Interesting Times

I recently read an entertaining book. It was entitled “History Play”, written by Rodney Bolt. It had an interesting argument. Christopher Marlowe did not die in the tavern brawl in Deptford. In fact he staged his own death so that he could “disappear” and in the following years travelled extensively around the Continent and to the New World. And how do  we know this? There are two sources of evidence. The plays attributed to an ambitious but talentless playwright by the name of William Shakespeare which were in fact written by Marlowe, and from a number of “recently discovered” documentary sources that give us possible links to Marlowe’s activities both before and after the “Deptford Incident”. I should say at the outset that the book should not be taken seriously, at least for the argument it advances. But there are other issues that arise that underlie Bolt’s very entertaining and, at times, erudite piece.

The plays, according to Bolt, contain all sorts of minor clues that nestle in the detail of speeches or actions that could only have come from an intimate acquaintance with the subject matter possessed by Marlowe but not by Shakespeare. For example, Marlowe visited his grandparents in Dover and would have been familiar with the view from the cliffs described in King Lear IV vi 11 – 23. In addition there are phrasing similarities that appear in Marlowe’s plays that are duplicated in “Shakespeare”. Marlowe, according to Bolt, travelled widely on the Continent during and after his time as a student at Cambridge. The observations of those he met appear in his plays . The detail of military fortifications described in 2 Tamburlaine are almost verbatim from a military manual written by one Paul Ives, but which was not printed until 1589, thus precluding the possibility of plagiarism. The detail of Danish drinking habits could have been acquired by Marlowe on a visit to Elsinore and are recorded in Hamlet V ii 267-70.

But perhaps most interesting of the sources which provide the evidence are the written and printed materials that have been located in archives or recently discovered collections that connect Marlowe with others after his “death” or which provide background or context for what he wrote either as Marlowe or Shakespeare. It is not for me to question these “sources” although I should note that they do not appear in the bibliography and some of the manuscript sources come only from “private collections” and therefore are incapable of independent verification. What is important is that printed, written or transcribed sources provide valuable and,at times, critical evidence for the historian.

And this leads me to the point of this post. How will the historians of tomorrow fare when most, if not all, of the “documentary” evidence is in digital form, dispersed across cloud servers or retained in locally located hard drives. Will there be a digital equivalent of the Harley, Cotton or Sloane collections of manuscripts held by the British Library that have provided a vital resource for historians. In passing I should note that the British Library is digitising some of its manuscript collection and in my own researches into the early history of legal printing I was aided by Chadwyck-Healey’s invaluable Early English Books Online.

But will there be a modern equivalent of Robert and Edward Harley or Robert Cotton or Hans Sloane, gathering together the digital documents and manuscripts and retaining them for posterity? Are there individuals, even now, salvaging the discarded hard drives and other storage devices against the day when they will provide invaluable evidence for historians? And if so, how and where will these be located. Will the historian, with access to a private library of hard drives serendipitously uncover the trove on information that he or she need to complete the picture?

Of course, the future historian, once the digital archive has been located, should have little difficulty locating the information needed. The use of what lawyers recognise as e-discovery tools will assist in processing and locating the relevant information. The only problem of course is that the future historian will have to have some skill in the use of such tools – unless he or she wishes to pay a highly skilled “e-discovery” analyst.

It may well be that such digital treasure troves will be seen as highly authentic sources. What of the “archived web” do I hear you say? This assumes that the capacity of web archives in the various libraries and on-line archives contain a comprehensive dataset. And the next question is whether that dataset is sufficiently complete. The rise of the so-called “right to be forgotten” will compromise web archives significantly and may well relegate them the the status of secondary authority for digital historians.

“May you live in interesting times” is, I understand, a form of curse. The question is whether, with an absence of stable source material, historians of the future will be able to ascertain if the twenty-first century was an interesting time at all.

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The Hobbit – Thorin’s Tragedy

The long awaited final instalment of “The Hobbit” trilogy has hit the screens along with the expected fanfare, marketing tie-ins and the like. So what is the movie like. In two words, very good. But in fact there are realms that are explored in the movie that, although alluded to in the book, are further developed by Jackson and his creative team.

The first point that should be made is that the hobbit of the title – Bilbo Baggins – is something of a bit player on a much wider and more dramatic canvas. In fact if we were to look at the main story line it is about the tragedy of Thorin Oakenshield and tragedy it is – of almost Euripidean proportions.

