Friday, February 26, 2010

Possible Tolkien Inspiration? Tolkien Geek Out Post

In doing some research on a paper---as rarely as that happens these days--I came across a reference in Aelfric. I don't know how to get Blogger to display A-S characters, so I'll just translate the line from Aelfric's homily for the Second Sunday After Pentecost (CHI): The chosen always see their Maker's brightness, and so there is not anything in creation hidden from them.

Aelfric is translating almost directly from Gregory the Great's homily for the same date. The phrase applies specifically to those who are chosen and have been through the last judgment, and so are blessed. I have to admit that it is a notion I've not encountered before.

Now, to the Tolkien bits: There are two characters in Middle Earth in LoTR who know an awful lot of the goings on. That knowledge is gained in various ways: spies, magical instruments, news, and in one case through torture. But for both Galadriel and Sauron there seems to be more to it than that.

Galadriel remarks to Frodo in Lothlorien in the Book II that Sauron's designs are not hidden from her. "I perceive the Dark Lord and know his designs." One might suppose that this is a reference to the just revealed magic ring she wears, one of the Three for Elven kings under the sky. But is this so? Neither Elrond nor Gandalf who also wear one of the three make similar claims, and they further note that Sauron has often been ahead of them through the ages. As it turns out, when one reads the appendices, it is Galadriel who consistently has been right about Sauron and his purposes and that too often Saruman whom Galadriel distrusted was able to assuage doubts and questions and talk the council into another course of action. So it argues against the ring she wears being a direct source of her knowledge. Nor does Nenya, Galadriel's ring, confer hidden knowledge and the like, but rather the power to preserve and protect.

One might point to her magic mirror...but the mirror like the palantir only shows images of what is, was, or might be....not what one thinks, feels, or intends. Granted, the mirror might show her Sauron's battle plans in the War Room of Barad-Dur. But that might be a "was" or a "might be."

I suggest that there might be something more to Galadriel's knowledge. Unlike the other elves who are principle characters in LoTR (not dealing with the Silm. and other works which might disprove this it is a work in progress), she has lived in the Blessed Realm, and has seen the glory of her creator, at least as reflected in the Valar and the Blessed Realm. Further, over time, Galadriel seems to have redeemed herself for leaving the Blessed Realm and returning to Middle Earth by resisting Morgoth and Sauron through the ages. Does this redemption and her having dwelt among those directly reflecting the glory of God give her the ability that Aelfric and Gregory are talking about: that nothing is hidden from her in creation?

Ah, the objection will be raised that Galadriel tells the characters that she can not perceive Gandalf the Grey, he is clouded to her. She can not discern his intent or mind. Ok, fair enough, though this example actually kind of demonstrates the thesis. Galadriel knows, or suspects, or intuits, that Gandalf yet exists in spite of his fall. She may not know his mind, but she knows that he is and kinda, sorta, where to find him. The Grey Pilgrim further is greater than she, so there are limits just as the blessed who see God and his glory don't know his mind unless he reveals it to them.

But then Sauron is of the same order as Gandalf, how can she know his mind? Several reasons: first, Sauron has limited himself in many ways. He has limited himself to Middle Earth. He has lost power each time he has incarnated. He has lost power by putting it into the One Ring, a object he can not access or control. He can no longer block her entry.

Speaking of Sauron, he too seems to be able to gather information beyond the use of magical devices, spies, torture of prisoners and the like. We see his "lidless eye" a number of times outside of Mordor looking, seeking, knowing, "his arm is long", long enough to affect things where and when he in fact can not possibly have been able to know by normal means, and even magical means available to him would be somewhat limited. SO how does he know?

I'd suggest that like Galadriel it is the result of the refracted glory of his creator, whom Sauron like Gandalf has seen "outside the circles of the world." Granted, Sauron has turned his innate abilities including this one to his own purposes, and therefore to evil and that certainly dulls their usefulness. But he is still greater than any in Middle Earth for all that.

