Friday, September 28, 2007

Cracking the top 10,000

It may not sound like much, but my Amazon reviewer rank just went below 10,000 — to 9,793, in fact (as of the time of this writing). If that doesn’t sound too impressive, just bear in mind that when I started, less than a year ago, my initial rank after one review was 667,811! Give me more time, and I hope to eventually crack the top 1,000, at which point, I’ll get a badge of recognition for my trouble.

If you want to help me do this, feel free to visit my reviews and vote them helpful (if you do find them helpful, that is). I only wish you could do it right from that link, but you’ll actually have to visit the product page, find the review and vote for it there. Several of them are right on the product page, under the “Most Helpful Customer Reviews” section (e.g., most of the Tolkien reviews), but others are buried on a deeper page. I’m probably kidding myself that anyone will take the time, eh? ;)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

New Tom Shippey review in TLS

A nice segue from my post yesterday about Jacob Grimm ...

The Times Literary Supplement has just published its review of a new book by Joep Leerssen, National Thought in Europe: A Cultural History. The book looks interesting, but even better, the review is by Tom Shippey, a man who may be even better qualified to write on the subject than Mr. Leerssen himself! As usual, Shippey’s writing is lively and entertaining, and he even manages to work in a reference to Tolkien right near the beginning.

Enjoy the review. :)

Monday, September 24, 2007

“New Learning and New Ignorance”

You know what I love? When you’ve made an academic argument based on the best evidence you were aware of at the time, and then you find new evidence, long afterward, which backs up your theory! It also points out just how much “evidence” there is out there — both for and against any given proposition. Finding it, sifting through it, and evaluating its merit, that’s the great challenge.

A little over a year ago, I presented a paper at Mythcon 37 in which I attempted to trace the most likely sources for Tolkien’s well-known, but usually overlooked, literary collocation “Circles of the World.” The three I discussed were the Old Norse Heimskringla, the Biblia Vulgata, and the famous mappa mundi at Hereford Cathedral in the West Midlands. The two philological analogues here are the Old Norse kringla heimsins “circle of the world” and the Latin orbis terrarum “circle of the worlds”, and though I think I was successful in plausibly connecting both to Tolkien, I didn’t have a good transition from the one to the other — apart from the rather obvious fact that they mean the same thing. Well, thanks to serendipity — and to a diet of abstruse reading :) — I’ve now discovered a single source, one that Tolkien definitely knew, that connects these two precedents (as well as other conspicuously Tolkienian concepts) in the space of just a few pages. Curious?

I found it in Volume II of Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie (1883–1888). This is in the James Steven Stallybrass translation, which he retitled Teutonic Mythology. I was reading Chapter XXV Time and World, when I came across this (with apologies for the choppy editing):
The ON. heimr is mundus, domus, and akin to himinn, himil (p. 698), as mundus also is applied to world and sky; heimskrîngla, orbis terrarum. Ulphilas renders οικουμένη [...] by [Gothic] midjungards; to this correspond the AS. middangeard [...]; the OHG. mittingart [...]; the OS. middilgard; the ON. miðgarðr [...]; and even a Swed. folksong [...] has retained medjegård. [1]
This is quite something, to see my two philological sources separated by no more than a comma! And compellingly followed by a laundry list of precursors for “Middle-earth”, one of which (the Greek οικουμένη) Tolkien mentioned explicitly in a letter [2].

As Grimm continues, more tantalizingly Tolkienian references appear. These include linking orbis terrarum to the idea of the “sea-girt world,” with cognates and sources aplenty, most notably the Old Norse miðgarðs ormr, the “serpent [...] coiled round the earth’s circumference, [...] evidently the ocean.” This, too, finds a point of connection with my paper, in an argument suggesting that the Hereford mappa mundi, also depicted as girded round by water, may find an echo in Tolkien’s Ekkaia, the Encircling Sea in his fictive geography.

Then, at the bottom of the page, Grimm surprisingly produces the Finnish ilma “air, sky”, which many of you will recognize for Tolkien’s use of the same word in Quenya, with an obviously related meaning (“starlight”); as well as in Ilmarin (“Mansion of the High Airs”), the palace of Manwë and Varda atop Taniquetil; and even Ilmarë, the handmaid to Varda. Tolkien, we’re pretty sure, would have gotten this word from the Finnish Kalevala, but he evidently saw it here too.

