Balrogs … and “Less is More!”

One artist’s depiction of the Balrog confronting Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Recently in my Tolkien Literature Reading Group, one of the members asked me what I, “as a writer,” thought about a certain scene in The Lord of the Rings. I think it was the scene where Gandalf confronts the Balrog in Moria. Tolkien simply says that the Balrog “was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater” with a mane, a sword, and wings. Gandalf defies it, claiming his status as “a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.” Tolkien doesn’t bother to tell us what the source of this Secret Fire is nor what the flame of Anor is. Each reader is left to imagine the details of the Balrog; it was only in the various film interpretations of the LOTR that viewers were passively fed the Balrog’s details because film required the visual presentation of the Balrog in all its fearsome glory.

I realized that Tolkien, in that particular scene and in many others as well (once I thought about it), did not say nearly as much as most readers think he does in terms of description and detail. He writes JUST ENOUGH and then lets us — each reader — fill in the details. That way each of us is more invested in the scene, in what happens, and in what results come of it. We supply our own vision of beauty and ugliness, what is frightening or comforting, what propels or inhibits the characters.

Too often writers supply too much — too much description, too many motivations, too many words. We need to trust readers more to fill in these details themselves. We overwrite. We over-describe. We need to allow the reader(s) to contribute their own efforts to fill in the gaps and make the scene more compelling. All too often, this is what happens anyway: we can describe a character’s exact appearance, down to the last detail, but the reader will recreate them in whatever way seems appropriate to that reader in order to make the character “beautiful” or “sneaky” or whatever the character’s most important trait is. (I remember that I first read The Hobbit immediately after finishing The Wind in the Willows and I have always pictured Bilbo as a rather large frog wearing Victorian clothes in many scenes, simply another version of Mr. Toad.)

Allowing the reader to contribute to the scene not only makes the scene much more effective but helps us writers to become better writers as well. It might seem lazy to say less about a character or a scene but it actually forces us to be more thoughtful and concise. It makes us think about what is really important about the scene or character and drop anything extraneous.

THAT’S the hard part!

Windows of Christ Church Cathedral

A window of stained glass in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

Anothr stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

The first version of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin was built of wood just after AD 1028 by the Viking king Sitric Silkenbeard–doesn’t that tell you a lot about him already? It sounds like he could have been Santa Claus! The stone church which is still standing was built by Strongbow and the English in AD 1170 as part of their attempt to invade and subjugate Ireland. The beautiful stained glass windows we see today were installed during the renovations of AD 1871-1878.

Traditionally, the stained glass windows of Gothic churches depict saints or biblical scenes that tell contrasting stories or somehow comment on each other. For instance, a scene of the Last Supper would often be depicted together with a scene of Moses feeding the people with bread from heaven in the desert or a scene of Eve coming from the side of Adam would be matched with a scene of the Church coming from the side of Christ on the cross. The windows in the nave of Christ Church depict fascinating pairs of saints that are not often paired together.

One window pairs King David playing his harp mourning the death of his friend (lover?) Jonathan with Jubal the great-grandson of Adam who was said to have invented musical instruments like the harp [top photo above]. Another window shows Noah blessing his son Shem after the Flood together with Melchizedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem blessing the patriarch Abraham [bottom photo above]. Another window in the cathedral pair depictions of Adam naming the animals with the murder of Abel, the first shepherd, by his brother Cain.

The unusual pairs of scenes in the windows of Christ Church Cathedral (Dublin) are a fascinating series of sermons in colored glass that illuminate often-ignored aspects of the lives of the characters depicted.

Noah Gets Drunk After the Flood

These mosaics in the narthex (vestibule) of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice illustrate part of the story of Noah.

Most people recognize Noah. He built the Ark to save the world from the flood, right? He collected all the animals, two-by-two, and loaded them onto the ark so that they could ride out the flood in safety and after the flood was over, he released them to repopulate the earth. What else is there to know?

Noah’s story continues after the end of the flood. When Noah and his family (wife, three sons, and their wives) came out of the ark, the earth was devestated. One of the first things they had to do was begin farming so that they could have something to eat. As part of the farming project, Noah dug a garden and planted grapes. When the grapes were ripe, he harvested them and made wine. When the wine was ready, Noah began to drink it. And drink it. And DRINK it! The first recorded instance of drunkeness! He got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. Naked.

His son Ham walked into the tent and saw his father naked. He went out and told his brothers Shem and Japheth what he had seen. Rather than leave their father laying naked, Shem and Japeth went into the tent, walking backwards and holding a cloak in front of their eyes so that they would not see their father naked. They covered Noah with the cloak and walked out again. When Noah woke up, he knew–apparently without anyone needing to tell him–what had happened. He was so furious at Ham’s behavior that he cursed Ham’s son Canaan.

Ham had seen his father naked. Not only did he do nothing to cover Noah but he went out and told other people and made fun of Noah for lying around drunk, passed out, and naked on the floor. Because Noah seemed to know what had happened, even without anyone telling him, early Jewish commentary thought that Ham had sexually abused his father in some way that left physical evidence behind and suggested that he had castrated his father. Since he had made it impossible for his father Noah to have any more children, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan with slavery to insure that Ham had no legal, property-owning descendants. (This idea was used to justify the Israelite occupation under the leadership of Joshua of the area known as Palestine or Canaan after the Exodus. Since Ham’s descendants were also thought to have populated Egypt and the rest of Africa, the curse of Noah was also used by preachers and politicians in the American South to justify the race-based slavery there.)

Early Christian preachers thought that Ham’s mockery of Noah was more important than “having seen his father naked.” Ham made fun of his father’s shame in public, prefiguring the ridicule Christ would face when dying on a cross. Since Christians respect Christ’s flesh like Shem and Japheth respected the flesh of their father, Ambrose of Milan argued, they too will be blessed. Reluctant to imagine that Noah, a savior like Christ, had been raped or castrated, Christian interpreters offered comparatively mild interpretations of this passage. Still, they were also convinced that Ham—and by extension his son Canaan—were wicked and deserved the harsh punishment they received.

For more about the ways the story of Noah and his sons, read here.

On the roof of the narthex (porch) of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice are a series of gorgeous Byzantine-style moasiacs illustrating stories from the Old Testament, beginning with the Creation and continuing with the Tower of Babel, the Flood, the lives of Abraham and Joseph, concluding with Moses leading the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land. The mosaics were made during the 1200s.