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Old 04-25-2006, 09:20 AM   #1
Bęthberry
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There is no joke that hath not its uttermost source in me
Well, no, Eru did not quite say this. In fact, it is hard to suss out much humour in The Silmarillion. Does the high and mighty and free of the dross exclude comedy? Greek classical theatre worked this way, keeping tragedy and comedy separate.

Yet The Hobbit and hobbits in general are often lovingly given a wide variety of comedic touches. And the minor works incorporate humour. Then too, Tolkien's Letters show the man with a very dry and droll sense of humour.

What sort of sense of humour did Tolkien have? Why is so little of it displayed in the Legendarium?

Did he leave it out so legions of fanfiction writers in later ages could supply it?

Just where did Tolkien use comedy? And what kinds? Estelyn and I have been considering this--I might even nod towards a certain parodic statement here as arising from her gentle sense of parody--but what say the rest of you?
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Old 04-25-2006, 09:29 AM   #2
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Thumbs up Hum de hum

I've often considered this topic rather closely and a few things have sprung to mind.
I think that Tolkien found that little folk being greedy was rather amusing, you can see this in the Hobbits. His word play here and there will say something like "No one refused a second helping, or a third or even fourth!" That always amused me, anyway. Even old Gandalf says, "Hobbits would gladly sit on the edge of ruin and discuss matters of the table and the small doings of their great grand fathers to the ninth degree."

I also think he liked putting the 'well-to-do' in situations that they wouldn't like to be put into. Bilbo is a prime example of this, as we see in The Hobbit, he is (in Tolkien’s own words) rather well-to-do and had no desire for any adventures (save in his Took nature). The number of times his mind wanders onto his old Hobbit hole (as well as good food, of course).
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Old 04-25-2006, 09:52 AM   #3
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Focusing on the Sil...

There are certain ways that events in the Sil can be regarded as humorous. I think Hookbill's statement about the humor being situational holds here too...and your sense of humor probably has to be a bit...odd...maybe even a tad unkind.

Take the burning of the ships at Losgar. If you just take that situation and rearrange the dialogue a bit, you get something like this...

Maedhros: Daddy, don't you think it would be a good idea for us to send back for some reinforcements? We are sort of stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with no idea of what is ahead of us.

Feanor: Hmmm...do I want to share the credit for reclaiming the Silmarils with my ignorant lout of a brother or do I want to get all the glory for myself and have everybody tell me how wonderful, interesting, and pretty I am? Sometimes rephrasing the question will give you the answer. Barbeque!!

Maedhros: But...

Feanor: No buts. I have pyromania to satisfy! I am named after fire, after all!

Maedhros: But...

Or something like that. It is situations, not so much characters that are funny.

Although, Turin is a veritable font of comedy, if approached from a certain angle.
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Old 04-25-2006, 11:53 AM   #4
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I have to disagree about humor in the Silmarillion. Not that I don't appreciate that there's such a thing as dark humor. I'm a great fan of dark comedies such as Dr. Strangelove or The Trouble with Harry. And I think that even some very grim books and films that are certainly not comedies as such can be seen as comic in their outlook (e.g. Psycho or Full Metal Jacket).

But I don't see the Silmarillion this way. In fact, if you ask me, the Silmarillion is at the opposite extreme - it's an intensely serious work. In fact, it's one of the few works I can think of that is just about utterly devoid of humor.

I think that Kuruharan's re-writing of the Burning of the Ships at Losgar does make a point, but a different one. For, obvious though it may be, it's important that Tolkien did not write it that way. It's easy to see how something like the burning of the ships (or Turin's story, or many other things) could have been written with a very dark sense of irony. One need only imagine the Silmarillion as a Kubrick movie - and I think it would have worked excellently as one. But that's not the way Tolkien chose to approach it. For him (and, I think, for us, insofar as we read the Silmarillion as it actually exists and not as we imagine it might) the Legendarium was a very serious thing, entirely heroic in nature rather than ironic.

Actually, the only bit of humor I can think of in the whole of the Silmarillion material is this bit from the Narn i Chin Hurin:

Quote:
Then Beleg went out, and led in by the hand the maiden Nellas, who dwelt in the woods, and came never into Menegroth; and she was afraid, both for the great pillared hall and the roof of stone, and for the company of many eyes that watched her. And when Thingol bade her speak, she said: 'Lord, I was sitting in a tree;' but then she faltered in awe of the King, and could say no more.
At that the King smiled, and said: 'Others have done this also, but have felt no need to tell me of it.'
Not Monty Python, perhaps, but it does stand out in such a grim work.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that Tolkien had no sense of humor. The Hobbit is filled with excellent comedy. So are Giles and Roverandom. And there is a good deal of humor in The Lord of the Rings as well. But it seems to me that Tolkien had two more or less distinct modes of literary thought - the high and the comedic. And though he sometimes combined these (e.g. in TH and LotR), he never synthesised them.

Last edited by Aiwendil; 06-08-2006 at 08:20 PM.
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Old 04-25-2006, 12:30 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kuruharan
Focusing on the Sil...

There are certain ways that events in the Sil can be regarded as humorous. I think Hookbill's statement about the humor being situational holds here too...and your sense of humor probably has to be a bit...odd...maybe even a tad unkind.

. . . .

It is situations, not so much characters that are funny.

