Friday, 31 October 2008

Halloween miscellany

Journal of a Sinister Bookreader brings you a horrible literary miscellany for October 31st. From La Petite Claudine: The Commonplace Book of HP Lovecraft: "ideas, images, & quotations hastily jotted down for possible future use in weird fiction". Ghosts and Scholars: Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe's site featuring a compendium of material relating to their MR James newsletter, including its archive of contemporary fiction and commentary. Ruthless Rhymes: "A site dedicated to the poetry of Harry Graham and the myriad of morbid poets he inspired". From the macabrely comic Edward Gorey: The Gashlycrumb Tinies (a Harry Graham style A-Z ); The Beastly Baby; and at Geoff Klock's blog Remarkable, an appreciation of Gorey's The Curious Sofa that despite its designation "a pornographic work by Ogdred Weary" is completely inexplicit, naive yet intensely sinister. By HH Munro ('Saki'): the classic story Sredni Vashtar, one of a number of this author's short stories (see Project Gutenberg) with a distinctly macabre turn. From Neil Gaiman's official site: Cool Stuff, various free content including the short story, A Study in Emerald (PDF), a dark inversion of the Sherlock Holmes mythos. Finally, from YouTube: Franz Kafka's "It's A Wonderful Life" (part 1 / part 2 / part 3) in which Kafka, played by Richard E Grant, attempts to find inspiration for Metamorphosis while the sinister Woland the Knifeman lurks at his door.

- Ray

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Tamara Drewe

From the Guardian books section, an interesting video, Posy Simmonds speaks about her comic Tamara Drewe. I briefly mentioned Gemma Bovary a while back. Tamara Drewe, originally serialised as a Guardian comic strip, is likewise loosely based on a classic, in this case (as the TLS review says - Tamara Drewe's Wessex) on Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.

In a series of allusive namings, Harding's setting of Weatherbury becomes Ewedown. Tamara (in the Bible, Tamar is a daughter of David) is the analogue of Bathsheba Everdene, and three also very recognisable men are attracted to her: the working-class handyman Andy Cobb, the Indie band drummer Ben Sergeant, and the established novelist neighbour Nicholas Hardiman. As with Bathsheba's unwise joke of sending a Valentine to Farmer Boldwood, tragedy ensues when a prankster sends out an e-mail - "I want to give you the biggest shagging of your life" - from Tamara's laptop.

While Tamara Drew follows the skeleton of Far from the Madding Crowd, Simmonds , has sufficiently altered it that the ending is not a foregone conclusion: for instance, the adulterous Hardiman is the caddish character rather than Sergeant, and there are a number of new characters who provide new viewpoints. The focus is also not merely on Tamara's relationships with the three men, but also on the various angsts of writers and the satirising the tensions between locals and incomers in English rural settings. Apart from her general excellence as an observational cartoonist, the latter is an area where Simmonds is particularly sharp; for instance, her earlier creation of "Tresoddit" - see Rock of Ages - is a pleasantly barbed take on the Yuppification of Rock in Cornwall).

I haven't read the expanded and embellished book version of Tamara Drewe, but it's on my wish-list for Christmas. Clive James enthuses about Posy Simmonds here, with a few Tamara Drewe samples (Cover, Drinks at Stonefield, Dr Glen Larson, Jody and Casey), and in general about Bande dessinée (up-market Francophone comic art, to which genre Posy Simmonds' work is closely equivalent) - though I'm not sure I agree with his view that the ponderous satire Flook was so wonderful, nor that there was nothing between it and Posy Simmonds (since he misses out SF comics - both writer and artist of Watchmen are English, as is Brian Bolland). There is also the problem of comparing essentially realistic social satire (as in Tamara Drewe) with the non-realistic "morality play" approach of superhero comics (which may nevertheless present a sophisticated take on moral and philosophical topics - see, again, the journal ImageTexT).

Anyhow, publication details: Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds, Jonathan Cape Ltd, Nov 2007, ISBN 022407816X).

Update, August 2010: See Tamara Drewe movie.

