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Fell Knowledge

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Canonicity Issues (Spoilers) — or, Where did that come from?


…Now there he laid
before their feet, as dark as shade,
two grisly shapes that he had won
from that tall isle in Sirion:
a wolfhame huge — its savage fell
was long and matted, dark the spell
that drenched the dreadful coat and skin
the werewolf cloak of Draugluin;
the other was a batlike garb
with mighty fingered wings, a barb
like iron nail at each joint's end—
such wings as their dark cloud extend
against the moon, when in the sky
from Deadly Nightshade screeching fly
Thû's messengers.

'What hast thou brought,
good Huan? What thy hidden thought?
Of trophy of prowess and strong deed,
when Thû thou vanquishedst, what need
here in the waste?' Thus Beren spoke,
and once more words in Huan woke:
his voice was like the deeptoned bells
that ring in Valmar's citadels:

'Of one fair gem thou must be thief,
Morgoth's or Thingol's, loath or lief;
thou must here choose twixt love and oath!
If vow to break is still thee loath,
then Lúthien must either die
alone, or death with thee defy
beside thee, marching on your fate
that hidden before you lies in wait.
Hopeless the quest, but not yet mad,
unless thou, Beren, run thus clad
in mortal raiment, mortal hue,
witless and redeless, death to woo. 
'Lo! good was Felagund's device,
but may be bettered, if advice
of Huan ye will dare to take,
and swift a hideous change will make
to forms most curséd, foul, and vile, 
of werewolf of the Wizard's Isle,
of monstrous bat's envermined fell
with ghostly clawlike wings of hell…'


There are three foundations for this story, which expands upon and illustrates
Canto XII of the first Lay of Leithian fragment. 

The first is the chill that went through me reading the scene where
Beren reaches the edge of battlefield and is looking out over what was
once Ard-galen, realizing what it must have meant to the last of the House
of Bëor, riding past the Fen of Serech, up to the site of the Leaguer
itself, and the place where so many of his relatives, near and distant,
died in the Winter Offensive of the Bragollach. The sheer weight of history,
recent and ancient alike, and the profound emotional impact of arriving
there at last, and seeing the burnt-out countryside, still devastated after
over a decade (and never to recover) and the awesome meaning it would have
borne for him is inescapable when considered with the story of the Edain
as a whole as well as his own personal history, who was raised in the house
who "of all Men were most like to the Noldor and most loved by them, for
they were eager of mind, cunning-handed, swift in understanding, long in
memory, and they were moved sooner to pity than to laughter." (Silmarillion.,
"Of the Coming of Men into the West.") 

The second is the fascination that tales of animal transformation have
always held for me, going back to my Andrew Lang collections as a child
and stories of changed heroines and heroes like the White Cat, Puddocky,
the Black Mare, Prince Lindworm, the Laithely Wyrm, and the Bear in "East
of the Sun, West of the Moon" — as well as those who are not, apparently,
changed from anything else but nevertheless possess powers and knowledge
as well as speech like the eponymous co-star of "Prince Ivan and the Grey
Wolf," or the horses Isengrim and the Young Archer's mount in "The Firebird." 

And the third is the unfolding of the first: the increasing awareness
of the cyclical and at the same time complex workings of mythic history
revealed through the Silmarillion and culminating in Lord of the
Rings, rhythms and patterns playing out over the Ages with variation and
unique event, but with an overarching similarity — and which, I think,
that the heir of Bëor would have been able to discern to a significant
degree upon reflection. 

The extra-canonical element which I have introduced for this story in
the series (since all previous assumptions go on in this story) is the
speculation that the two dead minions of Tol-in-Gaurhoth might have known
each other very well in the days before becoming mirroanwi, incarnate
beings, within the confines of Arda under Morgoth's ambivalent generosity. 

This came from exploring the question of how Thuringwethil might have
come to be caught on the ground, when the other bat-messengers took flight
from the falling tower, and was the most plausible I could come up with
for a deliberate reason. (There would have been no sense, given the situation
and the danger and the flight of the others, for her to be looking for
carrion to scavenge, for instance.) Hence I put her on the ground, within
Huan's reach, as a former beloved of the being who had been embodied as
the werewolf Draugluin, mourning and seeking vengeance for her long-lost
love, not concerned for her own personal danger, and in fact seeking out
death (as well as finding it.) 

