Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Stormy Day in Tornado Alley

I can’t think of anything that makes me feel more helpless than a near-brush with a tornado. Back in 1994 a tornado touched down a few miles south of our house. I will long remember that day. Jennifer and I sat on our front porch and watched the weird, thick, greenish-grey cover of clouds roll rapidly from west to east overhead. There was no sound. No wind. It was eerie.

We didn’t have the sophisticated internet radar that we have today so I had to rely solely upon our transistor weather radio. The sense of overwhelming powerlessness, of impending chaotic doom, is something I still carry with me today. I told Jennifer then that it was in moments like that when I could best understand why people need to believe in some higher being. There is something profoundly human about us that needs a counter-force to which to make an appeal in the face of reckless natural power. We were lucky then.

The other time that comes to mind was when Jennifer and I were celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary. (Lucky 13, right?) We were about to enjoy a bottle of champagne when, suddenly, a storm brewed up out of nowhere with constant, heavy lightning. Several nearby strikes were followed by a direct hit to the corner of our house. The electrical discharge filled the inside of the house and many of my daughter's battery powered toys magically activated in her bedroom. It was like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I am a bit of a weather fanatic. When conditions are stormy I check out the various radar capabilities found at
NOAA and The Weather Channel. If it doesn’t look like we are going to receive a direct hit from a strong storm then I move on to other interests.

All day yesterday I kept checking these sites. From about 7:30 to 9:30 last night I was rather obsessed with a particular storm that was headed directly for my home after doing considerable damage to Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. About 9pm Jennifer, my daughter, and I cleaned out the storage under our stairway and prepared to get in there and cover ourselves with quilts and blankets. It appeared to be steering a path toward our spot on the map.

The storm had greatly diminished since plowing through the region just north of Birmingham but it was still very intense. Fortunately for us we only got the northern edge of it as it passed through here. A nearby community was not so lucky. About 6 miles away several homes were completely destroyed. A number of our friends either sent texts or emailed or phoned to make sure we were OK. I was thankful for their concern. Human contact often is the best medicine for the anxiety of the moment.

set a record for number of tornadoes for a single storm during my lifetime. I was simultaneously fascinated and concerned by the sheer quanity of large red cells showing up on the radar and the dozens of tornado warnings that appeared across Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee as the mass of blobs approached Georgia. The death toll is rising, as of this post it is nearing the number killed in the "Super Outbreak" of 1974, to which everyone is comparing this event.

I say “mass of blobs” because there was no clearly defined “front” for the storm.
It was all over the place. Instead of a line of storms there was a seemingly never-ending collection of enormous, somewhat circular, spheres of activity dotting the southeast moving powerfully from southwest to northeast.

Chattanooga was hit repeatedly all day long. One of my employees lives there and I let her go early when we found out her children were home alone after schools had closed about 10:30 yesterday morning. She got back home just before yet another strong storm hit that city. A giant water oak came crashing through her parents' house, puncturing the roof and causing water damage to part of the interior. They worked frantically before the next storm to clear the debris and put a tarp over the hole.

Our power went out at work about 9:30 yesterday morning when the first wave of storms passed through. Many trees were blown over and houses damaged. Several thousand people are still without power in our county today. That number grew as the day wore on and the
much larger patchwork of cells started rolling ominously through.

I have a gravel driveway at home. Already twice this spring torrential downpours have washed deep ruts in the angled drive from the road up to my carport. The first time I worked on the damage with a shovel and wheel-barrow. The second time I didn’t do anything. It is just as well, the hard rain last night would have only negated any efforts on my part of smooth things out.

We have lived with our driveway for about 17 years and we have never had the amount of trouble with erosion we have experienced so far this spring. This suggests something.

The way these storms came through last night and twice before to a lesser degree this spring is different from what we have experienced in recent history. It is enough to make me wonder if the nature of the moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico has changed. Could this be
an on-going symptom of global warming? La Nina? Or is it just a freaky occurrence?

I am hoping for the latter. But,
the checkerboard (instead of linear) nature of these intense storm systems so evident to my eye watching the radar this spring has me wondering. I don’t recall ever seeing anything like the chaotic pattern of intensity I have witnessed so far this year. Yesterday was the largest example of possible change in weather patterns, but it was the third time I’ve seen such activity since the beginning of March.

One of the many subtle
symptoms of global warming is supposed to be stronger storms and hurricanes. There may be no connection between what happened yesterday and record world-wide temperatures. But, perhaps there is. For now, it is just something I’ve noticed as an amateur weather watcher. Only time will tell if this is the new norm in a warmer world or simply a freak of nature.

