Monday, May 23, 2011

Beyond Nine: Haydn and Mozart

Note: This is the tenth installment of my continuing series about the greatest symphonies. I plan to conclude with two more posts sometime in the future.

By the time we reach Great Symphonies beyond the number Nine the list of distinctive composers narrows considerably. Mahler composed some large portions of a projected five-movement Tenth but he died before he could proceed beyond that. Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvorak are all gone. Yet, two of the greatest composers of all time created their greatest symphonic works far beyond their first nine symphonies.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived to compose 41 symphonies. Franz Joseph Haydn wrote an astonishing 104 symphonies. These two giants of the classical symphonic form influenced many who followed them, including Beethoven himself. Along with Johann Sebastian Bach, who never composed a symphony as I use the term, Haydn and Mozart form the three great pillars of pre-Beethoven composition. Their works are still widely performed and are as appreciable today as they were well over 200 years ago.

I have, at one time or another, managed to listen to all of Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies. Being rather obsessive about certain things, I have kept a small notebook on which of these symphonies made the most impression on me. For Haydn, the first work of the symphonic form to impress is his Symphony No. 45 (1772). Before that, his symphonies sound at times interesting but hardly interesting throughout. Like Mozart, most of Haydn’s earliest symphonies clock-in at less than 20 minutes; shorter than many symphonic movements of, say, Mahler and Bruckner.

By the time you reach Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 (1787) you are experiencing his full genius for composition. In fact, you can make a strong argument that any of his last 16 symphonies can be considered “Great” in the context of this series of posts. This is an extraordinary achievement in the sheer quantity of quality, especially considering most of the great composers never created more than nine symphonic offerings to begin with – many of them, like Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, achieved much fewer such works of this art form.

Haydn’s No. 88 is truly “Great” in my estimation. A slow, stately introduction is built around strong chords that give way to a lively theme gradually expressed in robust fashion by the entire orchestra. It is a foot tapper at times. The second movement, a largo, is beautiful and melodic, carried initially by an oboe and cellos then by all strings. The serene moment is thrice interrupted briefly by forceful chords before quickly returning to the poignant music announced earlier with woodwinds supported by strings.

The third movement is a minuet and features typical Haydn vigorousness before transforming into a proper peasant dance. The symphony concludes with a continuation of the pleasant and sturdy style of the previous dance. Haydn is confident and joyful throughout No. 88.

One cannot have a complete discussion about Haydn without mentioning a fondness for the “Surprise” symphony, No. 94 (1791). In it we find the wonderful sense of humor that Haydn placed into many of his symphonies. Haydn wants to make you giggle. In this case the giggle is to watch as his music settles old fat royal men and women into being almost asleep then shocks them with powerful fully orchestrated chords at an active beat. The resulting “surprise” early on the symphony’s second movement was a giggle, at least for Haydn. Let’s jolt them out of their seats.

No. 94 is a truly Great symphony, comparable (within context) to most symphonies discussed in this blog series. Haydn lulls you in the pastoral-like opening, but suddenly, spritely, a main theme is taken up by the full string section. The variations pass from supple, quiet moments, to strapping, rhythmic soundings of the entire orchestra; yet Haydn remains generally relaxed throughout. Then, in the second movement, also in a somewhat regimented softness, at times barely audible, until about 30 seconds in, “Bomp!” Haydn hits with his joke. After that, the movement meanders along nicely and ends gently. It is punctuated twice by a marvelous full, heavy, richly layered orchestral flourish.

In the majority of Haydn symphonies the third movement is a dance-like minuet-trio carried by the strings. No. 94 shows this compositional preference at its best. It is lite and confident and particular. The finale, while expertly composed, lasts less than four minutes. The commonality of such short symphonic movements during this time partly allowed for Haydn’s large number of such compositions. Most Haydn movements are 5-7 minutes long and none of his symphonies lasted 30 minutes. Most clock-in less than 25 minutes. After all, the intent was aristocratic after-dinner entertainment or for outdoor galas. The audience could be expected to listen only so long before taking a conversation break.

