Judging the Owner by the Abbey

At least two of Jane Austen’s books tie the aesthetic appreciation of a beautiful abbey with a positive moral judgment of its proprietor: Pride and Prejudice, favoring Mr. Darcy, and Emma, praising Mr. Knightly. Emma’s visual assessment of Donwell Abbey is clearly informed by Gilpin’s Observations, and although Emma grew up near Donwell, at this point in the novel she looks upon it with renewed interest:

She felt all the honest pride and complacency which her alliance with the present and future proprietor could fairly warrant, as she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered— its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight— and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up.— The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable, and one or two handsome rooms.— It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was— and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding. (Austen, Vol.III ch.VI)

Emma notes that the Donwell is all that an abbey should be, just as Gilpin had explained: it is characteristically located in a low and sheltered area, surrounded by abundant lines of trees, and with ample gardens and a stream. Its location is not “charming,” but “becoming” and “suitable.” The house attests to the age of the abbey, having a “rambling and irregular” shape with many rooms that are “comfortable,” presumably aimed to please guests and provide warm hospitality. The description of the estate evokes the original idea of abbey—hospitable, communal, modest—and inspires respect, arising from the style—which is neither fashionable nor extravagant—and from the size—which is ample.

Here, too, the aesthetic judgment of Emma is linked to the moral approval of Downwell’s owner, who is respectable, modest, has good taste, and is hospitable. Furthermore, Emma associates owning an abbey with “gentility,” and because of her observation and her moral assessment, she concludes that the Knightleys are “true gentility,” who belong in such a respectable abbey both because of their lineage (blood) and because of their good understanding. She further connects the abbey and its owners when she says that “it was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was,” implying that there was no pretense or hypocrisy in the estate—it was a true abbey in the original sense, and it looked like a true abbey: modest, welcoming, becoming, and hospitable.

Austen, Jane. Emma. 2012. Kindle file.

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Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 5

When Catherine arrives at the abbey and investigates her room, she sees a familiar object: “This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this! An immense heavy chest! What can it hold? Why should it be placed here? Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it—cost me what it may” (Austen 166). Of course, the chest is meant to recall Radcliffe’s and, perhaps, Oakendale Abbey’s chest scene, something that Tilney and Catherine had already discussed. Like La Motte and Laura, Catherine is curious to discover what is inside the chest, even though she is afraid of what she may find: “Her fearful curiosity was every moment growing greater; and seizing, with trembling hands, the hasp of the lock, she resolved at all hazards to satisfy herself at least as to its contents” (Austen 167). Again, here is the Gothic curiosity for that which is terrifying, the desire for the spectacle. However, Catherine’s search inside the trunk will not produce a skeleton, but she will learn through her exploration of the abbey that evil is found in more common places.

Catherine arrives at the abbey with a focus on the building itself, which is seen in her conversation with Henry. He observes that she has formed a “very favorable” idea of the abbey, to which she replies:

“To be sure, I have. Is not it a fine old place, just like what one reads about?” “And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” “Oh! yes—I do not think I should be easily frightened, because there would be so many people in the house—and besides, it has never been uninhabited and left deserted for years, and then the family come back to it unawares, without giving any notice, as generally happens.” (Austen 161)

While Catherine thinks abbeys are “fine old places,” Henry points out that they may produce “horrors,” that they may unearth unknown things that cause fear. Catherine’s reply is that when abbeys contain people in the house, the abbey cannot produce horrors. Ironically, the number of people in Northanger Abbey does not change the evil in it, because, much like the abbey in Ethelinde, the relationships within Northanger Abbey are broken and cold. Although the abbey is inhabited, its residents often keep to their own rooms and the house seems uninhabited. The Tilneys are not always at Northanger Abbey, and Captain Tilney and Henry, ironically do often come back to it “without giving any notice.”

