Thursday, October 11, 2012

Meditations on 'The Monsters and the Critics' by J. R. R. Tolkien

I've just read Tolkien's famous lecture/essay on Beowulf, "The Monsters and the Critics." In it he takes certain literary critics to task for their assertions that Beowulf's author eschewed the lofty in favor of the trivial by placing the monsters – Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon – at the center of the poem.

It is a beautiful, beautiful essay that, apart from scoring an absolute bull's eye (and applying the zinger: I have, of course read The Beowulf, as have most [but not all] of those who have criticized it), also weighs in on the power of myth and the importance of looking at art as art. It also demonstrates how we can gain perspective through a thoughtful examination of historical context.

Near and dear to my heart, and at the heart of his argument, Tolkien staunchly defends the northern mythological imagination. This is a balm to my soul! I show great restraint by not simply retyping the whole thing right here!

Though scarcely a child of the internet age, I wanted so much, as I read the essay, to send Dr. Tolkien an email, or tweet to him in sincere appreciation and in solidarity; but Tolkien, of course, was, as he himself said of Beowulf, a man, and that…is sufficient tragedy: man falls prey to death and then he is lost…! How fortunate that his words may live on, so that one may meditate upon them, as below.

A person alive and a person dead exist at the same time 

Like Tolkien, I believe strongly in the significance of myth.

Myth does not unfold in an "historical" time, but rather in an imagined time. However, as Tolkien says, it is at its best when it is presented…as incarnate in the world of history and geography…

I would add that, in myth, meanings bleed to the surface of the ordinary, so that this bloodiness, this contact with the juice that (normally) flows invisibly within, becomes ordinary.

In my novel The Bear Wife, bones - skeletal remains emptied of a person's soul - are inhabited, pregnant, in a sense, with significance. (He who in those days said and who heard…[the kenning] ban-hus 'bone-house'…thought of the soul shut in the body, as the frail body itself is trammelled in armour, or as a bird in a narrow cage, or steam pent in a cauldron. There it seethed and struggled in the wylmas, the boiling surges beloved of the old poets, until its passion was released and it fled away on ellor-si∂, a journey to other places 'which none can report with truth, not lords in their halls nor mighty men beneath the sky.')

In this mythological way of thinking, a thing is both what it is, and what it is not. Or maybe what it is, and what it once was, both at the same imagined time.

In this way of thinking, a person alive and a person dead exist at the same time, in balance, as Tolkien describes the two halves of the Anglo-Saxon line of verse, halves that balance and build upon each other, "more like masonry than music."

In this way of thinking there is the sense of a building, a structure, "a tough builder's work of true stone," rather than a sense of moving forward, or of narrative. But I don't think – and I don't think Tolkien thought either – that this 'structure' represented a state of repose. Far from it; the balance, in fact, was an uneasy one.

In The Well and the Tree Paul Bauschatz discusses the lack of a future tense in Germanic languages. There are only the past and the present, two conditions, and the future is called necessity.

Some say the future is now. Perhaps, essentially, necessity is the now, the only weapon we may wield against the monster, a stonemason's tool in the delicate balance between life and death.

Quotes are from "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Translating Beowulf", both from The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.

I also refer to The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture by Paul C.
Bauschatz. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Please, gex youz acx xogexhez, Bew Yozk Ximes!

What if I wrote an article about The New York Times and decided to leave out the letters n, r and t and substitute some other letters in their places? It might become the Few Yolk Limes. Or the Bew Yozk Ximes. Ix would be absuzd, righx?

I just read "Pommes de Terroir," a short article about the specialty potato industry in Sweden, in Sunday's New York Times travel magazine. And would you believe it? The writer and editors completely disregarded three letters of the Swedish alphabet!

They just weren't there at all.

It's Spelled That Way for a Reason

The travel writer, Abby Aguirre, went to Skåne, one of Sweden's southern provinces, and visited the municipality of Båstad. Båstad, because of the å in the first syllable, is pronounced almost like BOO-stah." It's not spelled Bastad, as the Times would have it; Bastad sounds more like a snooty British rendering of bastard.

According to Båstad's website, there are different theories for how the town got its name. Like many place names, it could derive from an early resident's name. Båstad could be a shortened version bootho's-sted (the place where Bootho lives). Or perhaps Bodo's-sted. Both are regional names going back at least to the ninth century; we know of them because they appeared in a French chronicle identifying Norman/Viking men with origins in Skåne. Another possibility is that the name is a shortened version of båtställe (båt being the word for boat), probably meaning some sort of boat passage or landing.

But in either case you can see how keeping the å rather than an a in the first syllable of Båstad is absolutely key; spelled with an a it has a completely different pronunciation, one that would not link it to either of its possible origins. Thus, one could say that changing the å to a not only sounds like a nasty insult, but also robs the town of a bit of its meaning and history.

A rose by any other name...would be something else entirely

Continuing on through the Times piece, the sjö in Rammsjö is a word that means sea or lake. Sjo is meaningless and I'm pretty sure it's unpronounceable as well.

Also, a trädgård is a garden. It is composed of the elements träd (tree) and gård (yard).  Tradgard means nothing in Swedish. (In English it might be the name of some product advertised on late-night television, designed to protect your trad, whatever that is.)

Väderö is an island, indicated by the final element ö, the word for island. The first element, väder, means weather. Vader means nothing (unless we're talking about Darth).