Tragedy is an examination of the doom of man and his shortcomings. The form was first developed by the Greeks and even today, from a distance of two and a half thousand years, the Greek realisation of the formula is still seen as the epitome of tragedy, a formula from which there has been little departure over the ages. But the tragic-form has not been the exclusive property of the ancient Greeks. The tragic awareness occurs in the literature of many peoples and is demonstrated in many of the heroic sagas, such as the Edda, the Icelandic sagas, the Kalevala, even to the soul-searching tragic realisation of Sir Gawain in his second encounter with the Green Knight. The tragic awareness in the heroic sagas is demonstrated by a conquering glorious hero, possessed of skill in
arms and special weaponry, engaging in great and important acts. Yet “he appears against the sombre background of inevitable death, a death which will tear him away from his joys and plunge him into nothingness; or, a fate no better, into a mouldering world of shadows”. (Albin Lesky, Greek Tragedy 1978) The tragic man (or tragic hero) carries within himself the seeds of his own downfall.
His humanity, at times a blessing and a virtue, can be a curse. His good acts are magnified, demonstrating him as the epitome of the potential goodness in man. His failings are enlarged, heightening the contrast and making his fall that much more poignant. And fall he must, for fall is the essence of tragedy. And the tragedy is that one so demonstrably noble and so potentially great must fall, not as a result of external influences, but as a result of the failings or shortcomings of the man within. It is, however, impossible to devise a short formula or definition for tragedy. This has been recognised by all who attempt so formidable a task. The best that one can do is point out the essential ingredients of tragedy.

As a result of certain actions by one of the protagonists of the tragedy, who may even be the tragic hero, the balance of the various conflicting forces of nature has been upset. The forces of nature represent order and harmony. The upsetting of the natural order results in chaos. The resolution of the conflict must be the restoration of order. Consequently in tragic drama, the murder of a King, or an incestuous relationship, or usurpation, or an abandonment of filial duty are all seen as actions contrary to an established order of things. The tragic hero may be responsible for upsetting the order or he may be the character through whom order must be re-established, but who, at the same time, may have to be sacrificed that the balance may be restored.

Tragedy is often presented to us in the tales of the heroes. The protagonists are frequently kings, statesmen, princes or warriors of great renown which makes more poignant the depth of their fall. Macbeth, formerly a doughty warrior and faithful subject, recognises the depth of his own fall with the words:

I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er

But the tragedy must mean something to us, the audience or readers. The fall of the tragic hero must affect us, come close to us, have meaning for us, become something that we recognise and which must have relevance. The tragedy must be something to which we can react and which affects us emotionally. This is what is known as catharsis. To make the tragedy even more meaningful, the tragic hero must be fully aware of his situation. He must suffer, know that he is suffering and know why he is suffering. He cannot complain by asking, ‘Why must all these things happen to me?’ He is master of himself and of his fortunes and misfortunes. He may berate himself for committing a certain act which led to a certain consequence, but he cannot question why the consequence has befallen him. Of course, in tragedy there can be only one end for the character who has captured our imagination by his nobility and has heightened our dismay by his fall, and that is death. By his death, the tragic hero returns the balance to nature, whether he was responsible for the upset or not. His death is the final action in a number of actions that he must undertake to dispel disorder.

A further element of tragedy is that it deals with an essential ingredient of the human condition in that it inevitably raises questions of a moral nature. It need not be a purely moral failure which causes the tragic fall. The tragic hero must fall into moral error which contributes to his fall. As a consequence of this the tragic hero, like Oedipus, must carry with him a moral guilt. The tragic hero suffers both the external consequences of his fall and an awareness of his downfall and of the events which led to it.

Thorin’s objective is to restore the balance that was upset when his grandfather Thror fell under the spell of the Arkenstone and when Smaug expelled the Dwarves from the Lonely Mountain. As is the case in so many “hero quests” Thorin undergoes a period of wandering until the “chance meeting” (see “Unfinished Tales”) sets him on the Quest of Erebor. “Unfinished Tales” informs us of Gandalf’s hidden agenda – eliminate the dragon as a potential ally of the Evil One – but Thorin takes the opportunity to re-establish the Dwarvish kingdom under the Mountain.

In the book and in the movie Thorin is portrayed as a mercurial character, stubborn and one who does not tolerate being crossed. Once he has made his mind up, he will rarely shift, and these shortcomings become manifest once the Dwarves resume occupation of the Lonely Mountain. Thorin’s obsession with regaining his kingdom becomes an obsession to recover the Arkenstone and to gather together and protect the great horde of treasure that lies within the halls of the Mountain. Thorin’s obsession becomes destructive. The assumption of the crown of the Dwarves becomes symbolic of his fall, for he becomes an autocrat. His intolerance of any opinion other than his own, his gathering obsessions and his single-minded stubborness to acquire the Akenstone at any cost leaves Bilbo in a quandry, for, as we know, Bilbo has the great jewel. Bilbo sees Thorin’s fall and is unwilling to give him the Arkenstone. Perhaps he sees that possession of the gem will only magnify the nature of the decline. And so it is for, once he is aware of Bilbo’s treachery – so it is in Thorin’s eyes – he ignores the fact that it was through Bilbo’s efforts that they got into the Mountain – and he declares him anathema. He will tolerate no difference even from his loyal Dwarvish followers. Their consternation becomes clear. And so it is, as the armies gather and the negotiations and parleys fail, that Thorin isolates himself behind walls of stone.