Thus, Catherine arrives at the abbey focusing on the building itself, but the night before Catherine is pushed out of Northanger Abbey, she perceives the space of her room in a very different way than she did upon her first night there:

Heavily passed the night. Sleep, or repose that deserved the name of sleep, was out of the question. That room, in which her disturbed imagination had tormented her on her first arrival, was again the scene of agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers. Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been then—how mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil, the solitude of her situation, the darkness of her chamber, the antiquity of the building, were felt and considered without the smallest emotion; and though the wind was high, and often produced strange and sudden noises throughout the house, she heard it all as she lay awake, hour after hour, without curiosity or terror. (219-220)

Both the first and last night at Northanger Abbey had been affected by Catherine’s thoughts (“agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers”), but on the last night the space she is in does not take her notice. She has learned to see past the building and into deeper things. The first night, the abbey itself is the center of mystery and the source of fear (because of noises, dark places, etc.), but the fears are merely the result of an overactive imagination nourished by Gothic novels (“her disturbed imagination had tormented her”)—they have no real foundation. On the last night at the abbey, the source of fear is “mournfully superior in reality and substance,” based on “fact” and “probability,” and in “actual and natural evil.” The words “fact” and “probability” in Austen’s time belonged to scientific and mathematical language which left no room to doubt. Catherine here discovers the mystery of the abbey: the cruel character of General Tilney and he and his power to remove her completely from Miss Tilney and Henry is the source of her fears. Catherine is finally able to “read” a Gothic novel in all its complexity: she is able to transfer the mystery of the abbey (space) to the General (psychology), which gives her a grounded fear because it is based on something real. As Catherine becomes a better Gothic novel reader, so does the reader.

Because of these things, it is misguided to read Northanger Abbey as a dismissal of Gothic novels. If one takes seriously the complexities of Gothic novel, one discovers that they were never just about horror and carcasses and old buildings, but rather, about deeper issues in society. The exploration of abbeys, both in Gothic novels and in novels before them, were used as tools to reveal values and relationships and to critique them. As a good reader of Gothic novels, Austen explored these complexities and provided a book to help naive readers learn how to read these complex novels, for one thing Northanger Abbey does well is to make one think about Gothic novels and go back to them for a second look with a more careful reading.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Claire Grogan. Ed. Ontario: Broadview, 2002. Print.

Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 4

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) is a text coming at the heels of Gothic novels, which uses the fictional framework of the Gothic to investigate the abbey and bring out its evil reality. Austen, however, does not ridicule and dismiss the Gothic novels, like many suppose, but rather, she takes the already complex readings of Gothic novels, illustrated above, and adds another layer of complexity to them. On one hand, she seems to laugh at the expectations of naive readers of Gothic fiction, but on the other, she upholds every expectation, and as a lover of Gothic fiction herself, uses those expectations to rejuvenate the Gothic conventions into a more complex Gothic fiction.

The mystery of Northanger Abbey, for Catherine Morland, is what happened to Mrs. Tilney and whether General Tilney murdered her at the abbey. The ideal reader of Northanger Abbey, well-versed in Gothic novels, also desires to uncover this mystery. He is uncertain as to whether a body and a murderer will turn up, because on one level, he has already received clues that Catherine’s imagination makes her suppositions misleading and that this novel does not necessarily follow the reader’s expectations. On another level, the reader discovers that often when Catherine is wrong she is also right in some sense, and that although his expectations seem to be jettisoned, in the end they are actually satisfied more fully. It seems that Catherine has not been a careful reader of Gothic novels, for she has not yet learned to look beyond the abbeys and skeletons to discover the truly terrifying evils of the world. But as she explores a real abbey herself, she will learn to see through buildings and objects and into real dangers. The reader also is led through a similar process: from being naive to being aware; from reading a Gothic novel superficially, to reading it more carefully. So, how the mystery of the abbey will be solved has much to do with how the novel interacts with the reader. In the end, Northanger Abbey seems to be another, more complex, kind of Gothic novel.

