Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Jewish analogue to The Doors of Durin

It is well known to Tolkien scholars that the Dwarves were in some ways analogous to the Jews, both culturally and linguistically. Tolkien made this quite clear himself. He wrote in 1955: “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue” (Letters, #176).

Near the end of his life, he repeated this idea in a 1971 interview with the BBC: “The dwarves of course are quite obviously — wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Like the Semitic languages, Khuzdul, the language of the Dwarves, seems to be based on triconsonantal roots. Even a cursory examination of the attested corpus is enough to demonstrate this, and others have said more than enough about it already (for example, this treatment; and see Magnus Åberg’s “An Analysis of Dwarvish” [1]). Tolkien, again, made this quite explicit: “The language of the Dwarves […] is Semitic in cast, leaning phonetically to Hebrew (as suits the Dwarvish character)” [2].

And lest anybody think that Tolkien considered this any kind of denigration, he put that notion firmly to rest with his responses to requests from a Nazi-era German publishing house to substantiate that he had no Jewish background before they would go forward with a German translation of The Hobbit. In 1938, he replied tetchily: “Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of ‘arisch’ origin from all persons of all countries?” He goes on: “Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine” (Letters, #29; and see also #30).

So, what do I have to add to this? More than a year ago, a friend of mine was travelling in China and shared some photos (thank you, Russ Hanser!), one of which really caught my eye, as I am sure it will yours. I’ve been meaning to write about this ever since. So, take a moment to consider the following image. The similarities are pretty jaw-dropping, don’t you think?

In both cases, a gateway or door is formed with two pillars and an arch connecting them above. The pillars are both tree-woven, and there is a crown beneath the apex of the arch. In both cases, there is writing in a script which can be written as both a true alphabet and as an abjad. In Tolkien’s illustration of the Doors of Durin, there are also seven stars, a single many-rayed star, and a hammer and anvil, which are not to be seen in the other image. But you can see why this Jewish imagery got my attention. I have no reason to think Tolkien had ever seen anything like it, but the resemblance is pretty incredible. So what is this Jewish image?

It’s the parokhet in front of the aron ha-kodesh in a synagogue, or what used to be a synagogue. Sounds like Dwarvish? Okay, let me back up. And for any of my Jewish friends who find fault with the explanation to follow, please don’t hesitate to correct me. I know I’m venturing into unfamiliar religious territory here.

Synagogues contain a closet or chest in which the Torah scrolls reside. This is an imitation of the Ark of the Covenant. Normally, the Ark of the Torah (the aron ha-kodesh, or aron kodesh “holy ark”) is placed a few steps above the ground on the wall nearest Jerusalem. In front of the ark, an ornate and expensive curtain is usually hung. This is the parokhet “curtain” < Aramaic porokta, symbolizing the curtain covering the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Exodus 40:21). For a bit more detail, follow this link.

So, the imagery that is so similar to Tolkien’s is on the parokhet. One could ask, then, whether this is typical imagery, of the type Tolkien could possibly have seen. The answer is yes and no. Since discovering this particular example, I’ve looked at many, and while the crown and pillars are pretty universal, and the arch pretty common, the style of the imagery on the parokhet varies a lot. You can follow this link to see a number of different examples. Most will not remind you very much of Tolkien’s illustration. A few are close, but this one is amazingly similar.

Could Tolkien have seen it? Alas, no. This particular parokhet hangs in what used to be the Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Shanghai, China, built in 1927, located at 62 Changyang Road in the Hongkou District. It is no longer an active synagogue; today, it’s the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai took in 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust (learn more here). The parokhet was donated to the museum in 2009 by the Israeli consulate in Shanghai (details here).

It also seems unlikely that the influence ran in the other direction, with Tolkien’s image influencing this design. It seems to be a purely coincidental resemblance, albeit a very strong one. It could be that the general design of the traditional parokhet influenced Tolkien’s conception of the Doors of Durin, though even that seems very unlikely to me. Better to say it is just one of those strange but wonderful coincidences that sometimes arise in literature and life. (Never mind that the Hebrew letter daleth, D as in Durin, comes from the word and pictogram for “door”.)

The diaspora of the Dwarves cannot help but reminds us of the diaspora of the Jews. Are Hitler and Mussolini analogous to the great dragons of the north by comparison? Well, let’s remember that Tolkien was not consciously representing the two great wars of the twentieth century in his fiction. Though, as he said, applicability is still the prerogative of the reader [3].

[1] Åberg, Magnus. “An Analysis of Dwarvish.” Arda Philology 1 (2005) [The Proceedings of the First International Conference on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Invented Languages; Omentielva Minya; Stockholm, 2005]: 42–65.

[2] From a 1964 letter to W.R. Matthews, quoted in “Words, Phrases & Passages in The Lord of the Rings”, Parma Eldalamberon 17 (2007), p. 85.

