Feb 18 2010 2:51pm

LotR re-read: Boskone panel on worldbuilding anomalies with Tom Shippey

Hi, everyone. I was going to put the discussion of the aforementioned Boskone panel at the start of the next chapter post, but as I wrote I remembered more and more, until the panel report ended up being about as long as a normal post all by itself. So as not to slight “The Passing of the Grey Company” (which is far too awesome to get second billing), I’ve broken this out into its own post.

Thus, behind the jump, some incomplete but nevertheless fairly long notes on the panel that Mary Kay Kare, Mark L. Olson, Tom Shippey (!!), and I were on at Boskone called “The Problem of Glorfindel—and Other Issues in Tolkien.”

As I said above, what follows is going to be incomplete and mostly keyed off of things I said, because that’s easiest for me to remember and I don’t have any contemporaneous notes. I know at least one other person who sometimes reads these posts was in the audience, and I absolutely encourage him and anyone else present to fill in the gaps.

The description, as a refresher:

Tolkien’s elves never re-used names (they were immortal, after all) yet a Glorfindel lived and died in the First Age of Middle-Earth and another was a character in Lord of the Rings six thousand years later—what happened? One of the joys of Tolkien’s world is that it is so well-realized that minor anomalies (which in a lesser writer would be assumed to be sloppiness) only make it seem more real, since the history of the real world also abounds in puzzles. Enjoy a walk through Middle-Earth’s lesser-known byways. Who was Eldest: Treebeard or Tom Bombadil? What were orcs, actually, since Morgoth could not create anything new? Why are the wood-elves such jerks in The Hobbit? Whatever happend to Ungoliant? Arwen became mortal, but what happened to the sons of Elrond when he took ship for Valinor? Where did Sauron hide the One Ring when he was taken captive to Numinor? Let’s take the time to explore these and other intriguing curiosities of Middle Earth.

I forget exactly how we started, but early on we starting talking about Tom Bombadil and very nearly bogged down in everyone’s pet theories of who/what he is. Mary Kay and Mark were alert, though, and kept things moving by asking why people were so fascinated by these questions. I believe that they both thought it was precisely because the rest of Tolkien’s worldbuilding is so solid and enthralling (but I’m missing an additional reason or two; MKK, Mark?). I said I was interested when the anomalies gave me an angle into thinking about the worldbuilding. The question of who was the Eldest suggested something about Gandalf’s information and Tom Bombadil’s perspective on himself. The origin of the orcs raised serious questions about the universe’s morality (also the orcs so far haven’t really been living up to their stereotype as mindless ravening irredeemable hordes, which itself is interesting). Those seemed to be the two questions that generated the most discussion here, as well.

In response, Tom Shippey made the first substantive comments that I recall. (He was pretty quiet early: he was coming straight from two back-to-back items and was obviously tired, asking at the start if he had time to get coffee (a kind person in the audience got some for him). Also, though Mary Kay and I were somewhat in awe of the company we were keeping, we also both want to moderate everything we are on, and so awe or no awe, we weren’t lacking things to say.) He said that neither option was satisfactory: either the orcs were corrupted Elves, in which case there weren’t enough of them, or corrupted humans, in which case there are free-will/choice problems. They feel like humans to him. This led to the obligatory comment about Tolkien’s experiences as a soldier, and I mentioned John Garth’s work.

We discussed Tolkien’s obsessive revision, a.k.a. “niggling” (see “Leaf by Niggle”). Mark horrified me by saying that very late in his life, Tolkien wanted to rewrite everything to be consistent with our scientific understanding of the solar system, e.g., making the Sun a ball of gas instead of a vessel guided by a minor deity. (I have no idea what this would have done to Eärendil.) I think this is where we talked about the obvious tensions between Tolkien’s Catholicism and his attraction to non-Christian mythologies: the way that the Valar are more-or-less angels but feel like polytheistic deities; reincarnation (making reference to Glorfindel); and the rewriting of humans’ Fall to be partly the fault of the Valar (okay, I’m not sure how directly we talked about that).