My personal favorite Haydn symphony is the Great No. 101, “The Clock” (1794). Its beginnings are lite and almost Beethoven-ish already, years before Beethoven. Haydn’s orchestration is a basic influence on Beethoven’s style later. Haydn is masterful in many forms of classical music. His piano sonatas are considered brilliant as are his string quartets. I own all his piano trios and these are works I definitely enjoy. Great compositions in lesser forms. But, the symphonic Haydn is extraordinary and, perhaps, his greatest singular artistic achievement.

While Haydn did not “invent” the symphony or the sonata or the quartet, he was the first great master of these classical forms. His expertise warrants the title of “father” to many musical forms and certainly to the symphony.

Many of his symphonies (beginning with No. 6) open with a mixed adagio-allegro or adagio-presto style. This is an innovation by Haydn. To introduce the fast movement with a short, slow prelude was a novel musical idea. These are largely carried by the strings providing a typically optimistic air with winds and horns providing considerable weight and variation. The Clock is a nimble, nymph-like, precision machine. A happy force. The Clock’s adagio portion first movement builds slowly, and – in a bit of a rarity – ominously, weighty, somewhat cloudy. But, a little less than 3 minutes in you experience this upbeat use of the entire orchestra led, of course, by strings.

The second movement andante is the symphony’s most famous movement and my favorite among many splendid Haydn moments from which to choose. I consider it to be almost an archetypal blend of The Enlightenment and Art. Structured. Strict. Clock-like until, suddenly, one-third of the way in to the movement, there is an exquisite and strong Beethoven/Schubert orchestral striving. After that marvelous fury the movement becomes rather methodical, as a clock. Many clever variations follow.

It gives way to another dance third movement, containing a distinctive and refreshing rhythm. It is a joy to listen to, very bold and self-assured. The final movement lasts a brief, five minutes. It is an emotionally played vivace featuring instrumental, technical dexterity and ability to pull off, particularly for the strings.

Haydn demands the best possible musicians for his final symphonies. They are all filled with many notes and passages to be played authoritatively in a Mozart fashion. In many ways Haydn is the reverse blending of Mozart and Beethoven. The late Haydn is stylistically intermingled with the late Mozart. His Symphony No. 104 contains and underlying heaviness that Mozart would examine in his own Great Nos. 40 and 41.

Like Haydn, Mozart has a large number of potential Great symphonies. For me, Nos. 35, 40, and 41 are towering efforts of genius. Several other later ones, such as Nos. 31, 36, 38, 39, could also be considered, but I would not rank them above the previously mentioned three. These three would make any Mozart symphonic list.

Like Haydn, most of the early Mozart is short and sweet. His first symphony, composed when he was 8(!) years old, lasts a mere 16 minutes. It represents the typical, upbeat symphonic sound of its times. It is noteworthy, of course, like many of Mozart’s early works, simply due to the fact he was a child prodigy.

The Great No. 35 (1782) is also known as the “Haffner” symphony. The first movement is a rather agile and dexterous piece, powerful and rich. Its technical sophistication probably surpasses anything Haydn composed and it is certainly one the finest movements in Mozart’s symphonic arsenal. The slow movement that follows offers a contrasting, refreshing gentility, with a nice woodwind interlude. Mozart follows Haydn’s example with a short minuet trio third movement, only this one has an atypical pastoral quality, only slightly dance-like. Mozart specified that the final movement, a presto, is to be performed as quickly as possible. At times it gallops along on its way to a more relaxed, though authoritative, conclusion.

With the Great No. 40 (1788), Mozart reaches a level of complexity and bountiful variation that surpasses Haydn. We are now in a more “modern” symphonic expression, with a duration of 35 minutes. The opening is one of Mozart’s most famous pieces, establishing a wonderful eloquence. There is a hint of serious sadness here that is rather noticeable since almost everything else I have written about in this post is a joyous and carefree composition. But, the slight melancholy undertone does not threaten to override the beauty that pervades the movement. Once more, we stand on the threshold of Beethoven in terms of sophistication and emotional expression.

The second movement is serene, carried predominantly by the string section particularly accented by the violas. This piece in itself is probably my favorite Mozart symphonic movement. At over 14 minutes it is longer than most other movements from this time period and far longer than any movement Haydn composed. This length is indicative of Mozart’s ability to push the complexity, exploration, and juxtaposition of themes (just two in this case) into numerous enjoyable variations.