Although, Turin is a veritable font of comedy, if approached from a certain angle.
So are you saying that comedy lies in the eye of the beholder? Or that it implies a distance between reader/perceiver and character, with the reader holding a superior or supercilious attitude? That would imply a readerly interpretation, or unintentional humour. That's usually typical of satire, but not necessarily of all comedy.

Some of Tolkien's humour is word play. He's maybe not as sharp as P.G. Woodhouse, but the opening of Smith of Wootten Major has aspects of Woodhouse's word play.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hookbill
I also think he liked putting the 'well-to-do' in situations that they wouldn't like to be put into.
So he liked to pop a little bit of a person's vanity, if that person was perhaps pompous or lacked self-knowledge?

EDIT: Whoops no time now to reply to Aiwendil's excellent post. back later
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Old 04-25-2006, 12:43 PM   #6
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Quote:
What sort of sense of humour did Tolkien have? Why is so little of it displayed in the Legendarium?

Did he leave it out so legions of fanfiction writers in later ages could supply it?
Aren't you forgetting about when Aldarion brought back from
northern Middle-earth a Norwegian Blue Parrot for
Erendis? Sadly, it turned out the parrot was dead, not
resting, and the relationship headed south.
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Old 04-25-2006, 12:43 PM   #7
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I don't have time to respond at length, I'm afraid.

Quote:
But I don't see the Silmarillion this way. In fact, if you ask me, the Silmarillion is at the opposite extreme - it's an intensely serious work. In fact, it's one of the few works I can think of that is just about utterly devoid of humor.

-Aiwendil
-and-

Quote:
So are you saying that comedy lies in the eye of the beholder?

-Bethberry
Bethberry basically restated my point in a much more concise (and intelligible) manner.

Quote:
But I don't see the Silmarillion this way. In fact, if you ask me, the Silmarillion is at the opposite extreme - it's an intensely serious work. In fact, it's one of the few works I can think of that is just about utterly devoid of humor.
The same thing could be said of Dr. Strangelove if you wanted to view it from that perspective.

The stories are constructed with different goals in mind. Kubrick designed Dr. Strangelove to be funny complete with witty dialogue, etc. Tolkien was intending The Sil to be serious and he did this through dialogue and tone. You are not going to be reading The Sil for hilarious dialogue...unless your sense of humor is truly bizarre.
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Old 04-25-2006, 01:01 PM   #8
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I found this thread where Downers wrote about their favourite funny scenes (actually started by Esty). Doesn't fit to the ongoing debate, but maybe it's interesting for some of you anyways.
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Old 04-25-2006, 01:02 PM   #9
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Certainly The Book of Lost Tales is 'lighter' in mood & tone in many parts than the later Silmarillion. It seems like Tolkien deliberately chose an increasingly serious tone for the work. If humour is absent from the Sil it is, as Aiwendil points out, a deliberate decision on Tolkien's part.

I think LotR is the greater work, among many other things, because of the presence of humour, which 'humanises' it. The odd thing is that in his attempt to create a modern mythology he omitted something central to just about all mythologies. Or perhaps its more subtle?

'The Silmarillion is a fundamentally humourous & comical work, but I have deliberately cut out all references to custard pies & rubber chickens. The Sillyness has been absorbed into the story itself...'
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Old 04-25-2006, 01:03 PM   #10
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I think it is in the Biography that Tolkien admits to having a childish sense of humour. I am sure there is something about him putting his false teeth into the outstretched hands of inattentive shopkeepers ..... tell me I didn't make that up...
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Old 04-25-2006, 01:23 PM   #11
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O yes, it was deliberate; and all the better for it. I reckon that comedy is the way of breaking down the world. If you are depressed or whatever, you need comedy as the antidote. It leads you to view the universe in a certain way. A bit like the realisation that there are billions and billions of micro-organsims in and on your body. It makes you take things less seriously; gently reminding you that it doesn't matter that much.

The Lord of the Rings had comedy, but that was a more life-affirming work. The Silmarillion (and these are only my thoughts, mind you) is not meant to be life-affirming. It's meant to be awe-inspiring. No comedy; nothing which will make you consider the grand scheme of things. The Silmarillion could not incorporate such comedy because it demands that you never take things easily. There is no way Tolkien would make you think of the unserious here!

It's just like music. Sigur Rós and British Sea Power: two of my favourite bands. The latter you can smile at or with; the former will often not allow you to smile. They're that bit more serious. Actually, there is smiling but not laughter.

Maybe.

The other comic bit in The Silmarillion is Aulë's 'They will have need of wood' line. Apparently. I never thought it was comic. Thingol's line about sitting in a tree is not comic either (to me). I find it more scene-setting than comic. But it's a very minor point.
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Old 04-26-2006, 01:54 AM   #12
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I have always found the Sneaking episode between Gollum and the hobbits quite funny, whether Tolkien wanted it to be or not, it involves more than a touch of irony. Sam being discovered at the Council of Elrond, Bilbo's Farewell Speech at his Birthday Party, and the Ioreth incident with Aragorn in the Houses of Healing, have all got elements of comedy about them.
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Old 04-26-2006, 07:32 AM   #13
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Thanks for that link to Esty's thread, Balin999. Some good examples there of humorous moments.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mithalwen
I think it is in the Biography that Tolkien admits to having a childish sense of humour. I am sure there is something about him putting his false teeth into the outstretched hands of inattentive shopkeepers ..... tell me I didn't make that up...

