Saturday, November 24, 2012

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún


Opening Passage (from the Lay of the Völsungs):

Of old was an age
when was emptiness,
there was sand nor sea
nor surging waves;
unwrought was Earth,
unroofed was Heaven --
an abyss yawning,
and no blade of grass.

Opening Passage (from the Lay of Gudrún):

Smoke had faded,
sunk was burning;
windblown ashes
were wafted cold.
As sun setting
had Sigurd passed;
and Brynhild burned
as blazing fire.

Summary: The source materials for our knowledge of the heroic legends surrounding Sigurd the dragon-slayer are in a state of some confusion. The basic story we know. Sigurd, occasionally also known as Siegfried or Sivard, is the son of Sigmund, who is one of the great warriors of his day. As always happens with the great warriors, Odin favors Sigmund until one day he strikes him down in battle, bringing him to Valhalla to wait the Final Battle. The fragments of his sword are given to his son. Sigurd, Sigmund's son, eventually comes to the care of Regin, who repeatedly attempts to tempt Sigurd to terrible violence. (In the course of these temptations, Sigurd comes to possess his legendary steed, Grani, who descends from Odin's steed Sleipnir.) Eventually Regin tells Sigurd of a great treasure of gold that is guarded by a dragon, Fafnir, who is Regin's brother. This gold had been the wergild for the death of Otr (Otter); it in turn was stolen from a dwarf named Andvari, who, not allowed to keep back even one ring, cursed the ring with a terrible curse. Fafnir killed one of the other brothers in order to have the gold all to himself. Sigurd agrees to take on Fafnir, but he needs a sword. Regin tries to make swords for him the ordinary way, but Sigurd repeatedly shatters them. Finally, Regin makes the sword Gram out of the fragments that Sigurd had inherited from his father, and this is the sword that does not shatter. Sigurd kills Fafnir by digging a trench and slicing the dragon in his soft belly as he passes overhead; bathing in dragon's blood he becomes physically invulnerable. Regin asks Sigurd to cook him the dragon's heart. While Sigurd does, hot drops fall on his hand, and licking them off his hand he gains understanding of the speech of birds, from whom he learns that Regin intends to kill him. So he kills Regin instead. In some versions, Regin is the dragon, and Mimir is the one who fosters Sigurd.

After this point the story gets more complicated, because we have the story of Sigurd and Brynhild, and then of Sigurd and Gudrún, and there are different versions of both. In the case of Brynhild, we have at least two different lines of tradition. In one she is a Valkyrie who angered Odin and therefore was doomed to wed; she surrounds her stronghold with a ring of fire and swears that she will only wed the hero brave enough to ride through it. This is her way of planning to marry only Sigurd, the supreme hero. Sigurd, sworn to aid Gunnar, rides through the flame, pretending to be Gunnar; Brynhild is both baffled and disappointed, but her oath holds her: she weds Gunnar, believing him to be the hero who rode through the flame. She later learns that it was really Sigurd, and this infuriates her: Sigurd and Gunnar have conspired together to make her break a sacred oath. She lies in order to get Gunnar to break his own oaths and kill Sigurd, and then after letting Gunnar know the truth, she burns herself alive on a funeral pyre. In another line of tradition, she is the daughter of Budli and the sister of Atli (Attila the Hun). So we have here a division between a highly mythological version of the story and a highly historicized version of it; the historicized version, in which she is not a Valkyrie but a princess, is almost certainly derivative. At the least, that was Tolkien's view: Brynhild in this other tradition is a Valkyrie humanized, not a human woman Valkyrized. This complicates matters with the tale of Gudr&uactue;n; Gudrún is the one who actually marries Sigurd, through the machinations of her mother, who is a witch, and who sets off the events that lead to Brynhild's revenge; and she later marries Atli and much of her appearance in the stories is precisely in the historical mode. So she bridges the two, and we have all these stories that are not entirely consistent with each other, not just in details, which is only to be expected, but in the entire approach taken to the subject matter. This is a pretty serious issue given that much of our material is fragmentary, anyway, and often obviously worked over in several different, and not always consistent layers.

Tolkien makes an attempt to reconcile this comiplicated and confused mass of source material into a coherent body of story through two lays written in alliterative verse. (The poems were written so he could get practice in writing alliterative verse of the form in which the original poems were written.) He smooths out inconsistencies, fills in gaps, and improves defective features in the originals. He also picks and chooses among alternative versions (e.g., there is no agreement in the source materials about how Sigurd dies). He takes the mythological version of Brynhild, and manages to connect it with reasonable smoothness to the more historicized Gudrún from the Atli stories. This makes the two lays a complete history of the Völsungs, from Sigmund through Sigurd (the Völsungs themselves), to Gunnar's downfall in battle with Atli and Gudrún's avenging of him by killing Atli; simultaneously, because the stories are interwoven, we have the full tale of the Nibelung gold from its being stolen by Loki from Andvari through Sigurd's obtaining of it by killing Fafnir, to the sinking of it in the Rhine by Gunnar and Högni when they are betrayed by Atli. He does very well at giving us more of a sense of motivations than the originals often do.

The form of narrative verse used by the story is a difficult one to write well. It is, in a sense, a very staccato form of narration. Instead of telling a continuous story, it works more by creating frames, in the way a movie reel is created by photographic frames. Each stanza is striking in some way, and the story is less told to you than shown to you by this series of striking poetic scenes; the story is built up in your mind rather than being simply told to you. Tolkien handles this aspect quite well, in part because he was quite aware of it. Christopher Tolkien quotes a nice summary of this point from his father (p. 48):

In Old English breadth, fullness, reflection, elegiac effect, were aimed at. Old Norse aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning -- and tends to concision, weighty packing of the language in sense and form, and gradually to greater regularity of form of verse.

This is in part, perhaps, why the originals can often get away with being so incoherent, and why they can get away without giving us much sense of the motivation of the characters: the stories are built not out of motivations, nor out of any plotline, but out of scenes that are striking in their own right. This is not to say, of course, that the poets ignored plot or characterization, but these are not emphasized by this kind of stanza narrative.

Favorite Passage: There are several good ones, but this might be one (from pp. 114-115, stanzas 46-47 of the Lay of the Völsungs).

Dark red the drink
and dire the meat
whereon Sigurd feasted
seeking wisdom.
Dark hung the doors
and dread the timbers
in the earth under
of iron builded.

Gold piled on gold
there glittered palely;
that gold was glamoured
with grim curses.
The Helm of Horror
on his head laid he:
swart fell the shadow
round Sigurd standing.

Recommendation: Excellent both poetically and narratively. The style of poetry probably takes a certain taste, but this is definitely recommended.

[Page numbers refer to J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, Christopher Tolkien, ed. Harper Collins (London: 2009).]

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Music on My Mind

Kate Miller-Heidke, "Ride This Feeling." A bit more mainstream than what I usually put up, but it's a rousing way to start a morning.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hurray for Chester A.

I did my government ethics lecture in Ethics today, which I always devote mostly to the civil service, which (like triage) is one of the truly great ethical ideas. It also gives me a chance to laud the excellence of Chester A. Arthur, a one-term President, and one who only became President because his predecessor was assassinated, but who did an extraordinary amount of good for all that. Socrates argued against the sophists and rhetors that the real measure of a politician or statesman is whether people are morally better when he's done with them. Obviously there are limits to what politicians can do in this regard, but Arthur did an impressive amount, particularly for someone who came to power under such difficult circumstances. He worked to replace a corrupt government system, to root out corruption, to unify the country, to do a good job with the ordinary everyday of the executive branch. He reduced taxes (although that was fairly easy, since the country was still on war-level taxes and had a massive surplus); he vetoed pork projects, insisting that Congressional funds should be used for the general welfare (although Congress was in a position to override such vetoes); he opposed Chinese Exclusion (although he did eventually accept a compromise measure); he was a firm advocate of civil rights for blacks (although he was unable to persuade Congress to do much); he restored the U.S. Navy, which was increasingly obsolete and irrelevant. He was not perfect by any means, since he certainly sometimes compromised when he shouldn't have and perhaps sometimes stood his ground when a compromise might have worked better. But we can certainly say that he performed his duties conscientiously and well, and that we are better for having had him, and at least part of that is that, uncontroversially, the United States was at least in some small way a more ethical society because of him. Not every President can be a Washington or Lincoln; if we want a standard against which to hold our Presidents, we could hardly do better than Arthur.