Once again, the third movement is a dance minuet that evolves into a trio and forms a chivalrous quality and a refined idyllic melody carried by woodwinds and strings. The finale is traditional and vigorous. The pace relaxes about one-third of the way in before returning to a spirited and technically demanding conclusion.

The Great No. 41 (1788) is dubbed “Jupiter”. I believe this is the first work by Mozart that I listened to back when I was introducing myself to classical music. It was fortuitous because every budding classical connoisseur should find this to be an entertaining musical work.

With his last symphonies Mozart surpasses Haydn. The opening of Jupiter is tumultuous at times, reflecting a consideration outside the norm of lite, dexterous music. There are certainly echoes of all that in the first movement. There is a second theme that is more delicate and graceful. But these qualities do not dominate the course of things like the weighty ferocity that pervades the movement. Beethoven would be impressed later and follow Mozart’s lead. This is a distinctive dramatic height.

We are in true classical symphony composition territory here so there is a slow, second movement. This is an excellent example of Mozart developing his own style with the way he allows the strings to be nested in the woodwinds. It has a fine flowery texture, if you will. Yet, as in the first movement, there is a bit of a dark undertone contrasting with a delicate sweetness that affects the listener on an emotional level.

Classical compositional style. Minuet-trio third movement. See a pattern here? Mozart gives us a conversation between his brilliant use of woodwinds and the sweeping strings; a lovely and lite movement with regimented dance qualities. In the finale Mozart goes out on top, as it were, with a brilliant movement that transcends most any symphonic expression before it. It is self-assured, strong, but eloquent and radiant. Sensitive yet strong. Soft and boisterous. Just a joy to experience.

I would rank Mozart slightly ahead of Haydn. His Greats often sound Haydn-like but they explore emotional depths that Haydn, with all his precision and mastery, did not venture into far. Mozart’s No. 40 is probably the best of all symphonies mentioned in this post, surpassing Haydn’s Great No. 94, if comparable. But the superiority is marginal. Haydn was a brilliant symphonist, as I have said.

To recapitulate, they stand as two of the great pillars upon which all of classical music as a genre rested before Beethoven. A third pillar being Bach who, due to the fact he did not compose symphonies in the classical sense but was rather of the Baroque genre, does not enter into our consideration in this series.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Note to Self: Speed of Change, Speed of Brain

Typically, I opine about something in my blog posts. This post is not an opinion, or rather it is not a fully formed opinion. It is, rather, the opinion of others, an item of note that I want to file away inside my blog for future reference; a basis for further deliberation regarding a question unasked. It has to do with something I've been considering for years but which I am having extreme difficulty articulating.

So, for now, I will plant this note and come back to it later. I might also take a moment to acknowledge the slowdown in the number of posts in recent months. I am working on a number of musings that I want to share with you. I hope in coming months to get much more precise about what I hold to be important and particularly insightful about life itself.

My writing is devoted more these days to topics not ready for this blog. They require time and struggle and I have discovered dozens of wrong turns.

I know how "heavy" that might sound. It isn't meant to be; but, at the same time, I am on a spiritual journey, as I have mentioned before. And many aspects of my personal spirituality are becoming clearer...or, at least the difficulties in achieving meaningful insight into my areas of discovery are now much better defined for me.

More on all of these things in the future. But for now, just a note.

On the PBS News Hour tonight, while enjoying a meal of homemade cornbread, sweet creamed corn, pinto beans, and broccoli, I watched a report about the problem of creating jobs in the current economic climate. More specifically, the report focused on a controversial new book by economist Tyler Cowen entitled The Great Stagnation. It received a good (objective, pros and cons) review in The Economist earlier this year. While I don't know very much about this book beyond what I was told in the report (and in the previous review), I find aspects of its thesis both insightful and myopic. Reasons for both interpretations can be found in the PBS report itself.

Of particular interest to me was an interview with an expert supporting the antithesis to "the great stagnation" concept, a professor named Erik Brynjolfsson. At the end of the report he stated: "I'm an optimist about technological progress, but I'm not nearly as optimistic about our ability to keep up with it.

