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Archive for May 2009

Tolkien’s Lays of Sigurd and Gudrun

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I spent the day reading Tolkien’s recently published The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (rather than working or doing something else productive).  The book consists of two “lays” written in the style of the Norse Eddaic poems.  The first is the “Lay of the Volsungs” and tells the legend of Sigurd; the second is the “Lay of Gudrun” and tells the legend of the downfall of the Niflungs.  Each poem is an attempt to organize the material of the Eddaic lays concerning Sigurd and the Niflungs respectively into a single coherent narrative.

Since Tolkien is trying to compile material from several complete works into a single poem (or rather, two poems), the narrative in his version is necessarily extremely terse and compressed.  E. V. Gordon notes in his Introduction to Old Norse with regards to the compilation of the prose Volsungasaga that “each of the poems that [the saga author] used was a complete tragedy, and the result of joining them is accumulated horror”—a remark that could potentially apply to Tolkien’s compilation as well.

Due to the extreme compression of the narrative in Tolkien’s poems, the work can be somewhat difficult to follow.  Christopher Tolkien notes in the introduction that “it must also be said that his poems are not at all points easy to follow, and this arises especially from the nature of the old poems that were his models.”  I would imagine that Tolkien’s poems may be near incomprehensible to folks not already familiar with the Sigurd legend from the principal Norse sources (poetic Edda, Snorra Edda, and Volsungasaga).  However, Christopher Tolkien provides a very helpful commentary, which mostly serves to place Tolkien’s narrative choices within the context of his sources.  Even with the commentary, I’d say it’s still a tough read.

For my part though, I found the work fascinating, and I thought that the poetry was excellent.  Here is one stanza from the “Lay of the Volsungs” (II.24):

Through and through them
thrice went Sigmund;
as grass in Gautland
grimly mowed them.
His shield he shed:
with shining sword
smoking redly
slew two-handed.


Written by uncudh

May 13, 2009 at 1:13 am

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One does not slap General Washington on the back

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An curious anecdote that I recently read in Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men:

In 1784, [Gouverneur] Morris bet Alexander Hamilton that he would have the courage to “take a liberty with General Washington” at a dinner with more than a dozen notables, including the Marquis de Lafayette and the generals Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Baron Von Steuben, and Anthony Wayne.  In the course of the dinner, after telling an inconsequential story, Morris leaned back in his chair and slapped Washington on the back, exclaiming, “Wasn’t it so, my old boy!”

One did not slap the general on the back.  Washington sat stone-faced, not uttering a word or moving a muscle, after which a “strained silence fell over the company.”  Morris later commented to Hamilton, “I have won the bet, but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”

Written by uncudh

May 13, 2009 at 12:04 am

Euclid’s fifth postulate

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Donal O’Shea, in The Poincare Conjecture, quotes Farkas Bolyai’s response to his son Janos upon hearing that Janos was working on trying to prove Euclid’s fifth postulate:

I implore you to make no attempt to master the theory of parallels; you will spend all your time on it. . . . Do not try . . . either by the means you mentioned or any other means. . . . I passed all through the cheerless blackness of this night and buried in it every ray of light, every joy in life.  For God’s sake, I beseech you, give it up.  Fear it no less than sensual passions, because it too may take all your time, deprive you of health, peace of mind and happiness in life.

(Of course, we know that Janos Bolyai ignored his father’s advice and thus discovered non-Euclidean geometry.)

Written by uncudh

May 7, 2009 at 2:53 am

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The effects of slavery on science

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Another interesting notion from Peter Green’s The Hellenistic Age (Ch. 4):

Slaves were thus regarded as at once essential and a permanent threat.  The solution, a simple one, was to keep them fully occupied […].  All power was to be muscle-power.  The effect on Hellenistic science was striking.  It has often been pointed out that ancient inventors were familiar with steam power (indeed, produced a model) and could make effective pistons yet never combined their knowledge to build a steam-engine.  Water-driven mills were known but not used.  The same applied to the compound pulley, which enormously reduced the energy needed to shift a given mass.  The reason should now be clear.  Any device that left the servile labor force with spare energy was seen as a direct stimulus to revolution.