Today, President Obama 'pardons' two turkeys.

One month ago, the nation's oldest prisoner, 92-year-old Drayton Curry, died in prison, still waiting after two years for the Office of the Pardon Attorney even to get back to him on his request for clemency so he could spend his last few years with his family. Curry was a World War II Army veteran who had had some off-and-on-again problems with drugs. When he was caught again in 1991, four years after having been put on five-year probation, he was sentenced to life as a career offender. As he became increasingly frail in prison, he submitted a pardon application in early 2011, which noted his frail health, his exemplary behavior in prison, and his active involvement in anti-drug counseling for young prisoners.

Now, there is no question that Drayton Curry was guilty of at least some of the charges brought against him -- the charge that put him on probation was a relatively minor one, but he was arrested for a heroin transaction, caught in the act. But the point of the constitutional power pardon is not just to prevent miscarriages of justice but to make sure that the application of law considers the actual circumstances in which people find themselves. The vast majority of pardon applications are from people who have already served their sentences. There are lots of things former felons are restricted from, and so they are essentially applying for a restoration of their rights. Others are cases, as with Drayton Curry, in which the prisoner has become seriously sick or frail, asking to be allowed to go back to their family for their last days. A number of other cases are people who are serving sentences that would be counted excessive by current law -- that is, the sentencing requirements have changed, so that the sentence for the crime they committed is now much lighter than it was when they were convicted.

P. J. Ruckman, Jr. has a table of the clemency rates of recent presidents. President Obama has in his four years pardoned 22 people and commuted 1 sentence; since Thomas Jefferson, only George W. Bush, in his first term, has been so stingy with the pardons.

There are reasons why the pardon power is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. If you look at discussions of it by the Founding Fathers, people like Alexander Hamilton or James Wilson, their arguments clearly have the implication that the pardon power is an integral and extremely important part of our justice system, one in which we make clear the fundamental principle of American governance, that government must be for the people. Law is unbending; but our application of it must take into account the actual circumstances in which people find themselves. And that is the whole point: the law, all the law, serves us, not we it. It is very important for Americans to start respecting the pardon power again.

Something Must Be Done!

I must confess that when people find Catholics baffling, I do have some sympathies, because I find Catholics baffling, too. One of the more baffling elements of American Catholic culture is gripey passivity, an intense insistence that something must be done, beyond which nothing actually ever happens, except that sometimes various people are blamed. It seems a bit pointless. Of course something must be done; something always must be done. So do it. This all came to mind reading this essay on marriage.

The first thing to note is that things are not actually so bad as they seem. Dating was never an especially good or effective way of supporting marriage, and a dating culture in the long run gets you precisely the kind of culture we now have. There is much to be said for it, perhaps, but there's a reason phrases like 'treadmill' and 'meat market' are associated with it. Dating is a high-expense, high-difficulty set of interactions on a free market; that dating culture breaks down into something like a hook-up culture is no more surprising than full-service gas stations vanishing away in favor of self-serve. We know how we got here, and dating was a lot of it. Dating is just a late moment in the negotiating-for-good-bargains stage of the breakdown; on its own it naturally will become anything-harmless-goes, because anything-harmless-goes is just what you get when even what counts as a good bargain becomes negotiable, and there's nothing in the practice that can prevent that shift forever. For one thing, the deterioration comes with real benefits. Dating culture is not as people-friendly as Esolen makes it out to be. It has a nasty keep-up-with-the-Joneses side, it demands a truly extraordinary amount from people, and it can easily devolve into mind-numbingly drab monotony. It's a lot of work to get what often seems to come more by luck than by any of the actual work you've done. And it inevitably suffers by comparison. People look upstream to Austenesque visions of earlier stages, where negotiating for good bargains was still more sharply bound by concerns of familial and sexual honor, and dating, while freer, looks like cheap imitation; they look downstream to the consensual market open for all, and dating, while safer, looks stifling and arbitrary. Unless conditions are just right, dating culture will always start looking like a bad compromise. The primary problem with the state in which we are increasingly finding ourselves, the anything-harmless-goes stage, is not that it's not dating, but that anything-harmless-goes inevitably breaks down as people find they cannot agree on what's really harmless. And then people start trying to keep order by intimidation and manipulation, because that's all that's really left. We know this is how it all goes down, and we've always known that this is how it works, because these tendencies are already found in every society, just in different proportions and under different conditions.