Late note: Debris falls from the sky like snow upon my land. There are pieces of insulation everywhere. A shoe box in the middle of my woods near the path. Vinyl siding from some formerly Alabaman mobile home. We have some minor damage in our woods. Otherwise, we were lucky. We lived here through
the outbreak of 1994. It rained shards of indoor paneling then. A letter postmarked from Piedmont, Alabama fell on my great uncle's property about a half mile from our home. Tornadoes leave enormous debris fields often flung 20,000 feet or more up in the fierce upper currents of wind. It can land anywhere the air takes it and falls hundreds of miles from where the tornado actually lifted everything. On Saturday afternoon I sat in my woods. The day was bright and sunny. Beautiful light green leaves illuminated by sunlight are everywhere. Sitting on the bench there a gentle, warm southernly breeze brings the strong scent of sweet privet which richly blooms hundreds of feet away. I breathe deep and hear the leaves dance.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Linguistic Fossils of the Mind's Eye

Illustration in Guy Deutscher's work on the evolution of human language.

In January 2009, snow fell in the United Arab Emirates for only the second time in recorded history. This event was so rare to this region that there was no word in the dialect of local tribes to describe it. The fact there was no word for “snow” would let anyone paying attention know that Being in this part of the world had nothing to do with snow.

Language has fascinated me for many years. I own several books on how language has evolved and how it sometimes paradoxically both reflects and impacts human experience. The grammatical conventions of your spoken native language are so commonly accepted by you and others in your culture that their importance goes unnoticed. But, their importance is greater than almost anything else we express about ourselves.

I get a lot of blank stares when I attempt to explain to friends and acquaintances the critical importance of the grammar of our various languages in understanding humanity. So, let me just be blunt right out of the gate here before I touch upon the rather sophisticated science of all this.

The grammar of a given language provides us with the most direct access into the Being of whatever culture speaks (or spoke) that language. Unlike other revelations like art, music, religion, and technique, the grammar of a language is not subject to individual interpretation. The grammatical rules are a sound reckoning, a conduit running directly into the mind’s eye. In brief, to understand a person or a way of life it is best to understand the way they mundanely speak words.

The grammar of language does not lie. It is a pristine reflection of the attempt by humans to accurately communicate with one another. The fact that language often fails to communicate is not the fault of the grammar of language itself. The intent of language is fundamentally to be understood. It is only later that language is used for treachery and deceit; otherwise, you can’t find anything more honest regarding our humanity than the grammar of a culture’s language and its effect upon and revelation of each individual’s experience of life.

Despite its great diversity, the grammar of language reveals several archetypal areas of human commonality. These include: Human beings are naturally metaphorical and creative. Our minds inherently seek to create order out all things we interpret as experience. Our sense of Being, including such things as directional orientation, awareness of color, and attribution of gender is affected by language and the culture built upon language.

I just finished two interesting books on language as linguistics. I know very little about linguistics outside of studying it a bit out of my interest for Tolkien and Nietzsche (both philologists). Both books were by Guy Deutscher and they were entertainingly written and highly instructive without being overly academic. Otherwise, I would have likely understood little about them.

An example of what I mean by entertaining is this humorous tidbit from one of the books, Through the Language Glass (2010): “The holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain, archduke of Austria, and a master of several European tongues, professed to speaking ‘Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.’” (page 1)

Deutscher maintains a lightness and sense of humor throughout both books.

The other, The Unfolding of Language (2005), deals with the actual evolution of language. There is a lot of controversy over when “language” as humans uniquely express it, came into existence. Generally, the consensus is that humans acquired rudimentary skills over 1 million years ago. But, complex utterances that Deutscher terms “action words and thing-words” probably only emerged about 100,000 years ago in East Africa as human beings began the first great homo sapien migrations which led to the population of earth.

Deutscher finds “…a few deep-rooted motives that drive all of us (economy, expressiveness, analogy) create powerful forces of change and ensure that sounds, meanings, and even structures are always on the move.” (page 71) These common aspects of human Being drive languages (and life experiences) into a perpetual state of erosion and creative change.

The original East African language is referred to as Proto-Indo-European. An example of how languages of today have changed from the proto-language can be found in such mundane things as noun cases: “The fate of the case-system in the Indo-European languages is a good example. The prehistoric, Proto-Indo-European, had eight distinct cases, but only Sanskrit retained the full system, whereas in all other daughter languages, erosion had started taking its toll even before the earliest records began.” (page 92)

Yet, while erosion occurs there is also a creative force in the human development of language. That creativity is revealed in our unique capacity for metaphor. “…metaphor is the indispensible element in the thought-process of every one of us.” (page 117) “It transpired that metaphor is an essential tool of thought, an indispensible conceptual mechanism which allows us to think of abstract concepts in terms of simpler concrete things. It is, in fact, the only way we have of dealing with abstraction.” (page 142) (Steven Pinker also mentions the importance of the metaphorical aspect of language in The Stuff of Thought (2008). This is the non-controversial, commonly received wisdom of the scientific community.)