And even more, as Grimm continues over the next two pages, we see mention of the Völuspá, a self-acknowledged source for Tolkien; Yggdrasil, the World Ash, connected by many scholars to Tolkien’s own metaphoric and mythopoeic use of the Tree imago; and specific mention of the Old Norse dwarves “Dâinn [sic] and Dvalinn,” both names memorably recycled by Tolkien. All of this, from start to finish, in just three consecutive pages of a text Tolkien knew — and knew well. It’s therefore no great stretch to see Deutsche Mythologie as having gone into the same leaf-mould that produced Tolkien’s “Circles of the World.”

I love that! Now, to incorporate this into a revision of my paper!

[1] Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, Volume II. Trans. James Steven Stallybrass. Dover Phoenix Edition. Mineola (NY): Dover, 2004, p. 794.

[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p.239 (#183).

Friday, September 21, 2007

My review copies of The History of The Hobbit have arrived!

I just got a package in the mail today from Houghton Mifflin — and inside were volumes 1 and 2 of John Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit, which I will be reviewing for the Spring issue of Mythlore. These have been out for a few months in the U.K. (from HarperCollins), but they don’t hit American bookstores for a little over a month yet — so the rest of you will sadly have to wait. (I will try to suppress a very trollish grin as I begin reading. ;)

I can’t wait to dive into these! I’ve flipped through them a little already, enough to form a few first impressions. First, they’re very handsomely made books. Second, there’s a lot of material here. The pair add up to about 900 pages, no doubt full of all sorts of surprises. And third, there’s a good deal of accompanying art. Both volumes have a frontispiece as well as an insert of full-color reproductions of Tolkien’s sketches, watercolors, and rough drafts — even Thorin’s letter to Bilbo, in runes! Some of these are previously unpublished. Those of you who were at Marquette in 2004 saw many of the illustrations up close, but there were still one or two even I didn’t recognize. For those familiar with The History of Middle-earth, Rateliff’s two volumes are constructed on that model and will look familiar to anyone already immersed in textual studies of Tolkien.

How exciting to have these at last! After years and years (quite literally), the wait is finally over! I have a feeling Mr. Rateliff may have the best shot going for next year’s Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Two new beers to recommend

Those who know me know that I like to try potables and comestibles from all over the world — the more exotic, the better. And those who know me also know I’ll sieze any excuse to use a word like “comestibles”, hahae. I mean, this post isn’t even about food! ;) This week, two new countries join my list of beers from around the world. My normal preferences lean toward dark beers, bocks, stouts, porters, and the like, but today I have a couple of lagers to recommend.

Toña — Nicaragua
Toña is a wonderfully mild lager out of Managua. I was going to call it “light”, but I worry that could be confused with so-called light beer, which I never drink — mainly because it isn’t beer :) Toña only made it to American beer aficionados in January of this year, and it’s very welcome as far as I’m concerned. One thing I found interesting is that the malt and hops are American and European; only the well-water (and the brewing process itself, I suppose) is Nicaraguan. It carries a 4.6% alcohol content, and it’s not overcarbonated, so it’s very smooth. It has a little bit of a floral note, too, I think. I’m not sure whether they’ve added any flowers or herbs (e.g., coriander) to the mix, as some brewers will do, but it’s a very nice beer. It compares favorably with other lagers of the region. One thing I found amusing was that, according to the bottle, Toña comes to Texas supermarkets by way of Washington state. That’s a little out of the way, isn’t it?

Czechvar — Czech Republic
Considering that I’m one quarter Czech myself, it may be surprising that I haven’t tried any Czech beer until now. Well, actually, in a way, I have, since Shiner and other Texas beers still use techniques brought to Texas by Czech immigrants (of which there are still many small communities — e.g., Shiner, TX, itself). There’s even a Czech Heritage Society of Texas. In any case, Czechvar is a very nice, very drinkable lager, with a 5% alcohol content. I could almost believe it’s the pivo červený (“red beer”) of which my grandmother used to sing as a girl — to judge by their folksongs, the Czechs have their priorities right! — except that it’s pale gold in color. They brew it in České Budějovice in the Southern Bohemian region of the country, and I believe this may be my first beer from Eastern Europe.

Other countries whose beer(s) I’ve tried include:

• Australia
• Austria
• Argentina
• Belgium
• Belize
• Brazil
• Canada
• Chile
• China
• Czech Republic
• Costa Rica
• Denmark
• El Salvador
• England
• France
• Germany
• Guatemala
• Honduras
• India
• Ireland
• Italy
• Jamaica
• Japan
• Lithuania
• Mexico
• Netherlands
• New Zealand
• Nicaragua
• Peru
• Poland
• Phillipines
• Russia
• Scotland
• Singapore
• Spain
• Sri Lanka
• Tasmania
• Thailand
• Tibet
• Trinidad and Tobago
• Turkey
• Vietnam
• Zimbabwe

Counting the United States, that puts me up to 44 countries.

