So honored to talk with John J. Miller about Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Here is part II: The Two Towers.
“Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”–J.R.R. Tolkien
[Originally delivered at an ISI Conference, “Modernists and Mist Dwellers,” on Friday, August 3, 2001.]
When the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1961, its author was appalled. Fluent in Swedish, J.R.R. Tolkien found no problems with the translation. Indeed, Tolkien often considered the various Scandinavian languages as better mediums for his Middle-earth stories than English, as the medieval Norse and Icelandic myths had strongly influenced them. His disgust, instead, came from the presumption found within the introduction to the Swedish edition. The crime: translator Åke Ohlmark had compared Tolkien’s ring to Wagner’s ring. “The Ring is in a certain way ‘der Niebelungen Ring,’” Ohlmark had written. Indignant, Tolkien complained to his publisher: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” The translator’s commentary was simply “rubbish,” according to Tolkien.[i]
Ohlmark was not the only critic to make the comparison. A Canadian English professor, William Blissett, reviewing The Lord of the Rings for the prestigious South Atlantic Quarterly, found several parallels between the two legends but was unwilling to preclude “any direct Wagnerian influence.”[ii] By the early 1960s, the comparison was becoming common. In his last interview before his death, Tolkien’s closest friend C.S. Lewis claimed to have wanted to write a new prose version of Wagner’s Ring Opera. Lewis feared, though, that “at the mention of the word Ring a lot of people might think it was something to do with Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’”[iii] Since the first comparisons in the 1950s, many critics have used Wagner’s Ring against Tolkien. One famous English poet referred to The Lord of the Rings as “A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh.”[iv]
[Scroll down a bit to go to page 2 of this lecture]
Serious fans and scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien need little introduction to John Garth. His Tolkien and the Great War (2003) is among the best books of this century on the creator of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. With urgency and clarity, Garth laid bare the biographical and historical roots of Tolkien’s legendarium, along with the unique gifts and vision of the man who gave it life.
In the acknowledgments for The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Garth promises that another major book on Tolkien’s creative process is in the works. Until then, what an delectable hors d’oeuvre we have to sate our appetites! Focusing on “the places that inspired Middle-Earth,” Worlds is gorgeously illustrated with snapshots, paintings and drawings from Tolkien’s life, along with many more maps, illustrations and stunning photographs (sampled below).
But it’s Garth’s commentary — always accessible, always deeply empathetic — that leaves us richer for the reading. He probes much farther than any mechanical equation, i.e. “Tolkien saw this [location/building/natural feature] and this place from the legendarium was obviously the result.” In fact, knocking down some of the wilder theories in play is part of his brief — the family names in the Shire don’t all come from two villages in Kentucky; the “two towers” aren’t a dystopian refraction of Birmingham’s dark satanic mills. Instead, Garth strives to see Tolkien’s art as the holistic fruit of his life — the circumstances, people, environment, culture and education that shaped him, working together organically with his mind and heart, loves and hates, interests, friendships, education, vocations and travels.
The result can seem unsystematic, yet it’s satisfyingly thorough, surveying how Tolkien drew on the creation he knew to realize his sub-created imaginary world over six decades. The chapter “The Land of Luthien: from Faerie to Britain” is perhaps Garth’s most delightful achievement here, tracing the evolving picture of Middle-Earth and its correspondences with this world from 1918’s The Book of Lost Tales through to The Lord of the Rings. But there’s a great deal more on display, as Garth muses on the impressions that seas, mountains, rivers and lakes, forests, centers of learning and towers of guard made on Tolkien — not just in his early life, but throughout his years as a scholar, soldier, husband, father, linguist, storyteller, colleague and friend. The penultimate chapter, “Places of War” focuses once again on the crucible of the Western Front; Garth is in his element here, digging ever deeper into how the Battle of the Somme and its aftermath refined Tolkien the man, ultimately unleashing Tolkien the legend-maker.
For all this, John Garth and the design team at Quarto Publishing deserve heartfelt thanks. Words and images work in concert throughout The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, convincingly showing how the bardic depths of Middle-Earth are firmly founded on Tolkien’s experience in — and meditations about — the wonder and beauty of the fields we know.
— Rick Krueger
The bard – singer, poet, truth teller. The one who expressed a community’s hopes, fears, and values in a form that everyone could immediately grasp and be inspired by. Every tribe needs someone who can remind them of their virtues and warn them of dangers. The prog tribe has a new bard, The Bardic Depths, comprised of Dave Bandana (music) and Brad Birzer (lyrics), with an all-star supporting cast of musicians.
