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Masks and Disguise

Squint-eyed Southerner

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Several recent threads have made me decide to bring up this subject, one I've been mulling over for several years, with no result, so this not an essay or argument, but a request for input.

Northrop Frye begins his essay on literary symbols with the observation that, whenever we read anything, our minds are going in two directions at once: outward, to attach the word ("symbol") to something in "real life", and inward, to see what context it belongs to.

With this in mind, let's look at Tolkien's use of the "symbols" in the thread title.

When, in the scene at Crickhollow, Merry offers to produce their "chief investigator", we have:

'Where is he? said Frodo, looking round, as if he expected a masked and sinister figure to come out of a cupboard.

And so do we -- at least I did, on first reading -- maybe more so than Frodo, as we know he's in the middle of a chapter called "A Conspiracy Unmasked", as he does not. Here is an example of our minds going "outward" toward the world.

But when we find Frodo asking Strider "Why the disguise?" at the Pony -- even though no obvious disguise is evident in the text; when Gandalf says to Saruman "you have unmasked yourself at last"; when the Fellowship is provided with cloaks that allow them to walk, not "invisible", but unnoticed; when Frodo and Sam are confronted by men "hooded and masked" in Ithilien, we may legitimately feel something more is going on.

What that something might be, I have, as I said, no real ideas about , despite brooding over it, so I toss it out here for consideration. I'd welcome any thoughts on the matter, and especially if anyone knows of work that may have been published on the subject.
 

Gothmog

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A very interesting question, and one I look forward to following.

Where you said:
when we find Frodo asking Strider "Why the disguise?" at the Pony -- even though no obvious disguise is evident in the text
Frodo brings up the matter of "disguise" just before he asks the question:
I think you are not really as you choose to look. You began to talk to me like the Bree-folk, but your voice has changed.
In life we all use "masks and disguises" as for the most part we want others to see us in a manner that we prefer or sometimes for protection. With the Hobbits they, or at least Frodo, has assumed the mask of "Mr Underhill" for protection while Aragorn wants those in Bree to see just a wanderer.
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

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Yes, that's true, in life and in literature, where, in mimetic fiction, we see characters wearing their social "masks".

The discussion of Aragorn's references to different "guises" on another thread was one of the things that made me bring this up. Each of the examples I gave can be explained or rationalized as special, individual cases, as can others I didn’t mention; the invisibility of the Nazgul, for instance, or the ultimate symbol of "hiddeness" -- the Ring. It's the use of them as almost a continuous subtext that interests me; there's a cumulative effect of all this emphasis on masking and hiding that is most peculiar, if you think about it.

Another critic approached the use of symbols this way: as anything can be a "symbol" -- even a preposition, say, or a punctuation mark, we can ask "is this something that could be handled only in one way, that is, out of necessity, or were other ways possible?"; if we find the author choosing the same, or similar, devices over and over again, we can probably conclude they constitute a body of symbolically significant imagery.

What that significance was, for Tolkien, is the question. I don't recall his talking about it as a specific theme, in the Letters or elsewhere, yet it runs throughout his writings, from the very earliest; think of the three Hidden Kingdoms, for instance.
 
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Olorgando

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One thing that struck me fairly soon once I had read the “big three” tales of JRRT is that at the decisive battles taking place “in the present tense” of the tale being told, Eagles always intervene at a critical point:
in the War of Wrath to defeat Morgoth’s last-ditch defense of winged dragons (Eärendil, who finally defeated Ancalagon, is also “airborne”
at the Battle of Five Armies (though Beorn finally tips the scales)
and before the Black Gate of Mordor – though here the Nazgûl flee due to Sauron’s desperate command (though I’d guess the Eagles could very well have reduced them to walking, taking out the Fell Beasts), but the Eagles rescue Frodo and Sam. I don’t recall anything like the writing about JRRT’s love for trees (not without the caveat that he also created Old Man Willow and other black-hearted tees and Huorns) about eagles. Much used in heraldry (the US, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary – they had a two-headed one), any thoughts about this kind of “airborne cavalry”?
(They don't intervene during the War of the Last Alliance at any point that I can remember, but that was told in a sort of flashback - ancient history to the actual tale being told.)
 

Olorgando

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Can't find it on the quick - the index of PoMe has only one reference for "Eagles" (nothing for "Gwaihir" or "Thorondor"), and that page reference is for chapter VIII "The Tale of Years of the Third Age", entry for year 2940 (not 2941!!!) and the help of the Eagles of the Misty Mountains in defeating a great host of Orcs (no explicit mention of Wargs!).
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

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Nope, that's a subject for a different thread.*

Jeez, by the time I get around to it, I'm afraid it's going to come across as a shaggy dog story!

*Or is it? Hmm. . . 🤔
 
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Olorgando

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("Shaggy Dog" could very well mean Huan. At least Alan Lee pictured him as a horse-sized Irish wolfhound on the cover of "Beren and Lúthien".) ;)

One could say that the Ainur who descended into Arda, the Valar and Maiar, are wearing “masks” (for the “good” side apparently so despised by PJ I would hesitate to use the term “disguises”; for the other side, there is at least Annatar). Otherwise, they would be invisible to the Eruhini; and they seem to have taken their “masks” (I believe the actual term used is “raiment”) from what (little) they managed to divine from Eru’s theme about these beings, in whose creation no Ainu had any part. And to take up Erestor Arcamen’s comment on dragons, I have often wondered how Morgoth should have managed to “breed” them. I would suppose that any (“natural”) predecessors would have belonged to Yavanna’s responsibility, but to get to dragons would involve, as far as I can see, far too much “upgrading” which would imply an ability to create that has been firmly negated for Morgoth by JRRT again and again. So, like the Balrogs, wouldn’t it make sense to consider the dragons corrupted Maiar?