Written by uncudh

May 7, 2009 at 1:51 am

Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk

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Yesterday I caught the tail end of the Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok”—one of my all-time favourite Star Trek episodes.  Needless to say, it got me in the mood to dig up my copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh.  (The most recent Penguin Classics edition by Andrew George is quite excellent, containing a very detailed introduction along with several variants of the Gilgamesh story, including some very early Sumerian versions.)  Here’s a little excerpt from Tablet VIII of the Standard Version, wherein Gilgamesh laments the death of his friend Enkidu, who has been struck down by the gods:

‘Hear me, O young men, hear [me!]
Hear me, O elders [of teeming Uruk,] hear me!
I shall weep for Enkidu, my friend,
like a hired mourner-woman I shall bitterly wail.

‘The axe at my side, in which my arm trusted,
the dirk at my belt, the shield at my face,
my festive garment, my girdle of delight:
a wicked wind rose up and robbed me.


‘Now what is this sleep that has seized [you?]
You’ve become unconscious, you do not [hear me!]’
But he, he lifted not [his head.]
He felt his heart, but it beat no longer.

He covered like a bride, the face of his friend,
like an eagle he circled around him.
Like a lioness deprived of her cubs,
he paced to and fro, this way and that.


‘[I shall lay you out on a magnificent bed,]
[I shall lay you out] on a bed [of honour.]
I shall place you [on my left, on a seat of repose;]
the rulers of the underworld [will all kiss your feet.]

‘The people [of Uruk] I shall have mourn [and lament you,]
the thriving people [I shall fill full of woe for you.]
After you are gone [my hair will be matted in mourning,]
clad in the skin of [a lion I shall wander] the wild.’

Written by uncudh

May 5, 2009 at 1:59 pm

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Pure v. applied mathematics

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A curious remark from Peter Green’s The Hellenistic Age:

Euclid and Archimedes regarded the application of theory to practical or, worse, profitable ends with withering contempt and would have nothing to do with it: it took the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 to make Archimedes turn his mind to the problem of defense artillery.

Written by uncudh

May 4, 2009 at 11:57 pm

The depravity of the passive voice

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Concerning Sanskrit literature, William Dwight Whitney writes in the introduction to his classic Sanskrit Grammar:

Of linguistic history there is next to nothing in it at all; but only a history of style, and this for the most part showing a gradual depravation, an increase of artificiality and an intensification of certain more undesirable features of the language—such as the use of passive constructions and of participles instead of verbs, and the substitution of compounds for sentences.

Michael Coulson, in the introduction to his Sanskrit grammar (in the “Teach Yourself” series), calls Whitney a “great but startlingly arrogant American Sanskritist”, and responds to Whitney’s remarks as follows:

Why such a use of passives, participles and compounds should be undesirable, let alone depraved, is left rather vague, and while there have been considerable advances in linguistic science in the past fifty years there seems to have been nothing which helps to clarify or justify these strictures.  Indeed, Whitney’s words would not be worth resurrecting if strong echoes of them did not still survive in some quarters.

It is indeed somewhat curious that a grammarian, such as Whitney, would think it even possible to rank certain grammatical features of a language as being more or less desirable than others.  After all, upon what basis would one make such determinations?  Nevertheless, such distinctions occur in current English as well: we have had it drilled into our heads in school that the passive voice is an abomination and should be avoided at all costs.  See, for example, the highly popular style guide of Strunk and White.

It should be noted, by the way, that Whitney—who is writing in the late 1800’s—by suggesting in the above quotation that the passive voice is depraved, is (I presume and hope) not using the word deprave in its current sense of being morally corrupt, i.e.

2. spec. To make morally bad; to pervert, debase, or corrupt morally. (The current sense.) (OED)

but rather in the now no longer current sense of

1. To make bad; to pervert in character or quality; to deteriorate, impair, spoil, vitiate. Now rare, exc. as in 2. (OED)

which implies no moral judgement.  Furthermore, Whitney is surely correct in noting the tremendous increase of artificiality in medieval Sanskrit literature.  In this period the Sanskrit poets often seem to be engaged in some sort of intellectual exercise whereby they apply rhetorical devices such as alliteration, similes, puns, double-meanings, etc. in such complicated and abstruse ways as to render the poetry rather more tiresome than elegant.

Written by uncudh

May 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm