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

No comments:

Post a Comment