Shippey said that Sam going to Valinor was a late-life change, which he felt was (to paraphrase) getting soft, going back on a hard choice he’d made earlier. That surprised me greatly because I always believed that it was a fact that Sam went, but of course the Appendices are not definitive (“the tradition is handed down”). What can I say, I was eight years old when I first read and interpreted that. What did you all think?

Someone said that RotK being finished in the first place was generally credited to C.S. Lewis. Shippey talked about Tolkien’s academic work at Oxford, which I believe I can reasonably sum up as sparse, slow, and undistinguished. That lit up a connection for me to Adam Roberts’ very interesting comments on the peculiar position LotR takes with regard to the written word:

[it] is not that it is too obscure, or ambiguous, or slippery; but on the contrary, that it is too plain. It does exactly what it says (you speak ‘friend’ and enter). It bridges the gap between text and world too immediately, and renders itself real with a dangerous completion. This is at the heart of the power of the ring. The whole novel is a written-textual articulation of that fact.

Which ties back again to my disbelief in the framing device: when I see a framing device like “this is a translated manuscript” today, I expect it to be signaling the text’s unreliability, not the reliability, as Tolkien clearly intended. (A comment which seemed to go down like a lead balloon; I’m not sure if it was the generational gap between me and the rest of the panelists, or if everyone just thought I was weird.) And if Tolkien had such a fraught conception of the written word, well, no wonder he found it difficult to commit to a final version of anything.

(Thanks to Jo Walton for the pointer to Roberts’ post.)

I asked the rest of the panel what it was like when The History of Middle-earth came out, for people who enjoyed trying to piece together the puzzles of inconsistencies and anomalies: did it close things off, stop the fun? The general consensus seemed to be no, it gave even greater scope. This led to Shippey mentioning serious feuds over pet theories, and at Mary Kay’s prompting he gave the example of a talk, given at one of the various anniversary celebrations, that argued that Tolkien was a Neo-Platonist early in his life: he thought it was very interesting and everyone else hated it. (At this point I nodded and attempted to conceal the fact that I had only the vaguest idea of what Neo-Platonism was. I have since Googled.)

Mark asked for summing-up comments. Shippey got the last word with the only new remark, a very emphatic “Tom Bombadil was a land-wight,” a figure in existing mythology—he gave some translations that I didn’t catch—period, the end.

I had a lot of fun, especially when we were able to hit on some questions that Tom Shippey had something to say in response, because he’s a very entertaining speaker as well as a knowledgeable one. And the audience appeared to be enjoying themselves, too, so on the whole I think it went well. Thanks to Boskone for the opportunity and to all of you for giving me things to talk about on it!

« Return of the King V.1 | Index | Return of the King V.2 »

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.

Jo Walton
1. bluejo
A land-wight. I've never heard the term before, but my instinctive response is "Of course he was."

I would be sorry I missed the panel, but I was having fun elsewhere at the time.
Mary Kay Kare
3. MaryKay
And Jo, the only mention of The Movies, was by me in reference to Bombadil having been left out.

It was indeed a fascinating experience and Tom is really an entertaining speaker when you get him going. The speech he gave the next day was remarkable. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a program item so much.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
Brian Murphy, the audience member who said hi to me after the panel, posted notes from both of Shippey's panels on Friday (one about the movies & one about this one), which you can read here.
5. Foxessa
It is very possible that Sam joined Frodo in the west, quite for the same reasons Joe, from the very popular Beautiful Joe (1893) by (Margaret)Marshall Saunders, is allowed to join his beloved human, Laura in heaven, after she dies, in the sequel. His devotion and loyalty to Laura, his love, for Laura, and hers for him, allows this very special dog into the Heaven of the souled human beings. It's almost as though the purity and scope of his love for this human allows a soul to grow in him.
6. ecthelion
That's it? I guess I got too hyped up for the summary of the Boskone panel. Bombadil fascinates me to no end, so I thought for sure I would be able to get some insight on him. After all, who IS the eldest, Treebeard or Bombadil? I was always suspicious that Bomabadil was Orome, but now it seems way off base. What about the other questions in the description given above? Were those addressed? Or were they just asked to get people to show up? I guess I don't get it.
Kate Nepveu
7. katenepveu
Foxessa, I understand what you're saying, and I know Tolkien did it first, but I'm still uncomfortable at the comparison of Sam to a dog, especially spiritually.

ecthelion, we did talk about Glorfindel--see the link in comment #4--but it was basically stuff that people mentioned in the last comment thread, so I didn't bother rehashing it. As for the rest, I admit we didn't get to all the questions, but it was less than an hour and there were bigger-picture things we wanted to talk about, too . . .