It might be pointed out that the passage to which I have already pointed remarks that Sauron can not discern Galadriel's mind and intents, doesn't that argue against this thesis. Not at all: as just mentioned Sauron has turned his gifts and himself to evil. In the same sermon Gregory and Aelfric mention that the damned have things hidden from them and only occasionally catch glimpses of the chosen. Thus, Sauron having seen the One and lived in the Blessed Realm has a deeper perception and fewer things hidden from him than the average Middle Earth dweller, but because of his evil his ability is tarnished and weakened in comparison to those who have not turned to evil, or who did, but have been redeemed.

Just a working hypothesis.....

Friday, February 19, 2010

Shakespeare II

So we've finished Henry V now in class. I've taken, for this play, an historicist approach focusing on play vs. history as well as how Shakespeare's depiction of Henry as epic hero and all the attendant themes might have some application to understanding Shakespeare's England.

In the details: I went through the first act in some detail, particularly the chorus which is one of favorite of Shakespeare's passages. I wanted to demonstrate close reading and asking questions of why Shakespeare says certain things that he says. I turned them loose on Acts 2 and 3. In group work, each group was assigned a scene from each act and they were to answer questions of what, why, and wherefore. So each group gave a summary of the scene, examined its connection to the preceding scene, and explained why it was important to the action of the play. I then would ask the group some other questions regarding their scene and they explained their answers to the class. Overall, this went well.

We went through the first scene of Act 4 carefully as a class in moderated discussion. One of the issues that I discussed was the king as two people, yes, taken from Kantorowicz and we talked about this idea as we discussed the discussion between Henry and Williams. We also talked a little bit about Shakespeare's use of mistaken identity in this act and I will bring that back to them later when we encounter this technique in other plays we'll read. This meant also focusing on the scene with Pistol and the French noble, and we contrasted Pistol and Henry on the idea of ransom, and that lead to discussing the roles of Pistol, Bardolf, Nym, and Quickly in this play and how the lawless, masterless (after Falstaff's death) are replaced by Fluellen especially in this act as the influences in Henry's life.

We spent some time comparing Henry in scene I and the Henry of the St Crispin's Day speech and talked a little about that speech. We dwelt slightly on some other speeches in the act.

Act 5 went quickly and we spent time comparing and contrasting scene I and scene II, what we called the wooing of France and the wooing of Katherine.

We spent two days post Henry on wrap up. We distilled the themes, the structure, applied it to what I said about history and the historical context of Shakespeare.

Along the way, I've tried to bring in video and such. Regrettably I'm not in a wired classroom, and the equipment I've checked out from the dept simply doesn't work...or when it did work, it had no sound card. So I've taken to putting up links to video files on the Net on Blackboard and assigning their viewing. This led to our last day of discussion on Henry as performance. We discussed the differences between some of them and how the chorus is presented. We also spent time again working in groups to imagine and present how a scene I assigned to each group would be presented. There were some imaginative answers...such as the Wooing of Katherine in Act 5 being set on a playground with kids not unlike the Disney cartoon from a few years ago, Recess. I thought that was rather amusing. Those kindergartners were vicious!

We're onto Macbeth now. I set up the transition, talked a little about the date of the play, what's changed since Henry was probably written, and for this play I want to take a partial source-critical approach and consider how Shakespeare has changed and adapted his sources. I also talked about a bit of literary criticism Renaissance style and the wheel of fortune, tragedy and comedy, the 3 unities and how Will plays with them, and mash up of genres, and the presentation of evil.

We've begun Act I and I relish the Weird Sisters! So we spent too much time examining the sisters, what they say, why they say it and what's going on with them in the first act. This led to discussing Marlowe and his Faustus and its reception, some of the mythology about Macbeth as a play, and James I's Daemonologie. We also noted the black and white presentation of Macdonwald and Macbeth and I mentioned how this presentation of good and evil will be challenged in the play and that the students should begin to take note of places where that happens as they read.

Again, I will be posted video presentations and this time around we'll focus on some language and poetry issues, as well as more reading aloud and actual performance of scenes rather than thinking about performance of scenes.