- Ray

Monday, 20 October 2008

Bessemer Saloon images


Dave Greig extremely kindly sent me these excellent 1897 photos (click to enlarge) of the Bessemer Saloon - the swinging cabin in Bessemer's experimental cross-Channel steamer of the same name - in its retirement as a lecture room at the Swanley Horticultural College, Kent. In action the Saloon was supposed to work as in this drawing; another contemporary artist's impression here considerably exaggerates the spaciousness.

The above picture shows it in use as a dairying class. Unfortunately I've lost the second one due to a computer crash. The images came from a Victorian photo album Dave found in an antique bookshop in Edinburgh. Condition of use: an acknowledgement in memory of Ethel and Grace, the otherwise unidentified album creators.

See Bessemer Saloon and other experimental ships for the full story.

- Ray

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Giveth and taketh

A book-related search tip: how to use the advanced search options within Google Books.

At Language Log, in the post Giveth and taketh, Arnold Zwicky mentions current "snowclones" such as "Globalization giveth ... Globalization now taketh away" modelled on the well-known "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away". He also notes, with reference to Michael Macrone's Brush Up Your Bible, how this isn't actually in the Bible, but is a misquotation (or paraphrase) of Job 1: 20-21 in the 1611 King James Version.

Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

But when did it arise? This is a nice example of how it's possible to do a historical search with Google Books, using the following syntax to specify date range (e.g. "Lord giveth" "Lord taketh away" date:1700-1835).

This finds plenty of hits showing the long history. It turns up in a number of late 18th and early 19th century novels, such as John Galt's 1822 The Provost (here), the anonymous 1805 Belville-House (here), Mary Meeke's 1799 Ellesmere (here), and Horace Walpole's 1764 gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (here). The oldest direct uses in relation to Job I can find in general prose accounts are in the 1718 A Faithful Register of the Late Rebellion (here) and the 1714 The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood (here). Older still is Thomas Marbury's 1650 A Commentarie Or Exposition Upon the Prophecie of Habakkuk: Together with Many Usefull and Very Seasonable Observations. While it doesn't feature the full quotation, it nevertheless uses the "Lord giveth ... Lord taketh away" construct (here). At this point, you need to start considering archaic spellings. To cut to the chase, as probably anyone more Christian could have done long since, it tracks down to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, in The Ordre for the Buriall of the Dead:

WE brought nothyng into this worlde, neyther may we carye any thyng out of this worlde. The Lord geveth, and the Lord taketh awaie. Even as it pleaseth the Lorde, so cummeth thynges to passe: blessed be the name of the Lorde.

This, the first English prayer book, is probably the main source. Who actually coined the paraphrase of Job is uncertain. As the Society of Archbishop Justus website says, Thomas Cranmer is assumed to be the main author, but as the work was done by committee and no records of the editorial process exist, we can't be sure. However, Michael Macrone is definitely off the mark with his "nice try with the Renaissance conjugations". It's not a "nice try"; it was coined when they were current. It took me a while to get there, not being religious, but it's surprising that the author of Brush Up Your Bible didn't spot it.

The "-eth" ending, by the way, is a Middle English and early Modern English construct that rapidly fizzled out in Modern English post-1600 except when people wanted a religious or poetic tone (see Early Modern English, Charles Laurence Barber, Edinburgh University Press, 1997, ISBN 0748608354, p.166 onward, for a good account of the decline of "-eth"). However, Bible translations of the 1500s-1600s - notably the KJV - tended to incorporate archaicisms of language that were already declining (in the KJV's case, partly because it drew on earlier translations, partly because of the perceived formal tone of "-eth"). Even so, "Lord giveth ... Lord taketh away" isn't in any of them, nor in the older Wyclif translation.

The strong factor for its survival over 500+ years appears to be its incorporation as a linguistic fossil in the standard Christian committal and burial service derived from the Book of Common Prayer. This seems a more likely reason for its continuing currency than it being, as Professor Zwicky suggests, a popular misquotation persisting because people see it as an "improvement" on the original wording of Job.