So, universally, humans express metaphor to be able to think and grasp emotion (as modern humans versus other primates). Simultaneously, “economy, expressiveness and analogy” actually drive the development of language. “…economy, which causes the erosion in sounds, and expressiveness, which results in the inflationary erosion in meaning and drives the flow of metaphors from concrete to abstract…analogy, or the mind’s craving for order.” (pp. 172-173)

We are inherently metaphorical in part because our ‘minds crave order.’ “If there is any element of invention in language, then this is surely it. But this invention is not the design of one architect, nor does it follow the dictates of any master plan. It is the result of thousands of small-scale spontaneous analogical innovations, introduced by order craving minds across the ages. So while language may never have been invented, it was nonetheless shaped by attempts of generations of speakers to make sense of the mass of details they have to absorb.” (page 208)

The proto-language likely contained just two kinds of words. “In order to have a ‘mental representation’ of who is doing what to whom, a clear distinction is required between objects and actions, and since this mental representation is a part of social intelligence that is well developed in non-human primates (and even other animals), it must have been a fixture in our distant ancestors’ cognition millions of years before language was even dreamt of.” (page 213) “…the distinction in meaning between things and actions goes much deeper than language – it is a fundamental feature of human cognition that precedes language by millions of years.” (page 244)

The use of what can be called ‘nouns’ and not just ‘things’ is a fairly recent occurrence in language, reflecting a shift in human experience. This is a ‘fossil’ of linguistics. “The flow from concrete to abstract has created many words for concepts that are no longer physical objects, but nonetheless behave like thing-words in the sentence. The resulting abstract concepts are no longer thing-words, but they inherit their distribution from the thing-words that gave rise to them. A new category of words has thus emerged…which we can now call ‘noun’.” (page 246)

The way language is used, its accepted uses by people through understood rules of grammar, is the residue of collective human experience. “The grammar of a language thus comes to code most compactly and efficiently those constructions that are used most frequently…grammar codes best what it does most often.” (page 261) This is centrally why I hold the grammar of language to be almost a sacred portal into human experience.

In the 2010 work, Deutscher’s emphasis shifts to why different languages reveal that humans actually experience life differently. We do not all feel and act the same way about the things of life. My opinion is that it is a mistake to believe “humanity” thinks, feels and experiences to a high degree of similarity. The fact is language shows that, as it diversified across the earth, humanity has a multitude of diverse ways of experiencing.

First of all, “…a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and perceive the world.” (page 7)

In this book Deutscher is concerned with “…where culture masquerades as human nature…language is a cultural convention that doesn’t masquerade as anything but a cultural convention.” (page 9) Again, language sees directly into the mind’s eye, which is completely a cultural creation. Each culture (and person) probably reflects basic roots with human nature but persons are not the whole of that nature itself.

Nevertheless, each unique culture is a complete expression of (one aspect of) human nature. “…culture not only controls the labels, but embarks on incessant raids across the border into what ought to be the birthright of nature…cultural conventions do manage to meddle in the internal affairs of many other concepts, in ways that sometimes upset plain common sense.” (page 13)

Deutscher offers scientific evidence where ultimately: “The influence of the mother tongue that has been demonstrated empirically is felt in areas of thought such as memory, perception, and associations or in practical skills such as orientation.” (page 235) How does he reach this point?

I am glossing over the rather deep science contained in both books but this one example will serve as the type of evidence we are dealing with. It seems incontrovertible evidence to me. I will condense Deutscher’s entertaining but scientific prose.

Two centuries ago William Ewart Gladstone made a study of the use of color in Homer’s two classics The Iliad and The Odyssey. He discovered that the word “black” occurred 170 times throughout the works. “White” – 100. “Red” – 13. “Yellow” – 10. “Violet” – 6. “Green” is mentioned once or twice while “Orange” and “Pink” not at all.

There was another color missing too. Blue. Not only is blue not mentioned anywhere by Homer but Lazarus Geiger discovered that “Blue” is not mentioned in the ancient Indian Vedic poems and “…like Homeric Greek, biblical Hebrew does not have word for ‘blue.’ Other color descriptions in the Old Testament also show deficiencies remarkably similar to Homeric poems.” (page 43) Now think about the snow in the Arab Emirates mentioned above. See? It reveals a life experience of persons.