Their eponymous debut album, The Bardic Depths, explores how vital true friendship is for people to survive in a fallen and dangerous world. It focuses on The Inklings, a group of 20th century British writers/philosophers/professors: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield. They were survivors of The Great War – that cataclysmic conflict that signaled the end of liberal western civilization.
Our journey begins with the song “The Trenches” and a spoken excerpt from the memoir of a veteran (C. S. Lewis, maybe?) of The Great War. As Birzer reads the soldier’s account of the appalling conditions in the trenches, Bandana lays down a bed of ominous synthesizers. At the point where the soldier remembers the first time he heard a bullet whistle past his head, we are treated to a beautiful guitar solo by Kevin McCormick as various voices call out, “This is war!”
The ancient Greek poet Homer is the primal bard of western civilization, and Birzer’s lyrics make the connection to him explicit, as Bandana sings, “So this is what Odysseus felt/So this is what Leonidas felt…” and ending with “So, this is what Ronald [Tolkien] felt/This is what Jack [Lewis] felt/This is what Owen [Barfield] felt”.
In the second track, “Biting Coals”, we gather in a cozy pub with Tolkien, Lewis, and Barfield to “meet, smoke, and drink”, and wonder “Where is fair Albion/What has happened to the West?” This track evokes the best moments of classic Floyd, with strummed acoustic guitars, Bandana’s warm and intimate vocals, and majestic washes of synths. This is a wonderful song that never rushes the moment, allowing the listener to contemplate along with The Inklings if there is a way forward for civilized men when everything that was once certain and established is no longer.
Next up are the three central “Depths” songs: “Depths of Time”, “Depths of Imagination”, and “Depths of Soul”. “Depths of Time” is the longest track on the album at 12:35, and it is a standout. The first four and a half minutes feature a languid sax (Peter Jones, Camel/Tiger Moth Tales) gracefully soloing over some Vangelis-sounding synths. Once again, nothing is rushed – the music is allowed to develop at its own pace which increases the listener’s anticipation. That anticipation is well satisfied with the middle section, “The Flicker”, featuring a compulsively catchy and disco-y melody and beat. An edit of this section is the album’s first single, and it’s a great choice, rivaling the radio-friendly Alan Parsons Project at their ‘70s-era best.
“Depths of Imagination” celebrates the Inklings’ literary gifts, and how they bounced ideas off of each other to improve their art. “In brotherhood, we share and shape/In brotherhood, we hone and create.” Musically, this is a straightforward rocker, with a propulsive guitar riff and wicked synthesizer solo that captures the excitement of artists creating and collaborating.
“Depths of Soul” is a simple, almost creedal recitation of the Inklings’ faith in beauty, truth, and the excellent, and their efforts to bring them to light through their art: “There is a glass through which we see darkly/There is the spotless mirror/There is the Light/There is the reflection/Here is the shadow/But there is no nothingness/All moves with grace/Or it moves not at all.” Peter Jones returns with another excellent performance on sax, trading licks with Gareth Cole’s guitar. The melody is leavened with a little Floyd influence, especially in the final bars. Very tasty, indeed!
Which brings us to the final two tracks, “The End” and “Legacies”. “The End” chronicles the splintering of the Inklings’ brotherhood, and their recognition that human frailty is inescapable. “To the world we sang/To the world we spoke/To the world we enchanted/Yet, there is always frailty.” Bandana’s music perfectly complements the sentiments of the lyrics – he creates a hushed, delicate atmosphere through piano, cello, and flute. Of course, all good things on this earth must end, and the Inklings’ friendship was no exception. As Bandanna sings of the Inklings’ dissolution, there is palpable sadness and regret.
If The Bardic Depths closed with “The End”, it would leave the listener without any catharsis. Fortunately, we have “Legacies”, a celebration of the incredible literary legacies of Lewis and Tolkien. It’s hard to imagine a world without Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy, let alone Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Even though their fiction was set in fantasy worlds, they used them to hold up a mirror to our own world and remind countless readers of eternal truths that must never be forgotten. In the dark ages of the 20th century, Lewis, Tolkien, and Barfield nurtured the flame of Christendom. The music is appropriately joyous, featuring lush vocal harmonies worthy of Big Big Train. Gareth Cole and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) both contribute stellar guitar work on this standout track.