All that said, I think it is an improvement, in the sense of it being an inspired decision to introduce parallelism, which created a powerful and lasting epigram.
- Ray

Friday, 17 October 2008

Martial heroics

There's always scope for revising classics for the current zeitgeist. The Guardian's Brad Pitt may go back to the future with sci-fi Odyssey (Ben Child, October 17 2008) is just one of the papers recycling a Variety report that Mad Max director George Miller is working with Warner Brothers on an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey with "a futuristic setting in outer space". I don't know if the late RA Lafferty is anywhere in the picture, as this is exactly the premise of his 1968 Space Chantey, another of my favourite SF novels. It's worth finding. Lafferty, in his characteristic tipsy yarn-telling style tells the Odyssey through the story of Captain Roadstrum (more Brian Blessed than Brad Pitt) leading the crew of his "hornet ships" home after a ten-year war.

The war was finished. It had lasted ten equivalent years and taken ten million lives. Thus it was neither of long duration nor of serious attrition. It hadn't any great significance; it was not intended to have. It did not prove a point, since all points had long ago been proven. What it did, perhaps, was to emphasize an aspect, sharpen a concept, underline a trend.

On the whole it was a successful operation. Economically and ecologically it was of healthy effect, and who should grumble?

And after wars, men go home. No, no, men start for home. It's not the same.

They encounter perils such as the drowsy pleasure planet of Lotophage, the rustic cannibals of Polyphemia and the monstrous Siren-Zo, the story mixing in out-of-mythos elements from Irish folktale, other mythologies (such as Norse) and shaggy dog stories (as in the tale when Roadstrum wins 1000 worlds by hi-tech cheating on a gambling world, then loses it all playing Double or Quits with a toilet attendant).

The attendant still owns those worlds today. He is High Emperor and he administers his worlds competently. He is a man of talent.

No connection, except for heroics and eclectic sourcing: the film Equilibrium (see also the fan site) has a similar cheerful mix of influences: from 1984, a totalitarian society with a Big Brother figure; from Brave New World, a population kept peaceful by a calming drug; from Fahrenheit 451, a book-burning culture; and (it appears) from The Matrix, overall style, especially that of the slick combat sequences. A central conceit of Equilibrium is the premise of "gun kata", a fictional martial art enabling its users to defeat armed opponents at close quarters by a rote-learned statistical approach of shooting where they're likely to be, and being where they're not likely to shoot. It's pretty unfeasible but, as writer/director Kurt Wimmer says, it was devised to give an interesting and unique visual effect to the action sequences (see the final fight sequence - in which the hero confronts the Yeats-quoting leader of the totalitarian society) for an example of the choreography). A similar degree of thought has recently gone into another martial art - Bartitsu - that was long assumed to be fictional because of a misnomer.

Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts have long speculated about the "baritsu" which, in The Adventure of the Empty House.Holmes says he used to overcome Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls

I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.

A few years back an apparently unconnected curiosity appeared on the Web, reprints from Pearson's Magazine around 1900: The New Art of Self-defence: How a Man May Defend Himself against Every Form of Attack (Part 1 / Part 2) and Self-defence with a Walking Stick. All were by an Edward William Barton-Wright, and described his self-invented mixed martial art, which combined Jujutsu and Judo with various Western techniques such as boxing and stick fighting. This martial art - named "Bartitsu" - was finally solidly connected with the Holmesian "Baritsu" in a 1997 paper ("Further Lessons in Baritsu", Richard Bowen, The Ritual: Review of the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society, 1997) and since then, Bartitsu has been solidly researched and developed by groups such as the Bartitsu Society.

In its own time, Bartitsu itself was short-lived. I feel there always was a strong degree of scamminess to Barton-Wright's promotions. In 1900, for instance, there was a certain amount of press scepticism about his claims, especially when he cancelled a public demonstration of Jujitsu's superiority over all comers on the lame grounds that the Japanese exponents he had imported weren't allowed to demonstrate for a paying audience (Sporting Notes and News, The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, October 23, 1900). Barton-Wright's Bartitsu Club foundered in 1903, and he went on to a career in quack therapies. In 1914-15, his "Bartitsu Institute" offered

"Forty Radium Emanation Machines ... Bergonié and Nagelschmidt Apparatus, D'Arsonval High-Frequency Machines, Light Baths, Diathermy or Thermo-Penetration Machines, 20-Plate Static Machine (the largest machine ever built), Eighteen-Inch Coil and Röntgen Ray Apparatus, Ultra-Violet Ray Lamps, Nauheim Baths, Cataphoresis (Système Barton-Wright), Electric Vibrating Machines (Système Barton-Wright)".

for treatment of obesity and various ailments, and he ran into bankruptcy at least twice.

