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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Beren and Luthien - Past vs. Present Tense

Faramir5
Bree


Jun 14 2017, 12:29am

Post #1 of 12 (4365 views)
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Beren and Luthien - Past vs. Present Tense Can't Post

I'm reading through the new Beren and Luthien book and have just finished the chapter "The Tale of Tinuviel", which is basically the whole early version of the story (I think...honestly I'm sort of confused with how Christopher Tolkien is sorting out everything that is and isn't the updated canon).

But anyway...throughout the story JRRT goes back forth between past and present tense, which I've never really seen before. It's a general rule to not changes tenses abruptly.

For example - pg. 78: "...and he marvelled much at the daring of those twain, and still more that ever they had escaped from Angamandi. [New paragraph]
"Now goes he with many dogs through the woods hunting Orcs and thanes of Tevildo..."

Anyone understand why he did this?


squire
Half-elven


Jun 14 2017, 12:34am

Post #2 of 12 (4344 views)
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Active vs. Passive points in the narrative? [In reply to] Can't Post

I remember what you're talking about from back when I read some of the "Book of Lost Tales". I took it for an affectation of Tolkien while he was trying to find his style, possibly modeled on earlier mock-antiquarian writers like Scott or Morris.

I wonder if the effect is meant to contrast a relaxed narrator at a pause in the action (where past tense is used, as is traditional for tales) with an excited narrator during an adventure or action episode (where the present tense conveys a kind of breathless immediacy in the reader's mind).



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FarFromHome
Valinor


Jun 17 2017, 3:03pm

Post #3 of 12 (4126 views)
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Is it an attempt to imply an oral tradition? [In reply to] Can't Post

I wonder if Tolkien (and quite possibly Morris too) were trying to mimic the style of stories that were originally intended to be performed, rather than read privately? The switch between active and passive points in the story that you describe would make sense in those terms - the past tense in the pauses would be where the storyteller is focused on the historical context (great deeds, most beautiful lady, or whatever, in terms of the whole span of time), and the present tense where he gears up to make the action feel real and present to his listeners.

The idea that the Tale of Tinúviel belonged to the oral tradition is mentioned in LotR, by Aragorn as he tells part of the story to the hobbits in A Knife in the Dark:
'I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,’ said Strider, ‘in brief – for it is a long tale of which the end is not known; and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old.'
Later the hobbits get to hear the full tale of Beren and Lúthien in the Hall of Fire. Tolkien never fully decided (or at least, as far as I know he never made explicit) who wrote the stories down - maybe it was Bilbo, maybe not - but the Elves themselves, it seems, preferred the oral tradition, even if it meant that the stories gradually faded, as Aragorn implies has happened to this tale.

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



squire
Half-elven


Jun 17 2017, 3:12pm

Post #4 of 12 (4133 views)
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It's an attempt, all right. [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree that that effect is what Tolkien wanted to evoke in his stories: that legends are recounted orally for a long time before they are finally written down.

What I've never quite understood is how that works with an immortal race. Presumably Elrond's house is filled with Elves who, if they themselves weren't alive when Beren and Luthien's tale was first put in verse, certainly heard it many centuries ago at first hand from those who were. Why would there be "none" others who now remember the original composition? Are Elves especially forgetful, because they live forever?

The same question applies, of course, to the idea that Elvish languages underwent sound changes (e.g., from Qenya to Sindarin) in the First Age similar to human languages in the real world, although the speakers of the later language were the same people who spoke the earlier language, or at most the children thereof -- not their 30th generation descendants.



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FarFromHome
Valinor


Jun 19 2017, 1:16pm

Post #5 of 12 (3900 views)
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Were they ever written down? [In reply to] Can't Post

Were Elvish legends ever written down by the Elves themselves, I mean? My impression is that Tolkien always imagined the written versions of his Elvish legends having been written down by mortals - either in his early conceptions by an Anglo-Saxon (Eriol or Aelfwine), or in his later one by "B.B." aka Bilbo Baggins. I'd be interested to know if you've come across any mentions of Elves themselves committing their own myths and legends to writing.