Dating, in short, is a low standard. For that matter, Austenesque Regency marriages are a low standard, for reasons Austen herself depicts quite clearly. The only relations between the sexes that matter are relations based on pursuit of virtue, which are both more free and more honorable than all the other options on the table. And the only possible thing that you can do to bring those about is to strive for virtue yourself and show proper respect for the particular cases you happen to come across in others. Everything else is arbitrary convention and the Goddess Fortune.

Esolen's piece does contemplate action, but it is not of this kind:

So then—I call upon every parish in the United States to do the sweet and simple and ordinary things. Not everybody can speak learnedly about church architecture. Not everybody wants to hear about that. Not everybody can speak learnedly about grace and free will. Not everybody wants to hear about that. But everybody can learn to sing, everybody can learn to dance, everybody can watch a good movie, everybody likes a picnic, or a hike, or a trip to the beach, or a goofy time at the bowling alley, or a softball game, or an ice cream social, or coffee and tea and doughnuts. It is not good for the man to be alone—or the woman!

Which is nice in its own way, but stops short of actually being a practicable plan, since it is basically the advice that if you want to form a marriage-friendly communities you should form communities. True. But, of course, that is already just another way of stating the whole difficulty. Something must be done! Well, yes.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Poem Re-Draft

Salme's Song

I will not love the night-lord,
nor marry the harried moon,
whose work is always pressing,
whose rising is too soon.

I will not love the sun-king;
his fire I cherish not;
he blights the land with suffering
when passions wax too hot.

The star I take as lover,
who shines with gentle light;
his eyes are kind and loving
and steady through the night.

Thus starry youth and Salme
shall wed in joy sublime
and waltz on Harria's shoreland
until the end of time.

A poem from about five years ago, on a theme from the Estonian epic, The Kalevipoeg; Harria is Latin name for Harjumaa, in Estonia.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Notable Links for Thinking and Linking

* Berit Brogaard discusses cases of people who have come away from accidents with savant abilities.

* A surprisingly fun paper on the problems with current copyright law (namely, that as it is currently structured, a lot of ordinary activities are technically copyright violations:
John Tehranian, Infringement Nation: Copyright Reform and the Law/Norm Gap (PDF)

* David Hyder, Time, Norms, and Structure in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy of Science (PDF)

* An Arthurian Bibliography

* Elliot Milco discusses philosophy and recent movies

* R. J. Snell corrects some common misapprehensions about natural law theory; I'm not quite so thrilled with Rhonheimer, although I think he is a good corrective if taken with other things.

* Jason Zarri thinks through strong conditionals for sentential logics; being a sworn enemy of the material conditional outside certain limited contexts, I approve of such endeavors.

* As Advent giving begins to approach, I'd like to point out two possible charities to consider:

Mission Asset Fund, which organizes Lending Circles providing zero-interest loans for low-income families

Africa Windmill Project, which helps Malawi farmers make use of basic technologies to improve farming practices, turning unstable subsistence into stable security

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tanaver III

The following chapters have been done at Tanaver.

Part I

Chapter I: A Day in the Life
Part I, Part II

Chapter II: This Darkest Sea
Part I, Part II

Chapter III: Conversation over Lunch
Part I, Part II

Chapter IV: City in Heaven
Part I, Part II

Chapter V: Ohu's Stronghold ** New **
Part I, Part II

Chapter VI: Representatives ** New **
Part I, Part II

Chapter VII: Negotiations ** New **
Part I, Part II

The current wordcount is around 22700. I am behind about 3 days, or something like 4500-5500 words. Even if I do not make up any of that deficit, I should be through Part I and into Part II by the end of this next week, anyway. I had been worried at one point about whether it would actually take me the entire month to make it through Part I. Currently the chapters cut the story somewhat oddly, but I'm not worrying about that too much at this point.

I had promised last time to say something about Samar philosophy, but it will have to wait until next week; it's late, I did not sleep well last night, and I have early class and a long day tomorrow.

