Home » Digital culture » The Holy Grail: A good end game

The Holy Grail: A good end game


Lord Tennyson.

The Coursera on-line course  Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative draws to a close. I will be sorry to see it finished although the virtual friends I have made will live on in the game.

Another fruitful week saw discussions of art and literature. In particular we read together Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” and analysed it. We also looked at some wonderful paintings by Turner and other artists and compared scene setting with those in the game and the film.


I hope that you enjoy my transcripts of this weeks lectures and have enjoyed all the previous transcripts.  Please remember that I change the texts slightly to make translation easier. I remove  repetitions, false starts and fillers. Any mistakes in the texts are my own. My spell check works in British English so there are some changes from the American English of the original text. Please let me know if you spot any errors or omissions.

Firstly a reminder of who the speakers are.

Jay Clayton, Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, our lecturer for the course.



The class members who participated in this week’s discussions were:-








Kilian and Blaine had other commitments and were, unfortunately not able to join in. We see their opinions of the course and the game in the last video.Students of the course


Beginnings, middles, and ends I

book coverJay: The last week of our course will be devoted to the topic of endings. It’s only fitting. The end of our time together will be taken up by consideration of how stories and games deal with the problem of ending. We have a smaller group with us today. Unfortunately, Killian and Blaine have commitments that prevent them from joining our seminar for this lesson. Before we can understand how stories end, we need to know something about the shape of stories in general. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that stories needed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This seems pretty fundamental, but it’s held up for 2,000 years, and we haven’t made that much progress beyond Aristotle’s insight. But the simple insight of his bought with it a whole host of implications that we’re going to talk about today. Let’s begin with the beginning.

Chelsea: That’s a very good place to start.

Jay:  Yes, it’s a very good place to start. What goes into a good beginning? Dianne you have thoughts about what goes in to a good beginning in a story?

Deanne:  There can be lots of different things. I like, and this is very broad, something that captures my attention. So it could be something that is a relatable story perhaps or it could be something that’s just fascinating, maybe something I’ve never heard of before. It could be action packed, any of those things.

GookJay:  So, that’s like a hook in a newspaper article. A hook alone doesn’t start a story into action. So, what makes for a hook that is a narrative hook? Don?

Don:  I think one thing that’s necessary is that this hook has…… I think of it as like a domino effect it’s connected to a chain of other things…..

Jay:  Yes?

Don:  …..that are going to follow.

Jay: Yes.

Don:   ….in order, it has to have some length.

Jay: So, if it’s, it’s part of a chain, which is a great point, but how does it become the first link in a chain? You see the question of what goes in to a good beginning is not instantly intuitive, is it? Really, it needs to pose a problem to the reader. It has to set something up. Think about a simple genre example, like a mystery story. It starts a mystery. That enigma at the beginning that mystery tales have turned into the entire principle of their narrative is a good model for what needs to happen really in all the games. There has to be some change or problem posed, that grabs your attention, that links to other things, and that allows you to introduce the chief players in the action. Aristotle thought that a great story should begin ‘in medias res’, in the middle of things. It really should just break right in and that was somewhat implicit in most of the things we’ve just said. Does the Fellowship of the Ring begin in medias res?

Chelsea:  Not really. It begins in the space between acts. If you think about the long history that is a constant presence of the book but isn’t actually in the book.

Jay:   Yes. That’s why it needs the prologue. Tolkien was so interested in creating this entire imaginative world that he had an elaborate backstory, a history going back two previous ages of middle earth. He wanted to have the reader understand that entire surround as part of it. You don’t immediately realize that in fact, you are, as you say, between the end of Bilbo’s story and the beginning of Frodo’s story. Frodo doesn’t know his story is beginning. That’s very common. The main character often doesn’t know that the story has just begun, the reader suspects it or knows it.


Credti- Goodreads.Com

If the reader has read the Hobbit, the reader is pretty sure that there is going to be a good adventure. This ring is the beginning, the passing on of the ring. What happens in middle? Aristotle did not have much insight into middles. He didn’t have much to say about it. He just said that it’s what follows the beginning and precedes the end. That really doesn’t help us much. Other people have really picked up the ball and thought quite profoundly about middles.  Roland Barthes spoke of what he called the “dilatory space” of the middle. What could he mean by dilatory there?

