Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WOTD: Hortus conclusus

This is a Latin term meaning “enclosed garden” — surprisingly useful in theology and literary criticism. The source of the trope is the Song of Solomon 4:12, which reads in the Vulgate: hortus conclusus soror mea sponsa hortus conclusus fons signatus; usually rendered in the language of King James, “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” Have a meander over to Wikipedia for some interesting background I will not repeat here, including the idea of the hortus conclusus as the Virgin Mary, as well as the literal enclosed garden that became a commonplace of the Middle Ages.

Moving from theological to literary usage, the hortus conclusus could describe the Garden of Eden; then later, literary reflections of that Garden (e.g., in Milton’s Paradise Lost). Still later, gardens at further metaphorical remove. To situate the term in Inklings studies, think of the garden C.S. Lewis in the extreme west of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Salwa Khoddam, of Oklahoma City University, has an excellent article on the subject, here.

In the world of Tolkien, think of the “enclosed garden” of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings; or the antecedent gardens in Valinor, where the Vala Irmo held court; or even the hortus conclusus in/of “Leaf By Niggle”. It’s a rich image, with a long history and a nimbus of wonderful connotations and associations. I am reminded, too, of Tolkien’s etymological riddle from The Hobbit:

An eye in a blue face
Saw an eye in a green face.
“That eye is like to this eye”
Said the first eye,
“But in low place,
Not in high place.”

Gollum’s answer — “Sun on the daisies it means, it does” — recalls the hortus conclusus in which Gollum, with his grandmother, was nurtured in his youth. And a daisy, of course, is just the day’s eye. The “enclosed garden” of Gollum’s childhood was situated in the neighborhood of the Gladden Fields, along the Anduin River, which Tolkien tells us in his “Nomenclature” refer to the fields of irises (Old English glædene).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Beers from around the U.S., and the world

It’s been far too long since my last potable post, hasn’t it? Let’s take an intermission from the usual heady fare, and consider some heady brews instead. I’ve been to two beer tastings recently. The first was a festival of holiday beers, mostly American, a few months ago; the second was an import tasting, just this past weekend. I’m not going to transcribe all of my “tasting notes” (and yes, I do know how snobby that sounds :), but just hit some of the highlights. Following these selective notes and recommendations, I’ll give you the full list of everything I tried.

The Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock is an exceptional beer, literally the smoothest beer I’ve ever tasted. It has a definite chocolate syrupiness, but it’s not at all overpowering. A wonderful sipping beer. It’s expensive (around $16 per 25oz. bottle), but well worth it.

Gulden Draak Ale is something of a Belgian version of the Sam Adams Chocolate Bock (or vice versa, to be more accurate). It too is delicious, expensive, and sold in a 25oz. bottle. It’s been around quite a bit longer, too. In 1998 the American Tasting Institute selected it as the world’s best-tasting beer, so just think about that if you find yourself with a chance to try it. At 10.5% alcohol by volume, it is also one of the world’s most potent.

The Stone Brewing Stone Smoked Porter was a new experience for me. This is from the same guys who brought us Arrogant Bastard Ale, which you may have come across. The secret ingredient (outlandish though it sounds) is Scottish peat moss, and the porter does indeed have a smoked taste. I imagine it would be fantastic with salmon.

Saint Arnold’s Christmas Ale is very nice, without excessive spiciness. I mention it mainly because it’s brewed here in Texas, but according to German purity laws. Saint Arnold’s has several other nice beers as well. Their limited edition IPA, Elissa (named after the 19th century barque moored in Galveston), is exceptionally good.

It may surprise you, but Wells Banana Bread Beer is not the only (nor even the first) banana bread beer I’ve tried. I had one about a year ago in Vermont. This one comes from England, and it’s both unexpected and delicious. It’s really more like a dessert than a beer (cf. the Sam Adams Chocolate Bock and Gulden Draak). It doesn’t taste precisely like banana bread, but the smell is absolutely dead-on.

Shiner Holiday Cheer may be my favorite flavored beer of all time. The Apricot Ale from Pyramid and the Sam Adams Cherry Wheat are two others I love, but this one, from the little brewery in Shiner, TX, edges them out. If you can find it, you have to try it. It’s made with peaches and pecans.

Chimay is one of only six genuine Trappist beers, and the Chimay Grand Reserve Blue is a very good, and very potent (at 9%), example. It carries a beautiful balance of flowery yeast, bitter hops, and rich malt (the latter, the least). It feels heavy in the mouth, but it’s surprisingly light.

