Friday, December 14, 2018

the great misreadings of all time

Some years ago I wrote about one of these: a misreading of C.S. Lewis, expressing dismay at somebody else's tastes, as an expression of his own tastes.

The worst misreading of Tolkien, not involving overlaying the Jackson movies on the books, that I ever saw was in a critical book I shall not name, for some of its contents were better than this. The critic had read the scene at the Mirror of Galadriel that includes this paragraph:

"She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad."

And came to this mind-boggling conclusion:

"Frodo never meant to destroy the Ring. His offer to give it to Galadriel, for example, is - as she acutely recognizes - motivated by revenge and an enactment of his power as Ringbearer over her, leaving her 'shrunken'."

How is it possible to read this scene, seeing anything other than the words "ring" and "shrunken", and come to such a warped conclusion? As every other critic who's ever read this scene recognizes, what shrinks Galadriel is returning to normal after rejecting the frightening power she would carry if she wielded the Ring. Frodo has no power as Ringbearer. He offers her the Ring not to take revenge on anything - where does one get such an idea? - nor even to tempt her, though tempt her is what it does, but out of a sincere wish to see its evil safely contained. What he says is: "You are wise and fearless and fair, Lady Galadriel. I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me." Is that not a desire to be relieved of a terrible burden and to give it to more effective hands? How can one miss this? And what Galadriel replies is that it doesn't work that way. Read her last comment to Sam that closes the chapter.

That comes to mind because I just came across another case of a reader who must have skimmed through the book and completely missed what's going on. The book this time was Watership Down, and the topic was a blog post comparing Richard Adams' classic with a forgotten earlier novel uncannily resembling it, The Wind Protect You by Pat Murphy.* The poster explains, "The rabbits in Murphy’s book have the instincts and behaviours of real rabbits in the wild, clearly based on keen observation of, or reading about, how the creatures actually live, but they also have speech and imaginative thought. Watership Down has the same distinctive perspective."

So far so good, but among the specific similarities cited was this one:

"Another striking, and very specific, similarity is that in Murphy’s book the rabbits are assisted by deer, just as the doe Hyzthenlay helps the rabbits in Adams’ book."

I blinked at this. I could not at first figure out what this sentence meant. What does Hyzenthlay have to do with ...? Then it hit me. The writer thinks that when Adams uses the word "doe", he's referring to deer.

Well, while the OED's first definition of "doe" is a female deer, the second definition is a female hare or rabbit. But even if you didn't know that second definition - I sure didn't when I first read Watership Down - how is it possible to read the book and not pick that up?

I'm trying to imagine going through Watership Down under the impression that the does are deer. There's a whole bunch of deer living underground in a hidden rabbit warren. Hazel and his band - you did catch that, despite the name, Hazel is male, or did you? - make the effortful journey all the way to Efrafa to rescue some of these trapped deer and escort them up to the downs - to do what? Rabbits, mate with deer? Well, as B. pointed out when I told her about this, it is a fantasy.

Or wait - Adams calls the male rabbits "bucks". Maybe they're deer also. Maybe the whole book is about deer. Deer who dig holes in the ground, live underneath there, can be carried in a human's lap, and are afraid of housecats.

That's not the post's only misreading of WD - Bigwig is hardly "an experienced old veteran" when he joins the band - but I tried to be brief and restrained in the comment I left there.

Doe, a deer, a female deer
Ray, the name of Bradbury
Mi, a name, half of Mimi
Fa, you sing in "Deck the Halls" ...

- B. with D.'s help

*An English male writer, short for Patrick, not to be confused with the American female writer of the same nickname, short for Patrice, who hadn't been born yet when this was published in 1946.

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