What Makes High Elves High?

One of the stranger concepts in Tolkien’s writings is that of “High Elves”. Why are these elves high? It has nothing to do with drugs, though in the Tolkien Society we used to joke about them smoking lembas. And it has nothing to do with stature, though nobility and body height go together in Tolkien, nor with elevation above sea level. I’ve got an idea.

According to Robert Foster’s 1978 book Complete Guide to Middle-earth, Tolkien uses the term as a synonym for the Eldar. These were a subset of the original Elven population who accepted a summons to join the gods in their brightly lit country to the west. Those who refused and stayed in the as yet only starlit parts of the ancient world were called Dark Elves. This ethnic division corresponds to the main split in the history of Tolkien’s fictional languages between Quenya and Sindarin. High Elves spoke Quenya, or High-elven.

Tolkien was a linguist and philologist before he was a fantasist. My guess is that he constructed a language that he called High-elven just as there is High German, and as a convenient shorthand he called its speakers High Elves. High German, Hochdeutsch, actually takes its name from elevation above sea level, as opposed to the Low German spoken in the lowlands. (High Germans, however, are rarely seen outside rave parties and Amon Düül II gigs.)

The High Elves have since escaped from Tolkien and become a commonplace of pseudo-Medieval fantasy. According to Wikipedia, “High elves are distinguished from other fantasy elves by their place of living, as they usually dwell in stone cities, instead of woods … Typically high elves consider themselves the most purely good race of all, and haughtily view all other races beneath them”.

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Rob Thurman Gets Her Tenses Wrong

I’m a picky reader when it comes to entertainment, and if I don’t like the first 50 pages of a novel I rarely continue. The most recent casualty of this policy is a book I was very kindly given by Birger Johansson, Rob Thurman’s The Grimrose Path (2010). Its a modern urban fantasy with angels and demons and tricksters, and it failed to interest me much. Usually I don’t review stuff I don’t like here, since I prefer to offer the Dear Reader recommendations. But this book suffers from an interesting weakness that I can’t remember coming across before, and I thought I might say something about that.

We’re all very used to reading fiction told in the past tense. “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” And we’re all very used to reading fiction told in the first person: “I’ll tell you everything I can, there’s little to relate”. Quite often the two are combined, “I am old now, but I was once young, and this is the story of my first love. She was as fair as the moon as she came tiptoeing through the tulips on bright May morning…”.

The Grimrose Path is told in the first person, past tense. Nothing unusual with that. But the narrator shows no sign of residing at any point in time later than that of which she speaks. Our narrator is not reminiscing, she doesn’t know yet what’s going to happen next: she’s just right here, right now and unable to use the present tense. And this makes for some pretty strange and clunky exposition. After all, she needs to tell us a lot about her fictional world that is true in a general sense: “There are angels and demons and tricksters in the world”, but she tells it all in the past tense as if it were no longer true.

At a few points she slips up: on page 52 Thurman writes, “If they [an organisation named Eden House] had any idea what Griffin [an ex-demon] had been and what Zeke [an ex-angel] had abandoned, they would’ve done their level best to kill them both.” Since the narrator is speaking consistently in the past tense, this should have been “If they had had any idea … they would’ve” etc.

So my free advice to fiction writers on this point is this. If you’re writing in the first person, past tense, decide when your narrator is speaking about his past, and make sure to communicate this to your reader. And any general timeless information about your world, you impart in the first person, present tense. Because even in your narrator’s old age, there are still two moons in the sky just like in the adventurous days of his youth.

Now I’m hitting the Charles Stross novel Birger sent me. I like Stross a lot and I haven’t read this one before.

Five Mountain Names

  • Mount Everest: named after Colonel Sir George Everest (1790-1866), British Surveyor General of India.
  • K2: an early land-surveyor’s shorthand notation, used because nobody lived near enough to the mountain for it to have a local name.
  • Himmelbjerget: “Mount Heaven”, 147 meters above sea level. Denmark’s highest point is in fact Møllehøj, “Windmill Barrow”, at 171 m a.s.l.
  • Kebnekaise: “Kettle Peak”. Sweden’s highest mountain carries this name due to a misunderstanding between local Saami and surveyors, as the mountain with the concave peak is actually nearby Tolpagorni.
  • Mount McKinley: the highest peak in North America, named by a gold prospector in the 1890s after US president William McKinley. The president hailed from Ohio, and there is an on-going conflict between the Congressional delegations of Ohio and Alaska over attempts on the latter’s part to rename the mountain Denali, which was its local name before the area became Anglicised.