Oh dear! If they were wooden teeth, Tolkien might have been having a laugh at the first American George (who is not to be confused with St. George, nor are any other Georges ).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Aiwendil
it seems to me that Tolkien had two more or less distinct modes of literary thought - the high and the comedic. And though he sometimes combined these (e.g. in TH and LotR), he never synthesised them.
Quote:
Originally Posted by davem

'The Silmarillion is a fundamentally humourous & comical work, but I have deliberately cut out all references to custard pies & rubber chickens. The Sillyness has been absorbed into the story itself...'
Quote:
Originally Posted by Eomer
I reckon that comedy is the way of breaking down the world.
Quote:
Originally Posted by narfforc
it involves more than a touch of irony
Are we setting up a distinction between situational humour or character-driven humour?

Or, is it possible that comedy is part of the music of the Children of Ilúvatar? It is a gift to redeem the darkness imposed by Melkor?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ainulindale
For the Children of Ilúvatar were conceived by him alone; and they came with the third theme, and were not in the theme which Ilúvatar propounded at the beginning, and none of the Ainur had part in their making.
Could it be that comedy is the secret fire-- Being in the moment of their utterance ? Eä! Let humor be!.
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Old 04-26-2006, 08:47 AM   #14
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I hope not. Comedy is pretty deflationary. It relaxes. This creation myth is just so......high; and comedy would bring it back down.
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Old 04-27-2006, 07:51 AM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tuor of Gondolin
Aren't you forgetting about when Aldarion brought back from
northern Middle-earth a Norwegian Blue Parrot for
Erendis? Sadly, it turned out the parrot was dead, not
resting, and the relationship headed south.
Are you suggesting that there is a lost Pirates of the Haradrim text which CT has not included in HoMe?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Warg Fancier
This creation myth is just so......high; and comedy would bring it back down.
You aren't suggesting a rank order to Tolkien's creation are you? I think that, if the elves had had more of a sense of humour, perhaps they wouldn't have become so nostalgic. It was Frodo's tragedy, as an elf-friend, to become enmeshed in this perspective and so be unable, as Sam, Merry and Pippin, to reintegrate with the Shire society.
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Old 04-27-2006, 08:15 AM   #16
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Quote:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tuor of Gondolin
Aren't you forgetting about when Aldarion brought back from
northern Middle-earth a Norwegian Blue Parrot for
Erendis? Sadly, it turned out the parrot was dead, not
resting, and the relationship headed south.

Are you suggesting that there is a lost Pirates of the Haradrim text which CT has not included in HoMe?
CT wanted to give all the credit to JRRT and none to his hitherto
unknown literary collaborator.

It can be found in the chapter
Middle-earth's Most Outrageous Out-takes ,
by G. Smeagol in his tell-all book: How an Oxford
Academic misrepresented my adventurous life
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Old 04-27-2006, 08:17 AM   #17
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Quote:
Pirates of the Haradrim
With cat-like tread,
Upon our prey we steal...


Sorry...

Anyway, obviously, given Tolkien's well-known disdain for cats...he would obviously consider it appropriate to refer to such unsavory characters as Haradrim pirates as "cat-like."
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Old 04-27-2006, 08:20 AM   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bęthberry
It was Frodo's tragedy, as an elf-friend, to become enmeshed in this perspective and so be unable, as Sam, Merry and Pippin, to reintegrate with the Shire society.
Art thou saying...that Frodo lost his sense of humor somewhere on the road to Mordor?
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Old 08-22-2012, 05:31 AM   #19
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Art thou saying...that Frodo lost his sense of humor somewhere on the road to Mordor?
Not quite. I think Frodo sounds "whole" in the Field of Cormallen. He is certainly capable of laughter and joy. Perhaps it was the Scouring of the Shire that was the final nail in the coffin of his depression.
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Old 08-22-2012, 01:15 PM   #20
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Art thou saying...that Frodo lost his sense of humor somewhere on the road to Mordor?
I think he lost something else. He still had his humour, as is shown with the encounters with Ruffians et al in the scoured Shire. But he lost his carefree-ness. Silliness, if you will. And he *did* take over some of the Elves' nostalgia and brooding.



Honestly, I can't see anything in the Sil and COH that would make people laugh. Most of the time, if it's humour, it's quite dark and makes you unable to decide whether to laugh or to cry, which makes me laugh at myself and the brilliance of the book (rather than the text itself). Even the funnier parts mentioned earlier in ths thread are not that funny; they lighten the mood somewhat but they are still not comedy. Personally, if I laugh while reading these two books it's probably some victory or great success (but again, nothing funny) and I just can't keep my emotions under control.


There was this passage in COH where Turin runs out of the woods making lots of noise, like he has an army behind him, to help the Halethrim, and all the orcs oanic and scatter. And then the halethrim ask where are Turin's men and he answers they all walk with him as one man. I've always smiled a bit at this passage, but I'm not sure if it's because of the victory or the small bit of humour.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Aiwendil
But it seems to me that Tolkien had two more or less distinct modes of literary thought - the high and the comedic. And though he sometimes combined these (e.g. in TH and LotR), he never synthesised them.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Eomer
The Silmarillion (and these are only my thoughts, mind you) is not meant to be life-affirming. It's meant to be awe-inspiring.
I entirely agree with the above statements.
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Old 08-22-2012, 01:55 PM   #21
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The only deliberate humor in the Silmarrillion that I can think of is Aule's line here:
Quote:
But Manwe rose also, and it seemed that he stood to such a height that his voice came down to Yavanna as from the paths of the winds.

