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Tag Archives: Tolkien

The Tower of Beowulf and Hauntological Architecture

Ghost Buildings and Tolkein’s Tower

Complete Lies. has a very interesting post  on the Ghost Building practices of acquaintance of his, Brian MacKay-Lyons, who retires to his Nova Scotia property to build ephemeral building, much of them constructed out of fragmented site materials, as Complete Lies would have it, out of the very bones of the site’s past. Below, one of the beautiful structures, “Ghost 6”

The philosophical conclusion drawn from these wonderful architectures is that of perpetual bone usage in the construction of our present. I have some difficulty with the prevalence  of the idea of “hautology” on the internet thesedays, as the word seems to operate as something of a meme, without coherent conceptual content (no determinative defintion, with all kinds of phenomena being grouped under its heading). And perhaps the word “ghost” can be seen as symbiont to it. And I can’t see where the idea as it is loosely used is much improved from Benjamin’s concept of the Angel of History, as Complete Lies writes:

We have impermanent structures, rooted deeply to the past, make essentially of the corpses of long lost entities, made with and in the spirit of these pasts. These are ghosts brought back. Architecture as necromancy. This shows exactly what I mean by the possibility of ghosts returning in a Spectral Realism, the idea that their bones could reassemble, perhaps not in the same way, but in the same spirit. In this way, a ghost can never achieve the perpetual peace of absolute non-existence, but is always only “almost dead.” No ghost is ever entirely here, nor are they ever entirely absent.

This being said though, the architecture brought to might one of the most spectacular scholarly essays written in the history of literary criticism, J. R. R. Tolkein’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936) [click here]. (Not everybody knows that Tolkein was a formidable Medievalist, and this lecture represents the turning point of modern Beowulf scholarship. But Tolkein’s vocation is not the point here. There is a wonderful paragraph that nearly opens the article that vividly points up the aspect that Complete Lies is trying to bring forth. Tolkein is taking Beowulf scholars to task for not understanding the towerly dimension of the Beowulf project. They have knocked down the text and rummaged through its old stones, realizing that  it had been build from the pieces of an older culture. They see that it is part Christian, part pagan, and are left with something like rubble, the bones of the past. What they don’t realize is that the author was building, not a house, but tower:

I think this analogy has significant address to those concerned with the hautological aspects of modern or post-modern history. The author of Beowulf indeed was a fragmentist, restacking the bones, inscripted stones, the broken pillars of an age lost or in decline, but in stacking them was not reconstructing them (there is NO compulsed mourning, but formal mourning), not harkening back on impulse, no trying put the shards in place, but rather the stacking is in the present, the building of tower, a vantage point assembled out of the remains of all that had been, that memory, making it high.

Tolkein’s metaphor is most adroit, for he draws recursively upon the final image of the poem itself, where the great funeral pyre for Beowulf is constructed (talk about ghost architecture). There, as the structure burned down from its great height, it also becomes a signal to be seen from far out at sea: 


THEN fashioned for him the folk of Geats
firm on the earth a funeral-pile,
and hung it with helmets and harness of war
and breastplates bright, as the boon he asked;
and they laid amid it the mighty chieftain,
heroes mourning their master dear.
Then on the hill that hugest of balefires
the warriors wakened. Wood-smoke rose
black over blaze, and blent was the roar
of flame with weeping (the wind was still),
till the fire had broken the frame of bones,
hot at the heart. In heavy mood
their misery moaned they, their master’s death.

Tolkein tells us that the haunting of the social forms of Beowulf are not what we thought they were, habitations. They rather were memorial heights, vantage points that we achieve when we stack the bones of the past. The invitation of course is to build, and then burn (live) our own tower.  The ghost, the haunt, is to be something that we willfully construct, the means of our standing higher, the vantage we have over our sea. I believe that the hautological, in this sense, is only our return to the originality of our past, the focus points of lasting intensity to elevate ourselves. And though it can happen in paranoic revisitations of the repressed, or the disjointed specimen collecting of a mania, a corporeal regrouping, it is at best a careful choosing of one’s ancestors with a view towards a plentitude of arched vision, the way in which we expose ourselves the forces which made up determinatively what we are.

[An Q & A with Brian MacKay-Lyons on the Ghost Lab program]

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.