Chelsea: That it flexes, it expands and contracts and contains, the…

Jay: That’s right. And it’s a space for digressions as well. You know there’s room in it to move around. It dilates, it compresses, it can get lost, wander. What word for wandering have we had all course long? ‘errantry’, which contains that sense of erring, of getting lost. A crucial element to this narrative is that no matter how much it seems to wander, it nonetheless possesses a logic that was there from the beginning. That’s what Don meant, I think, when he said that it sets the beginning as the first in a chain. Aristotle talked about that sense of a story unfolding from a beginning in terms of a concept he called, “Entelechy.” So Don can you explain a little more what Aristotle seemed to mean by Entelechy?

Don: I think it’s like that chain reaction idea the idea that the end solves a problem, or fulfils some promise that is posed at the beginning of the story.

Jay: That’s a great definition of his use of it in relation to narrative. He uses it in other ways, in some of his more philosophical writings. The romantics derive the concept of organic unity from this principle that a story grows organically. Dianne, do you have more to say about that?

Deanne:  Yes. I was just thinking that entelechy sounds a little bit like when we were reading Juul, and he was talking about the rules of the game and the way that the game has to operate according to those rules. I’m thinking about the internal logic of the story being parallel to that and being able to see the connection there between these, Aristotelian theories and the much newer gaming theories.

Jay: That is the ideal in a great game, isn’t it? That the logic of the rules would also work effectively with the entelechy in a narrative. A lot of the time that’s not the case. In a lot of games, the rules take our attention.

Deanne:  Yes, and I wasn’t actually even thinking about it being in the narrative. I was thinking about the logic of the game being parallel to the logic of the story.

Jay:   Isn’t that the dream? Isn’t that the dream of a game developer at least in regards to how the game should work with story? I’m sure they have other dreams as well.

Deanne:  Not within the game, not even within the game. Say the game only has rules and no narrative, which would be difficult I think. Some are less narrative but I’m saying that the way that narrative operates in, say, the Lord of the Rings books sets up things that happen that are not possible in real life. We go along with them because that is the logic of the story world. In games I’m thinking of a similar world creation.

Credit – Wikipedia

Chelsea: Chess pieces! Like chess pieces, there’s not a logical reason that they would all have different ways of moving necessarily. And yet in order to play the game you have to adhere to these certain arbitrary rules that you go along with because it’s part of the world of chess.

Deanne:   Mm-hm. Yes.

Jay: You know, this a very fruitful discussion. What we’re driving at, ultimately, is that there are generally two principles of entelechy simultaneously at work. The internal logic of the rule set and the internal logic of the narrative. Sometimes those are more effectively coordinated than others.


Beginnings, middles, and ends II

Frank Kermode

Frank Kermode. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Jay:  Frank Kermode, the great narrative theorist, in his book The Sense of An Ending, talked about middles as a metaphor for our lives as well. He wrote,

“Men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest,’ in medias res, when they are born; they also die  [in the middle] and to make sense of their span, they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.

It’s a really wonderful insight that our need for stories. Our need to have entelechy in our lives is something that we long for because we’re born into the middle of things. There was a world and a life going on before we got here and there will be after we depart. Eventually though a story needs to reach its climax. Aristotle thought that there were two elements to a good climax of a narrative. The first was Peripeteia or reversal. Is there a moment of reversal in The Fellowship of the Ring?

Deanne:    Yes of course. I think Gandalf’s death, changes the story in ways that seem really important in the moment.

Jay:  Oh, it, it’s so upsetting. Now you think he’s dead, so does the Fellowship. You don’t find out until the next volume that he’s, spoiler alert.

Chelsea: Spoiler alert.

Jay: That he’s alive!

Deanne:   I’m thinking about them wandering around the desolate landscape. And it’s just so desperate and it was such a depressing time in the story.

Jay:  Oh, it’s so…… it’s such a downer.