I should say, for those unfamiliar with SFF conventions, that program descriptions are often, perhaps usually, written by people other than those appearing on the panel. Panelists generally attempt to stick to the description, but that was a very full one and I, personally, took those questions as illustrative rather than a checklist. In this case, Mark may have written it, since he is very involved with Boskone, but he took more of a hands-off moderating stance, allowing the conversation to flow. That said, (1) my report really doesn't do it justice, and (2) you and anyone else is welcome to talk about the questions raised by the panel here, when we have all the time we want!
8. ecthelion
Yes, I'm totally unfamiliar with SFF conventions. I live in Arkansas, so rarely does one get within a 1000 leagues of my state. Maybe one of these days....
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
Regarding Sam going to Valinor - when I first read the book at the age of 11 or so, I assumed that of course Sam went. The idea of non-definitive appendices never occurred to me. But I also assumed that Frodo, Bilbo and Sam would live forever in Valinor, as a reward for carrying the ring, not just resting before death, and I was crushed to read in Tolkien's letters that I was completely wrong about this. After some thought, and with all due respect to Tolkien, I have decided to go back to my original reading, even if it completely conflicts with other writings (and yes, I know it does.)

The bits about Tolkien trying to reconcile his legends with the physical reality of the Sun and Moon is in one of the last of the History of Middle-Earth books edited by Christopher Tolkien. It's a fascinating glimpse at Tolkien's thought process and the daunting thought of needing to rewrite essentially your entire life's work because you have so changed your way of thinking.
10. pilgrimsoul
Thanks, Kate!
Mary Kay Kare
11. MaryKay
Ecthelion - there used to be an sf convention in Little Rock every October called Roc*Kon, but in googling them, I find they're on hiatus. There's one in Tulsa every year called Conestoga. Don't know where you live in Arkansas, but that might be a start.

12. JoeNotCharles
So what's a land-wight? The only links I can find are written by actual believers (or people faking it well) so unreadable to me - partly they assume you already know what a land-wight is, and partly they try to explain using language which I bounce off of.
Mary Kay Kare
13. MaryKay
Joe - check out this article in wikipedia

14. SDN
ecthelion, Dallas has at least 2, Fencon and DFWCon. My fsmily's from El Dorado AR, which is 3-4 hours away from Dallas, so you couldn't be more than 6 hours by car even from West Memphis.

I'm pretty sure Memphis has at least one, come to think of it.
Sam Kelly
15. Eithin
The idea of the manuscript translation as a framing device signifying an unreliable body of work didn't occur to me till relatively recently, but then I first read LoTR at 9 or 10 - and when I started thinking seriously about manuscript versions, translations, scribal issues, and so on, that really fired my imagination again, and will be giving me lots to think about for years yet.

I think it's a specific case of the unreliable narrator issue - some people hate them with a fiery passion, the rest of us can't get enough.

The Roberts article is really interesting, but two things jump out at me - first, he's forgetting the letter Gandalf leaves with Butterbur, forgotten and languishing; and second, that the tengwar were invented by Fëanor, the first kinslayer and maker of the tempting beauty of the Silmarils. Both, I think, support his theory nicely.
16. Gorbag
As far as free will and yrch go, I think Shippey covered that himself very well in "Master of Middle Earth", when he said - chapter and page number please: "my copy lies over the ocean, my copy lies over the sea, my copy lies over the ocean, oh bring back my copy to me!" - that Sauron had made an imprisoning social structure to keep them in their abject slavery to him. Of course, Master of Middle Earth was written before the publication of the Silmarillion, so I think it fair to say that Morgoth was the original creator of the warped and distorted social structure.

Other than that, I don't see the two alternatives - corrupted Elves, or corrupted humans - as being mutually exclusive. Humans and Elves got on like a house on fire given the correct circumstances, if Legolas' words to Prince Imrahil and his reply are anything to go on:

At length they came to Prince Imrahilm and Legolas looked at him and bowed low; for he saw that here indeed was one who had elven blood in his veins. "Hail, lord!" he said. "It is long since the people of Nimrodel left the woodlands if Lorien, and yet still one may see that not all sailed from Amroth's haven west over water."