According to Premiere magazine - Robert Downey Jr.'s Bad-Ass Sherlock Holmes - the detective is being revamped for Sherlock Holmes, a forthcoming Guy Ritchie movie. This will feature "baritsu". See Robert Downey Jr.'s comment

in the real origin stories of Sherlock Holmes, he's kind of a bad-ass and a bare-knuckle boxer and studies the rare art of baritsu. If you look baritsu up, they can't even really tell you what it is, so it gives us a lot of leeway.

This doesn't sound like an understanding of authentic Bartitsu, but the background appears to be more promising than the quote suggests. Check out the comments to this post: Tony Wolf of the Bartitsu Society tells me that

A recent quote from director Guy Ritchie makes specific
reference to Bartitsu, so although we don't expect a verbatim
reproduction of the historical style on screen, it's nice to know that
they're doing their homework.

- Ray

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Pastiches

These are old posts, but I was pleased to see they're still around: from Making Light (the weblog of writers and editors Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden), A Houseful of Lords, Part 1 / Part 2. These are a selection of The Lord of the Rings pastiches prompted by a thread on Straight Dope Message Board "started when someone idly asked how Lord of the Rings would have turned out if it had been written by Ernest Hemingway". Read the Making Light selections if you want to play "guess the author" - otherwise, the full Straight Dope thread is here. Fans of Samuel R Delany - of whom more soon - might be amused by my effort:

The door to Bag End deliquesced, and the derelict lurched into the hall.

He was an old man. He was a strong man. Must be Gandalf, Frodo thought. Dresses like Gandalf, grey robed, a rope holding up his torn grey pants. And his eyes. (Orcs’ eyes?).

"You, boy. Are you Frodo Baggins?"

Frodo fingered the dirt between his hairy toes. Wanting to say "no" he began a "yes".

The codger flapped out a hand (a sack of magic-ruined knuckles) and caught a chair. “We were moving out, boy, the lights of Minas Tirith like a puddle of molten mithril on our left, the black of Mordor on our right. We’d turned off the palantir so we were flying blind. Then, centred on the dark, an Eye! It reached out, brighter than the elven-glass of Galadriel, grabbed our attention so we couldn’t look away.”

Frodo got the words ready in his mouth, excuse me, huh? I gotta go.

Gandalf coughed, spat red. "The Eye was Sauron’s. He took us this close" - his thumb brushed his forefinger (nail bitten to the quick) - "this close to Mount Doom. You can damn him, and damn the One Ring for that, boy, whoever you are!"


Unconnected, more pastiche (originally recommended to me in 2006 by Felix Grant) Holy Tango Anthology of Literature by Francis Heaney. ''Holy Tango'' etc is an online selection of literary parodies whose titles are anagrams of the author's name. The collection is also available in print form, but Heaney explains that the publishers have kindly let him give it away free in e-form as a promotion. Highlights include Likable Wilma, a poem in praise of Wilma Flintstone in the style of William Blake's Tiger, Tiger; Dammit, Dave, the final dialogue between Hal 9000 and Dave Bowman as written by David Mamet; and Bake Me Cutlets (Becket's Waiting for Godot done as a cookery show, complete with parody of Lucky's famous monologue).