Ian McKellen as Gandalf the White in The Two Towers (2002)

Chelsea:  Gandalf! Particularly since they spent so much of The Fellowship of the Ring harping on about the need to have Gandalf there. Then to have him suddenly disappear right when they need him. ike,

Jay:  I know. It’s really the nadir of the entire book. There are some equally profound reversals of fortune in later volumes. You can see the rhythm that Tolkien was establishing here. He was having a reversal in this novel. He doesn’t have nearly as profound a recognition scene in The Fellowship of the Ring as he does in later volumes, but he does have a little one. Aristotle thought that the other element of the climax of a narrative was an anagnorisis, which was the recognition scene that follows the reversal. At the lowest point you have this recognition that turns the story toward its end, its goal. What small recognition, that Frodo has, really brings us toward the close of volume one.

Chelsea: When he realizes that despite the fact that the Fellowship was built to take the ring to Mordor that it is actually going to be more effective to go by himself.

Jay: That’s right, and, in typical romance fashion, he has to have this recognition over and over again with stress all along. Romance revels in repetition. This is, because that recognition is something that he has to come to terms with several times in the trilogy. We understand it as part of Tolkien’s greatest meaning. So the greatest theme for the book is that this is a burden that Frodo is going to have to bear for himself. The fellowship is powerful and supportive, but finally he has to do it for himself.

Kermode talks about how that ending recognition brings what he calls the “benefaction of meaning” to a story. It’s a, it’s a marvellously resonant phrase. It’s a concord that spreads retrospectively on all the events that have led up to it. When you understand how they fit together, how when you thought you were just wandering, when you thought you were lost in the middle, in fact, you were moving toward something that made some sense and that’s, that’s what Kermode meant by the benefaction of meaning.

Most stories don’t end there at the climax do they? Most stories have something that we, we call the “denouement”. The French word means unravelling. Unravelling the threads of the story winding down would be an English equivalent of unravelling. Oddly enough we colloquially, in English use the opposite term we talk about tying up the loose threads or the wrapping up of a story, which is just the opposite of the literal meaning, but it’s the same principal. There’s not any real denouement in The Fellowship of the Ring. We’ll talk about the denouement of the entire trilogy in another session. The Fellowship of the Ring just ends without recognition really.

Novels famously have trouble with denouement. It’s really the most artificial part. Think about the wrapping up of some classic novel like Pride and Prejudice. There is an entire final chapter dedicated to just telling you what happened to each and every minor character. It begins with what happened to Mrs. Bennet, the heroine’s mother and how she succeeded in marrying off or getting taken care of her various unmarried daughters. It has a paragraph on Mister Bingley and Elizabeth’s sister Jane and their happy marriage. It has a little sentence or two on Mrs Bingley that really desperately wanted to marry Darcy and failed, Elisabeth got him instead. It’s totally artificial. It has no organic unity and it’s not part of the entelechy, it’s the afterthought. Cinema has really developed all kinds of clever ways to do that tying up for.  During the credits you often see what happened to the characters later in life. Can you, can you think of movies like that, that?

Chelsea: Yes. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, there’s that little mini epilogue while the credits are rolling where you see Elizabeth and her son and Will coming back up out of the ocean.

American graffiti ver1.jpgJay:  Exactly and sometimes they do it to comic effect like the Avengers movie, where you just see the various super heroes seated around a greasy spoon having burgers and fries. That’s a really hilarious example. Sometimes it’s very solemn and you’ll have a black screen with white lettering with each character’s fate, what they did. Or sometimes it’s tongue in cheek  like George Lucas‘s early movie American Graffiti had each of the characters going off and doing really unhappy things. It was the same with Animal House, John Belushi’s famous movie.

Deanne:  One of my favourites is in The Sandlot. The end of The Sandlot where you find out that one of the characters has married the life guard that he had a huge crush on throughout the whole movie. And they have 12 children or something

Jay:  So let’s end with the observation that denouement, after-story, is literally after the story. It’s not part of the logic of the beginning, middle, and end.