"So it is said in the lore of my land," said the Prince, "yet never hs one of the fair folk been seen there for years beyond count. "

The Return of the King; Ch IX: The Last Debate

But he's right about neither option being satisfactory.
Ian Gazzotti
17. Atrus
I don't see why the orcs being corruptions of elves would mean there wouldn't be enough of them. The corrupted beings, elves or human, would just be the first, and the others would then come by breeding. Elves have a low fertility, but that does not necessarily need to apply to orcs.
The very idea of the half-orcs of Saruman means that orcs can either be bred or engineered quickly and in great quantities.

Also, even if he couldn't make anything really new, we know Morgoth was able to do imitations - lifelike puppets, if you want - like the trolls or the dragons. One option to deprive the orcs of free will (and thus redemption) it's to assume that they are just that, automatons who can only think because of the power their master originally invested in them.

A 'social' reasoning was also worked out later (among other possibilities): that any orc with 'good' tendencies and qualities would soon be killed by his companions and not reach maturity, and so our heroes only meet orcs that are beyond pity and redemption.
Kate Nepveu
18. katenepveu
Mari @ #9, your reading is not contradicted by the text of _LotR_ itself and so I say go for it. And people keep telling me about all these interesting bits in _HoME_, but every time I think, "gosh, I should really read those," I think about the size and the current state of my to-be-read bookcases and, well . . .

pilgrimsoul @ #10, you're welcome! I'm glad it hit the spot.

Eithin @ #15, I consider it very possible to go overboard with the unreliable narrator, especially if the author is just being cute, but generally yeah, I like it. And excellent points about the writings!

Gorbag @ #16, _Master of Middle Earth_ was by Paul Kocher, not Tom Shippey?

The only thing that gives me a qualm about orcs being corrupted human-elf crossbreds is that such crosses are Special in _LotR_--we only know three by name (well, okay, I only know three, anyway) and all are deeply significant to the mythology. But you're right that Dol Amroth is a problem for that Specialness, which is maybe a fruitful line of inquiry by itself.

Atrus @ #17, I don't know precisely what Shippey was referring to about the insufficiently number of ex-elf orcs; it sounded like something he thought had been worked out in enough detail to be taken as a given, but I'm not familiar with the work, if so. And I like the "social" reasoning.
Iain Coleman
19. Iain_Coleman
A 'social' reasoning was also worked out later (among other possibilities): that any orc with 'good' tendencies and qualities would soon be killed by his companions and not reach maturity, and so our heroes only meet orcs that are beyond pity and redemption.

Tolkien struggled so much over the origin of the Orcs because, if they are essentially human or human-derived, then in Tolkien's moral universe they cannot be beyond pity and redemption.
20. Elaine Thom
[i]The only thing that gives me a qualm about orcs being corrupted human-elf crossbreds is that such crosses are Special in _LotR_--we only know three by name (well, okay, I only know three, anyway) and all are deeply significant to the mythology. But you're right that Dol Amroth is a problem for that Specialness, which is maybe a fruitful line of inquiry by itself.

Those three were "Eldar" or High-Elven with humans. The Eldar were those who went West (or married a Maia, like Thingol).

The other elves weren't Eldar and crosses with them and humans weren't so special.

It's in the appendices somewhere - I think some in A, and some in the one on languages .. F.
Yes, FThe Elves far back in the Eldar Days became divided into two main branches: the West-elves (the Eldar) and the East elves. Of the latter kind were most of the elven-folk of Mirkwood and Lorien..."

