aristocratic elite. There are kings, nobles, ladies and lords. Commoners are seldom visible, but (contrary to actual medieval practice) serfdom does not exist.

Economics is very definitely non-capitalist.
I'd like to focus on this last point. Fantasy literature is fake-medieval for more than aesthetic reasons. Morris, the founder of the modern fantasy tradition of castles and kings, was a revolutionary socialist who spent much of his life trying to revive the medi- eval craft-guild; indeed, he is best known today not as an author or a radical, but as an interior designer and the creator of Morris furniture. Le Guin, the most honored fantasy author of all time (Hugo, Nebula, Gandalf, Lifetime Achievement and National Book awards) is an anarcho-feminist who has written the only convincing Utopian novels I have ever read: The Dis- posessed and Always Coming Home. Just about everything Le Guin has ever written has included an at least implicit attack on "propertarianism": late-imperial, industrial, statist capitalism.

So: why did Dunsany, Tol- kien, Le Guin, et al. set their tales in worlds with- out machine guns, stock-exchanges, credit-default swaps, or Great Gatsbys? It's not just the castles and sailing ships, the cobbled streets and torch-light, the flashing swords and pris- tine forests that make a fairy-tale world "medieval." The Middle Ages were the last time in history that most people on this planet could survive without turning everything (including themselves) into a commodity. Ours is a world of Bernie Madoff and Casino Jack, but once upon a time. . . . Only in a pre-modern, pre-capitalist world could Frodo travel thousands of miles across alien territories and not have to spend any money. Not a silver penny! And he can only do this because his author ignores the Invisible Hand and relies instead on the Open Hand: the gift. Fairy-tales are a collective, fading memory of a time before the Almighty Buck, of a time when not everything was assigned a numeric, monetary value. If you want to talk about gifts--as opposed to commodities--then the fairy-tale is one of the few ways we still have to do it.

In "modern" "civilization," giving is often considered a negative behavior. We can't just give citizenship to all those pesky illegals, can we? It's far too valuable!. So it may be easy to lose sight of the social significance of generosity. In most soci- eties, throughout almost all of history, most goods and services were circulated as gifts, not as things to be bought and sold. Did Jesus sell his life on the cross? To listen to Mel Gibson you'd think he had. And Yoga Journal is none too eager to remind its well-toned readers that Lord Buddha spent the last 45 years of his life as a beggar. Feudal warriors offered their swords to the local lord; lords fed and clothed their retainers. No money was exchanged; the value of a man's arm was not set by "market mechanisms." The great cathedrals of Europe were built on donated land with volunteer labor. Chinese emperors made such magnificent gifts to their Tibetan gurus that to this day the Han name for Tibet is Xizang, "Western Treasure-house."

From Shostak's "Nisa." Mother Eve would have looked like this.
Lewis Hyde refers to the gift as "anarchist property." The gift is the original ownership, the property of the original anarchists, the Ancestors. Gift-giving is in our genome: humans and bonobos are the only animals that share food with anyone other than their children, as well as being the only primates who copulate face-to-face. And those of us humans who still retain a connec- tion to the Ancestors--for example, the Zhun/twasi Bushmen--have in their !Kung language the word kxaro. This is a word for a concept almost completely alien to English-speaking culture, so much so that we have no word for it. A kxaro is a "market" where nothing is bought, sold, bartered or traded, but only given: a network of formal, ritualized gift-exchange. It wasn't until a couple of generations ago that the Bushman even learned what a commodity is. They would have been better-off without the knowledge: they hadn't needed it for 100,000 years.

Given the economic structure implicit in Middle-earth's medievalness, we can anti- cipate that Galadriel will give gifts to her guests, gifts "fit for a queen," as we still say. And given the powerful charge of symbolic energy the Lady of the Golden Wood carries with her whenever she appears, we can also anticipate that her gifts will carry a good portion of that emotional electricity. Tolkien, as usual, does not disappoint us: every one of the gifts Galadriel gives to the members of the Fellow- ship is not only sumptuous, but charged with hidden meaning.

Readers of modern literature are used to thinking of the "meaning" of objects in terms of symbolism, of "objective correlatives." Hollow men with heads full of straw stalk the pages of our poetry; bits of cutlery sum up a woman's failed relationship with her mother. But in the non-literary world every gift is, by the fact of being a gift, a bearer of meaning--namely, the meaning of the emotional bond between the giver and the recipient. What is the "meaning" of a piece of cheap plastic crap from Walmart? Utterly nothing--unless it was bought for you by your child with her lunch money. Poof! The piece of crap is crap no more. The magic that can trans- form even Walmart junk into something marvelous is the decision to give it away rather than to sell it or hoard it. And if that decision is motivated by love, no spell of Faerie is mightier.

