(urth) Honor

Andy Robertson andywrobertson at clara.co.uk
Thu Oct 27 00:55:07 PDT 2005

Roy C. Lackey writes: 

>>Hence the strong prohibitions and severe tests put in the way of any one
> who
>>would attempt to gain the honor and rewards of a Knight without earning
> As I said before, Able *didn't* earn them. He was appointed a knight by the
> action and whim of his fairy lover. 

Climbing down to Niflheim and fighting the dragons counts as "nothing???" 

Able is a knight not a saint 


> Speaking of those "behavioral standards", it might be useful to those new to
> this List if you re-posted a link to that Wolfe Tolkien essay you bought a
> few years ago. The piece might afford some insight into Wolfe's views of
> social structure in Days of Yore and in TWK, particularly the first two
> paragraphs.

Here 'tis   http://home.clara.net/andywrobertson/wolfemountains.html 

In fact here is the whole thing. 

The Best Introduction to the Mountains
by Gene Wolfe 


There is one very real sense in which the Dark Ages were the brightest of 
times, and it is this: that they were times of defined and definite duties 
and freedoms. The king might rule badly, but everyone agreed as to what good 
rule was. Not only every earl and baron but every carl and churl knew what 
an ideal king would say and do. The peasant might behave badly; but the 
peasant did not expect praise for it, even his own praise. These assertions 
can be quibbled over endlessly, of course; there are always exceptional 
persons and exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless they represent a broad 
truth about Christianized barbarian society as a whole, and arguments that 
focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when 
the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented. At a 
time when few others knew this, and very few others understood its 
implications, J. R. R. Tolkien both knew and understood, and was able to 
express that understanding in art, and in time in great art. 

That, I believe, was what drew me to him so strongly when I first 
encountered The Lord of the Rings. As a child I had been taught a code of 
conduct: I was to be courteous and considerate, and most courteous and most 
considerate of those less strong than I -- of girls and women, and of old 
people especially. Less educated men might hold inferior positions, but that 
did not mean that they themselves were inferior; they might be (and often 
would be) wiser, braver, and more honest than I was. They were entitled to 
respect, and were to be thanked when they befriended me, even in minor 
matters. Legitimate authority was to be obeyed without shirking and without 
question. Mere strength (the corrupt coercion Washington calls power and 
Chicago clout) was to be defied. It might be better to be a slave than to 
die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own 
slavery. Above all, I was to be honest with everyone. Debts were to be paid, 
and my word was to be as good as I could make it. 

With that preparation I entered the Mills of Mordor, where courtesy is 
weakness, honesty is foolishness, and cruelty is entertainment. 

I was living in a club for men, a place much like a YMCA. I was thoroughly 
wretched in half a dozen ways (much more so than I had ever been in college 
or the Army), but for the first time in my life I had enough money to 
subscribe to magazines and even buy books in hardcover. Planet Stories, 
Thrilling Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, and Famous Fantastic Mysteries -- 
pulps I had read as a boy while hiding behind the candy counter in the 
Richmond Pharmacy -- were gone; but Astounding Stories lingered as a 
digest-size magazine a bit less costly than most paperback books. There was 
also The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, put out by the same company 
that had published Curtains for the Copper and other Mercury Mysteries that 
my mother and I had devoured. I subscribed to both, and to any other 
magazines dealing with science fiction or fantasy that could locate. 