Yet it is this final isolation that Thorin obtains insight. In a wonderful scene in the Dwarvish hall where Smaug was drowned in gold, Thorin realises what he has become. The scene is beautifully realised and could well become a classic of the tragic hero’s understanding of the nature of fall.

Thorin has a chance to redeem himself and does so. The crown which he assumed and which symbolised his fall is cast aside. He is a Dwarvish prince, now coming to the aid of his fellows, leading his followers in a last desperate sally forth to confront the age-old enemy. It is in the chapter “The Clouds Burst” that “The Hobbit” becomes a saga in the grand style. Tolkien’s language and style becomes that of the saga signers and chroniclers of old.

Part of the wall, moved by levers, fell outward with a crash into the pool. Out leapt the King under the Mountain, and his companions followed him. Hood and cloak were gone; they were in shining armour, and red light leapt from their eyes. In the gloom, the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire…..”To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk” he cried and his voice shook like a horn in the valley”

Stirring stuff and wonderfully realised as Thorin returns to expunge the stain of his fall. But die he must and he does at the hands of the Orc Azog in a to and fro duel on a frozen mountain river. But, as is the case in the book, Thorin does one last act before he passes. He reconciles with Bilbo. The circle is complete. The tragic hero has rebalanced the ledger.

And that was it. And that was disappointing because Jackson could have done one last thing to redeem the tragic hero, Thorin. It is in the book and it may be in an extended DVD version when that is finally released. The scene is this:

“They buried Thorin deep beneath the Mountain, and Bard laid the Arkenstone upon his breast.

“There let it lie till the Mountain falls!” he said. “May it bring good fortune to all his folk that dwell here after!”

Upon his tomb the Elvenking then laid Orcrist, the elvish sword that had been taken from Thorin in captivity. It is said in songs that it gleamed ever in the dark if foes approached, and the fortress of the dwarves could not be taken by surprise.”

Another aspect of the movie which Jackson deals with, which is not a part of the book and references to which are made in “The Silmarillion”, “Unfinished Tales” and other collected works is the conflict between the White Council and the Necromancer at Dol Guldur. Although there are only hints in the various texts, Jackson develops the conflict and in doing so develops the character of Galadriel as one of the few beings able to confront the pure evil that is Sauron. The members of the White Council – Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman arrive at Dol Guldur to liberate Gandalf and confront the Nine Ringwraiths – the mortal men doomed to die of the Ring verse. It is not clear – at least from a first viewing – whether the confrontation escalates through the Ringwraiths, who are dispersed, to Lord of the Nine or to Sauron himself. I believe that it was the Dark Lord himself – not at the full measure of his power – who was challenged by Galadriel. In this challenge Jackson draws upon Tolkien’s writings to present a true High Elven Queen. In the Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings), Gandalf refers to the High Elves – “the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against the Seen and Unseen they have great power.”

Frodo then says that he saw a white figure that shone and did not grow dim like the others, asking whether or not that was Glorfindel. Galdalf replies:

“Yes you saw him for a moment as he is on the other side: One of the mighty of the First-born. He is an Elf-lord of a house of princes.”

And thus is Galadriel portrayed, in her full power as a Noldorian princess. Yet there is another element, for it must be remembered that Galadriel is the holder of one of the three Rings for the Elevn Kings under the sky, Nenya, the Ring of Adamant. In the conflict with Sauron, it is Galadriel who confronts the Dark Lord and Jackson visualises this in that eathereal half-world into  which Frodo and Bilbo venture when they don the Ring. Which leads one to wonder whether or not Jackson envisaged Galadriel as using the power of one of the Elven Rings in the battle at Dol Guldur. We know, from what she says in Lord of the Rings, that she contests with Sauron – “I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But the door is closed.”

As a whole, the film works. There has been criticism of the 40 plus minute battle scene but that is an ill-informed and inaccurate criticism, for the conflict varies between armies and individuals – between Thranduil and the orcs in Erebor, Thorin and Azog on the frozen river, Legolas and Bolg in the mountains in the midst of mouldering masonry, and then the vast sweep of the main battle before the gates of the Mountian. There were times when I thought I was seeing a re-run of the Siege of Gondor and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the sally forth of Thorin from the Mountain was rather similar to the ride of the tragic hero Theoden – but without the rousing:

Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden

Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter

spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered

a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride now; ride now! Ride to Gondor!

And at the end, the circle, like a Ring, is closed, for the film closes with the opening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

It is well done.