The latter reminds me to recommend again The Book of Sequels (Henry Beard, Christopher Cerf, Sarah Durkee and Sean Kelly, 1991 - Random House in USA, Angus & Robertson in UK), which is easily and inexpensively findable on the secondhand circuit. See Adam E Pachter's Harvard Crimson review, Once Again: A Book of Sequels ("this book mocks contemporary society's penchant for ridiculous follow-ups ... "Raise the Pequod" is a an exquisite parody, both humorous and accurate, and most of The Book of Sequels rises to this standard"). The New York Times review called it "the brightest and funniest satirical book of the moment". My personal favourite sections include Godot Action Comics, the TS Eliot Wasteland theme park (with its Prufrock's Beach and Phlebas the Phoenician Phlume Ride), and the cover mockup for Pride and Extreme Prejudice, which introduces a new Bennet sister, "Dirty" Harriet, who won the hearts of Jane Austen fans by forestalling an insult from Lady Catherine de Bourgh with a cool

"I have no objection, your ladyship, to your proceeding, since, by so doing, you shall render my afternoon quite agreeable."

- Ray

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Law and the Potter mythos

Specialist critique of literature is often extremely interesting for revealing possibilities of what the author intended (or raising ones not intended). In this light I've just been enjoying some scholarly papers I found via the Social Science Research Network. Harry Potter and the Unforgivable Curses: Norm-formation, Inconsistency, and the Rule of Law in the Wizarding World (Aaron Schwabach, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, TJSL Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-13, Roger Williams University Law Review, 2005) and Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy (Benjamin Barton, University of Tennessee College of Law, Michigan Law Review, Vol. 104, May 2006) both look at the legal system within the Harry Potter mythos.

The Schwabach paper focuses on the law, and application of it, relating to the Unforgivable Curses, comparing this with British and international law on equivalent issues such as torture and the death penalty. Schwabach concludes that legal framework within the Potter mythos can be interpreted as that of a society which has made imperfect laws in the confused aftermath of a war. He argues, furthermore, that the Potter books will raise a generation tuned into the analysis of legal/moral quandaries. I'd like to think so, but unless such difficulties are explicitly highlighted in the narrative, I think it's likely that many such problems will slip by under the usual action story convention that a hero's violent actions against villains are rarely questioned. An example of this was raised a while back by Shami Chakrabarti: see Harry Potter is a war criminal (Paul Rodgers, The Independent, 26 August 2007), which discusses the considerable problem of Harry being allowed to get away with using the supposedly unforgivable Crucio curse on Amycus, a minor baddie, for the pretty trivial reason of his spitting on a teacher Harry likes.*

The Barton paper, on the other hand, leads with

What would you think of a government that engaged in this list of tyrannical activities: tortured children for lying;1 designed its prison specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; placed citizens in that prison without a hearing; ordered the death penalty without a trial; allowed the powerful, rich, or famous to control policy; selectively prosecuted crimes (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); conducted criminal trials without defense counsel; used truth serum to force confessions; maintained constant surveillance over all citizens; offered no elections and no democratic lawmaking process; and controlled the press? You might assume that the above list is the work of some despotic central African nation, but it is actually the product of the Ministry of Magic, the magicians' government in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

and reads Rowling's portrayal of the Ministry of Magic as an intentional indictment of government, finding in it a libertarian message.

Another paper by Schwabach, The Harry Potter Lexicon and the World of Fandom: Fan Fiction, Outsider Works, and Copyright (Aaron Schwabach, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, University of Pittsburgh Law Review, Vol. 70, 2009, TJSL Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1274293) is an up-to-the-minute exploration of copyright and intellectual property issues of derivative fiction. Its case studies are the dispute between Larry Niven and Elf Sternberg over the latter's use of Niven's kzinti in "slash" fan fiction; Marion Zimmer Bradley's change of heart over fan use of settings in her Darkover mythos; and the recent legal dispute concerning JK Rowling and The Harry Potter Lexicon. The last piece provides an extensive overview of Harry Potter clones and parodies, and I was delighted to see it cites a JSBlog posting about Tanya Grotter in a footnote.

Addendum: * I've just been informed that within the HP mythos, during the first Voldemort crisis, Unforgivable Curses were authorised by Crouch for use against Voldemort and his followers, and so this technically still applies to Harry's use of Crucio on Amycus. However, this doesn't make the problem go away; given the extent to which the wrongness of the curses is stressed, it's reasonable to assume very strict "rules of engagement". The subsequent exchange between McGonagall and Harry makes it clear he has majorly overstepped those rules
"... Potter, that was foolish!"
"He spat at you," said Harry.
"Potter, I – that was very – very gallant of you – but don't you realise –?"
"Yeah, I do," Harry assured her.
Realise what? That unless she keeps quiet about it, he's at the very least up for the equivalent of a court martial? That the incident passes without further analysis suggests that Harry, as postulated by Shami Chakrabarti, has indeed got away with a war crime.