"Nay," he said, "only the trees of Aule will be tall enough. In the mountains the Eagles shall house, and hear the voices of those who call upon us. But in the forests shall walk the Shepherds of the Trees."

Then Manwe and Yavanna parted for that time, and Yavanna returned to Aule; and he was in his smithy, pouring molten metal into a mould. "Eru is bountiful," she said. "Now let thy children beware! For there shall walk a power in the forests whose wrath they will arouse at their peril."

"Nonetheless they will have need of wood," said Aule, and he went on with his smith-work.
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Old 08-22-2012, 04:56 PM   #22
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I find lots of little jokes in his work. One of the things that I consider beautiful about his work is that to appreciate the jokes, you have to have good reading comprehension skills. My favorite joke is actually displayed as my siggie.
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Old 08-22-2012, 10:05 PM   #23
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Tolkien original work from which The Silmarillion ultimately sprang was The Book of Lost Tales and reading it shows Tolkien’s original conception was lighter and there is even some obvious intentional humour.

For example (emphasis mine):
… and the cliffs are full of a chattering and a smell of fish, and great conclaves are held upon their ledges, or among spits and reefs among the waters.
And soon after:
But Ulmo fares at the rear in his fishy car and trumpets loudly for the discomfiture of Ossë and the rescue of the Shoreland pipers.
From the second volume:
Now Tevildo seeing Beren narrowed his eyes until they seemed to shut, and said: “I smell dog”, and he took dislike to Beren from that moment.
And soon after:
… and she teaches him how to sit and sprawl, to step and bound and trot in the semblance of a cat, till Huan’s very whiskers bristled at the sight, and thereat Beren and Tinúviel laughed. Never however could Beren learn to screech or wail or to purr like any cat that ever walked, nor could Tinúviel awaken a glow in the dead eyes of the catskin ‒ “but we must put up with that,” said she, “and thou hast the air of a very noble cat if thou but hold thy tongue.”
And possibly:
… and I have learned it by heart, reading it in the great books, and I do not comprehend all that is set therein.
This may lightly refer to the teller here being a young girl who is understood to not fully comprehend sexual matters related more fully in the versions of the tale she has read. Or for those who think that Beren and Tinúviel did not have sex during their first life, then it may refer to the statement: “for his [Melko’s] dark mind pondered some evil.

When Tolkien rendered his tales into verse the general lightness disappeared. (Though the tale of Túrin was always grim.)

But the Silmarillion was always in intention a very abbreviated version of Tolkien’s legendarium. How much humour would have survived in a similarly abbreviated version of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings?
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Old 08-25-2012, 05:38 PM   #24
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One thing lately I've been pondering is how Dante's Divine Comedy can be called a comedy, in that it leads to a positive affirmation (heaven) rather than hell, even though it isn't "funny'". (This is a very brief generalisation!)

Could the same traditional argument be made for the Silm, that it leads to the sailing West of most of the Eldar and the imprisonment of Melkor? There is grief and loss, and the fear of further dark seed of the fruit of Melkor in the future, but Elves are restored to the love of Manwe and the pardon of the Valor.

Anyone know Dante well enough to take this query on?
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Old 08-25-2012, 08:46 PM   #25
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Well from the Wikipedia entry for Divine Comedy:
Dante called the poem “Comedy” (the adjective “Divine″ was added later in the 14th century) because poems in the ancient world were classified as High (“Tragedy”) or Low (“Comedy”). Low poems had happy endings and were written in everyday language, whereas High poems treated more serious matters and were written in an elevated style. Dante was one of the first in the Middle Ages to write of a serious subject, the Redemption of Man, in the low and “vulgar” Italian language and not the Latin one might expect for such a serious topic.
I’ve read variants of this explanation in other places. In classical times the terms tragedy and comedy were only applied to drama but in the Middle Ages many classifiers tried to apply the terms to all of literature. Essentially if a work had a happy ending, it was a comedy, though it might not be very humorous.

The “Quenta Silmarillion”seems to be to have by intended to be an interconnected cycle of stories, some of which (for example, that of Beren and Lúthien) had happy endings and some of which (for example, that of Húrin and Túrin) did not. At the time of its supposed telling, perhaps near the beginning of the Second Age, from the viewpoint of those who may be imagined to first have heard it, they would see themselves to be in the middle of a continuing story in which the“Quenta Silmarillion” was the first part. That part had ended somewhat happily, sufficiently so that it might be called a comedy as a whole, at least by those desperate enough to attempt to fit all stories into only two genres.

Similarly The Lord of the Rings might be called a comedy.

So, yes, the same argument works for the “Quenta Silmariilion″ and the Divine Comedy, but the works are still very much not alike. For one thing, the Divine Comedy attempts to portray a universe congruent both with Dante’s religious beliefs and common scientific beliefs about the universe. The “Quenta Silmariilion″ portrays a flat Earth in which the Sun and Moon were created approximately at the same time long after the Earth was created, in contradiction both to taking the Bible literally and to Tolkien’s own personal beliefs.