Ancient Hebrew had no word for blue. Nor did the Sanskrit of the Vedic texts, nor did many other languages. This is another linguistic fossil. There are various reasons for this. Very few vegetables grown for food are blue. Blue is an extremely difficult dye to produce. But, the bottom line is that, despite the sky and the oceans, “Blue” was not an important distinction in the lives of these particular people. Were they color blind? No. The experience of blue was simply not an important distinction to them. Their world experience was different from ours.

That difference was culturally developed. “The ancients could see colors just as well as we do, and the differences in color vocabulary reflect purely cultural developments, not biological ones.” (page 76) Culture is a powerful force but it does not exceed that of human nature itself. “In light of all the evidence, it seems to me that the balance of power between culture and nature can be characterized most aptly by a simple maxim: culture enjoys freedom within constraints. Culture has a considerable degree of freedom in dissecting the spectrum, but still within loose constraints laid down by nature.” (pp. 90-91)

Another important linguistic fossil is the number of words within a language. “There is one area of language whose complexity is generally acknowledged to depend on culture – this is the size of the vocabulary.” (page 110) Pre-literate societies usually have about 3,000 to 5,000 words while literate ones range from 50,000 to 300,000 words. This is not just a reflection of an expanded rationality. The difference reveals either a simpler or a more complex experience of life.

Deutscher offers an intimate perspective on the actual difference in the experience of the present moment that is the foundation of why language is so important. It involves how certain languages make use of gender. “When I speak English, I may say about a bed that ‘it’ is too soft, but I actually feel ‘she’ is too soft.” (page 209) “…my world has so much to it that you entirely miss out on, because the landscape of my language is so much more fertile that your arid desert of ‘it’s.’” (page 215)

Deutscher’s native tongue is Hebrew, which extends not only the idea but also the experience of things as “he” or “she”. It is difficult for me to describe how monumentally important this seemingly trivial distinction is. Clusters of such triviality create two different realities in two different human bodies.

The author does not go as far as me, nor is he as blunt; I am interjecting much of my personal beliefs in here. Still, “…fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today….what we find ‘natural’ depends largely on the conventions we have been brought up on.” (page 233) There are clear echoes of Nietzsche in here.

The conclusion is that “habits of speech can create habits of mind.” So, language affects culture fundamentally. But, this is a reciprocal arrangement. Language changes due to cultural experience yet cultural experience is affected by language. There is no issue regarding which emerged first here. Both evolved equally out of proto-language tendencies toward action and thingness that lie at the heart of human nature.

To wrap up a lengthy post, human Being is naturally metaphorical. The grammar of language directly reveals life experience. Languages change due to the creative expression of metaphor and its interaction with the mind’s craving for order. Such change ultimately reflects alterations in life experience. These, I believe, are fundamental human truths.

The expression of language is the revelation of Being. To understand humanity you have no better place to start than how humanity uses words. Therefore, I place understanding the grammar of language above my direct personal experiences in understanding the diverse awareness of humanity as a whole.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Fellowship of the Ring

Note: This is the first installment of a fairly high-level overview of JRR Tolkien’s great trilogy, the best-selling novel of the 20th century. I make no attempt to explain the story, except for the fragments that perked my interest this time around. If you are unfamiliar with Tolkien then shame on you; and what follows will likely be very puzzling. All page notations are from my original paperback published by Ballantine Books in 1975.

I last read The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) in the winter of 2003. Even though I am very familiar with the story (this makes my ninth complete reading, I believe, with frequent referencing of sections of it through the years) each time the adventure is fresh and entertaining on a variety of levels. This time my tour of the great trilogy’s beginning, The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR), was no different in my enjoyment of the tale, in seeing small details afresh, and in becoming reacquainted with aspects of the meta-narrative. I found or rediscovered several noteworthy items.

First, let me say that although I consider myself a Tolkien purist and I believe LOTR to be the greatest fantasy novel every written, I am by no means unversed in other fantasy. In my time I have read Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, David Niven’s The Integral Trees, Peter Hamilton’s Nights Dawn trilogy (see an unfinished website on this one which I created), George R. R. Martin's Fire and Ice series, Jennifer introduced me to C. S. Lewis' Narnia series, and Clint acquainted me with the writing of Tad Williams. I have read Issac Azimov's later expanded Foundation "trilogy" and Frank Herbert's later expanded Dune "trilogy." But, I prefer Tolkien over any of these for a variety of reasons. Hopefully, some of my rationale will become obvious through this small diary of posts.

After The Hobbit was published in 1937, Tolkien would have preferred to have been done with hobbits and concentrate on the tales of the Years of the Trees, the First Age and the Second Age of Middle-earth that dominate The Silmarillion, his unfinished masterwork (published posthumously after being stitched together by his son, Christopher). Tolkien’s publisher, however, had little concern for the grand complexity of Tolkien’s wider vision. The publisher wanted something to capitalize on the commercial success of The Hobbit. So, Tolkien compromised by using hobbits as a kind of introduction to the world of The Silmarillion while creating an Epic Adventure “sequel” that would sell.