Now just why crossing with the Eldar was special is unclear to me. Probably to do with the spirit/soul strength they got from being from Valinor.
21. Gorbag
Of course, Kate, my abject apologies. I had a - well, what would you call it? I'm not senior, and I'm not blond - a d'orkish moment!
22. Stephen R. Morrison
Gorbag @ #16:
I believe the passage you mean is this, from p. 65 of my copy, near the middle of ch. 4:
The explanation of orc behavior, then, seems to be that Sauron ( and Saruman) has carefully trained them to be what they are, continuing the training begun by Morgoth. Close under his thumb in Mordor, they have been educated to brutality and their social patterns set in a mold which will perpetuate it and its cognate qualities in the generations to come. They have acquired the same delight in torture that Sauron feels, and he has added a nice taste in cannibalism. Yet he seems also to have inculcated in these coarse combative creatures a firm loyalty to himself that they never question, a loyalty that would be reckoned a virtue if turned in a better direction. They have evidently been taught also that the elves are rebels–against Sauron as their rightful lord, of course. The Uruk-hai at Helm’s Deep are courageous fighters, and even have achieved considerable esprit de corps. In short, there is an orc point of view about things which it is possible to understand, even to pity. The poor brutes are so plainly the toys of a mightier will than theirs. They have been conditioned to will whatever Sauron wills. “And for me,” exclaims Gandalf, “I pity even his slaves.” Aragorn at Helm’s Deep includes them in his warning against the Fangorn huorns, which are marching to crush them, but the orcs do not listen. Never in Tolkien’s tale are any orcs redeemed, but it would go against the grain of the whole to dismiss them as ultimately irredeemable.
By the way, I’m still having trouble commenting as "Steve Morrison"; I keep getting the same error message that I got last fall, telling me that that name is already in use.
Kenneth Sutton
23. kenneth
I *think* that Tom said one problem if the orcs are corrupted elves is that there are *too many* of them, not that there aren't enough.

As for the framing device, I assumed that "The Scarlet Letter" rose up in their minds, as it did in mine, as an example of a similar framing device that really isn't intended to signal reliability.

And of course Tolkien believed in the power of words--he was a philologist!
24. pilgrimsoul
The discussion of consistency reminds me of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. JRRT was at Middle Earth for--what--sixty years? No blame to him if he forgot somethings or changed his mind on others.
As for the framing device. Students of literature can correct me if I am astray here, but for a long time writers NEVER admitted making up things. JRRT was steeped in Early Medieval literature, and it almost always referenced some kind of source as did most Renaissance prose fiction. It must have seemed natural to him as a way to gain credibility.
Kate Nepveu
25. katenepveu
Iain_Coleman @ #19, okay, fair point, but perhaps it's sufficient to say that showing good tendencies is likely to be unhealthy for orcs at any stage?

(Tangent: Diane Duane's Young Wizards series had a similar moral problem, where species make a choice early-ish in their existence as to their relationship with entropy and the Power that created it, and tried to deal with it in the most recent published book, _Wizards at War_. Which I think I must not have found entirely satisfactory because I'm having a hard time remembering just how the crucial bits played out.)

Elaine Thom @ #20, ah, hierarchy again. You're right, thanks for the reminder.

Gorbag @ #21, no big deal, and d'orkish moment makes up for a lot . . .

Stephen R. Morrison @ #22, thanks for the quote, and I will note the problem to site staff again. (I feel obligated to point out that registering is free and easy and will remove this annoyance. Okay, done now.)

kenneth @ #23, you're right, I think I got that backward--what I meant was, I presumed he was referring to the observed breeding rates of Elves being too low to account for the population of orcs.

pilgrimsoul @ #24, yes, even up until fairly recently authors seemed to feel the need to explain how the words got on the page--Dr. Watson, for instance.
Ian Gazzotti
26. Atrus
Iain @19 Pit and redemption are very different because, while there is pity in LotR (and it is in fact pity that saves the day in the end) there can be no christian-style redemption.

And of course, the whole problem of free will only exists if the Orcs are human-derived or even have a soul. Since not even Tolkien came up with a definitive answer to that, every discussion is pretty much bound to end up going in circles. :-/
Kate Nepveu
27. katenepveu
Atrus @ #26, while I know that per _The Silmarillion_ Elves are supposed to not have free will, I don't actually believe it--does anyone?--and so that never occurs to me when the problem of the Orcs comes up.
28. Gray Woodland
The thing about the Orcs is, in the actual text they certainly don't will whatever Sauron wills, and they are the least trusty servants imaginable. Their pathological culture, designed-in rage and pain, and the Things set over them don't give them much ground to start upon anything constructive, granted. But the sense in which the Ainur usurp their will directly looks much more like an occasional backdoor mechanism, that explicitly cuts out as soon as Sauron or Saruman or whoever stops paying attention. Morgoth being what he was, I shouldn't be surprised to learn that he was effectively paying attention all the time, until he finally got the Order of the Boot from Arda.