And while she could have been a random casualty of falling masonry,
I elected not to have her merely an accident victim not simply for the
angst value, nor for the horror implicit in conceiving of the two living
lovers trapped in the memories of a dead and separated couple — nor even because it fits better with the words of the text, which imply battle, because of the use of the word "trophy" for both skins — but as
a way of illustrating different kinds (or definitions) of love, in similar
situation, and how the outwardly-same circumstances could be enacted in
a destructive way, and in a redemptive way. 

…His dreadful counsel then they took
and their own gracious forms forsook;
in werewolf fell and batlike wing
prepared to robe them, shuddering.

With elvish magic Lúthien wrought
lest raiment foul with evil fraught
to dreadful madness drive their hearts;
and there she wrought with elvish arts
a strong defence, a binding power,
singing until the midnight hour…


What Lúthien does in the fragment of the Lay of Leithian quoted
above to protect them against Morgoth's embedded spells is straight shaman
stuff — "singing magic" of the purest sort — and her reasons for the work
are deeply grounded in the folkloric traditions of animal transformation
and skin-magic that have come down to us in fairy tales and legends. Swan-skins,
hawk-cloaks, seal-coats — all of these have been told in stories, along
with many other similar and dissimilar animal transformations of various
kinds. What all of these have in common is the fact that the changing
power is held within the fell itself, and thus an item of power that is
both natural to the owner, and yet may be stolen, lost, lent or borrowed,
conferring its power on the new holder. —Not unlike the Ring in this regard,
in fact. 

But the power — again, not unfamiliarly — is two edged. Ursula LeGuin
did not invent the idea of the enchanter becoming lost in his enchantment
for A Wizard of Earthsea, when Ged in the form of a hawk forgets
himself. This tale is also told in the Arabian Nights, when a curious
caliph and his loyal vizier exercise an enchantment that will allow them
to become birds until the countercharm is invoked — but neglect the warning
that to laugh, at the things they hear while understanding the speech of
animals, will cause them to forget the word that allows them to become
human again. 

And that is a relatively mild and harmless change, though inconvenient
for the king and his henchman, and risky for their realm. In one of the
Scandinavian legends anthologized in the volume East of the Sun, West
of the Moon,
the morally-ambivalent hero disguises himself in a bearskin
to gain access to the princess of his dreams. All well and good — but he
is not merely hidden in fur, as Odysseus beneath the Cyclop's prize ram,
but has actually become a polar bear, and taken on its nature as well.
When one of the princess' handmaids forgets the warning delivered with
the "performing bear" and laughs at its antics, he flies into a rage and
tears her to pieces, according to the calmly bloodthirsty prose of the
authentic folktale. And this is simply shrugged off, as the consequence
of disobeying the warning, and the youngest son in disguise is never taken
to task for it, nor ever shows any remorse after he has cast off the skin
and returned to human form for the purpose of wooing his ideal. 

An even stronger cautionary tale of taking on another's form in spirit
as in flesh may be found in the stories of the Tarnhelm, or Tarnkappe,
that Norse legend of a cape or hood which is the universal transforming
agent, with which the owner may take on the shape and abilities of whatever
creature is wished. Hence the titanic warrior Fafnir, as immortalized in
popular culture through Wagner's versions of the Nibelungenlied,
becomes the physically vast and awesome, but psychologically diminished
and paranoid dragon, whose horizons have become limited to the guarding
of his hoard and who cannot conceive of returning to what he once was,
so enslaved to his change has he become. (In this case it is of course
not a skin, but a work of craftsmanship which replicates and adds to the
abilities of all such magical coats.) 

Along with the loss of memory, moral compass, and "self" generally,
there are other risks involved in these changes: we should all remember
stories like "Puss in Boots," where the villain is tricked into becoming
a mouse by the titular hero — who is himself uniquely suited to deal with
such a form! 