- Ray

Friday, 10 October 2008

Dune

While we're on the subject of ecology and iconic epics, Frank Herbert's Dune - see the official Dune website - was probably the first work that made a genuine effort to construct a coherent ecological model. The desert planet Arrakis presents a highly complex ecology where a limited Earth-style biosystem (for which free water is vital) is in a precarious coexistence with an alien biosystem (to which water is largely fatal) which must be maintained as it produces "spice", an addictive drug critical to interstellar transportation.

While I think the central concept has been over-stretched by far too many sequels and spinoffs, the original Dune novel has stood the test of time, and works at many levels. There are various resonances with the historical and present Middle East. The "spice" (without which transportation would collapse) could be viewed an allegory for petroleum; and many of the situations and factions resemble historical ones, such as the fall of the Roman and Ottoman Empires, with their respective Praetorian Guard and Janissaries. The story of Paul Atreides, an outsider who joins and leads the Fremen in driving out an occupying army, has more than a passing resemblance to that of Lawrence of Arabia.

An interesting discussion at Language Log - Munroe's Law, concerning neologisms in novels - reminded me also of Arabic and Islamic themes in Frank Herbert's "Dune", which explains the terminology in Dune. For instance, the name for the Messiah-like "Kwisatz Haderach" comes from the Hebrew Kefitzat Haderech - literally, "shortening of the way" or "jumping of the path/road/way" - which refers to teleportation in Jewish folklore, an ability with various analogues including the Muslim Tay al-Ard ("folding up of the earth") and the Sufi Tay al-makan ("folding space" - exactly the term used within the Dune mythos for the mechanism of interstellar transportation.

I've seen both movie adaptations. Personally I like the 1984 David Lynch one a lot; it's memorable and visually stunning. And yet I think David Lynch's Dune: What Went Wrong? (Joshua Moss, Starport.com, 5 December 2000) summarises very fairly the problems: huge areas of complexity were dropped, and the Harkonnens were made into cartoon abominations. Furthermore, it completely lost a central point to Dune; as Herbert has repeatedly stated (as in Dune Genesis, Omni Magazine, July 1980) the intended message wasn't a simple good vs evil, but that visionaries are not be trusted: "Don't give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be". The 2000 miniseries, Frank Herbert's Dune, although it makes its own departures from the text and I think it's less striking in visual design, is rather more faithful to the spirit of the book.

P.S. Another thing Dune has in common with The Lord of the Rings
is having a not-very-good National Lampoon parody. I do rather like, though, the Dune redub at the movie parody site Sequential Pictures ("It's always fun to urbanize the ludicrous glossary that Herbert created. Is Dune the best movie of all time? Absolutely not. Is there a guilty pleasure in liking it? Perhaps").
- Ray

Monday, 6 October 2008

Middle-earth ecology

Interpretation is always a moot point when a book is filmed. The first time I saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the overall spectacle swamped any possible nitpicks. Now, about the third time, it's possible to get a bit more analytical. The main thing to cross my mind was the general lack of infrastructure. The Shire is the only place with any sign of agriculture, water and roads; whereas settlements such as Edoras and, particularly, the huge city of Minas Tirith sit in the middle of wildernesses. There's a simple explanation for this: The Lord of the Rings was filmed on New Zealand national park land with strict limits on what could be built (the Edoras set, for instance, was allowed one dirt road) so filling the landscape with farmland wasn't on. You just have to suspend disbelief and not wonder too hard what the inhabitants of these places eat.