[3] See the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

“More like a grocer than a burglar”

I’m sure all of you remember Gloin’s rather unflattering first impression of Bilbo in the first chapter of The Hobbit:
Humph! […] Will he do, do you think? It is all very well for Gandalf to talk about this hobbit being fierce, but one shriek like that in a moment of excitement would be enough to wake the dragon and all his relatives, and kill the lot of us. I think it sounded more like fright than excitement! In fact, if it had not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we had come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!
But as we know, first impressions can be deceiving. Over the course of their journey together, Bilbo redeems himself in the dwarves’ eyes many times over, finally declaring in Smaug’s lair, “I’ve done it! This will show them. ‘More like a grocer than a burglar’ indeed! Well, we’ll hear no more of that.”

This is all very obvious, I know, but I mention this to set up a point of comparison in The Lord of the Rings. I can’t recall ever having seen this observation before, and to refresh my memory, I even made a quick search of most of the usual works in the secondary literature. If anyone of you has seen this before, please let me know where!

Gloin’s comments above are quoted from the first chapter of The Hobbit, as I said. As all of us here know, the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings shows a number of parallels with its predecessor (as indeed does the entire novel). To name a few:

  • both novels features parties, one totally unexpected, the other long-anticipated
  • in The Hobbit, Gandalf’s fireworks are recalled; in The Lord of the Rings, they’re actually seen
  • both witness the reappearance in the Shire of Gandalf after a long absence
  • both have Bilbo suddenly departing from his home without telling people where he’s going
  • both feature prominent anachronisms: mantel-clocks, post offices, express trains
  • both include legal paperwork by the clock on the mantel in Bag End: an employment contract in The Hobbit, a will and other documents in The Lord of the Rings
  • both describe a wish to travel and to see mountains; etc.

You may see where I am going with this line of comparison. Is there something in The Lord of the Rings to line up with Gloin’s character-ization of Bilbo as being “more like a grocer than a burglar”? I think there is. And now that I’ve focused your attention, perhaps you can guess what the connection might be.

We are told that the special family dinner-party for Bilbo and Frodo’s combined birthday celebration “was held in the great pavilion with the tree. The invitations were limited to twelve dozen (a number also called by the hobbits one Gross, though the word was not considered proper to use of people); and the guests were selected from all the families to which Bilbo and Frodo were related, with the addition of a few special unrelated friends (such as Gandalf).” A bit later, Bilbo alludes to the number in his postprandial speech. Bilbo is turning eleventy-one, Frodo thirty-three, thus:
Together we score one hundred and forty-four. Your numbers were chosen to fit this remarkable total: One Gross, if I may use the expression. No cheers. This was ridiculous. Many of his guests, and especially the Sackville-Bagginses, were insulted, feeling sure they had only been asked to fill up the required number, like goods in a package. ‘One Gross, indeed! Vulgar expression.’
Do you see the connection?

A grocer was originally “one who buys and sells in the gross, i.e. in large quantities, a wholesale dealer or merchant” (OED). Like “burglar”, but unlike so many others of Tolkien’s carefully chosen words, “grocer” is of French origin. It first appears in English in the fifteenth century, spelled grosser. Before that, we can trace its etymology backward to Anglo-Norman French grosser “a bulk merchant” < Old French grossier, agentive of gros “large”, and also meaning “a bulk merchant”, but earlier meaning more generically any “enlarger” < Medieval Latin grossārius “bulk merchant”. The original ss became c under the influence of a related vocation, “spicer”, cf. French épicier, the normal equivalent to our word, “grocer”. Interestingly, Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary shows that in certain regions alternate spellings persisted into the twentieth-century, including grosser, grozier, and grosher (the word is often pronounced this way in American English even though spelled grocer).

So, you see, Bilbo’s socially inept use of the word gross, especially applying it to people, actually befits somebody who is, or at least, appears on the surface to be, “more a grocer than a burglar”. Even after his earlier adventures, he still grosses up his neighbors and family without hesitation.

Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull have pointed out that Tolkien is punning on gross in the nominal sense of a number (a dozen dozens) as well as in the adjectival sense of “fat, coarse, unrefined”, probably applicable to most hobbits, and they also point out Tolkien’s use of “engrossing” nearby (The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, p. 68). But I think Tolkien was further punning on grocer = grosser, one who deals in grosses, whether they be goods in a package or hobbits. It might have been unintentional, but I doubt it. In any case, intentional or not, it’s another enjoyable point of contact (and a subtle one) between the opening chapters of these two great works of Middle-earth.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Christopher Tolkien, Warren Hamilton Lewis, and Laurence Housman