 Fellowship’s end

Jay: In this class, we’ll talk about the end of the Fellowship of the Ring. Not the end of the trilogy, but of volume one of the trilogy. Tolkien has a little bit of a problem doesn’t he? He’s publishing this as an individual volume, but it’s part of three volumes. He says that he didn’t really consider it even a trilogy he considered it more of a three-volume single novel. Nonetheless, the book has to come to an end. It has to have some sense of conclusion. Let’s talk about that.

Boromir – Credit -theargonath.cc

In book two, chapter 10 the novel begins to come towards a close with the council at Parth Galen. You remember the scene. It’s the point of decision-making, where they’ve pulled up on the banks of the lake. They start discussing whether they ought to go towards Minas Tirith as a Fellowship, or whether they ought to go toward Mordor, East or West? They have a debate, but ultimately, the decision rests on Frodo’s shoulders. This is yet again where Frodo has to experience the fact that he’s alone in some fundamental sense with this burden.

“Well, Frodo, said Aragorn at last. I fear that the burden is laid upon you. You are the Bearer appointed by the Council. Your own way you alone can choose”. Frodo did not answer at once. “The burden is heavy. Give me an hour longer, and I will speak. Let me be alone!”

Jay: So what happens in Tolkien? Frodo wanders off by himself.

Deanne:  And Boromir follows him.

Jay: It’s trouble. We’ve seen it coming. Can you tell us some more?

Deanne:  Sure, of course.

Jay: So, tell us the story.

Deanne:  Boromir who has been, all along, drawn to the ring can no longer resist it and tries to take it from Frodo and Frodo slips on the ring and escapes from him to the summit of Amon Hen.

Jay:  Really the principle point of the novel is that Frodo has to choose. He has to make that decision. How does the film completely change that?

Chelsea:  In the first place, Frodo is not the one giving the decision about where they’re going to go.   Aragorn just makes it executively.

Jay:  That’s right; they really portray Aragorn as the leader, settling the direction, taking charge after Gandalf’s departure. Why would Peter Jackson have made that choice?

Don:  I think, in terms of Hollywood cinema there may have been this interest in creating this man versus man masculine struggle that is typical of movies, action hero type movies.

Jay:  That’s right. It’s a real interpretive choice. What’s Boromir’s relation to the ring?

Deanne:  I think he’s always been tempted by it?

Jay: Yes. He longs for it. He longs for it.

Deanne:  I think that is reinforcement that man is greedy for power.

01.FoTR - 43. Parth Galen

Credit – councilofelrond.com

Jay:  Greedy for power, except for Aragorn. The scene that we saw in an earlier session of Aragorn resisting the temptation, Frodo offered him the ring, only appears in the movie. That’s not part of the novel. Clearly Peter Jackson had made an interpretive decision that it was the question of the temptation to power, the failing to resist the temptation, and the success in resisting it. Boromir’s failure, Aragorn’s success, was the theme he wanted to dwell on, whereas Tolkien was coming back to that theme of the burden on the individual, on Frodo’s crisis.

How in the world is the game going to handle this? The developers of Lord of the Rings online have brought players all the way into the Rohan expansion. The epic quest leads you to Parth Galen. You have a number of side quests right there. It’s beautifully rendered; this is one of the crucial scenes, the most memorable scenes in both the novel and the movie. Despite each of their varying interpretations of what was important in this scene in each case they were incredibly powerful scenes. How are the developers going to handle it?

session captureThey created something that they called session play. It’s a way that they invented to have you participate in the drama of the Fellowship. Even though, as we’ve emphasized all class long, that you’re not actually with the Fellowship, you’re following in their footsteps. They enable you to play Frodo in the Council at Parth Galen. I think it works. It’s bold, I think it works let me show it to you. You have layers of frame narratives, because you and your proper character have already, as part of your epic story, gone back to the city of the Elves, and revisited the Mirror of Galadriel, where she invites you to look in and see what happened in the past to the Fellowship. Your character gets to peer into the mirror of Galadriel. This is supposedly what you see. So you can see Frodo at the Council observing the other members

Chelsea: In these temporary characters are we, or is the player, always Frodo?