Here I must do someone (quite likely the late Anthony Boucher) a grave 
injustice. I no longer recall who wrote the review I read in Fantasy & 
Science Fiction. It was a glowing review, and I would quote at length from 
it if I could. It convinced me then and there that I must read The Lord of 
the Rings. In those days (the middle 1950s, if you can conceive of a period 
so remote) the magazine offered books for sale -- one might write enclosing 
a cheque, and receive the book one had ordered by mail. Accustomed as you 
are to ordering from Amazon.com, you will deride so primitive a system; but 
you have never been a friendless young man in a strange city far from home. 
Now that you have enjoyed yourself, please keep in mind that the big-box 
stores we are accustomed to did not exist. There was no cavernous Barnes & 
Noble stocking a thousand titles under Science Fiction and Fantasy, no 
two-tiered Borders rejoicing in a friendly coffee shop and a dozen helpful 
clerks. There were (if the city was large and one was lucky) one or two 
old-line book shops downtown; they carried bestsellers, classics like Anna 
Karenina, cookbooks, and books of local interest, with a smattering of other 
things, mostly humour and books about dogs. The city in which I was living 
also boasted a glorious used-book store, five floors and a cellar, in which 
one might find the most amazing things; but these things did not include 
science fiction or much fantasy -- the few who were fortunate enough to own 
those books kept them. There may have been speciality shops already in New 
York; there very probably were. But if there were, they could not have 
specialized in fantasy or science fiction. Or in horror, for that matter. It 
was a surprise, a distinct departure from the usual publishing practices, 
whenever any such book appeared. 

An example may make the reason clear. In 1939, August Derleth and Donald 
Wandrei had published twelve hundred copies of H. P. Lovecraft's The 
Outsider and Others, at their own expense. Fanzines had publicized their 
effort widely and with enthusiasm; but selling those twelve hundred books, 
which cost three dollars and fifty cents before publication and five dollars 
after, took four years. 

The copy of The Fellowship of the Ring that I received from Fantasy & 
Science Fiction lies on my desk as I write. It is, I suppose, the first 
American edition; it was issued in 1956 (the year in which I bought it) by 
the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston. It is gold-stamped, and is bound in 
cloth the colour of slightly faded denim. Its elegant dust jacket vanished 
long ago, though I still recall it. Its back board holds a much-folded map 
of Middle-earth, sixteen inches on a side, showing among other places the 
Shire, the Lost Realm of Arnor, Mirkwood, the Brown Lands, Rohan, and 
Gondor. On its half-title there is now a quotation from Thoreau that I 
inscribed in blue ink many years ago. I give it because its presence on that 
slightly yellowed page should convey to you more of what this book meant to 
me in those days than anything that I might write in my little essay 
possibly could. 

   Our fabled shores none ever reach,
   No mariner has found our beach,
   Scarcely our mirage is seen,
   And Neighbouring waves of floating green,
   Yet still the oldest charts contain
   Some dotted outline of our main. 

You are not likely to believe me when I say that I still remember vividly, 
almost 50 years later, how strictly I disciplined myself with that book, 
forcing myself to read no more than a single chapter each evening. The 
catch, my out, the stratagem by which I escaped the bonds of my own law, was 
that I could read that chapter as many times as I wished; and that I could 
also return to the chapter I had read the night before, if I chose. There 
were evenings on which I reread the entire book up the point -- The Council 
of Elrond, let us say -- at which I had forced myself to stop. 

Naturally I had sent for The Two Towers as soon as I could. Eventually it 
came, bound and typeset as beautifully as The Fellowship of the Ring, with 
the same map (I confess that I had hoped for something new) in its back. 
Just as I inscribed that quotation from Thoreau in Fellowship, I put one 
from Conrad Aiken on the half-title page of Two Towers: 

   There was an island in the sea
   That out of immortal chaos reared
   Towers of topaz, trees of pearl
   For maidens adored and warriors feared. 

   Long ago it sunk in the sea;
   And now, a thousand fathoms deep,
   Sea worms above it whirl their lamps,
   Crabs on the pale mosaic creep. 

By the time I received Two Towers, I had learned my lesson -- I ordered The 
Return of the King at once. That, too, is on my desk. With one other thing, 
its back holds a delightfully detailed map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor. The 
quotation I inscribed on its half-title is from Robert E. Howard. You have 
my leave to quarrel with me, but I think it the finest of the three, indeed 
one of the finest things have ever read. 

   Into the west, unknown of man,
   Ships have sailed since the world began.
   Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
   With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
   And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack--
   Follow the ships that come not back. 

If you remember the end of this last volume, how Frodo rides to the Grey 
Havens in the long Firth of Lune and boards the white ship, never to be seen 
again in Middle-earth, you will understand why I chose that particular 
quotation and why I treasure it (and the book which holds it) even today. 
But there is one thing more. 