Am I forgetting some? Probably. I feel like I’ve had one or two others from Central and South America, but I’m blanking. And if you count things that are beer-like, but not actually beer, then I could add Nigeria and Ethiopia to the list. I should keep a real list, I suppose (I mean, a list that’s on the outside of my brain :). Are there any international beers that any of you can recommend? I also look for microbrews inside the U.S., but that’s a post for another day.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hemingway short stories — Part 3

Read Part 1, Part 2. Once again: these posts will contain SPOILERS. You have been warned. :)

“The Three-Day Blow”
Picking up in the aftermath of Nick’s breakup with Marjorie, he visits Bill (who makes a brief appearance at the conclusion of “The End of Something”) at his father’s homestead. They talk about the weather, literally, about baseball, about literature (with high praise for G.K. Chesterton, of all people). But when Bill brings up Marjorie, it’s clear that Nick really regrets the breakup. He “holds it in reserve” that he might get back together with her, but once they go outside, the gale blows all Nick’s worries and “feelings” out of his head (or heart). It’s a classic Hemingway situation where men aren’t supposed to have real feelings — or aren’t supposed to voice them, anyway. Are Nick’s regrets really gone, or will they be back as soon as the “three-day blow” is over? (The accompanying chapterlet is also set in the rain.)

“The Battler”
Nick is train-hopping across the country in this story, asserting a growing independence, it would seem. After getting thrown off a train, he meets Ad Francis, a famous (but now washed-up) prizefighter: the battler of the story’s title. Nick and Ad chat around a camp fire, and a little later, Nick meets Bugs, the “negro” who takes care of Ad, now that Ad can’t quite take care of himself. They met in jail, and Bugs took a liking to him. They eat a sort of “hobo feast” around the fire, after which Ad gets a bit riled up at Nick (earlier, Ad admits of himself that he’s gone a little crazy), and Bugs has to club him over the head with a blackjack to calm him down! He explains Ad’s situation: too many fights and a tragic, failed marriage to his “sister” (the story leaves ambiguous the question of whether it’s really his literal sister). Bugs is really a very kind caretaker, reminding me a little of Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and there the similiarity ends, as Ad is nothing like Huck).

“Chapter VI”
In this chapterlet, it seems to be revealed that these may all be Nick’s war reflections. At least, this one appears to be.

“A Very Short Story”
Short indeed! About the wishful, ephemeral connections made during war time and what follows in their wake after they’ve come apart.

“Chapter VII”
A nice ironic statement about the promises we make (to God, in this case) when face to face with our own mortality, and how we almost never make good on them when come through the experience alive.

“Solder’s Home”
A remarkable story. This one doesn’t revolve around Nick Adams. Rather, the protagonist is one Harold Krebs. The image of the photograph at the beginning — what a great detail, the kind that a successful short story can be built on! It shows just how impossible it is to capture a moment the way we feel it, and how likely we are to mythologize or romanticize it in our memory. And it prefigures how everything will be different when Krebs comes home from the war. The history books he reads about the war fascinate him, as if he weren’t there himself! As if he learned nothing first-hand — and he probably didn’t, because he was “badly, sickeningly frightened all the time.” His mother worries about what he’ll do with his life now that he’s come home — alive, at least, but not unchanged. She even convinces Kreb’s father to let him take out the car at night, hoping he might start to date, maybe resume a normal life. Kreb’s is emotionally regressing back toward a fumbling adolescence, aborted when he went to war. And now that he is back, he’s in the grips of an ennui so pervasive that he does nothing all day but watch the girls go by. Just watch them; he won’t ask one out. He just alternates between watching the girls go by and reading history books about the war. It’s very sad to see how emotionally devastated Krebs is. We want to hope he can recover, but we know that he probably won’t.

“Chapter VIII”
This is the first of the chapterlets that isn’t a picture of war. Rather, this one centers on an image of urban violence, crime, and racism. It’s still not completely clear (yet) what readers are to make of these interludes.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Other books for Potterphiles

So now that J.K. Rowling has brought the Harry Potter series to a close (notwithstanding the possibility of future add-ons, such as the Potter Encyclopedia she has hinted at), what else are Potterphiles to turn to? I thought I would take a moment to recommend some of the books and series I have read and enjoyed myself — mainly in the domain of YA Fantasy. These are all books I’ve read myself, so it is this more than anything else which accounts for obvious omissions (e.g., the Xanth series of Piers Anthony, the Pern books of Anne McCaffrey, or Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series — they may all be great, but I wouldn’t know, never having read them myself). The list is also, by necessity, selective. I read a lot, but I obviously can’t put down everything here in a single post. So, take this for what it’s worth: it’s just one man’s opinion, and only part of it.