"We have got some real problems. I just want to make it clear that the problem is not stagnation. The problem is more serious in some ways, which is our basic human ability to keep up with technological progress. That problem is going to get worse and worse as technology speeds faster and faster."

My question (and the purpose of this note for future blogging) is: If technology is progressing at a rate beyond the ability of human beings to keep up, then who or what is driving the "progress"? Has humanity lost control of progress itself? My guess is the answer is "yes". Something new is happening. It believe it is fundamentally spiritual in origin and that is what I want to explore at a later date.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Final Bow?

It came of my attention over the weekend that last Thursday night at the O2 Arena in London, David Gilmour and Nick Mason joined Roger Waters for a performance of “Comfortably Numb" in Waters’ latest tour of the 1979 Pink Floyd classic rock concept album The Wall.

The appearance, while a major event among Pink Floyd fans, like me, everywhere, was Gilmour honoring his end of a bargain he had struck with Waters last year at a gig benefiting Palestinian refugee children.

The troubles of Gilmour and Waters have been previously chronicled by me on this blog. Unfortunately, this brief reunion is not the harbinger of more appearances to come, although there is some previously unreleased Pink Floyd archival material in the works. It was merely a happy episode in Pink Floyd history that probably won’t lead to much of anything else.

The performance of “Comfortably Numb” itself was uninspired. It was not Gilmour at his best, though he was certainly adequate. As with the 1980 tour of The Wall, he was positioned high above a gigantic wall of bricks which is more or less constructed during the performance of the double-album show. Water’s remained, as he did back in 1980 (the last time the two musicians played together during a performance of The Wall), on the stage floor singing vocals and acting as master of ceremonies for what is essentially a rock opera.

Mason, the only other surviving member of Pink Floyd, also participated by playing drums during “Comfortably Numb” last week. But, no one could see him because by this point in the performance the wall of giant white bricks covers the entire stage. He appeared side by side with Waters and Gilmour during the final curtain call after the performance.

Will this be the final bow of Pink Floyd? Perhaps. As I have noted before, keyboardist Richard Wright, died a couple of years ago, making 2005’s concert set at Hyde Park definitively the final complete appearance of one of rock’s all-time greatest bands. Certainly, they are my favorite, second only to Neil Young himself.

All three are beginning to show their age a bit more. Waters, now 67, recently commented that although he still has fire in his belly, his voice and technical skills are almost beyond recall on many of the songs he wrote. Gilmour, meanwhile, enjoys a mastery very close to his original vocal range and his guitar prowess makes him still one of the world’s best guitarists. But, Gilmour has always lacked the “fire in the belly” that is Waters’ strength. This is one reason the two were able to reach such fantastic heights of rock and roll stardom during the last three decades of the last century.

One thing that impressed me about the internet video clips available for the Gilmour appearance in the Waters show was how the visual aspects of the current Waters Tour have vastly improved beyond the capability of 1980. I have a DVD of Waters and his chosen non-Floydian cast performing The Wall in 1990. That is a noteworthy effort, displaying Roger’s gift for stagecraft. But, the current tour seems to have surpassed all previous special effects standards for the performance of this piece.

Well, in 2011 he seems to be allowing the technology to carry much more of the load. The visual animations displayed in sync with Gilmour’s singing and playing, and Waters’ vocals and stage presence, must be something to behold live in concert. These guys were always into giving large audiences a lot of “wow-factor” in their live performances. From psychedelic light shows to large inflatable balloons, Pink Floyd concerts (and Waters’ and Gilmour’s post-Floydian endeavors) have upheld a certain standard for not only entertaining with music but with a complete audience-immersion experience (psychotropic drugs of choice recommended but not required).

But, beyond the grandiose (and somewhat decadent) nature of the show, what makes the moment special is the fact that three once highly collaborative artists, then adversarial contenders for the copyright to a massive rock money machine, managed to set it all aside for a night, welcome each other on stage, and perhaps give some closure to this segment of contemporary musical history.

Still, it would be nice to see them come up with something new one last time.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Two Towers

Note: This is the third part of a high-level review of my 9th reading of Tolkien's classic prelude and trilogy. All quotes and page numbers are from my original 1975 paperback edition.

