Gold

I was just enough of a precocious little ass, when I first read The Lord of the Rings at the age of eleven, to grasp that Tolkien had reached into the murky history of England for the riders of Rohan, the horsemen who rose to alliterative verse when deeds called for great speech. In the Dark Ages, Frisia and Jutland and Denmark gave England the Saxons, whether she wanted them or not, and the Saxons had a fighting nature so they did — oddly blended with a hypnotic verse style and a zeal for beautiful things.

I took an excursion today to visit some of them, while most of the town was snaffling Cheetos and Budweiser at Super Bowl parties. Bleh.

The bits in the video just barely put across the delicacy, the intricacy, the thousands of man (or, I suspect, woman-) hours invested in creating a treasure trove composed almost entirely of artifacts of war: pommels, hilt-guards, helmet adornments. The gold came from everywhere — Roman and Byzantine coins, traded plunder — the garnets from distant parts of Europe that would one day be called Slavic, the workmanship from god knows who. A little film loop at the exhibit discussed what it might have taken, in an era without magnifying glasses, to produce filigree designs made of gold wire less than a millimetre thick. “Myopia?” wondered one curator, without much assurance. Yes you pommy bastard, I thought, myopia, I can count the veins on a fly’s wing close up if you can get the goddam fly to hold still and have done since I was four, I think you’re onto something.

Gorgeous things, and nearly all of them contrived as rewards of deeds in battle: ornaments of slaughter, most of them designed to bedeck the sword, the one pre-industrial weapon designed for killing other people, rather than parlayed implements of agriculture or the hunt.

Toward the end a small exhibit, mostly aimed at children, from the look of it, invited visitors to heft a replica sword (carefully caged so that it couldn’t be swung about) and a targe shield, to help one understand what a warrior of that past age had to do.

The shield-grip and the sword hilt seemed to embrace my hand, rather than the other way round, so that I really longed to get the whole sword free of the little enclosure that let me feel nothing more than its weight, and tested the quickness of the shield: how fast could I swing it from my side overhead, if a horseman were riding down on me, or in front of me again to parry a foe on foot?

It was giddy, the phony museum hilt in my hand like the jewel in the lotus, the image of those garnet-slathered pommels still radiant in my head, a current coming up from my heels to my hand saying do not fuck with me. It’s all too easy to understand why generations have ridden or flown or sailed off to war, and I actually kind of pitied the people who have to do it with computer gidgys and planes and so forth. And I am a bleeping vegetarian who won’t even eat a scallop.

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

I don’t think I actually said it out loud. Tolkien got into my head earlier and more surely than the Beowulf poet: so sue me.

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16 thoughts on “Gold

    • Hell, yes, Tolkien skimmed Wagner: take it from someone who latched onto Wagner at age 10 and Tolkien a year later. It was so obvious it hurt. Smeagol, or Gollum depending, whiffs so of Alberich and Hagen! “Zuruck vom Ring!”

      Rowling isn’t as tacky and trivial as some might make her. She isn’t a stylist, but she’s a virtuoso of plot, which makes me envious.

      But ah, the Saxons: the feat of Tolkien is that he was a scholar so immersed in the verse style of people who had been dead for a thousand-plus years that he brought it back to life. How huge an achievement is that? Likewise, how huge an achievement is it for people in Birmingham and environs to sieve a new perspective on a whole culture from a haul of gold out of a field? Scholars and warriors are closer than either like to think, I suspect.

  1. I loved the Rohirrim, and thought it brilliant how Tolkien recast the Saxons’ ship crews into bands of horsemen, sailing into contrary winds across vast seas of grass.

    • Well, after a few generations in Britain I think they embraced the grass (and Christianity, kind of depressingly; I don’t think the conjunction became either side). Not to the degree the Rohirrim did, but then that part of Middle Earth was a lot more landlocked.

  2. Wow, one barbarian side of yours has awaken! (as you said over at my blog). I noticed the tag: ‘terrible love of war’: could you have the so-called ‘warrior gene’? (they say many versions of it are not dangerous). I never read Tolkien and now it’s too late. The myopia hypotheses is interesting. Besides, not being apt for fighting, they had to be useful in some way.

    • Oh, I’ve always had a touch of the warrior gene if such a thing exists. Tell me more — it sounds as if there’s a hypothesis I haven’t run across yet.

      “A Terrible Love Of War” is the title of a book by the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, who died only late last year
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hillman
      I’ve never read a work of his that didn’t appeal to me (and I love the title of an interview series, “We’ve Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy [and the World’s Getting Worse].”) He suggests that war fulfils so many needs in the human soul that no effort to end war can ever succeed without taking into account what people gain from it — the immediacy and sense of aliveness that exist in the face of death, for one thing that I think everyone can understand.

      I think us myopes were scribes and jewelers and all those things back when it wasn’t easy for us to do anything else.

  3. Tolkien and Wagner, a very nice match. I was so mesmerized by the Ring (Tolkien’s) that I never made the connexion to History…but you are damn right now that you mention it.

  4. You can read something *here*, do not know how ‘scientific’ it is. I had seen a Discovery Channel program about this gene days ago. The program also mentioned a 2009 criminal trial in the US where “an argument based on a combination of warrior gene and history of child abuse was successfully used to avoid a conviction of first-degree murder and the death penalty” [copied this passage from the wiki]

    • Ah, I love Science News Daily. But this seems to be more about a gene that might bias people toward angry reactions to provocation. What I felt handling that sword-hilt was a long way from anger — it was a form of joy, like runner’s high or the feeling I get when I bust up a big weight, and equally like the feeling of singing the note perfectly or hitting a mark with a throw. You read that the Northmen who fought bare (or bear)-sark were full of magic mushrooms, but mushrooms might be superfluous.

        • Strikes me as a misnomer. The article — which mentions people being given the option of taking a (fictive) nasty revenge on someone who presumably did them out of money — suggests more of a “vindictive gene.”

          Now, I have this too. I have arranged some vicious revenges, in the classic best-eaten-cold style, on people who had truly made my life a living hell while they were in it. I do think I did things with more panache than the fairly adolescent prank of a hot-sauce sandwich. And I can fantasize vivid, bloody, gruesome payback for people responsible for certain things — noisy music that I can hear in my house with the windows shut, loose dogs making the local trails unusable. or screaming children that I can’t get away from.

          But the whole “warrior” thing is a good feeling — alarming in itself, I suppose.

  5. But the whole “warrior” thing is a good feeling — alarming in itself, I suppose

    Well, yes, I suppose too.

    I have arranged some vicious revenges, in the classic best-eaten-cold style

    You make me curious about what kind of revenges you have in mind LOL.

    Now seriously, when confronted with annoying people (or beings) I usually try to apply the dantesque principle:

    “Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa”
    [let us not talk of them, but look and pass]

    I confess I not always suceed (in applying such principle: which seems logical enough the world being so full of morons etc. one would spend her /his entire life to revenge herself /himself.

    • Well, I saved my dramatic revenges for people who really had them coming, like someone who made my life hell at a job to the point I had to quit — which was her stated goal. I had nothing to prove by hanging on in that crappy job but I didn’t forget. No, I won’t go into details. Not in public.

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