Session play 3Jay:  No, the, the player is…you get to be the player that the game developers decided would be best for that session. As you see that’s a fairly artificial way of trying to capture Frodo’s interiority. You have him meet what’s clearly a dream version of Elrond. Then Frodo –  well you –  reading a dialog box of Elrond’s thoughts. It’s better than not having it there at all, I guess, but it shows the difficulty that game developers have in trying to capture interiority that is related to an existing narrative that they’re remediating.

Deanne: I almost wish that they would give you some verbal narration instead of having to read it in the dialog box. Because the dialog box makes the remediation very obvious instead of transparent, I think, somehow.

Jay: Yes.

Session play 5Deanne:   It makes it more, feel more like a video game than you’re in a story.

Jay: A voice over might work.

Deanne:  Yes.

Jay:   Star Wars: the Old Republic has done that extensively. They spent a lot of money with really professional voice actors making almost every interaction of significance be a voice over rather than reading. But even so, you have to click on him.

Deanne:  Yes.

Jay: Him or her.

Chelsea: Plus, you’d have to be pretty focused. The nice thing about a text box is that, say you’re struggling with your controls when this is going on, you might miss something you can’t re-hear potentially.

Session play 4Don:  Or another solution that is more often seen in console games is cut scenes where these emotional, or feelings or interiority are rendered more cinematically,

Deanne:  Mm-hm.

Jay: Yes, and Lord of the Rings has plenty of cut scenes. But you’re right this is a supplement, this is an alternative to the cut scene. This is a playing through session play.

Deanne:   And I do like that instead of the cut screen you get to actually play the story line, so….

Don: Yes.

Jay:  Somewhat in this moment, yes, in this moment. So session play is one way that the developers handled the players experience at Amon Hen. The other way is the simple quest at that location, and one of the quest sequences takes you up the Amon Hen to the seat.  After you’ve gone up there with your player and successfully killed the hordes of orcs that are infesting the top of Amon Hen in the game you can have a moment of privacy and it’s really a spectacular view.

QuilpSo here is my healer, Quilp, on top of the, the seat in Amon Hen looking out over the vista toward Mordor. In the novel Frodo could see the armies of Mordor preparing. Your character can’t. There’s a clear reason for that. You’re not wearing the ring that enabled Frodo to see what Sauron was seeing just as Sauron could see Frodo. So, you can see far, but you can’t see into Mordor.

Chelsea: I just really love the touristy aspects of The Lord of the Rings.

Deanne:   I do, too.

Chelsea:   I just really love that. Then even in the narration of the book itself,  it constantly makes concessions to, “oh, there’s that famous thing, let’s all stop and look at it for a minute,” the game does the same thing. It’s just great.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Jay:  That is so important. It’s a pleasure that some players enjoy more than others, but, I’m with you, that is such a major feature of the game. The more you know about Tolkien’s world, the greater that pleasure is when you just see this little landmark. You still meet the pony Bill, after he had been set loose at Moria, you meet him and you send him back. You see Bill Ferny’s house in Bree. It’s just these little locations. The game is shrewd enough not to call your attention to them but just to let you, see it or not see it.

bill the ponyThe novel ends with them setting out. Sam has foiled Frodo’s plan to go alone to Mordor, and forced Frodo to take him along. The ending, it’s really not much of an ending. The final sentence clearly just sets up the continuing journey.

“Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.

Jay:  It’s a dramatic way to say ‘to be continued’ but there is more of an ending, two paragraphs before isn’t there?

Deanne:    If you read the primary narrative here of Sam and Frodo’s relationship, there is a clear progression, a moment where Frodo agrees that Sam is going to go with him.

Jay:  That’s right.

Deanne:  But it started to feel like it has a briefer…….. It doesn’t have a denouement. I do think that you can see that Tolkien wanted it to be a part of one book in the ending, because it does feel very abrupt despite that momentary triumph.

Jay: I think you’ve captured it really well. The deepening of their affection is the development that brings the novel to a close. Frodo says,

“So all my plan is spoiled”, said Frodo,” it’s no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! We will go, and may the others find a safe road! Strider will look after them. I don’t suppose we shall see them again”.

“ Yet we may, Mr. Frodo. We may”, said Sam.

Jay: There’s the emotional end of the Fellowship of the Ring.


