(Neo-) Classical Sunday: The 13th Warrior – Sound of the Northmen

The 13th Warrior is a 1999 American historical fiction action film based on Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel ‘Eaters of the Dead’, which is a loose retelling of the tale of Beowulf combined with Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s historical account of the Volga Vikings.

The 13th Warrior – Sound of the Northmen

A Soundtrack-Mix of the Film The 13th Warrior.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Copyists’ Ignorant Errors

‘Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’

Balrogs owe a part of their existence to an editorial problem.  There is an Old English poem called EXODUS, like several Old English poems a paraphrase of a part of the Bible.  (…) [Tolkien] thought on linguistic grounds that it was older than BEOWULF, and he thought that like the BEOWULF-poet, the EXODUS-poet had known a good deal about the native pre-Christian mythology, which could with care be retrieved from his copyists’ ignorant errors.  In particular, the poet at several points mentions the SIGELWARA LAND, the ‘land of the Sigelware’.  In modern dictionaries and editions, these ‘Sigelware’ are invariably translated as ‘Ethiopians’.  Tolkien thought, as often, that that was a mistake.  He thought the name was another compound, (…) and that it should have been written *SIGEL-HEARWA.  Furthermore, he suggested (…) that a *SIGEL-HEARWA was a kind of fire-giant.  The first element in the compound meant both ‘sun’ and ‘jewel’; the second was related to the Latin CARBO, soot.  When an Anglo-Saxon from the pre-literate Dark Age said SIGELHEARWA, before any Englishman had ever heard of Ethiopia or the Book of Exodus, Tolkien believed that what he meant was ‘rather a son of Múspell [the Old Norse fire-giant who will bring on Ragarök] than of Ham, the ancestors of the Silhearwan with red-hot eyes that emitted sparks, with faces black as soot’.

The fusion of ‘sun’ and ‘jewel’ perhaps had something to do with Tolkien’s concept of the SILMARIL.  The idea of a fire-spirit re-emerges in the brief glimpse of the orc-chieftain who stabs Frodo, with his ‘swart’ face, red tongue and ‘eyes like coals’, but it also gave Tolkien Durin’s Bane, the Balrog. (…)  The clash of Gandalf and the Balrog produces (…) feelings of mystery: we hear of, but do not understand, the opposition between ‘the Secret Fire … the flame of Anor’, and ‘the dark fire … flame of Udûn’.  What Tolkien does in such passages is to satisfy the urge to know more (the urge he himself felt as an editor of texts so often infuriatingly incomplete), while retaining and even intensifying the counterbalancing pleasure of seeming always on the edge of a new discovery, looking into a world that seems far fuller than the little at present known.  If gold and greed and mastery are ‘the desire of the hearts of dwarves’, then words and links and inferences are the lust of philologists.  Tolkien had that lust as strongly as anyone ever has, but he felt it was one which could be strongly shared.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Author of the Century.

balrog and gandalf movie

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Gold Galdre Bewunden

The old hoard the Night shall keep, / while earth waits and the Elves sleep.

The Hoard

When the moon was new and the sun young
of silver and gold the gods sung:
in the green grass they silver spilled,
and the white waters they with gold filled.
Ere the pit was dug or Hell yawned,
ere dwarf was bred or dragon spawned,
there were Elves of old, and strong spells
under green hills in hollow dells
they sang as they wrought many fair things,
and the bright crowns of the Elf-kings.
But their doom fell, and their song waned,
by iron hewn and by steel chained.
Greed that sang not, nor with mouth smiled,
in dark holes their wealth piled,
graven silver and carven gold:
over Elvenhome the shadow rolled.

There was an old dwarf in a dark cave,
to silver and gold his fingers clave;
with hammer and tongs and anvil-stone
he worked his hands to the hard bone.
and coins he made, and strings of rings,
and thought to buy the power of kings.
But his eyes grew dim and his ears dull
and the skin yellow on his old skull;
through his bony claw with a pale sheen
the stony jewels slipped unseen.
No feet he heard, though the earth quaked.
when the young dragon his thirst slaked.
and the stream smoked at his dark door.
The flames hissed on the dank floor,
and he died alone in the red fire;
his bones were ashes in the hot mire.

There was an old dragon under grey stone;
his red eyes blinked as he lay alone.
His joy was dead and his youth spent,
he was knobbed and wrinkled, and his limbs bent
in the long years to his gold chained;
in his heart’s furnace the fire waned.
To his belly’s slime gems stuck thick,
silver and gold he would snuff and lick:
he knew the place of the least ring
beneath the shadow of his black wing.
Of thieves he thought on his hard bed,
and dreamed that on their flesh he fed,
their bones crushed, and their blood drank:
his ears drooped and his breath sank.
Mail-rings rang. He heard them not.
A voice echoed in his deep grot:
a young warrior with a bright sword
called him forth to defend his hoard.
His teeth were knives, and of horn his hide,
but iron tore him, and his flame died.