Both Dante and Tolkien were aware that they were writing fantasy, but Dante was doing so with the net up (while aware that his inventions were only his inventions) while Tolkien was purposely imagining, at that point, a universe which more closely resembled that of classical mythology than what he saw as reality.

Also, Dante in his poem explores the entire cosmos while such exploration of the cosmos as occurs in Tolkien’s “Quenta Silmarillion” takes place almost only at the very beginning and end of the work and is purposely vague on the details.
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Old 08-25-2012, 09:21 PM   #26
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So, yes, the same argument works for the “Quenta Silmariilion″ and the Divine Comedy
Perhaps, but if we think of a "comedy" being the story with a happy ending, it's worth to look at how Tolkien ended the Silmarillion.
"Here ends the SILMARILLION. If it has passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred; and if any change shall come and the Marring be amended, Manwe and Varda may know; but they have not revealed it, and it is not declared in the dooms of Mandos."
So, even though Morgoth is ousted, and a remnant survives, Tolkien seems to want us to see the story (up to that point) as being fundamentally unresolved, the the resolution (even if future) being hidden and, to the inhabitants, uncertain (at least any hope rests firmly in the concept of Estel).

That makes it seem to me (at least possibly) more as a "Tragedy" rather than "Comedy" (to use the medieval terms).
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Old 08-27-2012, 10:09 AM   #27
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Your quotation to me is a good indication as to why it was foolish for some medieval critics to try to define every tale as either a tragedy or comedy. A tale can be both or neither and still be an excellent tale.
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Old 08-27-2012, 10:07 PM   #28
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One thing lately I've been pondering is how Dante's Divine Comedy can be called a comedy, in that it leads to a positive affirmation (heaven) rather than hell, even though it isn't "funny'". (This is a very brief generalisation!)
The 14th century Italian word Dante used was "commedia", which does not necessarily translate to the modern word "comedy". Like many words the term comedy has changed over time (the word awful comes to mind, originally signifying "full of awe", or the Latin defćcatus, which meant to "purify" or "cleanse from the dirt/dregs", and now is used in an altered sense as defecate). Commedia (or the Old French "comedie") related to poems specifically (and later stories) with a lighter tone than tragedies. In this sense, Dante considered his Commedia to be a narrative poem with an agreeable ending (not necessarily happy).

Dante may have found humor in the Divina Commedia (Giovanni Boccaccio added the "Divine" tag, by the way), but even the word "humor" would have meant something completely different to Dante. "Humor" as "funny" or "witty" did not exist until the 17th century. Previous to that the humors described the four types of bodily fluids (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic) whose varying proportions were to said to rule a person's temperment.

But there are elements of satire and dark humor throughout the Divine Comedy, particularly in Hell (Inferno), where Dante has relegated many of his political enemies (like Filippo Argenti, who is torn to pieces along the River Styx), and a pope or two (Boniface VIII and Celestine V). And considering that many virtuous "pagans" are better off in Hell than many Christians, there is a sardonic sense of humor in Dante's jibes at the established order, higher clergy and aristocrats in early Renaissance Italy.

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Could the same traditional argument be made for the Silm, that it leads to the sailing West of most of the Eldar and the imprisonment of Melkor? There is grief and loss, and the fear of further dark seed of the fruit of Melkor in the future, but Elves are restored to the love of Manwe and the pardon of the Valor.

Anyone know Dante well enough to take this query on?
I would not consider The Silmarillion a "comedy" in the sense of Dante's Divine Comedy. It is not light or satiric (and if we are going by language, it is heightened and formal, as in tragedies, whereas LotR is more lowbrow, particularly amongst the Hobbits), and there are elements of tragedy throughout the Silmarillion, particularly in the tale of Turin Turambar and Eol and Aredhel. There really is no happy ending as even the final defeat of Morgoth is tempered by the murders committed by Maglor and Maedhros, the loss of the Simlarils and the escape of Sauron. The Long Defeat of the Elves continues, Sauron creates the One Ring, Numenor waxes and wanes and then is destroyed. No, comedy there, not even by Dante's definition. There is no culminating eucatastrophe event that leads to an "agreeable ending" like in LotR.
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Old 08-30-2012, 08:08 AM   #29
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Thanks for all the replies! Attitudes towards humour and comedy make for some very interesting observations, I think.

Morth, I doubt we need to go back to Latin. I think anyone familiar with The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary will be well aware of how words change meaning, such as the Old English wan, which began as 'dark, gloomy, black' to become applied to pale or faint things, a change in etymology which Tolkien worked on.

Puddleglum, so nice to see you back and around! You raise the intriguing point that Tolkien was writing about 'great stories that never end', which is a rather modern concept in that it is the process that receives attention rather than the denouement, despite his ideas about eucatastrophe.

Quote:
Originally Posted by jallanite
Your quotation to me is a good indication as to why it was foolish for some medieval critics to try to define every tale as either a tragedy or comedy. A tale can be both or neither and still be an excellent tale.
Critical theory is still attempting to do what those critics tried, however, in that it attempts to explain how literature works on us. I think, in fairness to the medieval and classical critics, it can said they were trying to understand how literary works affect us rather than solely defining quality.