You see, ten years later I wrote J. R. R. Tolkien a fan letter. He answered 
it, and I tipped his answer into the back with the map. The body of his 
letter is typewritten (I would judge on an electric typewriter) but the 
footnote is in script. I would like to express my appreciation to Douglas A. 
Anderson, who is familiar with Tolkien's hand and has very kindly corrected 
my missreadings of it. 


   7th November 1966 

   Dear Mr Wolfe, 

   Thank you very much for your letter. The etymology of words and names in 
my story has two sides: (1) their etymology within the story; and (2) the 
sources from which I, as an author, derive them. I expect you mean the 
latter. Orc I derived from Anglo-Saxon, a word meaning demon, usually 
supposed to be derived from the Latin Orcus -- Hell. But I doubt this, 
though the matter is too involved to set out here. Warg is simple. It is an 
old word for wolf, which also had the sense of an outlaw or hunted criminal. 
This is its usual sense in surviving texts.* I adopted the word, which had a 
good sound for the meaning, as a name for this particular brand of demonic 
wolf in the story. 

   Yours sincerely, 

   J. R. R. Tolkien 

   *O.E. wearg
   O. High German warg--
   O. Norse varg-r (also = "wolf", espec. of legendary kind) 


Surely I need not tell you that I read and reread these books. I married in 
November of that wonder-filled 1956; and Rosemary and I read them to each 
other, most often while driving. A note in The Return of the King indicates 
that my older son Roy and I read them together, reading the final page on 
April 20, 1967. (Roy was born in 1958.) Eventually I feared that I would 
read my Houghton Mifflin hardcovers to pieces and bought paperbacks, putting 
the hardcovers away in the old, glass-fronted bookcase where they will stand 
again when I have completed this tribute to their author. 

Yet in a sense, it is complete now. I have shown you, I hope, what these 
books have meant to me. If you find echoes of them in my own books and 
stories (and particularly in The Wizard Knight, with which I have struggled 
for the past year) you will not have discomfited me -- I am proud of them. 
Terry Brooks has often been disparaged for imitating Tolkien, particularly 
by those reviewers who find his books inferior to Tolkien's own. I can say 
only that I wish there were more imitators -- we need them -- and that all 
imitations of so great an original must necessarily be inferior. 

What, then, did Tolkien do? And how did he come to do it? The second 
question can be more easily answered than the first. He was a philologist 
(Greek philo-logos, a lover of words), and he had somehow escaped the modern 
cast of mind that makes us glory in ignorance and regard our forebears, who 
somehow muddled along without washing machines and air conditioning, with 
contempt. I have quoted a great deal already. I hope that you will permit me 
this one, too: 

   ... The stupid, strong 

   Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last, 

   And every man of decent blood is on the losing side. 

   Take as your model... 

   ...Him who as the death spear entered into his vitals 

   Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim. 

   Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs; 

   You that have Vichy-water in your veins and worship the event, 

   Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune). 

The author is Tolkien's close friend, C. S. "Jack" Lewis. 

It is said with some truth that there is no progress without loss; and it is 
always said, by those who wish to destroy good things, that progress 
requires it. No great insight or experience of the world is necessary to see 
that such people really care nothing for progress. They wish to destroy for 
their profit, and they, being clever, try to persuade us that progress and 
change are synonymous. 

They are not; and it is not just my own belief but a well-established 
scientific fact that most change is for the worse: any change increases 
entropy (unavailable energy). Therefore, any change that produces no net 
positive good is invariably harmful. Progress, then, does not consist of 
destroying good things in the mere hope that the things that will replace 
them will be better (they will not be) but in retaining good things while 
adding more. Here is a practical illustration. This paper is good and the 
forest is good as well. If the manufacture of this paper results in the 
destruction of the forest, the result will be a net loss. That is mere 
change; we have changed the forest into paper, a change that may benefit 
some clever men who own a paper mill but hurts the mass of Earth's people. 
If, on the other hand, we manufacture the paper without destroying the 
forest (harvesting mature trees and planting new ones) we all benefit. We 
engineers will tell you that there has been an increase in entropy just the 
same; but it is an increase that would take place anyway, and so does us no 
added harm. It is also a much smaller increase than would result from the 
destruction of the forest. 