The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR) ends with a chapter entitled “The Breaking of the Fellowship.” That break is so severe that it separates more than the primary characters. In The Two Towers (TT) the narrative itself is split down the middle. This creates an interesting story-telling challenge for J.R.R. Tolkien. How do you maintain interest in the main story line when whole groups of characters are missing for hundreds of pages?

It is an unconventional approach but Tolkien makes it all work in his favor. Instead of becoming confused, the reader is caught up in a “what happens next?” mentality. Pippin and Merry are taken prisoner by fierce Uruk-hai and end up in Fangorn Forest. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are tracking them through Rohan and end up in the novel’s second largest battle at Helms Deep. It is a tiny affair compared to, say, the Battle of Dagorlad which ended the Second Age. It is through the lands of that ancient battle that Frodo and Sam are following Gollum’s lead.

Tolkien's first big battle tale is certainly complex and exciting, but most of TT is about the discovery of still more of Middle-earth. We see Edoras, the ruling center of a nation of tribal horsemen. We know the depths of the oldest forest remaining on Middle-earth. We see the near-destruction of a great tower, imprisoning a powerful wizard. We venture through the lifeless wastes of Emyn Muil, the terrifying mountain pass at Cirith Ungol, the fair forest strip of land known as Ithilien where Faramir is entrusted as a forward command of Gondor. The story is incredibly detailed on each of these places and characters. It is a thrilling and peerless piece of original epic literature.

Tolkien shows how he is the master of depth with his telling of the Palantiri, the Seven Seeing Stones. Here The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) begins to explore the wider Numenorean influences upon the story. The Stones are many centuries old and are powerful means of long-distance communication.

Hobbits are still the wonder of the world. The Rohirrim have never seen one before and thought they were a child’s story character. Ents have no clue what they are. At first they consider them as possible Orcs. They kept things somewhat light in FOTR. But, in TT a great weight sets down upon the story. A major war is at hand. The safety of the world is at stake. Hobbits can only offer us a bit of respite in a story like this. Tolkien is poetically stern through major portions of TT.

The chapters entitled “Flotsam and Jetsam” and “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbits” make a great comparison for this point. They are, by far, the most light-hearted of the volume. It terms of a story construct, they compare with places of respite Tolkien gives his readers at Rivendell and Lorien in volume one. Both serve to freshen the story and shift their respective narratives from one thing to another. In first half of the book, the respite comes just before the final confrontation with Saruman, admittedly a good ways into the story. Respite occurs again about one-third of the way through the second half as the Hobbits pass from the Great Black Gate of Mordor to their encounter with Faramir’s troop skirmishing with Haradrim.

TT might contain Tolkien’s most powerful environmental passages. The revenge of the trees upon the Orcs of Isengard is fantasy at its best. Tolkien most definitely casts the firing of the vast furnaces at Isengard by cutting and burning a large chunk of Fangorn Forest as the stuff of work and industrialization. Nature is marred and made as desolate. But, rather than interject some predictable notion of protecting nature, Tolkien allows nature to take care of itself through the Huorns massacre of Orcs at the terrifying end to the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

It is of special interest to note that Tolkien uses the word “company” uncapitalized and “Company” capitalized very intentionally. In FOTR the “Company” meant the Nine chosen by Elrond to carry the Ring. It is used with exactly the distinction in TT. In TT there are numerous “companies” mentioned, company of men and even company of kings. None of these companies are the Company in Tolkien’s tale. It is obvious that Tolkien held the Fellowship above any other company in the story. Again, this is something I did not notice my first reading or two of the trilogy.

Tolkien displays a marvelous piece of story-telling when he devotes three chapters to the endless rocky, marshy gloom approaching Mordor. This is an actionless stretch of the narrative carried by the initial interactions of Frodo and Sam with Gollum and, simultaneously, the Tolkien’s literary creation of the space of this evil and desolate place.

“It was dreary and wearisome. Cold clammy winter still held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers.