If I'm right, then Fourth Age Orcs will still be nasty, but their considerable ingenuity won't always be employed in the same directions, the whip at their back having been removed. Either the results will be... interesting... or they'll just die out now that their niche has gone away.

Yes, the problem of the Orcs has always bothered me too. Wherever they came from, there is this to chew on:

Everything that anyone does against the Creator's will, in Tolkien's world, shall 'only redound to the glory of his work'. The Orcs as written, even if their nastiness is bowdlerized, are pretty clearly people. I don't think Eru would have given soul-nature/ people-nature to them to serve only as tools destined for the horror of the Void. The logic of Middle-Earth seems to me that Creation needs people who are Orcs for something - and that it is something that would be good for them, too.

I wonder what that would be, as surely as I don't wonder why Tolkien couldn't bear to contemplate it.
Kate Nepveu
29. katenepveu
Gray Woodland, I've been chewing on your thoughts since this morning and I don't have anything constructive to add yet, but I do want to thank you for adding them before I forget that I haven't actually.

*chews some more*
Peter Schmidt
31. PHSchmidt
GW@28: Perhaps it is as simple as, for Good to triumph, there must exist Evil to be vanquished.

For Creation not to be a clockwork, all predetermined from the first, but a living, evolving artwork capable of attaining unexpected heights no polished mechanism could achieve, then failure must be an option, and Falling, and thus evil will inevitably Be, at least in some measure.

Light without darkness is formless. Figure without ground makes no picture. No glory without trial, no winning without a race, no gain without pain, no A+ without a test.

Orcs have their role, and I pity them for it.
Ian Gazzotti
32. Atrus
@31 That's very distant from the Catholic (and Tolkien's) point of view, where evil is always a possibility (because of free will) but not actually required in creation. For the Catholics, furthermore, evil does not exist in itself but simply as a willing separation from good.

That is why the supposed evilness of Orcs was such a problem for Tolkien: they either had to be soulless things with no real free will (and therefore technically not evil), or they had to be capable of good as well.
Kate Nepveu
33. katenepveu
PHSchmidt @ #31, but Good doesn't need Evil to be triumphant; natural forces will do just fine to provide the circumstances for Good to show itself.

(Which might not be quite the same as what Atrus is saying.)
Peter Schmidt
34. PHSchmidt
The difference between naturally entropic forces (Chaos) and Evil is primarily one of intent, yes? A tornado and a terrorist can both blow up your house. Conceiving Good as the creator of pockets of beautiful, low-entropy structures (broadly defined) places it in opposition to both. So yes, I agree Evil isn't absolutely required - excellent point.

But give enough beings free will, and odds are you will get some Evil, sadly.
35. solerso
I thought that the glorfindel of the 1st age died in a "duel" with a balrog, during the escape from the sack of gondolin. I was confused by that as well, assuming for a long time that it was the same glorfindel and tolkien had simply changed his fate, and it was missed in editing or never written down. I think now the glorfindel of rivendell was a younger glorfindel.
Phil Boswell
36. NotACat
(Apologies if anyone is offended by my revival of this long-dead thread but it seems the most appropriate place to comment…)

In reference to the "Glorfindel problem" did nobody recall that there are at least two other instances of "name reuse"? Galdor who appears at the Council of Elrond shares his name with an earlier Elf, and of all people there's another "Legolas" way back in history.

In reference to the "Elf/Human" question of orcish origin, did anybody consider the possibility that Morgoth cross-bred the two to produce his troops? To my mind, the idea of perverting that "specialness" of the Elf/Human relationship would appeal greatly to Morgoth and Sauron, and it would probably solve other problems such as birth-rate, etc.
Kate Nepveu
37. katenepveu
NotACat, no offense at all! Unfortunately I don't have much to add at this point--the elf/human theory is as reasonable as any, but the whole question is just difficult for me to get my head around.

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