Most readers of LOTR never tackle the rather arcane prose of The Silmarillion. It is tough going and what you have to work with are more a series of plot outlines than a fully fleshed-out story. But, since I am familiar with that work my experience of LOTR is far richer; not least because Tolkien made so much effort to place many critical elements of it into LOTR. If you enjoy LOTR then by all means tackle The Silmarillion. You will be rewarded for the effort.

Hobbits turn out to be the perfect vehicle for Tolkien to establish not only the wider world of Middle-earth but to also touch on the rich storehouse of memories and ruins of its distant past. Hobbits are mentioned only in the last two pages (and referred to as “the Periannath”) of The Silmarillion, and they are largely ignorant of happenings beyond The Shire and its immediate surrounds. So, the reader gets to discover the terrain, cultures and a few legends of previous ages at the same time and pace as Frodo.

One of the most stimulating aspects of rereading FOTR this time was noticing how much of the tales from the Elder Days Tolkien was able to entwine with the adventure story. The Silmarils, namesake of the masterwork, are mentioned five times. The story of Beren and Luthien (which is, in my opinion, Tolkien’s greatest literary creation and serves as the model for Aragorn’s relationship with Arwen) is presented in its most basic form here. Even Morgoth, evil peer of the Valar, those who actually created most (but not all, they were powerful servants of Eru) of Middle-earth, is mentioned. Sauron, the Dark Lord of the Third Age, was a mere lieutenant to Morgoth and possessed less power than his former master.

These particular glimpses of The Silmarillion are one reason FOTR has always been my favorite volume of trilogy. It was well worth the 20 years following the success of The Hobbit that Tolkien toiled on the trilogy to get these choice morsels of the much larger tapestry of Middle-earth woven into volume one.

The Shire is big, natural and beautiful; a place unto itself. Tolkien takes great pains to immerse the reader in the region and its culture. Yet, Sauron doesn’t even know where it is. He has to torture Gollum to even get the name. The Ringwraiths have difficulty finding it. Still, hobbits being what they are, it took Frodo considerable time to leave Bag End, which makes for a scary brush with a Wraith.

Some critics have complained that he takes almost 200 pages to get Frodo out of The Shire region. For me, this is something positive. It allows you to get to know the earthy, quaint nature of hobbits (which is what the publisher was after all along). It also gives the reader a chance to get established in Middle-earth; to become rooted in a simple, agrarian society before the Epic begins. It is a place that feels comfortable, you want to call it home, and for this reason it becomes real.

It was not always obvious to me but, the Council of Elrond is not summoned. It occurs spontaneously. Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir are there for different reasons and certainly not at the bidding of Elrond. The Elven master of Rivendell had no idea any of these characters, nor the hobbits and Gandalf for that matter, were going to appear more or less at the same time. Every time I read this chapter I am amazed at how spellbound Tolkien has me even though nothing is happening except a bunch of talk about the history of the One Ring, with a dozen or so characters to keep up with.

Tolkien takes great care with concepts regarding calendars and dates, phases of the moon. Here again, this is part of the basis for suspending disbelief within the fantasy tale. Certain dates have significance. The time it takes to get from one place to another is measured in specific days. Nights are usually punctuated with references to whatever phase the moon is in or how brightly it shines if it is full. The multiple layers of such mundane details make it all seem so genuine.

Lothlorien is my single favorite place in the entire novel. The chapters regarding it have always been my most beloved chapters in the trilogy. Only Fangorn Forest and the Old Forest are perhaps older than Lorien, all of them extending back to the First Age. Nevertheless, Lothlorien is special because it contains unique trees, the Mallorn. Legolas tells his companions: “For in autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.” (page 434)

But, when the Fellowship arrives at Lothlorien it is not spring. “Alas, it is winter,” Legolas sighs. Why alas? Because, as the reader now knows, our heroic little troop comes before the leaves have fallen. So, they will miss the greatest splendor of Lothlorien, the golden roof and floor that happens only in spring. That Tolkien makes the essence of the seasons so important to Legolas and, in turn, to us as readers, is distinctive in literature and a wonderful reading experience to feel such depth in these characters.