“As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapors of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no color and no warmth. But even at this faint reminder of her presence Gollum scowled and flinched. He halted their journey, and they rested, squatting like hunted animals, in the borders of a great round reed-thicket. There was a deep silence, only scrapped on its surfaces by the faint quiver of empty seed-plumes, and broken grass-blades trembling in small air-movements that they could not feel.” (page 295)

“Frodo looked around in horror. Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed the rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cone of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.

“They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labor of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak.” (page 302)

For me, one of the mysteries of the trilogy is why Faramir is not tempted to take the One Ring. Tolkien made this character as strong as Aragorn in this fashion, as strong as Gandalf and Galadriel, and not weak like Boromir, his older brother. Perhaps Faramir was an idealist, but if so to what ideal? Nothing greater than the glory of Gondor is ever mentioned and his father is the Steward of Gondor, a semi-royal heritage. Faramir is, therefore, a prince of sorts and yet he isn’t tempted to take the Ruling Ring and use it for Gondor’s defense – Boromir’s primary motivation.

But, Faramir is well-acquainted with "Isildur's Bane." He uses the phrase frequently when questioning Frodo. He seems wise enough to know both the power and the danger of it. Perhaps Faramir knows that, under the weight of Boromir’s death, Denethor would merely order the Ring for himself. Perhaps, Faramir saw that madness and turned away. It is a fascinating thing to consider. For, while Tolkien certainly paints Faramir as intelligent, astute, and even caring but proud, yet Tolkien casts him as somehow rather risking defeat in the face of overwhelming odds than attempting to grasp victory through a power beyond his control. In the end, I think that - where the Ring is concerned - the fear of unintended consequences cautions and guides Faramir (as it did Gandalf and Galadriel in FOTR) away from the "promise" of the power to vanquish any foe. In this way, Faramir "shows his quality" and can be counted among the wisest characters in the trilogy.

There is a bit of controversy among members of Tolkien academia. Tolkien never specified, so the claim goes, exactly which “two towers” are the ones to which the title refers. There are many towers in this part of the narrative. Part One, with significant references Isengard and Barad-dur, leads some Tolkienites to contend these are the towers. But, in Part Two, both Minus Morgal and the Tower at Cirith Ungol are named. Throughout both sections Minas Tirith is mentioned many times. Technically, it is a city but it has its own tower too.

I took the time, and use of my PC, to count the number of occurances of various towers mentioned in the text. The name Isengard appears 129 times throughout the whole of TT. But, interestingly, Barad-dur is used only a dozen times. You can throw in another 10 references to "the Dark Tower" (another name for Barad-dur) and run that count to a total of 22. Minas Tirith is mentioned a respectable 31 times while Minas Morgal is used only 10 times, all toward the end of Part Two. If you count the times Minas Ithil, the Morgal tower’s previous name in history, you can add another 8 appearances.

These numbers tell you a few things. Obviously, Isengard, which is also mentioned another 55 times as “Orthanc” (for a total of 184!), is one of the towers. It is almost impossible not to pick it. The Battle of Isengard, though smaller than Helm’s Deep, takes place there involving an army of Ents. That’s kind of a rare event. It is there that Pippin and Merry end up. Yet, Minas Tirith is very much a part of TT though no one ever goes there. A large number of characters mention the place throughout the story, which speaks highly for its importance in Tolkien’s world. But, it is difficult for me to choose this as the second tower because, as I mentioned, it never physically appears in the volume.

Frodo and Sam pass by and witness Minas Morgul, however. Tolkien describes it for us (pp. 396 – 397). It seems to me that a reader must choose the two towers that the characters actually visit and behold in volume two. That is Minas Morgul and Isengard. An outside consideration could theoretically be the Tower at Cirith Ungol, but it doesn’t properly show up in the narrative until volume three. Sam sees the top of it before he swoons at the end of TT. That brief appearance merely merits its mention as a tower in the novel and not its importance in volume two.