The many ends of The Lord of the Rings

Jay: I didn’t ask you to read the final volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I think we need to talk about it to get a sense of ending, for this great romance quest that we’ve been exploring. We’re going to talk about the ending of the Return of The King, the final book in the trilogy and I will explain what you need to know about it, in case you haven’t read this, this volume.

In chapter 3 of book 6 of the trilogy called Mount Doom the last, words of that chapter seem to be a really powerful end. Let me read it to you. It’s Frodo speaking, he says,

“For the quest is achieved, and now all is over. I’m glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam”

Jay: Then the chapter ends. An you think, well that was a good novel. The movie does it as well. The movie has an even more dramatic moment. They’re on a rock in a sea of lava.  I don’t know why they’re not asphyxiated by the heat, but anyway, Frodo says much the same thing. Let me show it to you.

Jay: Frodo’s words there really announce closure, conclusion.   The quest is achieved I’ve done it. I’ve thrown the ring in all is over, that’s twice he’s said the book’s over. It’s not the book that’s over. ”It’s the end of all things, Sam”. I mean this is like the end of the world or at least Frodo and Sam’s world he thinks

Chelsea: At this point you look at the section of pages left.

Aragorn and Arwen, I'm happy for y'all and I'ma let y'all finish, but Eowyn and Faramir make the best romantic couple in the whole book. The whole book!Jay:  That’s right. You either look at how many pages you have to go or, if you’re reading it online you have to look down at your scroll bar or something, but you turn the page and you discover what? Another chapter? And in fact there are two more chapters of really dramatic action. You have the battle before the Gates of Moria which is one of the climaxes of the surrounding story. This has mainly been the story of Frodo’s quest to destroy the ring. But the ancillary stories have been really important in particularly The Two Towers and The Return of the King. The battle before the gates of Moria is a really amazing scene. Then the rescue of Frodo and Sam, once again the eagles come into play.  It worked in the hobbit, and maybe Tolkien thought he was onto a good thing. Then another chapter about the steward and the king, Faramir is left behind, he’s now the steward because his father has killed himself. It’s about Faramir’s romance with Eowyn. A chapter of healing both spiritually and literally and after those two chapters of action which brought to the close all our major plots you have four more chapters of denouement. Think about these chapters of denouement. One is called More Partings, which is everybody saying goodbye to everyone else and celebrations and pageantry. That’s fun and very gratifying. Then you have Homeward Bound, where they make their way back home. They encounter Saruman, still in his tower, still alive and they spare him, unlike in the movie, where he dies at that point. Then there is The Scouring of the Shire. They arrive back at The Shire, that’s mainly Merry and Pippen’s time to shine. They become real heroes as they return to the shire. Then, the true last chapter, The Grey Havens. We’re going to look more closely at The Grey Havens in a moment. Let’s talk about the, The Scouring of the Shire briefly. They return but it’s to a changed Shire. What has changed?

Deanne:  The trees are cut down it just doesn’t seem to be the happy place that it was when they left.

Jay: Oh, it, I think you’ve understated it.  Don

Don:   It’s pretty post-apocalyptic.

Jay: Oh yes. Almost. It’s just devastated. It really seems to offend Tolkien. Not only the cutting down all of the trees which he can really understand, but he’s really irritated at all these brick buildings  that have been thrown up. Hobbit holes have been dug up and replaced by ugly brick buildings poorly made. What’s happened to the old mill?

Deanne:   It’s turned into the new mill, which is ugly and brick. When I read that it reminded me of the end of the foreword, where he talks about his own childhood home becoming industrialized. He ends this paragraph with

“Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but, his father, the Old miller had a black beard and he was not named Sandyman”.

Deanne: He has love, nostalgic love of the pre-industrial home of his youth. We see that the characters who return home also wanted it to become the way it was.

Jay:  The way it was. Your word, pre-industrial is exactly right. Tolkien seems to be complaining about is industrial blight. It’s really a particularly 19th century version of industrial blight. We’ve been emphasizing all class long of Tolkien’s youth coming out of the 19th century. Look at the description of the new mill.

“It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. They saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness; a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with the steaming and stinking outflow.”