Of course, one huge reason the novel feels so real resides in the natural descriptions of the landscapes of Middle-earth that Tolkien sprinkles throughout the novel. His wonderful prose evokes the experience of being there. Some choice examples:

At the edge of the Old Forest: “The light grew clearer as they went forward. Suddenly they came out of the trees and found themselves in a wide circular space. There was sky above them, blue and clear to their surprise, for down under the Forest-roof they had not been able to see the rising morning and the lifting of the mist. The sun was not, however, high enough yet to shine down into the clearing, though its light was on the tree-tops. The leaves were all thicker and greener about the edges of the glade, enclosing it with an almost solid wall. No tree grew there, only rough grass and many tall plants: stalky and faded hemlocks and wood-parsley, fire-weed seeding into fluffy ashes, and rampant nettles and thistles. A dreary place: but it seemed a charming and cheerful garden after the close Forest. The hobbits felt encouraged, and looked up hopefully at the broadening daylight in the sky.” (pp. 158 – 159)

At Rivendell: “The next day Frodo woke early, feeling refreshed and well. He walked along the terraces above the loud-flowing Bruinen and watched the pale, cool sun rise above the far mountains, and shine down, slanting through the thin silver mist; the dew upon the yellow leaves was glimmering, and the woven nets of gossamer twinkled on every bush. Sam walked beside him, saying nothing, but sniffing the air, and looking every now and again with wonder in his eyes at the great heights in the East. The snow was white upon their peaks. The light of the clear autumn morning was now glowing in the valley. The noise of bubbling waters came up from the foaming river-bed. Birds were singing, and a wholesome peace lay on the land.” (page 314)

At the Argonath: “Nothing happened that night worse than a brief drizzle of rain an hour before dawn. As soon as it was light they started. Already the fog was thinning. Slowly the sky above grew lighter, and suddenly the clouds broke and their draggled fringes trailed away northward up the River. Before the travelers lay a wide ravine, with great rocky sides to which clung, upon shelves and narrow crevices, a few thrawn trees. The channel grew narrower and the River swifter. Over them was alane of pale-blue sky, around them the dark overshadowed the River, before them black, shutting out the sun, the hills of Emyn Muil, in which no opening could be seen.

“Frodo peering forward saw in the distance two great rocks approaching: like great pillars of stone they seemed. Tall and sheer and ominous they stood on either side of the stream. ‘Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings!’ cried Aragorn. As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening. Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned: the craft and power of old had wrought upon them, and still they preserved through the suns and rains of forgotten years the mighty likenesses in which they were hewn. Upon great pedestals founded in the deep waters stood two great kings of stone. The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gesture of warning in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown. Great power and majesty they still wore, the silent wardens of a long-vanished kingdom.” (pp. 507-508)

There are several passages of Elvish language, some extending on for several lines of verse (see near the end of the chapter entitled “Farewell to Lorien”), that Tolkien leaves utterly un-translated. This might be one of the boldest and most original aspects of his creations. It must be remembered that Tolkien was a philologist and developed a plethora of languages for his world (a brilliant artistic achievement in itself). Much of the feeling one develops in reading LOTR comes from the fact that these characters have a linguistic depth to them. They exhibit profound cultural connections if one wishes to study this aspect of Tolkien more deeply. Even if you don’t, you can still appreciate it as an intangible quality in the flavor of the adventure.

At this point in the trilogy, the Ring has not worked its possessive nature into Frodo as he has rarely used it. In FOTR Frodo is still trying to give the One Ring away. First to Gandalf who refuses it and finally to Galadriel, last remaining of the High Elves of the First Age, who likewise refuses it. They desire the Ring for different reasons but they know its power corrupts and takes possession of whoever uses it. Interestingly, when Boromir tries to take the Ring, Frodo instinctively resists him; the offer of the Ring as a gift is only made to those Frodo trusts.

The Three Rings of the Elves are predominantly used to sustain a different time, in Lothlorien all the way back to the First Age, many thousands of years ago before Men inhabited Middle-earth. Yet, they were forged due to the deception of Sauron feigning penitence. They were bound to the One Ring Sauron later forged for himself. An example of the One Ring’s power is that the foundations to Sauron’s fortress, Barad-dur, cannot be destroyed because they are literally constructed with the power of the One Ring.

But, the Elves learned of the perils of the One Ring and ultimately kept the Three hidden. They only made use of their power because they thought the One Ring was lost. Then Frodo showed up, of course, and changed everything. Before that, however, Galadriel used Nenya as a force to physically freeze Time in Middle-earth at Lothlorien. Still, Sauron’s Ring would command them if he only possessed the Three along with his lost One Ring. Then their power would have been used differently and to a much greater effect.

But, this is a two-edged sword. The destruction of the One Ring means the end of the power of the Three. The Elves know this and Galadriel, after refusing the Ring, says: “I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.” The destruction of the One Ring means the fading of all Rings of Power. Even the marvelous power of the Three to heal and sustain will be gone. The ability to freeze Time will cease and Lothlorien will be no more. The way Tolkien intertwines “evil” power with “good” power is noteworthy and adds a touch of modernity to the novel.