Lloyd Alexander
Alexander (who passed away very recently) is best known for his Prydain Cycle, five novels (plus a couple of add-ons) that take as their rough inspiration the Wales of the Mabinogion. These are wonderful, of course, but Alexander has dozens of other books to offer famished readers as well. There are the Vesper Holly and Westmark series, as well as many individual books worth reading, such as The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, and Time Cat — and the posthumous Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, published only last month. I’ve read almost everything Alexander wrote and can recommend all of it without reservation.

Isaac Asimov
The Foundation Trilogy. This is only the “science-fiction” on an otherwise exclusively fantasy-centered list, but I include it for two reasons: a) it’s not really conventional science-fiction, in the sense of, say, Stanisław Lem or Arthur C. Clarke), and b) the sheer scope of the imagination involved is enough to earn it a place here. Asimov did publish a lot of mainstream sci-fi, and there are also a number of add-on books in the Foundation series (which I haven’t read). These three, however, are remarkable, and will give you a whole new appreciation for the idea of “hacking history”. In fact, the science of psychohistory, as propounded in the novel, may make you think of Stanisław Lem — or Aldous Huxley perhaps.

Neil Gaiman
I’m thinking of three books in particular: Stardust, American Gods, and Anansi Boys. The latter two are related through a minor character, the African Spider-god, Anansi. Immensely imaginative, entertaining, and actually quite funny in places, all three are rewarding in their own ways. Plus, reading Gaiman makes you “cool”. ;)

Alan Garner
Garner wrote two Alderley Edge novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (of which, the first is definitely the better), as well a number of wonderful individual novels — The Owl Service (like Alexander, with a nod to the Mabinogion), Elidor, Red Shift, and the more difficult Strandloper. Like Tolkien, Garner drew on a combination of local (Cheshire) history and Germanic and Celtic mythologies for his fiction. Almost forgotten today, though I don’t really know why, Garner is well worth discovering.

Madeleine L’Engle
L’Engle passed away only a week ago, and it’s another devastating loss, following right on the heels of Alexander’s passing. I haven’t read a lot of her work, but I did read three of the four books in the Time Quartet (the fourth book came too long after). They were incredibly eye-opening for me — they’re the reason I could throw around words like “mitochondria” and “tesseract” at the tender age of ten or so. I also have fond memories of watching the Wrinkle in Time filmstrip (yes, filmstrip — remember those? :) in elementary school.

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Earthsea Trilogy was a special favorite of mine, growing up, and I reread it earlier this year. Read it — you won’t be sorry! Like Tolkien, Le Guin shows a special appreciation for the power of words, names, and language. Le Guin eventually wrote several add-on books (of which I didn’t especially enjoy Tehanu; though The Other Wind was excellent). Le Guin is also a master (err, mistress?) of the fantasy / science-fiction short story. Her collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is definitely worth making time for.

C.S. Lewis
I only read The Chronicles of Narnia at the embarrassing late date of, err, earlier this year. And while they do have their defects, they were incredibly influential (they still are), and they really are great fun to read. I could include the Space Trilogy here, but for the fact that I haven’t read it yet. Also, I don’t think it’s quite meant for the YA audience (just as Lewis’s superb novel, Till We Have Faces, is not).

Byron Preiss / Michael Reeves
Dragonworld was a great discovery for me in the early 1980’s. In some ways, it owes a large debt to Tolkien — e.g., its main character, Amsel, is a small person, very much like a Hobbit; however, it’s a world away from the rip-off work of Terry Brooks. Plus, it’s long and copiously illustrated; it’s the kind of book that you can luxuriate it. And it has some quite original ideas, too. Look for it. Sadly, Preiss was killed a couple of years ago in a car crash, a year or two after filing bankruptcy. :(

Philip Pullman
Owing an enormous debt to Milton, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (with the add-on, Lyra’s Oxford, and the forthcoming Book of Dust) is one of the most imaginative series of recent years. The books aren’t without their faults, but they’re probably the most inventively mythopoeic works since Tolkien and Lewis — despite Pullman’s vociferous dislike of those two. I’m looking forward to the film version of The Golden Compass.