In looking at the progress of The Silm, we can find far more whimsey and humour in the early versions, particularly in BoLT, than in the edition which Christopher Tolkien produced. Tinfang Warbel comes to mind most immediately, as well as the strong element of mirth and joy in the Cottage of Lost Play. yes, the stories are separate stories, but I find it intriguing to see the variations in tone.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Morth[/quote
But there are elements of satire and dark humor throughout the Divine Comedy, particularly in Hell (Inferno), where Dante has relegated many of his political enemies (like Filippo Argenti, who is torn to pieces along the River Styx), and a pope or two (Boniface VIII and Celestine V). And considering that many virtuous "pagans" are better off in Hell than many Christians, there is a sardonic sense of humor in Dante's jibes at the established order, higher clergy and aristocrats in early Renaissance Italy
I think one major idea current today about comedy is its subversiveness, starting with Aristophanes' Lysistrata. Parody for example can be pleasant and respectful or undercutting. Is there anything similarly sardonic or subversive in the Silm?

(N.B. I should not attempt to write posts here while commenting on FB at the same time. )
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Old 08-30-2012, 10:45 AM   #30
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Critical theory is still attempting to do what those critics tried, however, in that it attempts to explain how literature works on us. I think, in fairness to the medieval and classical critics, it can said they were trying to understand how literary works affect us rather than solely defining quality.
My understanding is that it classical works were mainly preserved through Arab versions and Arab commentators and it was they who began to take essays concerned only with drama to apply to all literature. The early medieval European commentators followed on from that.

Bluntly, I indeed don’t see that modern commentators do much better, which you seem to agree on. Note the academic critical response to Tolkien which is notoriously negative. In a previous era it was Dickens who was outside the pale to academics. And Shakespeare was much denigrated until the academicians recognized comic relief.

First people just liked certain works, and then the academicians invented their theories about why they worked. First comes the popularity contest, then critics who attempt to explain why the work are popular.

Academic discussion about particular works or classes of work are often fine, but academic rules are not general enough to cover works that are just a little outside the norm. Works of art can be as individual as people.

The basic problem seems to me to be that different people have different tastes and no critical theory had yet, so far as I am aware, gotten around that. The rules invented by critics only work for some people some of the time, at best.

Quote:
In looking at the progress of The Silm, we can find far more whimsey and humour in the early versions, particularly in BoLT, than in the edition which Christopher Tolkien produced. Tinfang Warbel comes to mind most immediately, as well as the strong element of mirth and joy in the Cottage of Lost Play. yes, the stories are separate stories, but I find it intriguing to see the variations in tone.
Yes. Tolkien seems to be originally mostly attempting to imitate William Morris’ fantasies which also have lighter moments. But then, in his heroic verse, he throws out all the whimsey. Then in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Ring he puts it back.

Quote:
I think one major idea current today about comedy is its subversiveness, starting with Aristophanes' Lysistrata. Parody for example can be pleasant and respectful or undercutting. Is there anything similarly sardonic or subversive in the Silm?
Well almost everything said about the sons of Fëanor could be presented as undercutting, as an indication that rule by heredity mostly doesn’t work, except in the sense that any lord is better than a war between potential lords, or no lord. But I don’t think that that was a message intended by Tolkien. On the contrary, that is one of the messages of Famer Giles of Ham, which is very comic.

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Old 09-05-2012, 03:41 PM   #31
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"My understanding is that it classical works were mainly preserved through Arab versions and Arab commentators and it was they who began to take essays concerned only with drama to apply to all literature. The early medieval European commentators followed on from that."



--------------------------

No, not the literary works and commentaries thereon. The Arabs were interested in the scientific, mathematical and medical works, and thus books like Ptolemy's Astronomy became known first in the West via Arabic translations by way of Spain (hence the usual title Almagest, and Arabic star-names still in use); but by far the majority of classical literature was preserved by the Byzantines (the Roman Empire everyone seems to forget about), and began making its way westward starting with the Crusades.
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Old 09-05-2012, 07:12 PM   #32
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You seem to be correct about Dante’s use of comedy. But Arabic works dealing with comedy were very important.

Aristotles’s Poetics was translated into Arabic in medieval times, where it was elaborated upon by Arabic writers and philosophers, such as Abu Bischr, his pupil Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes.

They applied Aristotle’s dictums to Arabic poetic themes and defined comedy as simply the “art of reprehension”, and made no reference to light and cheerful events or happy endings. Comedy was translated as hija (satirical poetry). Many early European critics followed this and defined comedy as only satire. Admittedly Dante seems not to have done so, following some other tradition.

My understanding is that it was these Arabic writings that were one of the main foundations of western critical theory. But these Arabic writings were indeed not responsible for comedy meaning any “low” poem.
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Old 09-05-2012, 07:44 PM   #33
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Unfortunately

1) The second book of the Poetics, covering comedy, was lost, and
2) The Arabic translation of the first book, on tragedy, was a very bad one (IIRC an indirect one via Aramaic)
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Old 09-05-2012, 07:47 PM   #34
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Incidentally, the morning after the Birthday Party, especially Bilbo's parting giftes, is very funny.
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Old 09-06-2012, 02:25 PM   #35
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Unfortunately

1) The second book of the Poetics, covering comedy, was lost...
One of the central plot points of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Great book!
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Old 09-06-2012, 02:42 PM   #36
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Unfortunately

1) The second book of the Poetics, covering comedy, was lost, and
2) The Arabic translation of the first book, on tragedy, was a very bad one (IIRC an indirect one via Aramaic)
True enough, although the source for the Arabic version of Aristotle’s Poetics was actually in Syriac, a late descendant of Aramaic.