One of the finest instances of how Tolkien connects LOTR with matters contained in The Silmarillion is when Frodo is given a phial of water from Galadriel’s magical fountain. The water contains the light of Earendil’s star. It will come in handy later in the trilogy but, beyond this, Tolkienites like myself who have read The Silmarillion know the story of Earendil (Elrond’s father) and the star. It is the consensus of Tolkien scholars that Earendil’s star is equated to the planet Venus, another small detail that makes Middle-earth feel like home. For Galadriel to somehow retain a piece of this star to literally pour and share it with another is, at once, magical and a revelation through the depths of Time so characteristic of Tolkien’s style.

Whether it is a trek to Buckland or crossing the Nimrodel or navigating the great Anduin River, the book is filled with moments of just hiking and looking and finding a crossing and aching and bothered with insects and feeling hungry and thinking of home and all these other real, mundane details amidst the Epic backdrop. To me this is what makes LOTR the finest fantasy work ever written.

Ultimately, Tolkien does not rely upon the fantastic but rather the splendor of ordinary moments (accented by moments of action and wonder) set against the grandeur of the natural world, of ancient creations, now in ruins, of Elves and Dwarves and Men who are long-dead or escaped from Middle-earth. But, while Tolkien’s approach and style is unique, to place the ordinary amidst the extraordinary and magical is one of the more imitated forms of literature in print today. Yet Tolkien pioneered this no less than Picasso pioneered a method of painting. Simply brilliant.

On to The Two Towers!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Great Ninths

Note: This is the next post in a continuing series on the greatest symphonies in classical music which I began last year.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824) is the greatest symphony ever written. It surpasses every symphony I have posted about in this series and it surpasses all its direct competition. No symphony compares equally with the brilliance of Beethoven’s Great Ninth in its combination of balanced orchestration, sophisticated musical ideas and themes, and the way its four movements create an unsurpassed grand structural force, a whole unto itself.

The composition was of long-time interest to Beethoven. He wanted to do something with Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” for over two decades. The first movement creates an atmosphere of awe, an affirmation of Being, through a succession of struggles and triumphs. It is establishes a strong central theme that Beethoven will return to toward the symphony’s end. It is amazing to remember that Beethoven was completely deaf when he composed this symphony. He conducted the premier performance himself and could not hear the massive applause the work instantly received.

While the opening movement expertly establishes a conflicted drama, the second movement is a singular expression of self-assured, even youthful human delight. Designated Molto vivace, it is the greatest single symphonic movement I have ever heard. It is powerful, optimistic, and confident and driving in positive progression. This is created with full use of the orchestra and strong parts of each section. I find it an uplifting piece in any life situation. Beethoven strikes something universal here, you will hear it if you listen.

The third movement, a brilliant adagio lasting almost 20 minutes, transforms the joy into a nurturing sense of nobility, a sense of higher purpose and Being. The movement begins in melancholy fashion but flourishes in peaceful resignation crowned in ethereal radiance. Multiple variations here make Beethoven’s work far more sophisticated than sentimental.

The finale is, perhaps, this symphony’s most remembered movement. It is a rather operatic movement (and readers should know by now I do not care for opera much) but with grandiose, refined orchestration, recalling previously established themes. It also features the magnificent choral treatment of “Ode to Joy” which rewards every listening. It is just symphonic and choral enough to inspire me to embrace its (likely much respected among musical artists) operatic nature.

Ultimately, Beethoven’s Ninth is Great because of what it is in its entirety. The symphony has many varied sections, each one rewarding, the later ones complementing the previous, attaining the highest possible musical celebration and expression of the best of humanity. It is the definitive summit of the classical symphony.

Whereas Beethoven celebrates the Being of humanity, Mahler’s Great Ninth (1909) is about death, or, better put, dying. Not in a brooding sense of foreboding and dread nor quite in a celebratory sense. Mahler’s Ninth is about the composer’s personal encounter with death and in its depths we find peace and acceptance and love transcending the grief and anguish and uncertainty. The first bars of the opening movement are as fascinating as anything Mahler ever composed. First, there are, fragmented and in slow motion, three notes being plucked and pointed out by cellos and a solo horn. Then a harp playing four notes on low strings. Gently the strings well up and rest in a steady slowness.

This 30-minute movement does not remain so easy for long. There are variations of complete anguish. Strong undertones of anger bubble up now and then. This is perfectly understandable for Mahler knew he was dying as he composed it (see program notes here). There must have been some initial anger involved when he first learned of his life-threatening heart condition only a few days after the death of his daughter. Two years later he composed this symphony. Another year and half after that he was gone.