One interesting point which should be noted is that some of these items
are not dangerous to the nature of the wearer because the only wearer is
the one to whom they naturally belong, and who ventures to wear them —
such is the case with, for example, the Selkies of Gaelic lore and the
Swan-maidens of Eastern Europe. The trouble is that their nature is so
different from that of humanity that their mortal lovers feel compelled
to steal and hide their coats so as to bind them helplessly to the land,
thus guaranteeing that they will never be deserted, being unable to trust
them not to return to their own elements otherwise. (Needless to say, this
never works in the old stories, and in the end leads to greater tragedy,
and just about guarantees that the girl of one's dreams will never
come back, once she gets the chance to leave!) 

…Swift as the wolvish coat he wore
Beren lay slavering on the floor,
redtongued and hungry; but there lies
a pain and longing in his eyes,
a look of horror as he sees
a batlike form crawl to its knees
and drag its creased and creaking wings.
Then howling under moon he springs
fourfooted, swift, from stone to stone,
from hill to plain-but not alone:
a dark shape down the slope doth skim
and wheeling flitters over him…

From this it seems inevitable that a certain amount of trauma or at least
distress was involved in the change, even apart from the risk of the aforementioned
madness. It's rather ironic, I think, that the skin of Draugluin, whose
bodily form Lúthien invoked as part of the sympathetic singing-magic
of her hair-cloak, is now an essential part of the increasingly surreal
situation they find themselves in. Yet even in this her special abilities
and different nature come to the fore, as later, as the plan increasingly
shipwrecks on unplanned contingencies (such as the existence of Carcharoth,
and the fact that the bat-messenger from Sauron has already come and gone)
she improvises how to partially transform, taking on the wings only of
Thuringwethil without changing fully, and thus being able to wield the
power of her cape as well. 

—But you must read the poem: I cannot do justice to it in mere summary and excerpt. 

My conjecture also extends, for the purpose of both drama and of conveying
information, to the notion that the enchanted skins would retain something
of the persona and recollections of each previous wearer as part of the
spell and risk of madness — this is a device to allow the scenes wherein
Huan defeats their owners to be plausibly recollected within the point-of-view
format of the story. 

The parts where the two former and fallen Maiar consider their past
choices, as remembered by the people now inhabiting their skins, are taken
from the Silmarillion, from the part entitled "Ainulindalë,"
and from the Quenta Silmarillion, the opening of the chapter "Of the Beginning
of Days". That they might have known Arien as a friend before the physical
world was created is naturally as much speculation on my part as the idea
that they knew each other. 

The bit about the pines of Tar-na-Fuin resembling the masts of ships
is something which I took almost unchanged from the original quoted above.
It is of course possible that it was a scribal interpolation, the addition
of imagery by the unknown composer of the original Lay (though I have my
guesses as to its "authorship"), as Tuor is the first of mortals in Middle-earth
to reach the shores of the great ocean. I have elected to consider it an
authentic observation, in keeping with the storyline as developed so far
— which also should add to the overall disquieting atmosphere and horror. 

As far as the plot goes, I am following the Lay of Leithian fragment
entirely, with the only change being one which was introduced later for
logistical reasons: in the poem, (unlike the published Silmarillion,)
in Canto XII beginning just after Lúthien's furious assertion that
her love is "as great a power as thine, to shake the gate and tower of
death," Huan has dropped her off and gone back without telling her why,
and then returns with both the skins. Logistically it makes more sense
for them to stop off and pick them up on the way north, rather than for
Huan to backtrack, but I understand the dramatic reason for setting
it up as Tolkien did in the poem, since it allows for a more intimate moment
of dialogue between them, and an almost operatic building up from Beren's
sung soliloquy, to Lúthien's entry and answer, to Huan's arrival
making it a trio. 

As to whether Curufin's sword which Beren confiscated was one used at
the fighting at Alqualondë, I know no more than Beren would have —
but it's certainly possible. (It is also possible, though no more certain,
that it was the same sword that Dior after used to kill Celegorm, and quite
possibly Curufin and their brother Caranthir as well — the Silmarillion
text is unclear as to whether all three were killed by Lúthien's
son, or not, but allows both possibilities.) 