Another Poem Draft

One Good Day

I dreamed one night the world was ending,
the flames of sun on us descending;
the tides of sea poured forth unending,
but I had lost my pride
and you were at my side,
and as the world went on its way
I thanked the stars for one good day.

The fragile cities all were breaking,
the darkness all the light was taking,
the winds were hill and mountain shaking,
but I had lost my pride
and you were at my side;
the world was passing all away
but I rejoiced in one good day.

Though all the stars collapse in thunder,
though continents should burst asunder,
I'd crown it all with joy and wonder
if I could lose my pride
and you be at my side:
why worry if things fall away
if they can bring just one good day?

The Ass Shall Sigh Uninstructed

The Logical Conclusion
by Ezra Pound

When earth's last thesis is copied
From the theses that went before,
When idea from fact has departed
And bare-boned factlets shall bore,
When all joy shall have fled from study
And scholarship reign supreme;
When truth shall "baaa" on the hill crests
And no one shall dare to dream;

When all the good poems have been buried
With comment annoted in full
And art shall bow down in homage
To scholarship's zinc-plated bull,
When there shall be nothing to research
But the notes of annoted notes,
And Baalam's ass shall inquire
The price of imported oats;

Then no one shall tell him the answer
For each shall know the one fact
That lies in the special ass-ignment
From which he is making his tract.
So the ass shall sigh uninstructed
While each in his separate book
Shall grind for the love of grinding
And only the devil shall look.

Against the "germanic" system of graduate study and insane specialization in the Inanities.

A Poem Draft

A quasi-Kantian meditation, and very much in its rough stages.


Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.

The rule of good:
It begins, a sign of the Kingdom appears,
When its laws are promulgated and revealed;
For in the heart the root is already there,
Though shoots delay.
To join communion devoted to virtue
Belongs to human life, in reason itself,
By which we are responsibly social
And seek the good.

Bright agreement!
If all followed only a private conscience
To agree in common on good would be by chance;
But rational hope requires a structure,
A special union and more than happenstance:
A commonwealth that lives by the moral law,
A federation for withstanding evil
And doing good.

Most pure Zion,
Defeater of easy temptation's lures,
Most fit object of reason's rational hope,
Can any good heart hear of you and not rise
Filled with valor?
Unreasoning must be those who scoff at you,
And wicked must be those who scorn your name,
And blessed are those who of your pinnacles dream,
For you are good.

Hopeful Zion,
For you to be, all must be ordered by law
And all the laws from common power must come;
But your laws are moral and not made by us:
They are within,
And thus must come from one who precedes our own hearts.
And yet also these laws are not at random,
Nor dependent on sanction for their great force
But on the good.

True liturgy!
O Zion, in you moral law will blossom
And become a liturgy of life and love,
The moral law a liturgical law made,
Yet still moral.
But only eternal reason can make law
That is deeper than the deep roots of the heart,
Only one can judge it who can see the heart
And who is good.

Splendid Zion,
Ruled by one who can join virtue to its joy!
Eternal reason makes you a true people.
What reasoning soul would dare not hope for you,
Reason's hope?
To hope for you is an art of moral minds
And reason itself will love to seek your ways.
You shine with more splendor than stars in the sky:
Your light is good.

Inwardly bright,
Deeper than any human law, the moral law shines;
The people fit for it are zealous for good,
The worthy rise daily to do better things,
Pray with good deeds.
They are no rabble but a royal priesthood,
A temple of spirit made active in works.
Yet how may this most rational hope take shape?
Only by good.

Not human hands,
Not human hearts, accomplish, though we are stones
In this edifice, and in us it is raised.
The best we can make are crude imitations,
Not true Zion.
From our warped wood none but a God could shape beams
Fit to rise in a temple of moral law;
Can criminal citizens make this city
Unless made good?

Most high Zion,
We must be made like you to walk in your streets,
We must be transfigured into your glory,
Shaped and restructured by a system of signs
And form a church,
Which is a people praying to be like you,
Which is a people being made into you.
Slowly and lamely, in cursive lines, we move
To be made good.

Magnetic goal,
Zion most holy, no human deeds can raise
The towers of duty and virtue you frame;
Yet we are drawn. As blunt instruments we wait,
To be whetted,
To be applied, to participate in art;
As the stones wait, we wait for shape and cement,
We wait to be made, and to hear the old word,
That it is good.