This is Mahler’s most modern symphony in terms of composition, reflecting a great interest the composer had for Arnold Schoenberg at the time. The influence of the more contemporary Schoenberg (prior to his twelve-tone system) is evident in several parts of the symphony. (Mahler also was influential on Schoenberg.) Many Mahler enthusiasts consider the opening movement to be his greatest single musical achievement.

The second movement is, interestingly enough, fun. It is a series of dances: one clunky, one drunken, one slow and expert. There is a lightness to this movement that gives refreshment after the lengthy grieving of the prior movement. This lightness is no longer present in the third movement, a rondo, a bitter and mocking composition filled with a marching resentment.

It is Mahler’s fourth movement that caused Jennifer to fall in love with him. She and I rather ritualistically open the windows on a clear early spring evening, air out the house and crank up the stereo for this groundswell of love and tenderness that lifts the listener up. Mahler knew his end was near and he reflected a great deal upon his feelings about that. In the end, Mahler chooses to fade, not happily but with deep-seated acceptance and utter calm. Letting go.

The last four and a half minutes of the symphony are sustained near the reach of human hearing by strings alone. Easy, melodic, unhurried, drifting. A few simple notes at the very end for the basses and cellos, the violins hold a single note and remain barely audible until at last giving way to silence.

Subtitled “From the New World”, Dvorak’s Great Ninth (1895) is a long-time friend of mine. It was one of the first classical music pieces I listened to when I originally developed a taste for the genre during college. The first movement, an adagio, opens softly, then becomes a powerfully bold anthem to earthly folkish Being. I experience in this opening the light, sometimes stormy, passage of days.

The Largo second movement is the symphony’s signature piece and it is one of the most memorable symphonic experiences I have taken with me since college. It begins with a melodic English horn harmonizing with strings, other winds taking their turn. The movement has a spiritual, contemplative quality about it. This is a highly relaxing experience.

The third movement, a scherzo, reminds me of Beethoven. Whole sweeping strong strings sections with loud percussion accompaniment joined by the entire orchestra at frequent climaxes. This is a lively movement which is a nice contrast to the prior largo. The final movement picks up on the lively quality beginning with a triumphant horn section. The brass and horns carry this movement to a strongly uplifting conclusion.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (1828) is, in fact, subtitled “Great”. It lives up to its billing and was finished only a few months before Schubert’s death. There is no trace of death within the symphony, however. The opening is a complex structure of variations on a dignified and vigorous theme.

The second movement, an andante, sustains and intensifies the energy of the first. It features and ever evolving, spacious melody with very pronounced deep strings propelling everything much like Schubert did in his Unfinished Symphony. It is a superb musical experience and my favorite part of the symphony.

The next movement, a stately scherzo, features an oboe with strings. It has a delightfully strident, folkish quality about it. The fourth movement, recapitulates the entire work through expressions of great energy. It is powerful, often more rhythmic than melodic composition. Overall, the work is a terrific example of the classical symphonic construct, a testament to Schubert’s rare expertise and brilliance that was so tragically short-lived in its creative glory. Schubert lived to be a mere 31, dying about a year after Beethoven.

Bruckner died while composing his Great Ninth (1896). He only completed three movements but, like Schubert’s Unfinished in a previous post, the incomplete status of the work does not make less of a distinguished composition. The opening is weighty and powerful with string, horns, percussion all prominent. It clocks in at over 25 minutes in length with wonderful alternating moments of ponderous thunder and delicate melodies. The sonic range contrasts explosive force by the entire orchestra with brief moments of complete silence. A certain tension develops and is sustained throughout the middle portion of this movement while returning to the opening theme.

The second movement is a wonderful trio and the best part of the work for me. It is highly rhythmic, almost skipping along through complex pairings of strings with horns, winds with percussion and is highlighted by a robust, pulsating drive that reminds me a lot of Beethoven in his earlier symphonic works. The third movement adagio is a beautiful (even sweet) yet stark Wagnerian-type masterpiece that runs almost 30 minutes in length. Overall, what we have of the symphony is an amazingly peaceful, confident, strong, and brooding spectrum of sound that is richly rewarding. It is interesting to speculate what might have been had Bruckner lived to complete the final movement, of which only scattered sketches exist.

But, as is by now obvious, by the time these masterful composers reached their ninth symphony, for various reasons, their lives were either at or near their end. Some, like Mahler, were so superstitious about the association of death when confronting a ninth that they rushed on to attempt a tenth or more. However, other very notable composers which I haven’t mentioned yet throughout this tour of Greats did not even begin to create truly great symphonic music until they were far beyond their ninth symphony. I will discuss two giants of classical music that fit that description whenever I write my next post in this series.