J.R.R. Tolkien
What do I really need to say? If you haven’t read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, isn’t it about time? :)

Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Wangerin is, like Lewis, a Christian apologist, but one who brooks no apologies for the disturbing nature of some aspects of the mythology. I’m thinking here of the duology of The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows. Owing a good deal to Celtic and Germanic mythology, Chaucer, Milton, and of course, The Bible, these books are Christian allegories told from the point of view of animals (before the arrival of Man on Earth). They are, for Christianity, what Orwell’s Animal Farm was for political ideology. The relationship between Chaunticleer and Mundo Cani is one of the more original in YA literature, and it forms the bridge to the sequel, which is (I must warn you) one of the single most depressing books you will ever read. But what did you expect from something called The Book of Sorrows?

John White
Okay, I should preface this recommendation with a caveat lector: John White’s Archives of Anthropos series is a very obvious Christian allegory and borrows pretty transparently from The Chronicles of Narnia, only published a couple of decades before. I really enjoyed the two I read as a kid — The Tower of Geburah and The Iron Scepter (which also borrows Dante’s conception of Hell from Inferno) — but I haven’t read them since. Having now read their inspiration in Lewis, I can see the obvious connections. The stories involve a group of children who get sucked into an alternate world, not through a wardrobe but through some strange old televisions in an abandoned attic (not unlike the method of ingress into Narnia in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Character and place-names owe a lot to New Testament Greek: The World of Anthropos (ανθρωπος), Castle Authentio (αυθεντικός), King Kardia (καρδιά) — and a koine rubric of “love” that is straight from Lewis’s The Four Loves. But they were fun books to read.

What can any of you recommend?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Did Gandalf ever wander into Nigeria?

This is just for fun, but while doing some background research for yesterday’s post, I came across mention of the Yoruba Creator-God, Olorun, a figure strongly associated with the color white, and I couldn’t help but think of Olórin, the name of Gandalf (later, Gandalf the White) in his youth in Aman. It’s amusing to think of Gandalf wandering into prehistoric West Africa on vacation, or perhaps looking for the Blue Wizards; chanting to himself — something along the lines of “Nearwe genyddon on norðwegas, / wiston him be suðan Sigelwara land, / forbærned burhhleoðu, brune leode, hatum heofoncolum”, naturally — and accidentally planting the seeds of an entire religion. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been the first time!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Determinative naming practices in Nigeria

(Did that blog post title scare everyone away? Anyone still reading? ;)

I had a very interesting conversation recently with my friend and coworker, Kelechi Eke, on the importance of names in the Yoruba and Igbo cultures of his native Nigeria. It all started when I came across an intriguing Yoruba proberb: oruko lonro ni, which means “names imply behavior.” The Yoruba people believe that names — and their transparent underlying meaning — are extremely important, and that they in fact affect or determine the behavior of the person so named. As I read, “[a] child with the name Sumala, meaning ‘thief,’ would go on to steal anything that wasn’t tied down. If parents make a bad choice of name at the birth of their child, the only way to deal with the problem is to rechristen the child.” [1]

Of course, the Sumala example is probably apocryphal or merely instructive. Assuming such a belief system, what parents in their right minds would ever give a child a name like that? But in any case, I wanted to know more, so I sought out Kelechi (whom we know here around the office as “K.C.”) to dig a little deeper. Kalechi speaks Yoruba and Igbo natively, and I’ve engaged him previously in conversations of this nature, over lunch at a couple of the very few African restaurants squirreled away here in Dallas. I knew he’d be receptive to the inquiry, and I was not disappointed: he gave me a wealth of detail to share with you.

Apparently, the belief is indeed alive and well in Nigeria, though it has been on a gradual decline due to the steady westernization of West Africa in recent decades. I found from Kelechi that the practice also tends to be perceived as more honorific than determinative, though it is still somewhat the latter; but it’s definitely a pervasive belief among the Yoruba, Igbo, and even to some extent the Hausa tribes in Nigeria to this day. Hausa, of course, both its language and its people, has been much more influenced by Arabic and Islam, so one encounters “determinative naming” less there. Most of the pre-Arabic Hausan names have disappeared. Likewise, in the Igbo tribes, the similar (but lesser and later) influence from Christianity has introduced a number of Biblical names such as David and Helen (the actual first name of the Nigerian singer, Sade; her middle name is Yoruba: Folasade = “honor confers a crown”). The Yoruba show a mixture of these belief systems and linguistic influences, but seem to retain more traces of their original pre-Christian / pre-Islamic religion — one still finds evidence of a pantheon of gods and goddesses worthy of the Greeks or the Egyptians, each with his or her dedicated province. K.C. tells me that these ancient deities are probably still worshipped in the remotest villages, even today.