Magic is something Galadriel is famous for. On the other hand, we don't usually associate the Lady of the Golden Wood with cigars. . . . TBC

homage to Christina-Taylor Green
may she find refuge from suffering in the bardo

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"Womanly Words, Manly Deeds"

Happy 119th birthday, J.R.R. Tolkien!

What is a four-letter word that ends in "K" and means "intercourse"? Talk.

Followers of this blog should know by now that if you want the kind of "good time" promised in countless public restrooms thoughout the land, don't bother calling that number--just reach for the works of that sultan of smut, J.R.R. Tolkien. Who was the first to give us sex between and an Elf and a Dwarf, eh?

As we saw in our last installment, Galadriel, in her role of Mysterious Lady of the Deep, Dark Forest, has been busily seducing the local Young Man Seeking His Fortune, the Young Man in question being Gimli son of Gloin. And she seduces him--in the very nicest sense of that somewhat disreputable word "seduce"--by speaking to him in his native tongue. Khuzdul is a secret language, never spoken around strangers; to learn it one must either be a Dwarf or be extraordinarily cozy with them. Even Gandalf must rely on Gimli "for words of the secret Dwarf-tongue that they teach to none," yet here's this Elf-lady, of all people, speaking words that prove (a) her respect for Dwarvish culture, (b) her excellent sense of timing, and (c) her desire to make Gimli feel good.

The scene of Gimli's encounter with Galadriel, up a tree without a grappling hook, is a sex scene and nothing less. Granted, there's no T & A: no one breaks a sweat, creates a fetus, incubates a disease, or mentions word one about con- doms. And the sensuality of the scene seems to have flown beneath the radar of most critics: despite a deep understanding of his work, even Ursula Le Guin--inheritor of Tolkien's mantle as Grand Master of Fantasy-- asserts in her essay "The Staring Eye" that "there's no sex" in the Lord of the Rings. Perhaps in a world where girls barely into puberty wear bombshell bras, it is unreasonable to expect people to recognize sexuality unless it's expressed Nicky Minaj-style. (Though I daresay there's plenty of folks who know more about the subject than I do, including the esteemed Ms. Le Guin.)

An image from Rolling Stone, slightly modified
Not that i'm knocking knockers here, but could sexual expres- sion have other, more subtle options? There must have been such options in Tolkien's day, even if men back then weren't supposed to talk about their own underwear let alone anyone else's, and women were sup- posed to lie back and think of England and not of orgasms. Yes, sexuality was suppressed during the Edwardian era, yet truth will out, and Tolkien--who grew up during the reign of Victoria the Virginal and Edward the Uptight, and who spent his adolescence under the care of a priest--got his ya-yas out anyway, through the medium of his writing. There's no escaping the erotic imagery of seduction in LotR, of one party sweet-talking away the other's resistance, of penetrating and being penetrated. Like Galadriel's beauty--or Gimli's--it's there to be found. If you're willing to find it, that is, and if you're willing to accept what you find when you do.

And if you want to make a hard and fast distinction between metaphorical/symbolic/sublimated/displaced lust versus what you'd see on RedTube, go right ahead. I'd only point out that without the metaphorical kind the more physical kind would never get off the ground, or on it. Neither we nor the Dwarves are animals: we don't go around smiffing each others' butts and then presenting. We need a bit of foreplay. And that almost always means . . . talk.

Note Islamist date-palm and crescent moon.
(The title of this installment is taken from the official motto of the great state of South Carolina. The words were originally chosen to be blatantly sexist, but let us be charita- ble. Afterall, words are deeds--as any politician or preacher will tell you--and deeds can relate to each other in a kind of syntax. So perhaps the good citizens of South Carolina are trying to tell us that the ideal human being is a hermaphrodite. Put that on RedTube and smoke it!)

Alright--after all this argument you're finally willing to accept the idea that there really is s-e-x in the LotR, that Tolkien had something to say about sexuality, and that for reasons cultural and personal he chose to say it in the language of the fairy-tale. But let's face it: his "sex scenes" aren't very . . . well . . . sexy. It's not as if they're, um, arousing or anything. If we're going to say that Tolkien is writing pornography, shouldn't we at least see a little cleavage?

Cleavage, you say? Very well! Rest assured, o reader, that at Welcome to Weird World what you want is what you get! But you might also want to be careful what you pray for. It's easy to forget that "cleavage" can be something created by the scrunching of a pair of breasts--or it can be something created by the slashing of a sword. . . .

to be continued