Frames /sing


Towers and Bridges, From Ada to Tolkien


Nabokov’s Ada

Children of her type conceive of the purest philosophies. Ada had worked out her own little system. Hardly a week had elapsed since Van’s arrival when he was found worthy of being initiated in her web of wisdom. And individual’s life consisted of certain classified things: “real things” which were unfrequent and priceless, simply “things” which formed the routine stuff of life; and “ghost things,” also called “fogs,” such as fever, toothache, dreadful disappointments, and death. Three or more things occurring at the same time formed a “tower,” or, if they came in immediate succession, they made a “bridge”.

(74, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, VIE 1990)

Ada’s concept of Towers and Bridges has such strong explanatory value in the synchronic and diachronic, condensations of vertical, stacked, and therefore eternal significations, and transitive happenings, things that lead from one state to another. Beyond Ada’s immediate meaning in the text, the two are striking tropes.

The image of a tower recurs in Tolkien’s criticism of the Critics, and their abuse of the “tower” of Beowulf:

 A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in the building of the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labor, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distance forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said, “This tower is most interesting!” But they also said, (after pushing it over): “What a muddle it is in!” And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: “He is such an odd fellow! Imagine him using these old stones to just build a nonsense tower! Why did he not restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.” But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

 “Beowulf: The Monsters and Critics”

The full force of his analogy comes forth when one considers that Beowulf ends with the building of the pyre for the hero, and its service as a signifying tower over the sea.

What is compelling here, is the realization that synchronic towers, whether they be made of the unique, “real” things in life, as they are for Nabokov’s Ada, or be they artistic re-stackings of ruins, seeing the Horizon through the material of the Past, are condensed verticals which serve as Bridges. Narrative scales.

There is more to say here. But it is a beginning.


2 responses to “Towers and Bridges, From Ada to Tolkien

  1. N. N. May 20, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    “be they artistic re-stackings of ruins, seeing the Horizon through the material of the Past.”

    I like this line.

    Except for “On Fairy Stories” (which is excellent), I havn’t read Tolkien’s non-fictional writings. I have read most of his fiction many times. I’m guessing that Middle Earth, a “nonsense tower,” is what Tolkien built with the stones of his forefathers.

    The story of Middle-Earth could itself be told as a history of towers. The first tower built, Avallónë, looked East over the sea to Middle Earth. Another, Elostirion, looked back West from Middle Earth to Arda. There were towers that remained pure though beset with evil, Minis Anor. Towers that once were pure, but since overcome by evil, Orthanc and Minis Ithil. Towers that have been destroyed by evil, the Dome of Stars in Osgiliath and the Tower of Amon Sûl. And towers built in evil, Thangorodrim and its offspring, Barad-dur. Tolkien used these towers and others as symbols of those who occupied and used them.

  2. kvond May 21, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Excellent point about the towers of Middle Earth, etc. Perhaps you do not know, (there was quite a while I did not realize the extent), Tolkien was one of the foremost Medevalists in the world. The essay quoted above is considered the greatest, at least the most influential, essay written on Beowulf. In many ways people still follow his reading of the “epic”. An amazing man.

    I enjoyed your comments.

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