I have approached this scientifically because Tolkien's own approach was 
historical, and it is a mark of truth that the same truth can be approached 
by many roads. Philology led him to the study of the largely illiterate 
societies of Northern Europe between the fall of Rome and the beginning of 
the true Middle Ages (roughly AD 400 to 1000). There he found a quality -- 
let us call it Folk Law -- that has almost disappeared from his world and 
ours. It is the neighbour-love and settled customary goodness of the Shire. 
Frodo is "rich" in comparison to Sam, though no dragon would call Frodo 
rich; Sam is poor in comparison to Frodo, though Sam is far richer than 
Gollum, who has been devoured by the tyranny and corruption of the One Ring. 
Frodo does not despise Sam for his poverty, he employs him; and Sam does not 
detest Frodo for his wealth, but is grateful for the job. Most central of 
all, the difference in their positions does not prevent their friendship. 
And in the end, poor Sam rises in the estimation of the Shire because of his 
association with Frodo, and rich Frodo sacrifices himself for the good of 
all the Sams. 

A different illustration is found among the elves of Lorien, in their love 
of beauty and their love of nature. They are Sylvan Elves (East Elves) but 
the rulers they choose to obey are Eldar (West Elves). They choose to be 
ruled by people better than themselves, in other words, exactly as we choose 
to be ruled by people worse. Most clearly of all it is shown in their will 
to preserve the wisdom of the First Age. 

Earlier I asked what Tolkien did and how he came to do it; we have reached 
the point at which the first question can be answered. He uncovered a 
forgotten wisdom among the barbarian tribes who had proved (against all 
expectation) strong enough to overpower the glorious civilizations of Greece 
and Rome; and he had not only uncovered but understood it. He understood 
that their strength -- the irresistible strength that had smashed the 
legions -- had been the product of that wisdom, which has now been ebbing 
away bit by bit for a thousand years. 

Having learned that, he created in Middle-earth a means of displaying it in 
the clearest and most favourable possible light. Its reintroduction would be 
small -- just three books among the overwhelming flood of books published 
every year -- but as large as he could make it; and he was very conscious 
(no man has been more conscious of it than he) that an entire forest might 
spring from a handful of seed. What he did, then, was to plant in my 
consciousness and yours the truth that society need not be as we see it 
around us. 

Sam Rayburn, a politician of vast experience, once said that all legislation 
is special-interest legislation. Of our nation, and of the 20th century, 
that is unquestionably true; but it need not be. We have -- but do not need 
 -- a pestilent swarm of exceedingly clever persons who call themselves 
public servants when everything about them and us proclaims that they are in 
fact our masters. They make laws (and regulations and judicial decisions 
that have the force of laws) faster and more assiduously than any factory in 
the world makes chains; and they lay them on us. 

It need not be so. We might have a society in which the laws were few and 
just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone -- a society in which 
everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder because everyone lived by the same 
changeless rules, and everyone knew what those rules were. When we had it, 
we would also have a society in which the lack of wealth was not reason for 
resentment but a spur to ambition, and in which wealth was not a cause for 
self-indulgence but a call to service. We had it once, and some time in this 
third millennium we shall have it again; and if we forget to thank John 
Ronald Reuel Tolkien for it when we get it, we will already have begun the 
slow and not always unpleasant return to Mordor. Freedom, love of neighbour, 
and personal responsibility are steep slopes; he could not climb them for us 
 -- we must do that ourselves. But he has shown us the road and the reward. 

Copyright © Gene Wolfe, 2001 

note added by Andy Robertson 

This essay was offered by Mr Wolfe to the anthology "Meditations on 
Middle-Earth", edited by Karen Haber, but was rejected. We published it in 
INTERZONE magazine in December 2001. 

I thought it would bear furthur distribution, and contacted Mr Wolfe, who 
allowed me to purchase the right to post it on this site. 

If you should wish to contact Mr Wolfe, please use his agent: 

More information about the Urth mailing list