The first expectation of the reader concerns the heroine. The narrator opens the novel suggesting that the reader may be disappointed: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (Austen 37). Catherine’s person, as well as her mind, until the age of fifteen were not remarkable, but she was gradually improving. The narrator adds: “But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives” (Austen 40). Although readers expect heroines to have read, Austen’s inclusion of this detail about Catherine is more than just checking off a requirement on a list. Catherine’s reading is what will make Northanger Abbey a complex and more satisfying novel, and that which will help to discover the mystery. Catherine’s quixotism, so to speak, has literary precedents.

In Ethelinde (1789), Charlotte Smith had already provided a character whose reading had led her to imagine herself as if she were within a book. Speaking of Clarinthia Ludford, Mr. Maltravers says:

‘The girl is well enough as to figure and face,…but she is over-run with affectation and folly. A sort of something Mrs. Ludford has got in her head about education, had made her stuff this girl’s memory with scraps of every thing; she has a fine romantic name for an adventure; and will probably, by dint of reading plays and romances, fancy herself the heroine of a novel, and find one of her father’s clerks for the hero.’ (Smith 130)

According to Mr. Maltravers, although Clarinthia does not have overt physical flaws (“figure and face”), she has problems with her thinking (“affectation and folly”). Mr. Matravers seems to blame the girl’s wrong thinking to Mrs. Lutherford’s ideas of “education,” who gave the girl unrelated “scraps” of information, a romantic name, and plays and romances to read.  Mr. Maltravers believes that because of these circumstances, and because of the reading of plays and romances, Clarinthia will forget who she is, believe she is a novel heroine, and marry a clerk.

Clarinthia’s forgetting of herself and living an imaginary life in books of romance is akin to Don Quixote’s forgetting his identity in the same way. However, in Clarinthia’s case, Mr. Maltravers seems to condemn all plays and romances, for he does not say that she read too many plays and romances (or that she read them at the expense of sleep), but rather, he just points out that she read them. Alternatively, Clarinthia’s problem for Mr. Maltravers may be that the girl read these novels without having received the proper extended information (rather than spotty) to process the plays and romances. Nonetheless, the real danger, for Mr. Maltravers, is that Clarinthia would end up falling in love with a clerk—an action that would clearly reveal her affectation (thinking herself a heroine) and folly (marrying a clerk).

Unlike Clarinthia, however, Catherine does not have affectation because she does not see herself as a heroine—rather, she is modest. Also, because she does not see herself as a heroine, she is unlikely to look for a hero, and in this sense, she is not overrun with folly. Moreover, Catherine is much more complex than Clarinthia: the former begins as a naive reader and has much to learn, but she does learn and becomes more discerning, unlike the latter. Even so, because Catherine has read many Gothic novels, she initially will look at the abbey through those books, misread the signs, and make the mistake of thinking that the General murdered his wife. But when the mystery of the abbey is solved—when Henry tells Catherine why his father had rudely kicked her out of the abbey—the narrator vindicates Catherine: “Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (Austen 236). Although the General had not, indeed, murdered his wife, his character was such that he could have done it and may have contributed to it somehow, for his treatment of her and of his children was cruel. It is only through the fictional framework of the Gothic that Catherine discovers the real evil. So, in a sense, Northanger Abbey is a Gothic novel with a real villain, only the villain has never directly murdered anyone.

 

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Claire Grogan. Ed. Ontario: Broadview, 2002. Print.

Smith, Charlotte. Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake. Stuart Curran. Ed. The Works of Charlotte Smith. Vol. 3 London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005. Print.

Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 3

Following closely on the theme of a superficial exploration of the abbey resulting in an exploration into sins and crimes and purification is The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797). Laura, a beautiful young lady is sent to Oakendale Abbey, rumored to be haunted, by a villain who wants to terrify her into being his mistress. Laura’s first encounter with the abbey is pleasant, even though everyone around her fears the place. But she has good reason to appreciate the abbey. She tells her companion, Mary:

Here is nothing to create fear; hark, how the robin twitters his gentle note; and see how the frost glitters upon the verdure! The winds only bespeak the wintry season, but nothing to inspire notions of fear or dread. Ah! Would fortune but smile upon me with the same benign aspect that the face of nature does, how little I should have to regret; and how well should I be pleased to remain all my days in this sequestered retirement? But, alas! No such happiness awaits me—a poor unprotected orphan, without a claim upon any human being, nothing but my own courage and virtue to guard me from the power of a villain! (23)

Laura’s description is that of a beautiful place, with gentle singing of birds, frost on the grass, and soft wind. Nature is tame, and since none of these things can cause her fear, she wishes she could remain safe in this place. The source of her fear is the villain who would rape her, because she has no relation and no money to protect her from him. As long as he is far away, Laura is confident and wants to explore the abbey, and after breakfast she and Mary visit some underground rooms which have very little light. In one of those rooms, a noise and the gloomy surroundings augment Laura’s fears, and they stumble upon a horrifying object:

[She] was hastily preparing to return, when a large trunk, or coffer, which stood in one corner of the room, attracted her notice…she advanced to the place where it stood, determined to lift up the lid, and see what it contained. She did so; but how was she struck with horror and astonishment, when the skeleton of a human body presented itself to her affrighted view! She gave an involuntary scream, and dropping the lid from her trembling hand, the sound, echoing through the hollow roofs, vibrated with terror upon her palpitating heart. (27-28)

The similarities between this scene and that in The Romance of the Forest seem to be too many for them to be coincidental. Here, too, is a large trunk with a skeleton in it, which evokes feelings of horror and terror, and which stands for the corruption and mystery of the abbey. However, Laura is not a man and she does not return for a second look, like La Motte does. Furthermore, the skeleton, in the end, is not someone who had been murdered at the abbey, as is the case in Radcliffe’s novel, but rather, is a body stolen by resurrection men. Although the skeleton does not involve a murder, it raises equally serious ethical questions brought about from the enlightenment relating to the sacredness of the body and its proper use, especially with regard to scientific exploration. It could be said that the exploration of the abbey leads to questions about the scientific exploration of the body and capitalism.

Also, even though Adeline is not a man, she seems to be as courageous as men, and therefore, destabilizes gender roles in the novel. Her reaction to the skeleton is not unlike La Motte’s, especially when after the encounter, she tells Mary that she is ashamed of having been frightened because she does not believe in ghosts, that, “a little reason and recollection will conquer [her] fears,” and asks, “What was there to fear in seeing the bones of a fellow-creature, whose peaceful ashes were as quietly deposited there as in the mouldering earth?” (29). Laura’s view of the body seems to be somewhat scientific. Furthermore, she tells Mary that “if any necessary discoveries were to be made thro’ her means, she might, and ought to be thankful for being considered as an instrument worthy to bring good out of evil” (30). Laura’s language of rationalism and discovery and instrumentality seems to evoke enlightenment ideas. She almost sounds like a scientific researcher with an insatiable desire to explore and find “the truth.” This emphasis seems different from Radcliffe’s novel, although both ultimately discover the evil hidden in the abbey through the skeleton. In both, the skeleton is not what terrifies, but rather, it is what discloses the more terrifying evil: living people who can do harm. Laura’s bringing the “good out of evil” could be said to be bringing enlightenment to the abbey (that is, dispelling the superstition of ghosts) and simultaneously questioning that enlightenment (that is, questioning whether the body is merely an object of study and nothing more).

The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey: A Romance. New York: John Harrisson, 1799. Print.

Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 2

Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel, The Romance of the Forest (1791), also utilizes the abbey to uncover deeper issues. As La Motte explores the underground part of an abandoned abbey in order to find a place to hide from his creditors, he discovers something else:

Upon the ground within [the door], stood a large chest, which he went forward to examine, and, lifting the lid, he saw the remains of a human skeleton. Horror struck upon his heart, and he involuntarily stepped back. During a pause of some moments, his first emotions subsided. That thrilling curiosity which objects of terror often excite in the human mind, impelled him to take a second view of this dismal spectacle. La Motte stood motionless as he gazed; the object before him seemed to confirm the report that some person had formerly been murdered in the abbey. (Radcliffe 53-54)

La Motte here, having been walking through dark corridors with a feeble light, stumbles upon a skeleton that embodies the mystery of the abbey: who had been murdered and who was the murderer. The skeleton stands for corruption and murder and destruction, and because La Motte is faced with the unknown in the dark, this causes him horror. Even though at first repulsed, La Motte is drawn to have a second look. The narrator attributes this to an aesthetic pleasure for that which frightens, the natural “thrilling curiosity” for “objects of terror” that human being have. Interestingly, this is the curiosity that draws readers to Gothic novels, however terrified they may be when they encounter a decaying corpse or a skeleton. La Motte’s curiosity is also the curiosity of the reader, who sees the skeleton through La Motte.

After leaving the skeleton and exploring other subterranean areas of the abbey, the man analyzes the structure: “La Motte, in his then depressed state of mind, thought [the cells in the most ancient parts of the abbey] the burial places of the monks, who formerly inhabited the pile above but they were more calculated for places of penance for the living, than of rest for the dead” (Radcliffe 54). Having seen the skeleton, La Motte can only think of death (“in his then depressed state of mind”), and perceives what used to be the monks’ cells as their burial place. The abbey, once a place of activity and community, now is turned into a burial ground, even those places which were not meant to contain the dead. One skeleton keeps the living away from the abbey and has turned the whole place into a tomb, and yet, paradoxically, the skeleton drives the living back to the abbey with an insatiable curiosity to discover the abbey’s mystery. Until the mystery of the skeleton is revealed, the reader will not end the exploration of the abbey and will not stop thinking about the skeleton, returning in his mind again and again to have a second look at that spectacle.

The end of the passage quoted above also contains irony. That the cells were “more calculated for places of penance for the living, than of rest for the dead,” at first glance, seems to refer to the monks who used to inhabit the abbey. In other words, their cells were not their tombs, but their places of penance. But the syntax is ambiguous, and therefore, can also point to the current inhabitants of the abbey. In this sense, the “dead” skeleton does not have “rest” until his mystery is solved, and La Motte is at the abbey “doing penance” or “purging” his sins of greed and pride which led to his having to run away from his creditors. His metaphorical “journey to the underground” through the abbey vaults where a skeleton is also evokes this image of going through purgatory. Only when the mystery of the skeleton is solved and when La Motte does his part to save Adeline and bring justice to the murdered will La Motte finally be seen as purged. In the end, even though he is condemned for his crimes, Adeline’s intercession softens his sentence to banishment and gives him money, “a sum more than sufficient to support his family in a foreign country” (353). Adeline’s mediation before the law on behalf of La Motte also evokes ideas of purgatory and prayers for those being purged. The abbey, then, hides two criminals—the murderer and La Motte–, but the abbey also serves as purgatory for one of them. So, what seems to be a superficial exploration of the abbey results in an exploration into sins and crimes and purification and bringing about justice.

 

Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. Chloe Chard. Ed. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009. Print.

Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 1

Abbeys often contain mysteries, and these mysteries need to be investigated. How they are investigated or how the meaning of the mysteries is discovered varies from abbey to abbey. Also, how abbeys are investigated varies according to the vantage point of the investigator. Imaginative texts from the eighteenth century and beyond display different types of abbey explorations which ultimately are used to voice larger social problems and concerns. In this sense, an abbey exploration is not merely an abbey inspection, but rather, if the abbey stands as a microcosm of communal life, the examination is a metaphorical exploration of society. The gothic novels reveal this inquiry into social affairs most clearly, but pre-gothic works as well as later texts also manifest this impetus.