But regardless of the tribe, Nigerians are considerably more aware of the underlying meanings of their names than we are here in the West. K.C. tells me that he can commonly deduce a number of things about a person, simply by hearing his or her name. For instance, he can get a sense of where they come from, which region of the country, which tribal origins, sometimes the exact village they call home, and so forth. Often, he can also draw some conclusions about the familial circumstances surrounding the person’s birth — all just from a name.

For example, the Yoruba name Babatunde means “my father has returned” — which suggests the premature loss of that parent not long before a child was born. The equivalent for a daughter is Yetunde = “my mother has returned.” A similar name in Igbo is Nnamdi = “my father still exists.” Another interesting name is Yoruba Abeni, meaning roughly “we asked for this daughter, and now we have her” — suggesting perhaps a difficult conception. And some names give you some information about the rest of the family or the circumstances of the birth, as in the quirky names, Idowu = “born after twins”, Ige = “born feet first”, and Okoye (Igbo) “born on a market day”. Many of the names are astonishingly creative.

K.C.’s own name is rich with meaning. When he was born, his mother experienced dangerous complications, which his parents acknowledged in his naming. In Igbo, Kelechi means “thank God”, and Eke means “creation”. The usual Igbo name for God, Chineke, means literally, “God of Creation”, and you can see both elements (chi + eke) in his two names. When K.C.’s own son was born, it was in the wake of difficulties in bringing his wife to the United States; consequently, they chose the name Oluchi, meaning “God’s work”, suggesting their gratitude that the immigration problems were resolved before his mother went into labor. Such explicitly Christian references are very common in Igbo. A less Christian, but more or less equivalent name, is Uzoma (Ijeoma for a girl), literally “good road”, implying a safe journey leading up to the birth of the baby. This is the name of one of K.C.’s brothers, and it reflects the fact that he was born a week before coming to the United States.

If Igbo names tend to be more religious in nature, Yoruba names — no less descriptive or elaborate — are often more related to the suggestion of royalty. Originally, this was literal royalty, but today, the usage is more metaphorical. Common elements include ade– “crown”, ola– “treasure”, and oba– “king”. Igbo, to a lesser degree, also has elements of this sort; as an example, K.C.’s daughter’s name, Adanze, incorporates the Igbo element ada– “princess”. I told K.C. about a Nigerian friend I used to know, whose name was Mobolaji. K.C. immediately told me this meant “I woke up with a (little) king” — what a beautiful sentiment for the naming of a child. Certainly a far cry from naming your baby Apple, Pilot Inspektor, or Moxie CrimeFighter. These are real names, by the way, lovingly (?!) bestowed by lunatic Hollywood parents on their innocent children. Then again, perhaps these names are determinative after all — all translating roughly as “expensive therapy later in life”, hahae.

It’s different for the children of Europe and America. Even though I know the meaning of my own name, it doesn’t have any special determinative or descriptive significance for me. Or almost none: I do have a strong affinity for swimming in the ocean. ;) But were I a Yoruba or Igbo and given a name meaning “healer” (as my first name signifies in Greek), I would have grown up realizing the significance of this and would almost certainly have actually become a doctor. I would have wanted to live up to my name, to justify my parents’ choice of it.

The brilliant Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, may be another example — Chinua = “God should hear” + Achebe = “Guidance”. Perhaps the decision to express himself — to provide a permanent written commentary on Igbo society as it struggles to find its place, to the extent it still has one, in our “modern” world of colonialization and globalization — had something to do with his awareness of the meaning of his own name. If I ever get to meet him (unlikely as that is), I’ll be sure to ask!

As far away from this kind of universal awareness of the meanings of names as we are here in the West, in the 21st century, this kind of culture reminds me of Tolkien’s naming practices, where his choice for the name of just about every person and place is richly imbued with meaning. The Yoruba element oba– is almost a direct equivalent to the tar– prefix in the names of the Númenórean kings, for instance. And what would you make of a family line with the names Númendil, Amandil, Elendil, and Meneldil? If you knew a little Quenya, their reverence for and loyalty to the West, the Eldar, and the Valar would be no mystery to you at all. As with a Yoruba or Igbo family, you’d be perfectly justified in drawing some conclusions, wouldn’t you? Too bad it isn’t like that in the “civilized” West. If it were, I’d surely be a doctor-king on some remote island! :)

[1] Moore, Christopher J. In Other Words. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2004, p. 78.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Khamûl — what’s in a name?