Because if not, that leaves quite a lot of room for interpretations of what the Elvish legends were "really" like without the filter of limited human/hobbit understanding. In a way, Elves are creatures of myth that just happen to have survived into the world of Men and Hobbits, and perhaps their memory and thought processes are much more like myths themselves - changing and shifting over time in response to different situations. The way their stories work is certainly obscure to the hobbits, who are overwhelmed by the songs they hear in the Hall of Fire, although they can magically recall them later. Perhaps Elves' memories shift and fade as time passes, because they aren't anchored to hard-edged "reality" the way we are. It's interesting that Sam in Cirith Ungol recalls the song from the Hall of Fire in a subtly different form that is more suited to his new situation - despite its being in Elvish which neither he nor we understand (only readers who check back will even notice the change!)

Even that mention in my earlier quote of only Elrond remembering the Tale of Tinúviel "as it was told of old" may be because of the way Elvish memory works, and the way that it is constantly shifting. Elrond is only half-Elven, after all, so maybe his memory is anchored more firmly to the past. The Elves laugh at Bilbo's request that they pick out the differences between his and Aragorn's contributions to a song because “It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals.” So how much more impossible would it be for a mortal to understand and appreciate the subtleties of Elvish songs? That's Tolkien's get-out-of-jail-free card, as I see it, and he plays it more than once!


They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



Otaku-sempai
Immortal


Jun 19 2017, 2:58pm

Post #6 of 12 (3886 views)
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Passed down through the Númenóreans [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
Were Elvish legends ever written down by the Elves themselves, I mean? My impression is that Tolkien always imagined the written versions of his Elvish legends having been written down by mortals - either in his early conceptions by an Anglo-Saxon (Eriol or Aelfwine), or in his later one by "B.B." aka Bilbo Baggins. I'd be interested to know if you've come across any mentions of Elves themselves committing their own myths and legends to writing.


My impression is that some of the translations were recorded by Bilbo through the stories and poems he listened to in Rivendell. Others were perhaps translated by him or by Frodo from texts written by the Men of Númenor. Therefore, much of The Silmarillion was filtered through the perceptions of Númenórean scholars--and then again by hobbit translators (and a third time by Tolkien-as-scholar).

"He who lies artistically, treads closer to the truth than ever he knows." -- Favorite proverb of the wizard Ningauble of the Seven Eyes

(This post was edited by Otaku-sempai on Jun 19 2017, 3:01pm)


Darkstone
Immortal


Jun 19 2017, 5:01pm

Post #7 of 12 (3874 views)
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Aristotle: "Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history..." [In reply to] Can't Post

In his chosen field of intellectual activity he appears to have been inspired by no predecessors, and to have found no kindred souls among his contemporaries, and to have kindled no answering spark of inspiration in any successors; and yet, in the Prolegomena (Muqaddimah) to his Universal History he has conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place. It was his single brief 'acquiescence' from a life of practical activity that gave Ibn Khaldun his opportunity to cast his creative thought into literary shape.
-A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee


Aristotle argued poetry should treat history as that which should be true, as opposed to what is actually true. And Plutarch changed and rewrote history so as to teach moral lessons. Both traditions continued well into the Renaissance. (And beyond. See any Hollywood film that is “Based on a True Story”.)

I often joke about the effects of Elvish and Gondorian revisionism, but sensationalism, exaggeration, and systematic bias in historical sources is precisely what Ibn Khaldun warns about in his Muqaddimah (1377 AD). Even the tale Elrond knew was doubtless just the official family version.

I wonder what would be the Elvish philosophy of history? I'd say it would be a lot more Aristotelian than Khaldunian.

******************************************

Once Radagast dreamt he was a moth, a moth flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Radagast. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakably Radagast. But he didn't know if he was Radagast who had dreamt he was a moth, or a moth dreaming he was Radagast. Between Radagast and a moth there must be some distinction! But really, there isn't, because he's actually Aiwendil dreaming he's both Radagast *and* a moth!
-From Radagasti: The Moth Dream


(This post was edited by Darkstone on Jun 19 2017, 5:05pm)


squire
Half-elven


Jun 19 2017, 7:09pm

Post #8 of 12 (3857 views)
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Excellent approach to the question [In reply to] Can't Post

I like the suggestion that Elven memory is fallible from a mortal point of view, in the sense of forgetting poems, languages, etc.