In the book, things are rather clearer. The Shire's agriculture is still the most obvious, but it does go on elsewhere. For instance, The Lord of the Rings tells us that the Pelennor Fields, the hinterland around Minas Tirith, are farmed

Pippin could see all the Pelennor laid out before him, dotted into the distance with farmsteads and little walls, barns and byres

and even Mordor's provisioning is explained:

Neither [Sam] nor Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters

Nevertheless, there are peculiarities. Tolkien's introduction makes it clear that LOTR is set in the remote past in "the North-West of the Old World" - see Strange Maps, Where On Earth Was Middle-earth?. So what is Sam doing in the Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit episode wishing for "taters", a New World vegetable? And excluding outright magical drinks and foods such as miruvor, ent-draught and lembas, what's strange is the remarkable lack of exoticism in food. Tom Bombadil, in the middle of a forest, serves up "yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries". At Ithilien, Fordo and Sam get served wine, bread and butter, salted meats, dried fruits and "good red cheese". In the buttery of Minas Tirith, a city whose location more or less corresponds with Italy and which has trading routes to further south, Pippin gets "bread, and butter, and cheese and apples". There's a great deal more about hobbit diet here: Well-stocked Larders: Food and Diet of Hobbits (Stephanie Green, Strange Horizons, February 2008) concludes that "It seems his choice of foods is more influenced by his representation of hobbits as yeomen of the English pastoral tradition". It also appears that Tolkien was projecting his own tastes on to his created world: The Origins of Tolkien's Middle-earth For Dummies mentions that

Even Tolkien referred to himself as a hobbit ("in all but size") for his love of pipe-smoking, gardens, plain and simple food, peace and quiet, his dislike of mechanized farmlands and traveling, and his fondness for wearing ornamental waistcoats

The English "plain food" stereotype really comes from dismal post-WW1 cuisine; English historical food hits the garlic and spices far more than you'd expect. Whatever - Middle-earth would leave me dying for a curry. (There are a number of cookery guides around, such as Emerald Took's Regional Cooking from Middle-earth: Recipes of the Third Age - reviewed here - but they seem to take off in decently spicy directions completely unmentioned in LOTR).

It's unknown how Dwarves (living underground in big halls in the mountains) get their food, nor the Elves: though Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien (Matthew T. Dickerson, Jonathan Duane Evans, John Elder, University Press of Kentucky, 2006, ISBN 0813124182) has a whole chapter - Horticulture and the Aesthetic of the Elves - arguing plausibly that the visible details of processed products such as miruvor and lembas imply highly sophisticated agriculture, viniculture and processing behind the scenes. Ents, Elves, and Eriador is based on a broader thesis that Tolkien's works "demonstrate a complex and comprehensive ecological philosophy."

The ecology of Middle-earth ... brings together three potent and convincing elements of preservation and conservation?sustainable agriculture and agrarianism, horticulture independent of utilitarianism, and protection of unspoiled wilderness

This may be partially so, but in many ways this doesn't wash. Firstly, Middle-earth seems extremely thin on biodiversity, and flora/fauna food production appropriate to region, cornerstones of a sustainable ecology. In the book we see a "mumakil" (an elephant) once, and that's about it. Elsewhere, it seems the same English staples appear everywhere. Where, for example, is the horsemeat and kumis you'd expect in a horse-focused warrior culture like Rohan? (compare cuisine of Kazakhstan). Secondly, Middle-earth is full of trappings implying a higher level of industry and agriculture than is actually seen. Arms and armour don't make themselves: even small forges need charcoal (hence charcoal-burning, a staple of pre Industrial Revolution Europe). The Dwarves' focus on mining and smelting would need even more. Hobbits engage in conspicuous consumption - at least six meals a day, with a deal of leisure time - quite inconsistent with the amount of work that would be to grow and harvest the stuff they eat. They also have plenty of domestic accoutrements - cups, plates, cutlery, garden shears, books, glasses, bottles, convex mirrors, waste paper baskets, umbrellas, a post office, the luxury of flower gardens, and so on. Life in "more or less a Warwickshire village" of the late 1800s (Tolkien's description cited in the Stephanie Green article above) might well have had such fixtures, but only because someone somewhere more industrialised was making them.