In Charlotte Smith’s novel Ethelinde (1789), the arrival at the abbey discloses a great deal about Sir Edward and Lady Newenden, and offers ironic clues to the reader. Upon Lady Newenden’s first arrival at the abbey which had been in Sir Edward’s family for generations and which her money had helped to disembarrass, the narrator says:

When the coach stopped, Sir Edward appeared at the door of it; and taking the hand of Lady Newenden, he led her into an hall, saluted her tenderly, and bade her welcome to Grasmere Abbey.

Instead, however, of attempting to gratify him by expressing any pleasure at that which evidently gave him so much, she turned abruptly away, and exclaimed –‘Don’t keep me, Sir Edward, in this great cold place; it strikes as damp as a family vault. I hope you have ordered fires. I assure you that my departure will be a much fitter subject of congratulation than my arrival.’ (Smith 16)

That Sir Edward “venerates” the abbey would have been readily apparent from this passage, even if the narrator had not disclosed that information in the previous chapter. The manner in which he introduces Lady Newenden to the estate (leading her to the hall), his formal salutation, and the pleasure he receives in these actions show Sir Edward’s pride in and respect for the estate. For him, the abbey is not merely the place which holds his fond childhood memories, but it is also the land that makes him and his ancestors aristocrats. Lady Newenden’s perception of the abbey is much different. She sees it as a cold monument to dead relatives (“family vault”), not fitting for the living. For her, to venerate the abbey is to hold on to something dead that must be let go, something that once was living, but now no longer is.

The scene also reflects the emotions of the characters and something about their relationship. Sir Edward is warm towards his wife, “welcoming” her to the abbey, “tenderly” saluting her, while Lady Newenden is as cold as she claims the abbey is: she turns abruptly away, speaks cold words, and looks forward to her departure. The abbey is what brings out their differences in outlook and in values: Sir Edward reveres tradition, while Lady Newenden values comfort and modernity. Ironically, Lady Newenden’s statement that “[her] departure will be a much fitter subject of congratulation than [her] arrival” becomes true later in the novel, after she has an affair with Lord Danesfort. In this sense, the Grasmere Abbey could be said to be a “family vault,” because her relationship to her children and to her husband will be cold and dead by the end of the book. Thus, in Smith’s book, the abbey is not merely a place, but rather it is a lens from which to see inside family relations and values.

Smith, Charlotte. Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake. Stuart Curran. Ed. The Works of Charlotte Smith. Vol. 3 London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005. Print.

Tolkien’s Use of “The Seafarer” in LOTR

Tolkien loved Old English poems, and much of The Wanderer, The Ruin, and The Seafarer made it into The Lord of the Rings. Let’s look, for example, at The Seafarer.

The tone of The Seafarer certainly permeates the trilogy. Here’s the description of Wilcox:

an elegiac tone persists through The Lord of the Rings and is reminiscent of the lyric-elegiac quality, a sadness of time and change deeper than melancholia, present in much Old English poetry.[i]

One clear example of resemblance of tone between The Seafarer and The Lord of the Rings appears in the desire of Legolas for the sea and sea voyaging, when he says:

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years failing:
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressëa, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people for ever![ii]

The lines “do you hear them calling,/The voices of my people that have gone before me?” are reminiscent of the ubi sunt motif, which is “a poetic topos lamenting the disappearance of beloved persons or things.”[iii] Legolas bemoans that some of his people have already left Middle-earth, and he is sorrowful concerning the end of an age. The play on words in the gulls “crying,” the foam “flying,” the sun and the waves “falling,” seems to carry a sad tone. The repetition of the verb “leaving,” the “failing” years, “lonely sailing,” and the search for Elvenhome, a land without loss (“leaves fall not”), emphasize the elegiac tone. The ubi sunt motif, common in Old English elegiac poems, also seems to be implied in The Seafarer. A representative passage is found in lines 80b-90:

Days have departed,
all pride of earth’s kingdom;
now are no kings and no Kaisers
nor any gold-givers such as once were,
when they most glorious deeds did among them
and then most lordly lived out their doom.
Wanes all this noble host; joys have departed;
weaker remain and rule this world,
live here afflicted. Glory is humbled,
honor of earth grows old and withers,
as does now every man over this Middle-Earth. [iv]

The seafarer laments the loss of glorious kings and the joy that came with gold and honor. He repeats the verb “departing;” the loss of something that was there before (kings, kaisers, gold-givers); and the ideas of waning, aging, and withering. Like Legolas, the seafarer also mourns the end of the glory of a previous time.