But (without being able to find any supportive sources just now) I was under the impression that the whole point of all those fancy alphabets (Tengwar, Cirth, etc.) was to show how the Elves wrote things down - from grocery bills to property deeds to feudal contracts to ... ah ... histories, poetry and legends. Or not? What is the point of writing if not to record memories and fix them in place?



squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Archive: All the TORn Reading Room Book Discussions (including the 1st BotR Discussion!) and Footerama: "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
Dr. Squire introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


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FarFromHome
Valinor


Jun 19 2017, 7:45pm

Post #9 of 12 (3852 views)
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The Elves would be massively Aristotelian, don't you think? [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien's whole approach to his legendarium is based on a "poetic" view of the world - summed up best, for me, in Owen Barfield's Poetic Diction. It's true that Arab scholars were already advanced in logic and scientific thinking in the Middle Ages, while post-Roman western Europe only really reconnected with this body of learning (ultimately inherited from ancient Greece) in the Renaissance. But the Middle Ages that Tolkien studied and was inspired by was precisely the western European pre-Renaissance, pre-rational period with its strange legends and shifting stories. And yes, with its "sensationalism and exaggeration" - Aragorn tells the hobbits that Lúthien was “the fairest maiden that has ever been”, for starters. And nobody argues, because it just feels right.

As you say, Elrond's version of the Tale of Tinúviel, despite being the only one that's remembered "aright, as it was told of old", doesn't have to be objectively true. It just has to be poetically, metaphorically, emotionally true. Poets and fiction-writers sometimes say that there is a kind of "truth" in their work that logic and rationality can't get to. I think the Elves, and probably Tolkien himself, would agree. (It doesn't have to be about "revisionism" or "official versions" either - those terms imply that there is a single, correct version of history and that it's being deliberately suppressed for unworthy reasons. The Elves would probably say that there is no single, correct version - it all depends on where you're standing. Which may be why they will never give advice to those prosaic and literal-minded mortals!)

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



Darkstone
Immortal


Jun 19 2017, 8:26pm

Post #10 of 12 (3845 views)
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Exactly! [In reply to] Can't Post

Recall the day when Tolkien turned the entire world of Anglo-Saxon scholarship on its head.

From "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics":

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts (such as the date and identity of Hygelac) that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense—a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object. The lovers of poetry can safely study the art, but the seekers after history must beware lest the glamour of Poesis overcome them.

And so also the seekers after the history of Middle-earth must beware!

******************************************

Once Radagast dreamt he was a moth, a moth flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Radagast. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakably Radagast. But he didn't know if he was Radagast who had dreamt he was a moth, or a moth dreaming he was Radagast. Between Radagast and a moth there must be some distinction! But really, there isn't, because he's actually Aiwendil dreaming he's both Radagast *and* a moth!
-From Radagasti: The Moth Dream


FarFromHome
Valinor


Jun 19 2017, 9:59pm

Post #11 of 12 (3843 views)
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I was wondering about the Elvish alphabets too. [In reply to] Can't Post

Perhaps they could be compared to Old English runes, which seem to have been used primarily for inscriptions on weapons and jewellery? Plus, as you say, there would probably be contracts, records, and (as we hear about in LotR) maps. Stories seem to be one of the last things that written languages are used for - early written tales like Beowulf seem to be transcriptions of oral stories meant for performance, rather than for private reading.

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



Darkstone
Immortal


Jun 29 2017, 1:44pm

Post #12 of 12 (3579 views)
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"Ţćs ofereode, ţisses swa mćg" [In reply to] Can't Post

Anglo-Saxon poetry, especially melancholic poetry such as The Lament of Deor, The Seafarer, The Wanderer, and parts of Beowulf, tends to mix past and present tenses. There is some quite lively philological discussion on why. My own extremely humble opinion is that it is deliberate. The phase "that passed away, so may this" is often used, which points to the Anglo-Saxon cultural sense of life as as continuous cycle of joy and sadness, gain and loss, etc. and etc. That is, "this happened and is happening". Inasmuch as the happy/sad tale of Beren and Luthien is repeated again as the tale of Aragorn and Arwen (and how many times before and since), the switching of tenses may be Tolkien incorporating this Anglo-Saxon sensibility of a never-ending cycle of joy and sadness into his poem. Or not.

******************************************

"We’re orcs of the Misty Mountains,
Our singing’s part of canon.
We do routines and chorus scenes
While dancing with abandon.
We killed Isildur in the Gladden,
To help Sauron bring Armageddon!"

-From "Spamwise The Musical"

 
 

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