So far this has been great fun for me. The problem of course is that it is a new prep and I don't really have the time to develop it as well as I would like to. The non-functioning equipment is frustrating and the inability to get a wired classroom...even when there's a composition class next door that is in a media classroom but the instructor refuses to give it frustrating. Still, we seem to be getting along and we haven't lost that many people so far.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Monday, February 01, 2010

Humanities et al

In a recent thread elsewhere that I have participated in while avoiding other more important work like grading composition papers, the issue has once again been raised regarding current practices in the humanities. Now, I don't give much attention to the original poster in that discussion: it is apparent that the OP hasn't read the literature he decries and so his opinion as opinion may safely be discounted.

But his opinion is a common one out there. He and others in the thread who are not professional academics complain that current practices particularly in history are mere revisionism. To a degree this is simply the old "ubi sunt" motif in a newish guise: the old historians were much better than the current ones and so the current ones ought to be rejected particularly where they disagree with the old ones. The particular issue in question has been the reassessment of feudalism: what is it, what does it mean, is it really a system, many systems, or should we jettison the term as not useful at all to describe what's going on. The OP and others essentially come down that the old historians, such as Duby, are right, and that "revisionists" such as Reynolds where they differ are always wrong, and are doing their reassessment from political, agenda driven motives. The reader will note all sorts of difficulties with this position starting from the simple fact of the logical fallacy that the old days were golden, the present is much less so.

But what I want to highlight is not the details of the discussion so much as the negative view of what it is we do even as medieval historians and literary critics and linguists. There is among a certain sector of modern society a backlash against academics and like "big government" this sector treats or views academia as a negative blight on society and that "academics" speak with a single voice, almost always liberal. This is illustrated by a short piece I read a few months ago and had hoped to blog about in the 2008 Progressive from MLA. There Michael Holmquist has a meditation titled "Traffic in the Humanities" that he begins by reflecting back on 1991 and the backlash to MLA voicing public concern over an appointment to the NEH, then headed by Lynne Cheney...yes the Lynne Cheney married to the former Vice President who meddled in higher education affairs throughout most of the past decade. The public backlash that made fun and shouted down MLA and other academic organizations is a backlash that to some degree we still struggle against. Holmquist notes that most of the Presidential Fora for the MLA since have in some way been about defending the Humanities in general and the study of literature and language in particular.

But I like what he says when he comments: "What such a heteroglot mix (the 2007 forum was made up of a mix of academics and non-academics working in various fields) makes immediately clear is that the ivory tower is really a co-op: the differences between inside and outside are much less hard-edged than we often assume-and in surprising ways-sometimes non-existent." He notes that those non-academics often made novel and insightful arguments for the continued study of language and literature and the humanities in general than the academics did.

Holmquist is followed by Marjorie Garber in a piece called "Good to Think With". Among the points Garber makes are the observations that Humanities is alive and well outside academia. Applied humanities are actively pursued in the sciences, the medical field for example and not just simply in medical schools. Businessmen now attend conferences "on topics they didn't think relevant in college." She also mentions Humanities outreach programs only some of which are run by colleges and universities. And even the NEA and other national, state, and local government initiatives seek to have the humanities brought to a larger audience: humanities as a central piece of our society.

It is no wonder that the discussants are upset. Ideas are invading their space. Historians and medievalists in particular are out there addressing the problems of the modern world and have something to say about those issues that cuts through the rhetoric. Even something like thinking about what feudalism is and does might have something of an impact outside the debates in print and at conferences. And yes, even history and literature are open to progress, or to reassessment, positive uses and negative uses. One of the interesting aspects of these discussions about the humanities is that the "good ol' days" crowd shout that the current crop of scholars march lock step when in fact that is less the case now than it was in the good ol' days!

Naturally, they won't be convinced. But I have to say that it always surprises me when these anti-academic, anti-humanities raise their voices to such a crescendo and let go the dogs of war. At least in words. Thinking and "doubting wisely" are hard; such practices force one to go where one didn't think one would. And that is frightening. So how do we help them overcome that fear? That I do not have an answer for.