Although the hobbits aren't responsible for these, Gandalf's complicated fireworks (in both book and film) imply some highly sophisticated knowledge of chemistry, a point noted by Michael Moorcock, who commented to Ansible (174)

how come these early industrial revolution kulaks, with sophisticated metal working skills, gunpowder, focusing lenses and advanced printing methods, couldn't make one simple f***ing cannon and blow the bad guys off their keeps in a trice? Jesus, they could put an intercontinental ballistic missile together with the resources I spotted in hobbitville without even thinking about it

Moorcock is a long-standing critic of Tolkien. In Epic Pooh (originally in Wizardry and Wild Romance, A Study of Epic Fantasy) he argues that LOTR is essentially "safe" (for instance, in turning away from the reality of death, which is integral to other epics - an example I can think of is how the ailing Frodo, the elderly Bilbo and the on-borrowed-time Gandalf, who ought realistically to die, are instead packed off to emigrate in a ship as a kind of sanitized surrogate death).

Much as I enjoy the films (and, on re-reading them, the books) I find it hard to disagree with Moorcock's argument that the world of The Lord of the Rings is a Middle England NIMBY agrarian fantasy: Tolkien's heroes have all mod cons with the necessary agricultural and manufacturing infrastructure airbrushed out; while Mordor's inhabitants and Saruman, who openly manufacture stuff, are the villains. It probably just comes down to Tolkien's well-known gripes about Birmingham encroaching on Sarehole, where he grew up. I kind of wonder if, despite the historical etymology for "orc" = ogre (OED, 1605 J. SYLVESTER tr. G. de S. Du Bartas Deuine Weekes & Wks. II. i. 337 Insatiate Orque, that euen at one repast, Almost all creatures in the World would waste.) Tolkien also had in mind "oik" (OED, "An uncouth, loutish, uneducated, or obnoxious person; a yob (esp. with connotations of lower-class origin") - the latter, cited from 1925, is well within the etymological time-slot. Then again, without evidence, it could easily be a false friend.
- Ray

Friday, 3 October 2008

Two towers

Above: Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth. Below: panorama of View Deck 1, with views over Portsmouth, Solent, Isle of Wight and Gosport. Both images created with AutoStitch - click to enlarge.



An ideal caption for these holiday snaps of the Spinnaker Tower, where on Tuesday Clare and I were lucky enough to get the combination of good weather and the view deck to ourselves, might be "Two on a Tower" (Gutenberg e-text 3146) the title of one of Thomas Hardy's lesser-known novels. The story of a doomed romance between a young astronomer, Swithin St. Cleeve, and the unhappily married Lady Viviette Constantine, its obscurity probably comes down to its lacking the common touch and the considerable geekiness of subject matter. As this Lablit article says - Thomas Hardy, Richard Proctor and the dialogue of the deaf, Nicholas Russell 18 February 2006 - "Hardy told the naturalist Edmund Gosse that he wanted to make science itself the vehicle for the novel", and this is in considerable contrast to Hardy's generally rustic cast of characters. (The tower in Hardy's book was modelled on Charborough Tower).

By coincidence, the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy has just been on UK television, and I find the towers in Middle Earth fairly worrying. If you look at the real world, prior to steel construction, masonry has fairly strict limits. The Tallest Tower: Eiffel And The Belle Epoque (Joseph Harriss, Unlimited Publishing LLC, 2004, ISBN 1588321045, p11) discusses the background that led Eiffel to reject masonry. At the time, the Washington Monument was the world's tallest stone structure at 555 feet; this has since been topped by the 570-foot San Jacinto Tower. The Anaconda Smelter Stack is even taller at 585 feet (though not technically a building).

In Lord of the Rings, Saruman's tower Orthanc is in similar league at 500 feet, and Sauron's Barad-dûr even bigger. The especially worrying point engineering-wise, even assuming competent construction, is that Mount Doom, an active volcano, is quite close to both, showing that the region is at a crustal plate margin, therefore earthquake-prone. Tolkien wisely improves the stability by magical handwaving; according to Elrond, Barad-dûr's foundations "were made with the power of the Ring" suggesting it to be artificially stabilised (which would explain why it inexplicably collapses when the Ring is destroyed); and Orthanc's construction involved "four many-sided columns of rock joined together by an unknown process and then hardened". Handy.

More thoughts follow at Middle-earth ecology.
- Ray