Earlier this week, somebody called JPB posted a controversial op-ed on, “Concerning Christopher – An Essay on Tolkien’s Son’s Decision to Not Allow Further Cinematic Licensing of His Work” (read it here). In addition to a lively discussion following the article (more than 200 comments so far), the op-ed inspired a thorough and spirited rebuttal from Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles, “A Commentary on ‘Concerning Christopher’” (read it here). Marcel’s piece, though long, is well worth reading, and I happen to agree with his point of view. Marcel shared his rebuttal on Facebook, where it touched off another animated discussion, in which one particular comment caught my eye (excerpted here):
When Christopher inherited his father’s papers, he could have burnt the lot, including Tolkien’s diaries, letters and non-Middle-earth fiction, and his academic papers too. J.R.R. had given him leave to do so, when he made him his literary executor. None of us would have been any the wiser.
This immediately reminded me of C.S. Lewis. Walter Hooper tells the story that in January, 1964, two months after Lewis died, his brother “Major Lewis, after setting aside those papers that had a special significance for him, began disposing of the others. Thus it was that a great many things which I was never able to identify found their way on to a bonfire which burned steadily for three days” [Preface to The Dark Tower]. The story continues that Hooper was tipped off by Lewis’s gardener, Fred Paxford, and arrived just in the nick of time to save “a great quantity of C.S. Lewis’s notebooks and papers”, which he has been publishing ever since.

But in fact, this probably never happened. In The C.S. Lewis Hoax (Multnomah Press, 1988), and in her subsequent books, Kathryn Lindskoog has pretty thoroughly debunked the bonfire story. Wendell Wagner sums it up for us in a letter to the editor of Mythprint (August, 1995): “Not only did Fred Paxford deny ever having burned any important papers of C.S. Lewis, but Lindskoog shows that Hooper’s time scheme for the bonfire is impossible. Hooper claims that the bonfire occurred in January of 1964 and that he brought the rescued papers back to his rooms at Keble College. (He also claims to have spent three weeks during that month working with Warren Lewis on C.S.Lewis’s letters.) But it’s clear from Warren’s letters that Warren and Hooper didn’t even meet until Warren returned from Ireland in February of 1964, by which time Hooper had moved from Keble to Wycliffe Hall. To place any credence in Hooper’s story, we would have to believe that he got the month of the bonfire and the place he was living at the time wrong and that Paxford had somehow forgotten the bonfire entirely. Lindskoog has also discovered that in a published interview in 1979 Hooper forgot the bonfire story and claimed that he found the manuscript when he and Douglas Gresham cleaned out Lewis’s rooms at Cambridge in the summer of 1963.”

But then my mind swam back to another story of the destruction of literary papers, some three decades earlier. I pulled the book off the shelf to refresh my memory. I hope you will indulge me in a lengthier quotation:
This final selection of A.E. Housman’s poems is published by his permission, not by his wish. His instructions, allowing them to appear, while committing other material to a less fortunate fate, were as follows:

“I direct my brother, Laurence Housman, to destroy all my prose manuscripts in whatever language, and I permit him but do not enjoin him to select from my verse manuscript writing, and to publish, any poems which appear to him to be completed and not to be inferior to the average of my published poems; and I direct him to destroy all other poems and fragments of verse.”

The responsibility which has thus been laid on me is of a double character; for while I am anxious to include nothing that can do hurt to my brother’s literary reputation, I am most reluctant to deprive his lovers of any poems, however minor in character, which are not inferior to the others […].

It may be some consolation for those who regret this order for destruction, to know that there are no fragments or unfinished poems of outstanding quality. A few beautiful phrases, sometimes single verses, will have to go. […] All the rest is mainly work-shop material — chiefly of interest as showing the author’s method of composition — his many alterations of phrase or rhyme before finding the one which best satisfied him. [Preface to A.E. Housman, More Poems (Knopf, 1936)]
I am sure it is quite a disconsolation to Housman scholars that what they should be deprived of is some of the very material which would interest them most, that “showing the author’s method of composition”. Imagine how much these long-gone notebooks might have revealed about Housman’s working methods!

And now imagine if Christopher Tolkien had taken the same course, how much would have been lost. Indeed, the loss of native English mythology in the wake of the Norman Conquest that Tolkien so rued would in some ways have been repeated, a millennium later, almost to the year. It causes actual psychological pain to imagine it all consumed by fire. How easily paper burns! The Ring, when it was consumed by the Fire, took with it much that had been made through its power, or in resistance to it, and led to the changing of the Age and the passing of the Elves — but, perhaps most ironically, what survived the fire was a book. Or rather more than one.

Three beloved authors, three literary executors. One carried out his brother’s wishes and destroyed all but a tithe of his papers; one was rumored to have done so, but probably didn’t; and one has labored for decades to share nearly everything his father left behind. Consider that dedication for a moment and reflect: isn’t it the height of ingratitude for anyone to complain about what Christopher has done or what little he has declined to share? The fire would have greedily taken it all, until not a single page remained. We should try to be a little more grateful than that.