The War of the Ring

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Of The Lord of the Rings, W.H. Auden wrote, “I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it.”

Among the naysayers, Edmund Wilson wrote, “One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child.”

Tolkien seemed philosophical about the difference. He wrote in the foreword to the second edition:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.

He wrote elsewhere:

The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like it you do:
if you don’t, then you boo!

“The Cage Without Birds”

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Felix does not understand how people can keep birds in cages.

‘It’s a crime,’ he says, ‘like picking flowers. Personally, I’d rather sniff them on their stems — and birds are meant to fly, the same way.’

Nonethless he buys a cage, hangs it in his window. He puts a cotton-wool nest inside, a saucer of seeds, and a cup of clean, renewable water. He also hangs a swing in the cage, and a little mirror.

And when he is questioned with some surprise:

‘I pride myself on my generosity,’ he says, ‘each time I look at that cage. I could put a bird in there, but I leave it empty. If I wanted to, some brown thrush, some fat bullfinch hopping around outside, or some other bird of all the kinds we have here would be a captive. But thanks to me, at least one of them remains free. There’s always that …’

— Jules Renard, Les Histoires Naturelles, 1896

Application

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Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame under enormous financial pressure, leaving his table only to eat or sleep.

Finally, his daughter Adèle wrote, “On 14 January, [Notre-Dame] was finished. The bottle of ink that M. Victor Hugo had bought the first day was finished also; he had arrived in the same moment at the last line and at the last drop.

“This gave him, in that moment, the idea of changing his title and calling his novel: What There Is in a Bottle of Ink.”

Character Study

Balzac’s 1829 treatise La physiologie du mariage contains a strange passage:

https://books.google.com/books?id=z7k-AAAAYAAJ

“Four editions of the book, three of them printed in Balzac’s lifetime, in fact contain four different versions,” notes F.L. Bauer in Decrypted Secrets. “The author must have been playing a practical joke on the reader. Nevertheless, [French military cryptanalyst Étienne] Bazeries investigated such a cryptogram in 1901 and found that it did not fit any known scheme; it was une facétie de l’auteur.”

Distant Early Warning

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Alexandre Dumas’ cat knew when he was coming home:

At the time I speak of, I held a situation in the service of the Duc d’Orléans, with a salary of 1500 francs. My work occupied me from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. We had a cat in those days, whose name was Mysouff. This cat had missed his vocation; he ought to have been a dog. Every morning I started for my office at half-past nine, and came back every evening at half-past five. Every morning Mysouff followed me to the corner of a particular street, and every evening I found him in the same street, at the same corner, waiting for me. Now the curious thing was that on the days when I had found some amusement elsewhere, and was not coming home to dinner, it was of no use to open the door for Mysouff to go and meet me. Mysouff, in the attitude of the serpent with its tail in its mouth, refused to stir from his cushion. On the other hand, on the days I did come, Mysouff would scratch at the door until some one opened it for him.

“My mother was very fond of Mysouff,” he wrote. “She used to call him her barometer.”

Overdone Bacon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orville_Ward_Owen

Exponents of the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare have gone to sometimes elaborate lengths to find messages hidden in the plays. American physician Orville Ward Owen even invented a “cipher wheel” that could pass the texts under his eyes at various speeds as he looked for hidden meanings.

He didn’t find many supporters. Even Owen’s friend Frederick Mann wrote, “We are asked to believe that such peerless creations as Hamlet, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet were not prime productions of the transcendent genius who wrote them, but were subsidiary devices which Bacon designed for the purpose of concealing the cipher therein.”

In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-speare, Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence argues that the long word honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labour’s Lost is really an anagram:

HI LUDI F. BACONIS NATI TUITI ORBIS
These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world.

“It surpasses the wit of man,” he wrote, to produce another sensible anagram from the long word, and he offered a hundred guineas to anyone who could do it. A Mr. Beevor of St. Albans rather promptly sent him this:

ABI INIVIT F. BACON HISTRIO LUDIT
Be off, F. Bacon, the actor has entered and is playing.

Durning-Lawrence was taken aback, but he was a good sport: He paid Beevor his money.

(From John Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare?, 1996.)

Dead Issues

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In his early handwritten notes for Dracula, Bram Stoker considered giving the vampire these attributes:

  • can banish good thoughts, create evil thoughts and destroy will
  • is affected only by relics that are older than he is
  • cannot be painted, any portrait looks like someone else
  • cannot be photographed, photographs come out black or like a skeleton corpse
  • insensitive to music
  • cannot cross thresholds without assistance, stumbles on threshold
  • can determine and prove if people are sane
  • leeches are attracted to him, then repulsed
  • can pick out murderers
  • despises death and the dead
  • can tell if bodies are dead or alive

Jonathan Harker’s stay at Castle Dracula was originally to include “an encounter with a ‘wehr wolf’,” and at the London zoological gardens “Dracula enrages eagles and lions but intimidates wolves and hyenas.”

The notes also shed some light on a puzzle I’d mentioned earlier: Why does Dracula choose England in the first place? Stoker’s notes include the phrase “English law directory sortes Virgilianae central place marked with point of knife.” Sortes Virgilianae is Latin for Virgilian lots, a form of divination in which advice or predictions are sought by interpreting passages from Virgil. In Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, Robert Eighteen-Bisang writes, “Did Dracula choose his law firm by a stabbing a knife into a law directory, or decide on the location of his new home by thrusting a knife into a map? The vampire’s use of divination is in keeping with the supposition that he is a sorcerer.” None of this made it into the final novel, but it might still be the explanation that Stoker had in mind.

Elements

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In James Joyce’s Ulysses, the events of Bloomsday are so carefully worked out that even incidents of weather can be recognized across the various episodes. Episode 1, at the tower:

A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green.

In Episode 4, Bloom notices the same thing as he walks home from Dlugacz’s shop:

A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly. Grey. Far.

Four paragraphs later the cloud has passed:

Quick warm sunlight came running from Berkeley road, swiftly, in slim sandals, along the brightening footpath.

And back at the tower it passes as well:

Stephen, still trembling at his soul’s cry, heard warm running sunlight and in the air behind him friendly words.

“The breeze is therefore approximately from the west, that being the prevailing direction of winds in the British Isles,” observes Ian Gunn in James Joyce’s Dublin (2004).

“Sweet-Seasoned Showers”

craig knecht -- shakespeare water-retention square

Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. To commemorate it, Craig Knecht has devised a 44 × 44 magic square (click to enlarge). Like the squares we featured in 2013, this one is topographical — if the number in each cell is taken to represent its altitude, and if water runs “downhill,” then a fall of rain will produce the pools shown in blue, recalling the words of Griffith in Henry VIII:

Noble madam,
Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues
We write in water.

The square includes cells (in light blue) that reflect the number of Shakespeare’s plays (38) and sonnets (154) and the year of his death (1616).

(Thanks, Craig.)