That this translation is now partially lost is irrelevant because it was complete when early Arab commentators used it. Indeed, that the Arabs were using a bad translation helps explain some of their misinterpretations.

The surviving works were influential in medieval Europe, particularly Avarroes (who indeed did not have access to the Poetics). Late medieval and Renaissance writers sometimes preferred Avarroes’ interpretation to better translations because they preferred Avarroes’ humanism.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Averroes for a reasonable discussion.

Again, this has nothing to do with Dante’s use of Comedy as the name of his poem.
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Old 08-09-2018, 08:26 AM   #37
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The only deliberate humor in the Silmarrillion that I can think of is Aule's line here:
Quote:
But Manwe rose also, and it seemed that he stood to such a height that his voice came down to Yavanna as from the paths of the winds.

"Nay," he said, "only the trees of Aule will be tall enough. In the mountains the Eagles shall house, and hear the voices of those who call upon us. But in the forests shall walk the Shepherds of the Trees."

Then Manwe and Yavanna parted for that time, and Yavanna returned to Aule; and he was in his smithy, pouring molten metal into a mould. "Eru is bountiful," she said. "Now let thy children beware! For there shall walk a power in the forests whose wrath they will arouse at their peril."

"Nonetheless they will have need of wood," said Aule, and he went on with his smith-work.
I don't think any discussion of humour in the Silm is complete without Beren's classic routine:

Quote:
But Beren knelt before him, and said: 'I return according to my word. I am come now to claim my own.'

And Thingol answered: 'What of your quest, and of your vow?'

But Beren said: 'It is fulfilled. Even now a Silmaril is in my hand.'

Then Thingol said: 'Show it to me!'

And Beren put forth his left hand, slowly opening its fingers; but it was empty. Then he held up his right arm; and from that hour he named himself Camlost, the Empty-handed.
And I think Kuruharan's rewriting of the scene at Losgar misses the fact that there is a distinct comedic counterpoint between Maedhros' and Feanor's tones there:

Quote:
But when they were landed, Maedhros the eldest of his sons, and on a time the friend of Fingon ere Morgoth's lies came between, spoke to Fëanor, saying: 'Now what ships and rowers will you spare to return, and whom shall they bear hither first? Fingon the valiant?'

Then Fëanor laughed as one fey, and he cried: 'None and none! What I have left behind I count now no loss; needless baggage on the road it has proved. Let those that cursed my name, curse me still, and whine their way back to the cages of the Valar! Let the ships burn!'
It's like... overreaction much, dad?

It's also worth remembering that the Quenta Silmarillion is deliberately a summary-slash-chronicle; it's not supposed to include the jokes. For those, you need to look at the longer stories Tolkien wrote around the same time (ie, post-BoLT), where we find things like Aiwendil's cite from the Narn:

Quote:
Then Beleg went out, and led in by the hand the maiden Nellas, who dwelt in the woods, and came never into Menegroth; and she was afraid, both for the great pillared hall and the roof of stone, and for the company of many eyes that watched her. And when Thingol bade her speak, she said: 'Lord, I was sitting in a tree;' but then she faltered in awe of the King, and could say no more.

At that the King smiled, and said: 'Others have done this also, but have felt no need to tell me of it.'
Or, less easy to quote, there are the twin themes of the Lay of Leithian (as pointed out long ago and elsewhere by Philosopher@Large): Beren's compulsive mouthing-off to authority figures, and Beren's friends randomly insulting him. A quick selection from the first:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Beren to Thingol
Then Beren laughed more loud than they
in bitterness, and thus did say:
"For little price do elven-kings
their daughters sell – for gems and rings
and things of gold! If such thy will,
thy bidding I will now fulfill.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Beren to Sauron(!)
But no true Man nor Elf yet free
would ever speak that blasphemy,
and Beren muttered: "Who is Thű
to hinder work that is to do?
Him we serve not, nor to him owe
obeisance, and we now would go."
And from the second:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Luthien to Beren
Beloved fool! escape to seek
from such pursuit; in might so weak
Quote:
Originally Posted by Huan to Beren
Hopeless the quest, but not yet mad,
unless thou, Beren, run thus clad
in mortal raiment, mortal hue,
witless and redeless, death to woo.
(Note that this is exactly what Beren was about to do, the twit.)

Actually there's a heck of a lot of comedy in the Lay, such as Finrod's spectacular slip:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Finrod to Beren, in Sauron's dungeon
Nay more, I think
yet deeper of torment should we drink,
knew he that son of Barahir
and Felagund were captive here,
Way to keep a secret, Finrod.

hS
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Old 08-12-2018, 09:54 AM   #38
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It seems to me that in temperament, Tolkien was analytical. He spent much of his life in the search for meaning in human affairs, which meant that he was particularly good at pattern recognition and identifying what was ironic and absurd in the things that he encountered. It should therefore be no surprise that much of his comedy relies on absurdity, incongruity and false patterning. This manifests itself in a number of easily recognisable strands: punning and wordplay, deliberate incongruity, subversion of expected or established order and irony, particularly in juxtaposing reader and character knowledge.