It is noteworthy, however, that despite similarities in tone, The Seafarer seems less optimistic overall than the outlook of Legolas. In the passage from The Lord of the Rings quoted above, the sea does not seem harsh or the travel difficult: the sailing is just “lonely” and perhaps long (“wide waters”). In addition, the call for Legolas to make the journey comes from “sweet voices” residing in “Elvenhome,” where “the leaves fall not.”  All of these things are desirable, especially considering that the name “Legolas” means “green leaves.”[iv] Conversely, The Seafarer presents a harsher perspective on the sea and the voyage across it. The starting lines tell of the dangers and toils of seafaring:

About myself I can utter a truth-song,
tell journeys–how I in toil-days
torment-time often endured,
abode and still do bitter breast-care,
sought in my ship many a care-hall,
horrible waves’ rolling, where narrow night-watch
often has kept me at the ship’s stem
when it dashes by cliffs. Pinched by the cold
were my feet, bound by frost’s
frozen fetters, where those cares sighed
hot about heart; hunger within tore
the mind of the sea-weary one.[v]

Ida Gordon, who continued the work that her husband, E.V. Gordon, and J.R.R. Tolkien began, describes the outlook of the poem as negative:

The seafarer has made it abundantly clear that seafaring is a dangerous business; he has even implied in the foreboding of the cuckoo’s cry that death is imminent, but he chooses death (Dryhtnes dreamas) because nothing is to be gained by choosing the safe and easy, but less adventurous, course.[vi]

Ida Gordon further believes that this heroic, elegiac mood is distinct from that of the Christian peregrinus or sojourner, and that the hardships of the voyage of the Nordic seafarer serve as an illustration for the Christian lesson of endurance and hope found at the end of the poem.[vii]

If Gordon is right, her theory helps to make sense of the discrepancy between the perspectives on the sea coming from Legolas and from the seafarer. In other words, it is possible that Professor Tolkien borrowed from the Old English poem the elegiac mood of the seafarer, but that he modified it in Legolas by including more hope and less hardship so that it would be more congruous with a Christian worldview.

Along with tone, The Lord of the Rings incorporates themes from The Seafarer, such as sailing, exile, and the transitory nature of life. These are closely connected to the elegiac tone, as discussed above. For this topic, I recommend Miranda Wilcox, who provides a useful essay including similar thematic implications between the two works in Exilic Imagining in The Seafarer and The Lord of the Rings. Concerning the themes of sailing and exile, she says

the Seafarer and the Elves are prompted to leave their exilic state and sail in search of eternal existence in a Christian or mythological paradise, with the sea as the bridge between their mortal existence and eternal existence.[viii]

Both Legolas and the seafarer are dislocated and seek to journey across the sea to a place that is better than where they are and where they will end their exile. Their respective journeys will cause them to suffer the loss of leaving behind something. The elf longs to be rejoined with his kindred, but he will leave “the woods that bore [him].” The sailor seeks “foreigners’, pilgrims’, homeland” (38), but he leaves behind comfort and safety. Furthermore, both the elf and the seaman lament the transience of their age, which is another theme that contributes to the elegiac tone in each text.

So, as you can see, Tolkien borrowed from The Seafarer. What was borrowed, however, was not imported wholesale; it was adapted. It seems to me that Tolkien’s use Anglo-Saxon poems corresponds well with T. S. Eliot’s discussion in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

[often] not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.[ix]


[i] Miranda Wilcox, “Exilic Imagining in the Seafarer and Lord of the Rings” in Tolkien the Medievalist. Ed. Jane Chance (London, England: Routledge, xiv, 2003), 133.