I’ve wanted to post some thoughts on Khamûl for some time now. I think I’ve got a few original ideas on this obscure character, one of the Nine Nazgûl, and the only one with an actual name. And after assembling them recently, it turns out that this post will form yet another another coda to the wraith / writhen discussion – read parts 1, 2, 3.

First, to refresh our memories, what do we know about him? Not a lot, actually. He only emerges as a distinct character from some of Tolkien’s background writing for The Lord of the Rings, in a collection of narratives labeled “The Hunt for the Ring.” Christopher Tolkien published the bulk of this writing in Unfinished Tales, but several additional passages, including some that relate to Khamûl, have been published more recently in Hammond and Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Khamûl has also been called the Shadow of the East and the Black Easterling. The Easterlings, of course, are those hostile Men, the Variags of Khand or a related people, who allied themselves with Sauron.

What else can we say about him? Very little. His name, movements, and individual character traits are only discussed in that one piece of writing. And nowhere, to my knowledge (and that of others I’ve consulted, such as Carl Hostetter), does Tolkien discuss any possible etymology of his name. He seems to be a case of spontaneous invention on Tolkien’s part. That being said, we do know that Khamûl was second only to the Witch-king of Angmar in the pecking order of the Ringwraiths. He dwelt for a while at Dol Guldur as Sauron’s lieutenant after he, Sauron, had returned to Mordor. It was also Khamûl who spoke so menacingly to the Gaffer on the night the Hobbits finally left Hobbiton. And perhaps most interesting: “Of Khamûl it is said [...] that he was the most ready of all the Nazgûl after the Black Captain himself, to perceive the presence of the Ring, but also the one whose power was most confused and diminished by daylight.” Interesting stuff, but small beer on which to base any theories.

But nevertheless, I’ve been making an effort to assemble some cogent thoughts and theories on the etymology of the name, because — well, I can’t just let such things lie. :) So, read along if the subject interests you and feel free to let me know what you think. I’ve broken my thoughts down into three areas: philological, historical, and geographical — with a final appendix in which I suggest a few “wilder” ideas. And nearly everything here favors “eastward explanations”, as Khamûl was, after all, the Shadow of the East. Also, because of the length of the post, I’ve omitted sources and citations; if you’re interested, just ask. I may try to formalize this into a conference paper. Would anyone be interested? :)

1) Philological Evidence

Here’s where I bring things back to wraith / writhen. There may be a defensible etymology for Khamûl as “the bent, crooked one”, richly echoing the etymology of wraith (as elaborated in the previous posts). It turns out there’s another Indo-European root of interest; two roots, actually: kemb–, kamp– “to bend”. These have made their way even into Modern English, e.g., akimbo. The root is attested in Latin camur, cămŭrus “crooked, crumpled”, from a past participial form of Greek κάμπτω “I bend”. Looking over Latin’s shoulder, there’s an even earlier Sansrkit cognate: kubja “crooked”, which has left its mark among the other Indo-Aryan languages, e.g., Panjabi kham “crooked”.

But even more than these, the root has left a considerable number of Goidelic cognates. These include such “bent and crooked” words as: Welsh cam “crooked, wrong, injury”; camu “to bend”; Scottish Gaelic cam “crooked”, also cam-bheul “wry mouth” (which sounds very close to Khamûl); Manx cam “bent, deformed, deceitful, crooked”; Old Irish camm “crooked”; Cornish cam “crooked”; and from the coast of Brittany, we have Breton kam “crooked” and Armoric kamm “crooked”.

I mention these in spite of Tolkien’s professed dislikes — “I have no liking at all for Gaelic from Old Irish downwards, as a language, but it is of course of great historical and philological interest, and I have at various times studied it.” It is perhaps very telling that the example he was discussing was nazg, with its Gaelic meaning of “ring”, cognate to his own Black Speech of Mordor. Furthermore, Tolkien proved himself well aware of the Celtic cam under his entry for cammede in his 1922 Middle English Vocabulary.

At points of “Goidelic contact”, obviously primarily in the west, the word also made its way into English dialectal usage, as in Lowland Scotch camsteerie “crooked, confused, unmanageable”. And in Lancashire, we have cam as a noun, “contradiction, crooked argument”; as an adverb, “awry”; and as a verb, “to cross or contradict; to oppose vexatiously; to quarrel” – all from the Welsh camu. We also get Southern Lancashire cammed and Northern and Eastern Lancashire caimt “crooked, bad-tempered, ill-natured” from the same source. I especially like this find, despite Tolkien’s normal preferences for the West Midland dialects, because it resonates with the fact that Tolkien served in the Lancashire Fusiliers during World War I, and was stationed in Yorkshire after his return from France. Which provides a nice segue to the historical discussion.