Moreover, the name of the Cape on which the potatoes in question grow is, as it says on the sign pictured on page 107 of the magazine, Bjäre, not Bjare. Also, I believe the vodka is named after Börje Karlsson, not Borje, and the potato dealer's name is Göran not Goran. (Not only does ö sound completely different than o, but it also renders the g soft and thus is essential for intelligibility. I ask you: would Jennifer want you to call her Gonnifer?)

Finally, there's no such thing as farsk potatoes. They are färsk: fresh.

A language resonates with the history, the logic and the character of its people

I mention all of this not to be picky, and not to try to seem cooler-than-thou because I
know a little Swedish. I bring it up because I think it really matters.

I mean, come on! Man up, people!

They may inconvenience your typesetter, but the three letters å, ä and ö comprise nearly 10% of the Swedish alphabet. Ignoring them demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the Swedish language and for language in general. I mean, did the folks who standardized Swedish just go on a drinking binge one day and randomly decide to place dots over some of their vowels just for the heck of it? Well...maybe.

But seriously, however it happened, the fact is that Swedish has 29 letters. They are all necessary to differentiate the sounds of the language. A is different than å or ä. is different than ö.  They look different, they sound different and they have different effects on the consonants that surround them.
And the spelling of a word speaks to the word's composition, its meaning and its origin.

What is a travel magazine for, anyway?

Is it ignorance, laziness, or does the New York Times just not care about getting it right? Maybe it's just taking advantage of the good-naturedness of Swedes, of their willingness to extend themselves to understand us, even when we don't reciprocate. But in this global age, no one – certainly not a publication that considers itself to be relevant to people traveling overseas - can afford to display this sort of ignorance and disrespect. Getting the names right is an important part of showing respect and highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of a place and a people. That, after all, is what a travel magazine should be for.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What this fan wants to see...

I want to see smiles from these guys!

What does this fan want to see from her dear but beleaguered team, the Washington Capitals? Well, of course, I'd like to see them bring the Stanley Cup home to DC. (Yes, HOME!)

But the Cup is, for all its mystical pull, one of those rewards that we work for but whose actual meaning is in the hurdles we must clear to win it: we must constantly hone our skills, practice, prepare, and endure physical and mental sacrifice and hardship. The Cup is what it is because of what it demands: dogged, persistent play on every shift, tons of courage and spirit, plus a grand dose of favor from the hockey gods. You can strive your entire life for a reward such as this, and never win it. Many never do. But they can hold their heads high because of the striving. 

I want to see the Caps play hard, give up nothing easy, and, if they do, come back immediately, with a vengeance.

Last spring, swept by Tampa Bay, they looked like deer in the headlights. This season, it seems, they have been in the process of transitioning into the kind of team that won't go down easily. Who knows whether they've accomplished the full transition? No one. But the playoffs - a heightened version of hockey reality - will surely hold the answer. Maybe, just maybe, the playoffs will be the anvil on which the new Caps are finally, fully, forged. 

That's what this fan wants to see.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Painting by letters, or writing through an artist's lens

One of my current projects is to find an agent to represent The Bear Wife, and to represent me as a writer.  Out of the seemingly kajillions of literary agents out there I must find someone who represents books that are in some way similar to mine, and who, therefore, might know where to go to sell it.

To this end I've been spending hours on agents', authors' and book-selling websites reading about novels. The upside of this is that I've discovered some books that I otherwise wouldn't have (given that my recent reading has revolved around hockey and western Canadian native history).

Two of these books, The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight by Gina Ochsner and The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni, have become special favorites of mine. As it turns out they are represented by the same agent. So she must really like them both, too. The interesting thing is how very different they are from each other.

I was wondering to myself, how can I describe how they differ? It's true that their settings and characters have nothing in common, but that doesn't really explain it. Ochsner and Bognanni could quite possibly swap out setting and character, so that each writes a story using the other's characters and setting, and still come up with completely different results. As if you asked Rembrandt and Kandinsky to draw pictures of the same horse.

If I wanted to liken their styles to visual artists, it's an easy call for Ochsner: Chagall, no doubt. The title Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight doesn't lie, folks. It is Chagall, through and through. Brilliant color. Floating clouds, bottles of liquor, worn-in work-boots and souls. Dreams and passions and all the music of life are unmoored from the bleak, painful realities of post-Soviet Russia which, quite literally, sink away. Ochsner's lens is perfect because it adds another layer of authenticity to her story.

The House of Tomorrow is more difficult to pin down. It is not particularly "painterly"; the "brushstrokes" are invisible compared to Ochsner's in the Russian Dreambook. Bognanni's characters, filtered through the consciousness of his protagonist, Sebastian, are necessarily drawn with some distortion, but subtly so,lovingly, and with great respect, even as they are dishing out lines like, "you sound like a big limp wang every time you open your mouth." Lines that (from my perspective as a nowadays mother-of-two who once did her time with a high-school rock band) sound simultaneously hilarious,obnoxious and poignant. Lines that function as comic relief even as they sing with meaning. Lines that, rather than a painting, evoke a graphic novel, where utterances vibrate into images, the expressionist hatches from the shell of adolescent cool.

I'm thrilled by how differently these two authors perceive the realities of their fictional landscapes and people-scapes, what they choose to emphasize or exaggerate or ignore, each within an aesthetic of operatic intensity. And as I think about it now, I wonder if each author's choice of lens wasn't inevitable, given the story they were trying to tell.