I don’t know whether or not this is the consensus in Tolkien scholarship. It is certainly an ambiguity that everyone seems to appreciate. The two towers might be Isengard and Barad-dur. Tolkien connects them closely in his text when Gandalf says: “There was some link between Isengard and Mordor, which I have not yet fathomed. How they exchanged news I am not sure; but they did so. The Eye of Barad-dur will be looking impatiently towards the Wizard’s Vale, I think, and towards Rohan. The less it seems the better.” (pp. 247-248) For me, however, the matter is not so ambiguous. All you have to do is go back to the very end of FOTR and read the easily glossed over and forgotten brief highlights of coming attractions. There Tolkien writes, plain as day: “The second part is called THE TWO TOWERS, since the events recounted in it are dominated by ORTHANC, the citadel of Saruman, and the fortress of MINAS MORGUL that guards the secret entrance into Mordor.” (The capitalization is Tolkien’s.)

Every time I read LOTR I am reminded how Tolkien cleverly uses the Hobbits as guideposts for the narrative. It might seem upon a first reading that Gandalf and Pippin going to Minas Tirith after Pippin’s episode with the Orthanc Stone is mostly about Gandalf and the aid the wizard can offer. But, it is really Pippin’s story. Tolkien only explores the surface of the emotions and thoughts of other major characters. With the Hobbits, however, Tolkien always goes deeper into their motivations and feelings. He does this in a way with which the reader can empathize. All the emotional depth for the trilogy is built upon the intimacy of the hobbits wherever they might appear in the narrative.

It was, after all, only because of the success of The Hobbit that LOTR came to be written at all. Otherwise it would never occurred to Tolkien, whose focus was always on The Silmarillion, to develop hobbits as beings in his world. But, because Tolkien presents Hobbits in a very human way it allows the reader to identify with with them, find humor in them, and understand their individual faults and bravery.

TT ends with all the hobbits separated. Sam is at Cirith Ungol, Frodo is taken prisoner just after Sam has engaged the giant spider Shelob in battle. Throughout Sam’s role in TT we begin to see the emergence of a heroism that is different from the other hobbits. Frodo carries the weight of the One Ring but it is Sam that is constantly fighting for his trust and friendship and, ultimately, for his life. Frodo drifts more and more into the Ring and, therefore, into himself, thus he often meanders through the narrative, passively allowing things to just happen to him. He reacts. Sam is the one who becomes proactive between the two.

Pippin and Merry also take action, though they are separated as well. Their arrival in Fangorn Forest awakens the Ents and starts the downfall of Saruman. Pippin is seen by Sauron through the Palantir. After that he becomes more like Frodo, helpless, passive, events take place around him. Merry, though secondary to Pippin in the later chapters of this section of narrative, has sworn himself to the service of King Théoden and is involved with the muster of Riders.

The chess pieces are now all in place for the climatic conclusion. On to The Return of the King!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sometimes a Victory

Like many Americans, I remember where I was on September 11, 2001. Now, I will always remember where I was on the night Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid by US Special Forces. I was lying in the floor in the bedroom of a home in North Carolina, about to go to sleep. Jennifer and my daughter were with me. We were there to attend the funeral of one of Jennifer’s family members the next day.

Just before I dozed off my daughter said, “They killed bin Laden.” It was all over Facebook. Since she lives in the realm of social networking reality, she knew about it PDQ. Being a Neanderthal, my only recourse was to turn on the TV and watch in the darkness of the room as ABC News (the first channel I came to) was busy covering the breaking story with all sorts of expert interviews and reporters blabbing on and on with very few details to work with. We were told the president was going to speak “soon.”

Almost 45 minutes later, nearing midnight our time, President Obama did make a brief statement, confirming everything the journalists had been stalling about. As the president concluded with the line “God bless the United States of America” I silenced the boob tube and attempted to doze off. I tried to recall if I ever saw a president address the nation at such a late hour eastern time. No other occasion came to mind.

But, the occasion warranted it. For ten years bin Laden has been the absolute symbol of radical Islamic terrorism worldwide. Even though the operations of al-Qaeda are highly decentralized, the death of its figurehead is a heavy blow for the terrorists. Conversely, the moment was outstanding for the US military in general and for our “black ops” service arm in particular.