There was an old king on a high throne:
his white beard lay on knees of bone;
his mouth savoured neither meat nor drink,
nor his ears song; he could only think
of his huge chest with carven lid
where pale gems and gold lay hid
in secret treasury in the dark ground;
its strong doors were iron-bound.
The swords of his thanes were dull with rust,
his glory fallen, his rule unjust,
his halls hollow, and his bowers cold,
but king he was of elvish gold.
He heard not the horns in the mountain-pass,
he smelt not the blood on the trodden grass,
but his halls were burned, his kingdom lost;
in a cold pit his bones were tossed.

There is an old hoard in a dark rock,
forgotten behind doors none can unlock;
that grim gate no man can pass.
On the mound grows the green grass;
there sheep feed and the larks soar,
and the wind blows from the sea-shore.
The old hoard the Night shall keep,
while earth waits and the Elves sleep.

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1970

gold galde bewunden.png

In 1923 Tolkien published a poem called IUMONNA GOLD GALDE BEWUNDEN, the first version of what was to become in 1970 THE HOARD.  The first title is better, though, for it means ‘the gold of ancient men, wound round with magic’, it is line 3052 of BEOWULF, and it points to a notorious difficulty in that poem over the hero’s motives.  When he went to fight HIS dragon he appeared to do so for the best of reasons, i.e. to protect his people.  On the other hand he also showed a keen interest in the treasure, which the dragon was only trying to guard, having been provoked by the theft of a cup by a passing runaway (or ‘burglar’).  At one point indeed (…) the poet seems to say that there was a curse on the gold, so that the man who plundered it ‘should be guilty of sin, be shut up in devil’s haunts, bound in hell-bands and tormented grievously.’ (…)  Maybe the dragon-curse is (…) avarice.  So Tolkien suggested in the 1923 poem, tracing in successive stanzas the transmission of a treasure from elf to dwarf to dragon to hero and ending with the picture of an old and miserly king overthrown by his rivals and leaving his gold to oblivion.  All the characters in it are the same: they begin with vitality, mirth and courage, they end in age, wealth and squalor.  Their decline is caused by gold.  Could their progress also be a kind of analogue of human history, beginning in heroic endeavor and ending in ‘commercialism’, ‘materialism’, ‘industrialism’, that whole series of distinctive modern concepts which nevertheless centre if not on gold, on that ‘idolatry of artefacts’, which C.S Lewis called, in evident agreement with Tolkien, the ‘great corporate sin of our own civilization’?

~ Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth: The Bewilderment of Smaug.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Power Corrupts

‘True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted.’ (…) ‘I am too strong for you, halfling’.

‘Alas, no,’ said Elrond.  ‘We cannot use the Ruling Ring.  That we now know too well.  It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.  Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own.  But for them it holds an even deadlier peril.  The very desire of it corrupts the heart.  Consider Saruman.  If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne and yet another Dark Lord would appear.  And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise.  For nothing is evil in the beginning.  Even Sauron was not so.  I fear to take the Ring to hide it.  I will not take the Ring to wield it.’

‘Nor I,’ said Gandalf.  (…)

‘I pass the test,’ Galadriel said.  ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings.  Book 2

Tom Shippey

At the heart of THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the assertions which Gandalf makes in Book 1/2, his long conversation with Frodo. (…)  First, Gandalf says that the Ring is immensely powerful, in the right or the wrong hands. (…) Second, though, Gandalf insists that the Ring is deadly dangerous to all its possessors: it will take them over, ‘devour’ them, ‘possess’ them.  But finally, and this third point is one which Gandalf has to re-emphasize strongly and against opposition in the ‘Council of Elrond’, the Ring cannot simply be left unused, put aside, thrown away: it has to be destroyed, and the only place where it can be destroyed is the place of its fabrication, Orodruin, the Cracks of Doom.

This assertion determines the story. (…) One might point out that (…) Gandalf’s postulates might take a bit of swallowing.  Why should we believe them?  However, while critics have found fault with almost everything about THE LORD OF THE RINGS, on one pretext or another, no one to my knowledge has ever quibbled with what Gandalf says about the Ring.  It is far too plausible, and too recognizable.  It would not have been so before the many bitter experiences of the twentieth century.

If one fits together the many points which Gandalf makes in this early chapter, it would be a dull mind, nowadays, which did not reflect ‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.  This was first stated (…) in 1887. (…)  I do not think many people would have agreed (…) much before 1887.  The medieval world had its saints’ lives, in which the saints used their immense and indeed miraculous power entirely for good purposes; while there is no shortage of evil kings in medieval story, there is rarely any sign that they became evil by becoming kings (though there are some hints to that effect in BEOWULF). (…) The nearest thing (…) in Old English is the proverb (…) ‘A man does as he is when he can do what he wants’, and what this means is that power REVEALS character, not that it alters it.  Why have opinions changed?  (…)

The major disillusionment of the twentieth century has been over political good intentions, which have led only to gulags and killing fields.  That is why what Gandalf says rings true to virtually everyone who reads it – though it is, I repeat, yet one more anachronism in Middle-earth, and the greatest of them, an entirely modern conviction.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

Maybe here lies one of the reasons for Beowulf’s undying popularity.

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