The Bardic Depths is set for release on March 20, 2020, on Robin Armstrong’s new label, Gravity Dream. Dave Bandana is the primary musician/vocalist/composer, and it features an impressive lineup of artists from the world of prog rock including the aforementioned Kevin McCormick and Peter Jones, as well as Tim Gehrt on drums (Streets/Steve Walsh), Gareth Cole on guitar (Tom Slatter/Fractal Mirror), and the marvelous Paolo Limoli on various keyboards. Mr. Armstrong himself contributes keyboards, guitars and vocals. It’s a very impressive debut, full of atmospheric musical passages and inspiring lyrics. This is an album to savor slowly and with appreciation, like a sip of single-malt scotch. And just as with a fine scotch, it has all kinds of hints and complexities that reward repeated hearings. Fans of classic Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons Project, and Cosmograf should definitely snap this one up. Even though 2020 is just getting underway, The Bardic Depths is a contender for one of the best albums of the year.
You can purchase The Bardic Depths here.
From Robin Armstrong’s Gravity Dream Records:
‘The Bardic Depths’ is an all new progressive rock project formed from the writing team of multi-instrumentalist, Dave Bandana with lyrics and concept from Bradley Birzer, plus contributions from Peter Jones (Camel/ Tiger Moth Tales) – Saxophone/ Vocals, Tim Gehrt ( Streets/ Steve Walsh) – Drums, Gareth Cole (Tom Slatter/ Fractal Mirror) – Guitar and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) – Keyboards/ Guitar/ Bass, amongst a host of other amazing musicians from the progressive rock community around the world.
“The album is about friendship and its ability to get us through anything including war, with the concept centering on the literary friendship formed between J.R.R Tolkien and C. S Lewis between 1931 and 1949. “ says the Lanzarote based band leader Dave Bandana.
Friendship also provided the catalyst to enable such a wide cast of musicians to come together for the record, largely from the community provided by the Big Big Train Group on Facebook. The resulting album is an immersive combination of ethereal soundscape with Floydian undertones, and Talk Talk progressive pop sensibilities.
1. The Trenches
2. Biting Coals
3. Depths of TIme
i) The Instant
iii) The Moment
4. Depths of Imagination
5. Depths of Soul
6. The End
And of course, there’s an album teaser on YouTube:
— Rick Krueger
C.S. Lewis, Time, and the Human Person. Spirit of Cecilia Videocast 2.
The O Antiphon for the Magnificat at Vespers on December 21:
O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
One of the earliest sightings of the O Antiphons in English literature is in part 1 of Cynewulf’s Christ. This collation of Advent lyrics from before the 10th century incorporates four of the seven antiphons; Cynewulf paraphrases O Dayspring in lines 105-109 and 113-119. (A modern translation by Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter follows.)
Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended,
ond soðfæsta sunnan leoma,
torht ofer tunglas, þu tida gehwane
of sylfum þe symle inlihtes! …
swa þec nu for þearfum þin agen geweorc
bideð þurh byldo, þæt þu þa beorhtan us
sunnan onsende, ond þe sylf cyme
þæt ðu inleohte þa þe longe ær,
þrosme beþeahte ond in þeostrum her,
sæton sinneahtes; synnum bifealdne
deorc deaþes sceadu dreogan sceoldan.
“Hail shining ray! Hail brightest of angels
and illumination of the soothfast sun
sent over middle-earth to all mankind,
more brilliant than the stars—always
you light up every season of your own self! …
so now needfully your own creation
abides you faithfully, so that you send us
the bright sun, and that you come yourself
to illuminate those who for the longest time,
shrouded in shadow and in darkness here,
reside in the everlasting night—
enfolded in our sins, they have had to endure
the dark shadows of death.”
If admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien feel a familiar frisson here — well, they should! In Cynewulf’s expansion of “O Dayspring” — specifically, in the word “earendel” — we find one of the deepest linguistic roots of Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. From that word sprang the work of his heart that occupied him for nearly six decades — The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. Tolkien even riffs on Cynewulf (and thus indirectly on today’s antiphon) on pp. 248-249 of The Silmarillion:
Hail Eärendil, of mariners most renowned, the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope! Hail Eärendil, bearer of light before the Sun and Moon! Splendour of the Children of Earth, star in the darkness, jewel in the sunset, radiant in the morning!
Healey Willan (1880-1968), professor at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and organist at St. Mary Magdalene Church in the same city, composed a setting of The Great O Antiphons of Advent for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Concordia Publishing House in 1957. Here’s Willan’s setting of “O Dayspring,” as sung by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia:
O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
— Rick Krueger
(Image: O Oriens by Linda Witte Henke, Te Deum Designs.)
Hello Readers of Spirit of Cecilia, believe it or not, I’m going to be self-promotional (shock, horror!). The publisher of my biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, ISI Books, is currently offering each for 1/2 price. How great is that? Now, you can have your Shire and your Philadelphia!
Just imagine. Rather than a quote or a snippy comment, you actually get me at my thoughtful best (well, thoughtful most).