Wikileaks’ Non-Mountainous Non-Bunker

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The current issue of Vanity Fair (#606, February 2011) has an interesting piece on the collaboration between Wikileaks, the Guardian and other old media. On page 110 we’re told that Wikileaks is “partly hosted on a server in Sweden that is lodged in a former nuclear bunker drilled deep inside the White Mountains”. This confused me for a moment, since there is no mountain range of that name in Sweden. Then I realised the journalist’s error and laughed.

The server plant alluded to in the article is indeed in an area known as Vita bergen, “the white mountains”. But it’s not a mountain range. It’s a low hill in central Stockholm. And the “former nuclear bunker” is one of the old bomb shelters cum garages excavated into the side of the Vita bergen hill. The place is easy to find, just take the bus to the Church of Sophia. In fact, a photograph of the facility’s entrance on page 58 of the magazine issue tells you its name: “Pionen – White Mountains“. Anybody can rent server space there.

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Double-False Conditionals

One of my pet peeves in academic prose of the more pretentious kind is the double-false conditional statement. Here’s one that I’ve made up.

“If the adoption of bronze casting can be seen as a sign of increasing preoccupation with eschatology, then it follows that we must be continually vigilant against any appropriation of the era’s heritage by the extreme right.”

What I’m doing here is first putting forward a probably false or untestable statement as a condition, and then asserting baldly that one can infer something else from it, which is in fact completely unrelated. This is quite common in some quarters. Apparently, what these writers do is take opinion A and the unrelated opinion B, and just slot them blindly into an IF A THEN B statement.

The double-false conditional. Watch for it when you read academic prose in the humanities and social sciences. Do share your findings with us here! And don’t let them fool you.

Update 29 October: Here’s one from David Wengrow’s new book, What Makes Civilization?, p. xvi:

If the effect of such displays and substitutions [the display of Egyptian mummies in the Louvre, which had been a royal palace during the ancien regime] is to reassure us that we have passed beyond the threshold of ‘early civilization’ into some more ‘modern’ condition, then it becomes all the more important to go beneath the surface, and examine the true nature of those societies we have come to regard as so distant from our own.”

What Wengrow really says here is:

1. I think that when mummies replaced kings in the Louvre, the [intended?] effect was to reassure us that we have passed beyond the threshold of ‘early civilization’ into some more ‘modern’ condition.
2. I also think that it is important to examine the true nature [!] of ancient societies.

Gordon Ramsay’s Predecessor Sacks Jerusalem

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And here’s star philologist and religion scholar Ola Wikander with a guest lesson in Akkadian.

The word of the day is nuḫatimmu. It means “a cook” in Akkadian (or sometimes “a baker”). Maybe something to interest Gordon Ramsay? And wouldn’t it be great if there was an Akkadian version of the TV show MasterChef, named Rab Nuḫatimmê? Taken literally, that term means “top cook”, “best cook”, but it was also used in a slightly different context way back when. In 586 BC, when Jerusalem had surrendered to Babylonian invaders, the victors sacked the city under the command of a certain Nebuzaradan (in Akkadian actually Nabû-zēr-iddina, see 2 Kings 25). The man was in fact “master chef” at the court of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. But this official’s duties had clearly expanded at the time to include a few more aggressive tasks. Maybe the parallel with Gordon Ramsay isn’t so far-fetched after all…

Translated by MR.

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Heretical Room Mate

My buddy Micke and his Japanese college room mate:

“I’m Ken Nakamura. Ken means ‘heresy’!”

“Really? That’s kind of… odd.”

“Yes! It means ‘HERESY’! Rike when you are never sick!”

“Ahaaa, you mean ‘healthy’…”

“Yes! Correct! What does your name mean?”

Little Interpreters

When a family migrates, the members who pick up the local lingo first and best are generally the children, and they soon become little interpreters. My wife wrote letters to the Swedish authorities for her Chinese dad from the time she was 11. And when time rolled around for the biannual talk with the teachers about each pupil’s scholastic progress, she was accompanied by her sister (1½ years older). I hear that such a setup, with all that it means for power relations in the family, can be a big problem for men from more strongly patriarchal traditions.