[ii] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 252.

[iii] David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 304.

[iv] J. R. R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 282.

[v] Jonathan Glenn translation found at http://faculty.uca.edu/jona/texts/seafarer.htm.

[vi] I. L. Gordon, “Traditional Themes in the Wanderer and the Seafarer,” The Review of English Studies 5.17 (1954): 8-9.

[vii] I. L. Gordon, The Seafarer (London: Methuen, 1960), 1-27.

[viii] Wilcox, 138.

[ix] T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1932), 4.

Novel vs. Epic

I’ve been thinking recently about the difference between the novel and the epic, particularly since I have been doing much with the ancient Greeks and Virgil.

If you are inclined to participate in this discussion, what do you think are the differences between C. S. Lewis’ After Ten Years (not a full novel, but an excerpt of one) and Homer and Virgil? All these treat the same time period and characters, but how are they different?

Eliot’s Revolution in Literature

What Eliot’s revolution in literature gave to this age was a renewal of the moral imagination—with social consequences, potentially. Eliot’s orthodoxy, expressed in new forms, offered something more attractive to mind and heart than could either liberalist aridity or the ominous People’s Hall of Culture. Literature and society both depended in a transcendent order, Eliot reminded the twentieth century. “If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin,” Eliot wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society. Eliot scandalized many because he went all the way to “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender—that is, surrender to the divine. —The Sword of Imagination, 215

Thinking Out Loud about The Oresteia, Part 2

Aeschylus seems to have a keen awareness that an admixture of good and evil exists in the action of exercising power, and that a person should be aware of this, especially in times of triumph. Agamemnon in his triumphal return home should not forget all the sorrow and calamity that came about in his winning: the sacrifice of his daughter, the destruction of Troy, the loss of his men, etc. It seems that the meaning of the word “suffering,” as in the phrase “suffering into truth” (109, 111, 243) and “the one who acts must suffer” (167, 171,192), involves the realization of evil and pain that one causes by acting. Orestes suffers when he is aware of this, when the Furies pursue him after the death of his mother. Clytaemnestra suffers when she is tormented by nightmares after killing Agamemnon, and then realizes that what she did might be wrong—before this she does not seem to see any problem with killing her husband and her king.

What is the function of Electra? She seems to be the one to rouse with words the courage of Orestes to kill his mother, as in The Iliad the soldiers needed to be roused for battle. Because she is not involved in the power schemes, she is innocent and removed from the heat of the actions. Antigone, conversely, steps away from her passive role into an active role that will cause her to suffer from her actions.

Orestes, in many ways, is parallel to Telemachus: Orestes seems to be what Telemachus would have been had his father not returned: both are fatherless, they are the same age, both return to avenge and restore order, though Telemachus has the advantage of his father guiding his steps and helping him in the fight. Of course, the biggest difference between Agamemnon and Odysseus is that their wives stand in stark opposite sides: the one is faithful, the other is a traitor.

Achilles seems to be like the Furies: killing with unbridled passion (anger) without stopping to think whether their actions are just. Orestes seems to be like Odysseus in that he measures violence, metes it out only as necessary, and takes full responsibility for it. The point of The Oresteia seems to be that the Furies were dispensing judgment without pausing to consider the complicated aspects of the situation, and Athena brings in logic and reason into the arena of justice, as well as controlled passions—and for this reason Athena does not banish the Furies, but rather channels their passions in a good direction.

Aeschylus seems to have written The Oresteia for the Greeks to respect and support the new institution of courts. Previous to the courts, a blood relation would demand justice upon spilling of the blood of a loved one. Now society—through a court system—would demand justice upon any spilling of blood. This development in the Greek world was very important and Aeschylus is providing an apology for it. He also is attempting to provide a theodicy of the gods, explaining how they developed and how they are reconciled to reason and justice.

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