The punning and wordplay are perhaps the easiest elements to look for. I've already posted elsewhere an incident reported by Warren Lewis, in which Tolkien greeted some deer encountered on a night walk through the grounds of Magdalen College by the doffing of his hat accompanied with "Hail, fallow, well met". In a more cerebral joke, we see in the Etymologies (HME 5) under THÔN that Taur-na-Fuin ('Forest under night') is a multi-linguistic pun on Dor-na-Thuin (Ilkorin form of Dorthonion -'Land of Pines'). In a more general piece of word-play, Tolkien spends several paragraphs early in The Hobbit having Gandalf pull to pieces Bilbo's uses of "Good morning"; in LR at the Gate of Moria, Gandalf becomes the victim of his own cunning by confusing 'say' and 'speak'. Bilbo tells the three trolls that "I am a good cook myself, and I cook better than I cook, if you see what I mean."

This sort of play around the complexities of language is probably to be expected in someone who spent most of his life studying them, and one can scarcely study language without spending some time observing people. The part of Tolkien's life that Philip and Carol Zuleski describe as "academic busywork" (committees, boards and other meetings) and his tutoring of students would have given him ample opportunities for observing the absurdities of which even the most intelligent people are capable. Gandalf's riposte to Saruman in The Hunt for the Ring using only smoke-rings, while not technically a joke, is born of this sort of observation.

The pointing out of social absurdities, particularly to deflate the pompous, is a strand of Tolkienian humour that comes out throughout The Hobbit and LR. The self-important Master of the Houses of Healing is outdone in his job by a gossippy and uneducated orderly, leading Gandalf (again) to declare "...find some old man of less lore and more wisdom who keeps some [kingsfoil] in his house!" and Aragorn to inform him that "I care not whether you say asëa aranion or kingsfoil, so long as you have some." Although again, not primarily a comic scene, Tolkien demonstrates the idiocy of knowledge without understanding and the superiority of practical over theoretical knowledge. In the same vein, we are reminded by the narrator of The Hobbit that Bilbo "...had read of a good many things that he had never seen or done"

Thorin Oakenshield is a repeated target of Tolkien's absurdist deflations. At his first appearance in The Hobbit he is squashed beneath Bombur, who, we are repeatedly reminded, is no small weight to bear. He is the first to be retrieved from his barrel after the escape from the Elven-king's halls, and his bedraggled appearance receives most of the narrator's attention. Tolkien very much admired the heroic, but could not resist a poke at convention or pomposity where possible.

Obviously Farmer Giles is in its entirety a subversion of the heroic mode and an attack on those who fail in their duty while adhering to its conventions: Aegidius de Hammo is the least heroic character one can imagine, and yet he succeeds where all the knights whose business it is to defend the kingdom have failed. The most effective weapon against Chrysophylax has been handed out as a throwaway gift to a relative nobody (one of Pauline Baynes' illustrations shows Caudimordax hanging on a wall with a spider weaving its web near the sword's point), and the hunting of dragons has been abandoned so as not to offend the palace cook. These are absurdities, but they are easily recognisable in real-world society. Convention and tradition are rich wells of absurdist comedy.

However, this leads me to the very reason for the lack of humour in The Silmarillion. While Tolkien continues to make use of dramatic irony, he does not poke fun at characters such as Fëanor or Thingol, and I think that this has the same source as his very overt parody of characters like Augustus Bonifacius. Tolkien believed in the value of heroic ideals. He thought that they were important and not innately comic. What struck him as funny was when those whose job it is to be heroic, or to possess knowledge, or to bake the Great Cake, were not very good at it; or when people unsuited for heroism were forced into heroic situations. Essentially the humour derives from our recognition of the difference between the actions of characters and the narrative convention in which they appear or, to put it another way, the recognition that people in the real world rarely live up to ideals. The ideal itself was out of bounds for humour, and I think the omission of mock-heroism from the Silmarillion over time was precisely because mock heroism opens the door for mockery of the heroic mode itself. Humour was not appropriate to the tone that Tolkien eventually decided to set for his longest-running project.

In a similar vein, in On Fairy-stories Tolkien makes a reference to fellow don Lewis Carroll (he also alludes to his poem Jabberwocky in The Monsters and the Critics): "...creative fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun... So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the world of Lewis Carroll."

I think that something similar could be said of Tolkien's use of humour. It is, like much humour, essentially subversive; but in a pun is contained the recognition that the obvious pattern of meaning is superficial. In deliberate absurdity is encoded the recognition of proportion and reason, and in the mock-heroic, at least as written by Tolkien, is planted the recognition that the heroic is real, desirable, noble. If he points out where people often fall short of the ideal it is because he wishes them to improve. So Giles rises in his own unheroic way to become a king, Bilbo, by an unconventional path, becomes a legitimate hero, but the heroic ideal as personified in, say, Aragorn, is never in question. The Silmarillion is not a social convention of the ideal, but the thing itself and there is no room in it for the author to poke fun at his narrative mode. We can, Milan Kundera tells us, move from the light to the serious, but to attempt the opposite seldom works.

In my opinion, Tolkien in life would have been a far better source of laughter than he is in writing, but if you choose to read The Silmarillion hoping to roll about the aisles, I would respectfully submit that you have chosen poorly.
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Last edited by The Squatter of Amon Rűdh; 08-19-2018 at 10:54 AM. Reason: It was of course Magdalen, not the University Parks
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