At first I thought this was probably the result of another drone strike. Then it was announced we had possession of bin Laden’s body. That could only mean ground forces were involved. The next day I learned that President Obama made the decision to kill bin Laden and take his body for DNA testing and to gather other factual evidence so that there could be no doubt whatsoever we had our man. The raid resulted in the confiscation of a "robust" collection of materials that will likely assist our efforts against Islamic terrorism in the near future. This was a gutsy and admirable military decision. Bin Laden blown to bits is not the same as physical possession of the body. It made the raid so much more spectacular from my perspective.

The next day I learned that the mission had been well-planned, involving the Navy Seals, perhaps our best special forces, taking many months to put together all the pieces required for its superb surgical execution. The raid was rehearsed in a specially built replica of the bin Laden compound. There were no civilian casualties. No American loss of life. Bin Laden and all of his personal security guard were wiped out.

But, things hardly went without a hitch. There was an issue with a helicopter that malfunctioned and had to be blown-up before our forces withdrew with bin Laden’s body. That must have been an anxious moment for everyone concerned. Still, this was mission accomplished in the non-George W. Bush sense of the term. There was no big publicity push, no bragging, no grandstanding. By necessity, black ops require anonymity and, thereby, preclude ceremonialism and direct personal recognition.

Still, Americans certainly celebrated. But, this was the best kind of commemoration for such a victory. Spontaneous and without a lot of organized hype. The event needed no hype at all. The killing of Osama bin Laden is a hype-less moment of pure achievement. No rhetoric or hyperbole required. It would serve no purpose at all.

But, after a moment of pride and time to marvel at the secretive workings of our intelligence-gathering and covert military operational capability, it is time to sober up and realize the world has not changed. The al-Qaeda organization remains intact. The problem of radical Islamic terrorism remains. Things are still difficult in Afghanistan. There is a war still to be won…or lost.

So, while this is great for public relations and certainly a well-needed boost to the morale of our troops, the larger mission is far from accomplished and in many ways a mess. Some officials now boast that we have the ability to wipe out al-Qaeda but I’m not buying that without the caveat that it might take another 10 years to produce such a result.

Do we have the determination as a nation for that? Sometimes it takes a victory to remind us of what we are doing. But, it is the distance between victories that proclaims the real strength of our resolve. And our resolve has certainly been faltering of late. Americans like their wars, fast and furious and short. That is more of a description of the successful bin Laden raid than it is of the continuing war in Afghanistan.

I have been watching that war with renewed interest over the past few months. We seem to have accomplished a great deal on the ground in 2010. Several operations in southern Afghanistan have reduced the Taliban (great protectors of al-Qaeda) to a car-bombing nuisance instead of the roaming packs of wild vigilantes they were back in 2008.

But, the campaigning season is just gearing up in 2011. We will soon see if the US-led coalition forces and the rather questionable role of the Afghan security forces are sufficient to justify an anticipated draw-down of American troops beginning in July. We will soon see if Afghanistan is another Vietnam, and – perhaps more important to the outcome – whether Pakistan is another Cambodia.

So far, the latter does not seem to be the case. There are, of course, numerous parallels between Pakistan and Cambodia. It is clearly a safe-haven and a logistical base for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But, the bin Laden raid did not originate from Afghanistan. It apparently originated from a US base inside Pakistan. Pakistan denies this, however. If true, this is something we never had in Cambodia. This is significant from my perspective.

Though questions abound regarding Pakistan, that country remains cautiously and tenuously cooperative. Relations with the US are clearly complex. Pakistan sharply criticized the US for "unilateral action" inside its borders. US drone raids into Pakistan have been largely successful, however. That makes this situation very different from Cambodia. The military fact is that if you deprive the enemy of their logistical base then you disrupt their operations in many ways. It helps make the coming campaign season in Afghanistan problematic for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

So, perhaps our efforts in Pakistan in 2011 can back up our efforts in Afghanistan in 2010. Or, perhaps, the Vietnam analogy still applies even if the Cambodian one does not. Ultimately, Afghan forces must keep their country stable. So far, we’ve seen little indication they can do that.

Sometimes it takes a victory to remind us what we can achieve. Sometimes a victory renews strength and hope and gives clarity to the way to further victories. But, sometimes a victory only declares how much further you have to go instead of how far you’ve come. So who has been made more patient by the bin Laden raid? The al-Qaeda organization is the epitome of patience.

Are we?