2) Historical Evidence

First, I have to say that there’s probably nothing to this, but I couldn’t help myself. Could Khamûl be an echo of Kamel, as in Mustafa Kamel Atatürk*, the famous Ottoman general who fought in World War I? Tolkien, of course, fought in the northwest of the European theatre and not in Anatolia, but the rumor of Kemal could hardly have gone unnoticed. Later, Kemal would found the nation of Turkey and become its first president. He was also a noted language reformer, responsible for — among other things — moving Turkish from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. This had a very beneficial effect on literacy, but Tolkien might have sighed over the loss of linguistic heritage in the name of “progress”.

This is naturally only the most distant possibility, of course, but it’s a tempting idea. Could the name of a larger-than-life war general from the east have stuck in Tolkien’s mind for all those years, then popped out unexpectedly and without explanation? On the other hand, is the stigma of being labeled “the inspiration for Khamûl” really something I can pin on Kamel? Probably not! ;)

3) Geographical Evidence

Could Khamûl refer to a place somewhere in the east? There is a well known candidate in the Chinese city of Kumul (also recorded as Camul as far back as 1615). This is an ancient city in the midst of the larger expanse of the Gobi desert, part of an oasis — the “fertile and agreeable province of Khamil” that Marco Polo visited on his journeys to the vast eastern lands of the Mongols in the 13th century. On that eastern expedition he met the Khans (and here, we find a tantalizing echo of Khand — see below for more on that). The city has also be spelled Khamul, among other variants. Again, it’s tempting.

And now, to Khand, Khamûl’s apparent homeland. Tolkien called “Khand”, like mûmak, an example “[o]f the speech of Men of the East and allies of Sauron.” Such words and names were seldom explained by Tolkien. But considering its geographical location in Middle-earth, it is probably more than mere coincidence that in a number of southwestern Asian languages the word khand, or a form similar to it, refers to a country, a region of the world, etc. Here are a few examples: Panjabi khand “side, quarter, region, one of the nine sections of the world (as reckoned by the Hindus)”; Hindustani khand “region, part (of the world), partition, division (of a country)”; Tamil kantam “piece, part, fragment, portion”. There is also the similar word with Persian, Turkic, and other western Asian cognates, as exemplified by Hindustani khan “lord, prince, ruler, etc.”, which developed metonymically from the meaning “a division of a house, etc.” These words all derive from Sanskrit khanda “to break (as into parts)”, as in breaking up the world into regions or a house into rooms. This original sense of “broken” nicely resonates, once again, with the related “bend, bent” connotation of wraith.

But is there any evidence Tolkien knew more than a tithe about the Indo-Aryan languages? Not much, and certainly less than his awareness of the Celtic cam, though he does mention Sanskrit once or twice. A Sanskrit word such as khanda, however, with its metaphorical, almost mythopoeic, suggestiveness, might have caught his eye. Ditto for the Indo-European roots kemb–, kamp–. There is always a danger in speculating on what Tolkien did or did not know, but where it comes to languages and Indo-European roots, I am certainly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

4) A few additional philological “temptations”

Now for a few wilder — and possibly more “fun” — ideas! Hey, as long as I’m going out on a limb about which words or languages Tolkien might have drawn on subconsciously, why not? :)

Something that caught my eye and might reinforce the Mustafa Kamel theory is Turkish kem “evil” + kemal “perfection” = “perfection of evil”! And since we’re talking about Kamel, how about camel? These animals are from the East, aren’t they? Perhaps Khamûl originally came riding west on a sun-dappled dromedary. Spelled chamayle by Chaucer, the word comes to us from Old French chamel, camel - Latin camelus - Greek κάμηλος - Hebrew גמל [gamal] - Arabic جَمَل [jamal]. Just in case you wanted to know!

Here’s another fun one from Hindustani (that is, Hindi / Urdu): kāmnī “fairy” — probably pure coincidence, but it’s certainly tempting to imagine that the fear of the Black Easterling entered the collective mythology of the East in such a way. :)

* Atatürk, of course, means “Father of the Turks” — but I keep thinking it’s got to be the Turkish translation of the English interjection, “Attaboy!” No disrespect intended, hahae. And just because I can’t keep myself from it, I’ll point out that the Turkish ata “father, old man” is mighty close to Tolkien’s Adûnaic attû, attô “father”, from Quenya atar.

Well, I’ve really said a mouthful! This might be my longest post yet. Any thoughts?