Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Sound of Silence

I had a lot of driving time this weekend, which meant I finally got to catch up on the ever-excellent Amon Sul podcast. In the most recent full episode, Father Andrew Stephen Damick brought in guest co-host and violinist Rebecca Rovny, who happens to be a personal friend of mine (and even gives us a little shout-out during the episode). They had a long and fruitful discussion around the role of music in Tolkien's subcreation. I regretted listening to it in the car, since there were several "aha!" moments--especially some amazing moments of intuition from Rebecca--where I wanted to write something down.

What follows is a brief meditation on another musical moment in the Legendarium, which I think says some very powerful things about song, magic, enchantment, and the hiddenness of God in Middle-earth.


Finrod's skills as a minstrel were touched on a couple of times in this episode, but here I would like to call particular attention to his battle of song with Sauron. This is one of the most powerful passages in the published Silmarillion, although the poetry itself is from the much older Lays of Beleriand (which are to the Silmarillion as the Silmarillion is to The Lord of the Rings):

On an evening of autumn Felagund and Beren set out from Nargothrond with their ten companions; and they journeyed beside Narog to his source in the Falls of Ivrin. Beneath the Shadowy Mountains they came upon a company of Orcs, and slew them all in their camp by night; and they took their gear and their weapons. By the arts of Felagund their own forms and faces were changed into the likeness of Orcs; and thus disguised they came far upon their northward road, and ventured into the western pass, between Ered Wethrin and the highlands of Taur-nu-Fuin. But Sauron in his tower was ware of them, and doubt took him; for they went in haste, and stayed not to report their deeds, as was commanded to all the servants of Morgoth that passed that way. Therefore he sent to waylay them, and bring them before him.
Thus befell the contest of Sauron and Felagund which is renowned. For Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, ad the power of the King was very great; but Sauron had the mastery, as is told in the Lay of Leithian:
He chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, of treachery,
Revealing, uncovering, betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying,
Sang in a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and shifting shape,
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighting of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls on Elvenland.
Then in the doom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn-
And Finrod fell before the throne.

Other authors have already drawn out the similarities between this and certain passages in the Kalevala,  but I've always felt not enough attention has been paid to the songs themselves as they're described (making this a sort of meta-song; we aren't given the words of Felagund or Sauron's songs, only a song about their songs), and what it tells us about the part magic and song play in Middle-earth.

The contest begins with abstract concepts set in opposition to each other, opposing themes if you will (here of course the Ainulindale should never be far from our minds). Sauron's themes betray his motives: he suspects the heroes (who are disguised as orcs, thanks to Felagund's earlier use of song-magic) to be other than what they appear. Therefore, he tries to pierce their guise first by "piercing, opening" -- that is, trying to simply pierce through or lift the veil over the truth -- and then by "treachery." The next line, "Revealing, uncovering, betraying" is an example of apposition, using different words for the same idea. The implication seems to be that if Sauron cannot pierce their disguise by brute magical force, he will attempt to induce one of the company to betray the rest (a tactic which has already worked for Sauron earlier in this story).

Felagund's own themes are called forth as a direct response to this two-pronged assault:
Then sudden Felagund there swaying,
Sang in a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and shifting shape,
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
These opening volleys somewhat invert the internal narrative many of us have of good and evil: we are most likely to associate what is evil with what is secret, hidden, tucked away from public view (hence the whole idea of the "conspiracy theory"). We tend to believe that if what is evil were to be exposed to the light of day (if, to take a recent example, if "locker-room talk" were aired in the public forum) that it would wither away to nothing, shown up once and for all for the fraud that it is. Eschatologically speaking (in the Silmarillion, and in Christianity), this is true. Sooner or later, as Tolkien confessed daily, venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.

But in the "long defeat" of history, in life under the sun, our experience of goodness--and of God--is very different. YHWH declares that "with a secret hand the Lord wages war upon Amalek to all generations." (Exodus 17:16, LXX). That secrecy, that hiddenness, is the very signature of the finger of God upon the whole story of history. The Christmas story itself is "wrought in the silence of God." The work of God is secret and hidden in the world, evident only to the eyes of faith. The "long defeat" is really what C.S. Lewis described as a Resistance Movement against the current management of this world, until the day that "the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God, and of his Christ." Tolkien intuitively grasped this role of secrecy and smallness, something which I believe is one of the main reasons his narratives remain so compelling.

The contest then moves from the abstract to the concrete. Here, we should notice that this is the same pattern already established in the Ainulindale: moving from abstract "themes" to their incarnation within reality and time (which is the whole work of history). The concrete themes which Felagund invokes are visions of Elvenesse: birds singing in Nargothrond (still a hidden and secret place at this point in the story); the sighting of the Sea beyond the Western World (does this mean the sea beyond Beleriand, or the sea beyond Aman?); lustrous pearls strewn on the beaches of Alqualonde.

Why does Felagund evoke these images to evade Sauron's chanting? Nargothrond is an obviously secret, obviously hidden place. The fact that there are birds singing there seems to indicate that there are some places and moments of beauty which still remain hidden from the Dark Lord's gaze, upon which Felagund calls for strength. The sight of the "Sea beyond,/beyond the Western world" is -- whether it speaks of the Great Sea or something beyond Valinor itself--a vision of transcendence denied forever to Sauron (though of course to Felagund as well). Finally, the pearl-strewn sands of the Bay of Eldamar and Alqualonde bring home the idea of longing for a haven (a haven is both a hidden place of refuge, like Nargothrond, as well as a place where ships can put in for shelter from the sea). Pearls themselves are a kind of beauty formed in a secret, enclosed place.

But of course, the invocation of Eldamar is fatal for Felagund. Sauron knows the history of the Noldor all too well, and the pearl-strewn strands of the havens of Alqualonde once foamed with the blood of the Teleri in the Kinslaying. That is the chink in Felagund's armor, exactly the moment of treachery and betrayal Sauron has been looking for. Incisively, surgically, he pries it open, dismantling Felagund's defenses and following the narrative to its inevitable historical conclusion: all secret and hidden places exposed to the Dark Lord's gaze. The wolf howls. The raven flees. Secrecy is replaced by bondage: muttering ice (which freezes in place, but which probably also is meant to evoke evil memories of the crossing of the Helcaraxe); captives in chains. Finrod falls before the throne. In defeat? In bondage? It seems so.

Here we cannot forget that the name of this story is the Lay of Lethian, with Lethian meaning "the release from bondage." The chains will snap. If only Finrod could have seen--could have sung--a little farther.

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