The Battle of Sudden Flame — the evocation of the battle itself in imagination
and the constant reminders of it throughout the journey are simply taken,
again, right from the poem, which begins with stanzas devoted to the Leaguer,
and then to its breaking as the "rivers of flame" burst forth in the dead
of night and transform the snow to steam, ultimately reducing the green
plains to the "Ashes and dust and thirsty dune" that "Draugluin" and "Thuringwethil"
must cross in the painful manner described, but only again amplified, not
original with this story. (Even the more lurid details follow directly
from the lines quoted at the beginning, as anyone who has ever carried
a cat on one's shoulder, or a taloned bird, will immediately understand.) 

…Ashes and dust and thirsty dune
withered and dry beneath the moon,
under the cold and shifting air
sifting and sighing, bleak and bare;
of blistered stones and gasping sand,
of splintered bones was built that land,
o'er which now slinks with powdered fell
and hanging tongue a shape of hell.
Many parching leagues lay still before 
when sickly day crept back once more;
many choking miles yet stretched ahead
when shivering night once more was spread
with doubtful shadow and ghostly sound
that hissed and passed o'er dune and mound.

The rest which I have depicted is a gapfiller — that is, there is an entire
day of travel through the Waste not described in detail, in which it's
very likely that they would have had to rest — but taken from the scene
which takes place late in the second day of the crossing, when they have
reached the causeway leading to Angband. This subsequent and canonical
scene, in which our two champions hunker down in the shadow of the road
leading to the Enemy's mountainous fortress while they dream 

"…of Doriath, 
of laughter and music and clean air, 
in fluttered leaves birds singing fair…" 

while waking only brings "the trembling sound, the beating echo far underground"
of Morgoth's forges, and 

"…aghast they heard the tramp of stony feet 
that shod with iron went down that street: 
the Orcs went forth to rape and war, 
and Balrog captains marched before…."

should, inevitably, remind readers of a similar scene in The Return
of the King…

Until they pull themselves together enough to go on, and the next Canto
begins with the recollection of Fingolfin's challenge, wounding of Morgoth,
and fatal defeat at the climax of the Dagor Bragollach, and reminds us
of the long-term difficulties that both Beren and Huan have given the Dark
Lord, and the renewed fears that Sauron's loss to Huan have caused, resulting
in the creation and deployment of Carcharoth, the greatest wolf to ever
walk the world, "surpassing all his race and kin," and Beren's own doom
as well — until 

"…comes stalking near, a wolvish shape
haggard, wayworn, jaws agape;
and o'er it batlike in wide rings
a reeling shadow slowly wings…"

and Wolf-Beren, seeing from far off the massive shape lying before the
door, exclaims, "Long ways we have come at last to meet the very maw of
death…Yet hopes we never had. No turning back!" 

The title of this story is, indeed, a pun, on the dual meanings of "fell"
as a pelt and as that which is dark and beyond unpleasant, and part of
my purpose in illustrating this Canto is to make it clear, since I have
encountered Usenet discussions which show that it is not beyond debate
(though what ever is?) that the two travellers really did transform, and
really took on not merely an illusion, but the physical actuality of their
dead enemies, and attributes thereof, which is not quite so explicit in
the abridged prose version of the published Silm. as it certainly
is in the Lay of Leithian. 

—Mostly, however, to show forth what is to my mind the essence of this
and all successful Quests in the Arda mythos — that it is not courage merely,
nor skill merely, nor "destiny" merely, which ensure such success as the
Quest enjoys, but a love which embodies a mutual self-sacrifice and generosity,
not acting out of any expectation of fulfillment or gratification, holding
on far past the point when there are any rewards or likelihood of future
reward. As George MacDonald said, and cannot be too often recollected: 


Death alone from death can save,
Love is death, and so is brave—

—but you really must read the fragments of the Lay of Leithian itself!

Exerpts from The Lays
of Beleriand, ©
J. R. R. Tolkien, released by Ballantine/Del Rey,
1985.