For masks, dim memory (and Tyler’s “Companion”) conjures up the “Dragon(!)-helm (of Dor-lómin)", which had a visor which was effectively a full-faced mask (of which counterparts have been found by archaeologists in the real world). Made by Telchar the Smith of Nogrod for Azaghâl King of Belegost (eh?!? Why not for his own king?), the one who gave Glaurung a severe tummy-ache in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, driving him off the battlefield. Later given to King Fingon, and by him to Hador of the Third House of the Edain, from whom it descended to his great-grandson Túrin Turambar. Not sure which version of the tale of the dragon-helm made it into the published Silmarillion. Certainly, also going deep into disguise territory.

At least in later times, disguises were used to keep from being found out. As per the asymmetric distribution of power between good and bad (this is NOT entirely an invention of PJ’s!), it was mostly used by the good side in trying to escape assassins, so to speak. The only try by the bad side that I can pluck from memory is Sauron’s Annatar guise. Disguising not outward physical appearance, but very much hidden agendas is an element we find from Saruman to Lotho “Pimple” Sackville-Baggins.
 

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This is something confusing. I have a feeling that this could be an allusion to something in his life. Like the war of the ring represents ww2 and the allied forces.(I think)
 

Gothmog

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This is something confusing. I have a feeling that this could be an allusion to something in his life. Like the war of the ring represents ww2 and the allied forces.(I think)
In the foreword of Fellowship of the Ring Tolkien himself addresses this common view, part of what he says is:
Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.
So, whatever the sources are, ww2 was not one of them.
 

Olorgando

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To quote from the "Foreword to the Second Edition":

"... but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends [the four who formed the "TCBS" in JRRT's school days] were dead. …"
JRRT arrived in France in 1916 just "in time" to take part in the battle of the Somme. Perhaps the bloodiest single event in WW I (with the possible exception of the battle of Verdun, which was cold-bloodedly protracted by imperial German generals with the express purpose of "bleeding France dry").
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

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Several good points raised here, especially about the Valar/Maiar embodiment as a form of "disguise", but I'm still hoping for insight into the the subject as a "body of symbolically significant imagery" -- that is, as a structural principle.

The amount of work on Tolkien, academic and otherwise, has grown so vast that I don't know if anyone can keep up with it. Is anyone aware of any studies that have addressed the subject? I've been unable to locate any on line, but my googlefu is admittedly weak. 😟
 
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Olorgando

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Several good points raised here, especially about the Valar/Maiar embodiment as a form of "disguise", ...
Ummmmm, I don't know about the Valar/Maiar embodiment being a form of "disguise". Fuzzy memory has their embodiments (and the whole "male-female" aspect of it) as rather being revealing. They took their cue from Eru's themes about the Eruhini, which not even Melkor dared meddle with. They embodied themselves as something that at least the Elves would recognize without panicking (though for some who ended up as Avari even this may not have worked; but then the first Vala or servants thereof they - and most humans - met may have been Melkorians). Somehow I would guess (similarities to current political stuff obviously being coincidental - yeah right!) that the baddies needed to do camouflage (aka lying) by orders of magnitude more severely than the good guys (and gals). Seems investigative journalism was very far in the future then (say Woodward and Bernstein).
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

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A fair point, but I was thinking of "disguise" there in the sense of "guise", as Aragorn uses it several times, for instance, when he "reveals" himself to Sauron, through the Palantir -- a case in which disguise is the opposite of what is intended.
 

Olorgando

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Just checking my 2009 Oxford University Press (reprint 2016 for the book?) English-German / G-E dictionary (which I bought expressly because it has a CD which I could download onto my notebook - no dodgy internet sources for me!), "guise" is camouflage. So "dis-" guise would be the opposite! Perhaps another case where ignorant everyday usage has trashed precise meaning (just DO NOT get me started on "quantum leaps" - I can get murderous on this topic!!!).

For totalitarian scum (aka Sauron, Hitler, Stalin, Mao et.al.) it is vitally necessary for them to be able too lie 24/7 to their subjects to subject them to de-facto slavery.
For those opposing such TS, as in Aragorn (and the GDR activists which really contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was 99 plus percent Gorbachev as far as politicians are concerned, and to hell with Alzheimer Ronnie and any West German idiots) and … meh, hasn't happened in real life in my lifetime apparently that I can remember except for that one case, or nearly so - those being in opposition (rightly so) but needing to escape the murderous thugs that the totalitarian regimes had at their command, it was a life necessity. Orcs ain't Elves, seems to me, they're humans (and the spread of Sarumans has been mentioned countless times).
 
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Squint-eyed Southerner

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Apart from the political tangent (about which I can say only. . .um, OK! :p), as "guise" and "disguise" can be -- and are -- both used to mean "camouflage", I don't believe they are antonymic. Is "Thorongil" a "guise" or a "disguise"? Aragorn may well have used the persona to "disguise" his true identity, but the term he uses is "guise". The question that comes to mind is, did Tolkien use them more or less interchangeably, or did a difference exist in his own mind?

Another question for which I have no answer. 😟
 

Olorgando

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… Another question for which I have no answer. 😟
JRRT was quite good at leaving questions open without giving answers - though one part (the private conservative Catholic side) might have made him want to do so, his (professional and intellectual) side dealing with "Beowulf" and Co. yanked the leash back severely. One of the reasons that he appeals to such disparate people who might not exchange more than one sentence in real life, still appealing to those on both sides of that divide (and I very much know what I'm talking about here).
 

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