We’re planning Juniorette’s seventh birthday party, and we’re a little late. So instead of sending cards I called every family on the guest list. When I called little Juanita’s home, she picked up the phone herself. I identified myself as Juniorette’s dad and asked to talk to mom or dad. Juanita replied in a very civil tone and with perfect pronunciation that Mother doesn’t like to talk to telephone salesmen. After a little extra explanation, comprehension dawned and Juanita seamlessly switched into interpreter mode. I heard the mother in the background speaking Spanish (which I understand reasonably well if spoken slowly but cannot speak myself), and then I got a flawless Swedish interpretation from Juanita. At one point I got to talk a little to the mother myself, but it wasn’t any use.

Anyway, I think I got the message across. But just to make sure, I’ve written an invitation in English, run it through Google Translate to make some kind of Spanish of it, and printed it out. I’m cycling over to put it in their mail box.

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Hernia Brand Glue

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Scandinavians generally speak pretty good English. But every now and then you come across reminders that they are still very far from being native speakers. Witness this pail of wall-paper glue that I bought earlier today.

Dear Swedish glue-maker, “hernia” means brock and is defined as “the protrusion of an organ or the fascia of an organ through the wall of the cavity that normally contains it”. Wikipedia continues, “By far the most common herniae develop in the abdomen, when a weakness in the abdominal wall evolves into a localized hole, or ‘defect’, through which adipose tissue, or abdominal organs covered with peritoneum, may protrude. Another common hernia involves the spinal discs and causes sciatica [ischias].”

I carried the pail with great care to avoid rupturing myself.

Recent Archaeomags

i-0430eaa400ffe85b481441fe47405316-asw_23_3-cover.1.jpgThe non-profit Center for Desert Archaeology is located in Tucson, Arizona and publishes a fine magazine, Archaeology Southwest. These generous people contacted me one day out of the blue and offered me a complimentary subscription. On Monday issue 23:3 (summer ’09) reached my mail box on snowy Boat Hill, and I was soon enticed to read it from one end to the other thanks to its fine graphic design, its lovely photographs and its exotic theme. I learned a lot!

Archaeology Southwest 23:3 is dedicated to Paleoindian archaeology in Arizona, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Sonora. The Paleoindian is the first phase of human settlement in the Americas, lasting for a few thousand years up to 8000 cal BC. Most of the articles cover sites of the Clovis and Folsom, the first two uncontested archaeological cultures in the area, both dating to the 11th Millennium cal BC.

This field of research has recently received a huge boost of an unusual kind. Affluent retirees Joe and Ruth Cramer are particularly interested in the peopling of the area, and they felt research wasn’t advancing fast enough. So they decided to do something about it. Starting in the early 90s, they’ve endowed five dedicated Paleoindian research centres at various universities. And of course the field has taken off at unprecedented speed. Funny how the offer of a salary will motivate an archaeologist. And I look forward to the next issue of Archaeology Southwest.

Staying among the US mags, I have also received the Jan/Feb issue of Archaeology magazine. I was particularly interested in feature pieces on the Stone Age of India (how I would love to work there one day!) and on the first Minoan ship wreck found so far, off the coast of Crete (only its cargo of amphorae remained).

The magazine’s copy-editors may want to pay some extra attention to headline grammar though. On p. 17, a full-page ad is proudly headed “King James would loveth this new study Bible!” (italics in the original). Argle. On p. 27 is a quatrain by Omar Khayyam headed “Rubaiyat”, which is actually the plural of ruba’i, “quatrain”. It’s like printing one of Shakespeare’s sonnets under the heading “Sonnets”. It bothered me, and I don’t even know Arabic nor Persian.

Meanwhile, the UK’s best selling archaeology magazine, Current Archaeology, stays true to its fine form with issue #239 for February. I especially liked the long feature piece on Lanton Quarry for its fieldwork-centric, site-centric perspective. It’s a lively presentation of the various activity phases documented during a salvage dig for a quarry, natch.

I was also very intrigued by the story of a large precious-metal hoard salvaged by divers from the bed of the River Wear at Prebends Bridge in Durham. Among other fine things, it includes an inscribed ceremonial silver trowel once used to lay the corner stone of an Indian church. The objects were deposited in the river for reasons unknown by Baron Ramsey, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1970s or 80s. Batty clergyman goes pagan in his dotage!

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