Blanche de Chambly is a French-Canadian beer brewed in the Belgian style. A white beer (like the Belgian Hoegaarden, which I also recommend), it has light, delicious citrus overtones. Wonderfully complex. All three of the Unibroue beers I tried were complex, delicious, and each different from the others. The Blanche de Chambly was my favorite of the group.

Orval is another of the six genuine Trappist beers (the others, in addition to Chimay, are Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren, and Achel). The Orval was hoppier than El-ahrairah, and remarkably bitter, with a tall creamy head. The fellow doing the pouring could have used a lesson or two, though, as he poured most of the flavor into foam.

The San Miguel Lager is notable for one reason only: with it, I added a new country to my “beer travels” — the Philippines. The beer itself, though, was bland and boring. They intended to have the San Miguel Dark, which I probably would have liked better, but I got stuck with a rather too conventional lager instead.

And now, here’s the full list. And remember, lest you think me a total tippler, this was two events, not one — okay, even so, I may be a total tippler. :)

How many of these have any of you tried?

Holiday Brews (21)
Abita Christmas Ale (New Orleans)
Blue Moon Full Moon Winter Ale (Canada)
Boulevard Nutcracker Ale (Kansas City)
Deschutes Jubleale (Bend, OR)
Leinenkugel Fireside Nut Brown Ale (Chippewa Falls, WI)
New Belgium 2° Below (Fort Collins, CO)
Oscar Blues Dales Pale Ale (Lyons, CO)
Pyramid Snow Plow Ale (Seattle)
Rahr Winter Warmer Ale (Fort Worth, TX)
Saint Arnold’s Christmas Ale (Houston)
Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock (Boston)
Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic (Boston)
Samuel Adams Old Fizzwig (Boston)
Shiner Holiday Cheer (Shiner, TX)
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (Chico, CA)
Stone Brewing Stone Smoked Porter (San Diego)
Summit Winter Ale (St. Paul, MN)
Wells Banana Bread (England)
Widmer Brr (Portland, OR)
Woodchuck Limited Cider (Springfield, VT)
Wychwood Bah Humbug Ale (England)

Imports (18)
Ayinger Bräu-Weisse (Germany)
Blanche de Chambly (Canada)
Chimay Grand Reserve Blue (Belgium)
Chimay Red (Belgium)
Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse Spaten (Germany)
Gulden Draak Ale (Belgium)
Hoegaarden (Belgium)
Hofbrau Hefeweizen (Germany)
La Fin du Monde (Canada)
Maudite (Canada)
Orval (Belgium)
Peroni Nastro Azzurro (Italy)
Petrus Gouden Tripel Ale (Belgium)
Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic)
Piraat Ale (Belgium)
San Miguel Lager (Philippines)
Smithwicks Irish Ale (Ireland)
Spaten Oktoberfest (Germany)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sigurd & Gudrún: cover revealed, and more!

As you should all know by now, a new Tolkien book, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, is coming out in about six weeks. Check out the terrific cover design, shown here (click to enlarge). The book is now available for pre-order, at a nice discount. And don’t forget that Amazon guarantees the lowest offered price during the pre-order period — no need to worry that the price will go up before the book comes out. And no, I don’t work for them, hahae; I’m just lookin’ out for you. :)

To order it on Amazon [U.S.], follow this link — it’s currently priced at $17.16 (34% off). For Amazon.co.uk [U.K.], this link — where it’s £12.34 (35% off). You’ll thank me later when you find that you got a first printing (as I hope you will; its sales rank is already pretty high). The release date for both the American and British editions is May 5, 2009.

NB: Thanks to Ardamir for the updated link to the British edition. I had unwittingly linked to the more expensive Special Edition — which also proves that I have basically no sense of the value of the British pound sterling. :)

Friday, March 13, 2009

My 200th Post

It’s silly, really, but I’ve been putting this off. I knew it was going to be my 200th post, and I wanted to save it for something “of special magnificence”, but I’ve just been too busy lately to get anything substantial together (not for lack of ideas).

So, instead, let me simply get my 200th post out of the way, marking it with little fanfare except the promise to bring you some very interesting new posts over the next few weeks. Just as soon as I get one or two (or five :) more pressing tasks cleared from my to-do queue.

In the meantime, reflecting on what writing Lingwë is usually like, have a listen to Daft Punk’s “Technologic” (and yes, that is one very creepy robot!) —
Buy it, use it, break it, fix it,
Trash it, change it, mail, upgrade it,
Charge it, point it, zoom it, press it,
Snap it, work it, quick erase it,
Write it, cut it, paste it, save it,
Load it, check it, quick rewrite it,

Plug it, play it, burn it, rip it,
Drag it, drop it, zip, unzip it,
Lock it, fill it, call it, find it,
View it, code it, jam, unlock it,
Surf it, scroll it, pose it, click it,
Cross it, crack it, switch, update it,
Name it, read it, tune it, print it,
Scan it, send it, fax, rename it,
Touch it, bring it, pay it, watch it,
Turn it, leave it, start, format it
Stay tuned for more Tolkien, Lewis, and philological ruminations. Along with that, some exciting publication news on the not too distant horizon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Linguistic egotism, or, “The I’s have it”

I — in English, the first-person singular personal pronoun, nominative case. One of the most common words you will encounter in the language. The second-person you sometimes appears before I in frequency charts — I before you, except after who? Or is it, I after me, except before thee? — but you have to remember that you is nominative, accusative, and dative, all rolled into a single form. But I + me > you, every time.

I is also one of our shortest words (only the indefinite article, a, and the vocative interjection, O, are as short). English, moreover, is the only language that capitalizes its first-person singular pronoun. Other languages (e.g., German, Italian, Spanish) bestow this nicety on the polite forms of the second-person, but not English. No, in English, it is I who is most important; it is my perspective that matters more than any other. The I of the beholder, you might say. The first Roman numeral, I, coming before all others, putting the I in veni, vidi, vici. Try to demote the letter into lower-case and you get an imaginary quantity. We simply cannot conceive of diminished personal primacy, can we? Id pro quo? No, rather, ego vincit omnia. No need to dot this I. But underline it? Aye.

What was it that started me eyeing this pronoun, you might ask? Some of you who know me might say I’ve been I-obsessed for years, but there was something else — a recent piece in the Times Online, which claimed:
A “time traveller’s phrasebook” that could allow basic communication between modern English speakers and Stone Age cavemen is being compiled by scientists studying the evolution of language. Research has identified a handful of modern words that have changed so little in tens of thousands of years that ancient hunter-gatherers would probably have been able to understand them. Anybody who was catapulted back in time to Ice Age Europe would stand a good chance of being intelligible to the locals by using words such as “I”, “who” and “thou” and the numbers “two”, “three” and “five”, the work suggests.
Three pronouns and three numbers — not much of a phrasebook, is it? I guess it might work for the Neolithic dating scene. More to the point, what of the suggestion that the pronoun, I (as opposed to the Jason, I), “would stand a good chance of being intelligible”? I don’t think so. Aren’t these scientists forgetting something rather important, namely a little thing we like to call the Great Vowel Shift? As pronounced today, I bears little resemblance to its earlier forms. Compare the sound of English I to PIE *(h)eĝ. Hmm, in the words of Struther Martin, “what we’ve got here is ... failure to communicate.” Ironically, (h)eĝ sounds more like the stereo-typical grunts of early hominids than I ever could.

Now let me be clear: to a philologist’s eye, there is indeed a likeness between I and *(h)eĝ — just as there is between I and Sanskrit अहम्, Hittite ūk, Greek ἐγώ, Latin ego, Umbrian eho, Gothic, Old Saxon, and Old Frisian ik, Old Norse ek, Old High German ih, Old and Middle Danish iak, æk, Old Swedish iak, iæk, and so on and so forth — especially when one compares them to the Old English ic (and Middle English ich). Likewise, there’s a philological resemblance between Modern English I and the same pronoun in other modern languages, e.g., Italian io, Spanish yo, Swedish jag, Czech , Russian я — just to give a more or less random assortment.

But to a speaker or a listener — that is to say, to the ear, not the eye — there is a great gulf between the sound of Modern English I, as it has been pronounced for the last several hundred years, and any of the earlier forms of the pronoun, let alone the earliest. It’s yet one more way in which English has differentiated — even canonized — its pronoun. Even Modern Frisian and Dutch, two languages arguably the closest to English, retain ik(ke) and ik, respectively. Dutch does have mijn “my”, pronounced just like English “mine” — that’s pretty close. If the nominative first-person pronoun had become *Ij in Modern Dutch, we might have had some company up here atop this I-ful tower, but alas, no.

It’s just English. And considering all the foregoing, I don’t think I should feel too bad about having rather a big ego. All English speakers are pretty full of themselves — aren’t they? — whether backed by the erstwhile imperialism of England, the rugged individualism of Australia, or the Manifest Destiny of America. Big egos — the Big I under a Big Sky — are built right into our language. Remember: you can spell solipsisme without je, but you can’t spell solipsism without I.