Jay:  He’s really repelled by this 19th century industrial blight that has replaced the shire. It’s not just The Shire that’s changed, and that would actually ruin one of the major themes if it was only The Shire. Chelsea, why is it important that it’s not just The Shire that’s changed? It’s Frodo, too, who’s changed.

Chelsea: Because the whole arc of the story is Frodo’s growing up as a person, and becoming a new changed person by his quest.

Jay:  That’s right. And Tolkien really hammers that point home. He says that more than once in book six, chapter seven, the chapter called Homeward Bound. Frodo says,

“Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.

Jay: In chapter nine he says in another version of the same thing he’s discussing with, with Sam.

Frodo says, I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger, someone has to give them up, lose them so that others may keep them.

Jay: As we’ve seen in an earlier class, this is really one of the most fundamental things of romance, of heroic romance in particular. The person, the hero who saved the town in a western or any community has had to do such extraordinarily painful, often violent things that he cannot return to the place that he fought to save.


The many ends of The Lord of the Rings (continued)

Jay:  The penultimate chapter has its own version of the renewal of fertility. Who brings fertility back to the Shire, Don, do you recall?

Don: Yes, Sam, he sprinkles his seed and all this connotation.

Jay: The dirt that Galadriel had given him. That’s right, Galadriel, you remember, gave a gift to each member of the Fellowship. To Sam the gardener she gave this bit of Earth from Lothlorien which turns out, of course, to be immensely fertile soil. He takes one little grain of dirt and in each place he puts it there was a great tree. Where the party tree had been cut down he plants the seed and it’s a Mallorn seed of course, the tree is sacred to the elves. It’s the only Mallorn that grows anywhere in Middle Earth outside of elvish lands. So, The Shire afterwards is better than ever.

Mallorn Trees – Credit – mmorpg.com

Jay: One surprise in the novel, particularly if you’ve only seen the movie, is the person doing all these devastations, the boss named Sharkey, turns out to be Saruman. He hasn’t been killed in his tower the way the movie does it  While the fellowship was wending its way slowly home, visiting old friends and taking their time. He had rushed back to the Shire and intentionally destroyed it to try and make them, the hobbits, suffer the way they had contributed to his suffering.  Saruman does die Wormtongue is finally driven just too far and stabs him. In the movie, Peter Jackson has Wormtongue push Sauroman off the tower. The manner of his death changes, but the fact that Wormtongue does it is unchanged.

Jay: At last, we reach the final chapter of this long trilogy The Grey Havens. As we’ve seen Frodo can no longer stand the Shire. Four years after the events of the quest, after they began the quest really, in the autumn again, around the same date. The novel began around Bilbo’s birthday. Sam and Frodo go to meet the last of the elves who are making their trip to The Grey Havens. Bilbo’s there with them, half asleep on his own pony. It’s very touching. Sam and Frodo go on the trip and go through The Grey Havens. It’s really a very moving scene. The film is fairly faithful to the novel. It captures some of the emotion, though I think that some of Gandalf’s speeches seem a little more sententious when you hear the actor speaking them than when you read them on the page. I was really impressed by one feature of the visual landscape of The Grey Havens. In the novel it’s not described at all. There’s virtually not a word, a visual description of the Grey Haven. Just

“a white ship lying and upon the quay beside a grey horse stood a figure robed all in white awaiting them.”

Jay: I believe that’s it. So Jackson had a free hand. This is what he gave us.

Grey Haven

Jay: Of course, this scene is in autumn, it’s the setting sun, clearly looking west, we’re about to travel across the westward sea. So what are all these motifs of the west and autumn signifying?

Chelsea: Closure, the end. They are like the decline or the moving into the end into the end. Yes.

Jay: That’s right. It’s a very traditional symbol in, in literature and in painting. So, where do you think Jackson got his inspiration?

Deanne:   There are so many paintings from the mid-1800s. I thought immediately of J.M.W. Turner‘s paintings in Venice that have a very similar structure. Turner is very well-known for putting the sun right in the middle of his paintings as well. I think this is appropriate since we’ve been talking a lot about the pre-Raphaelite appearances of the women in the movie, and some of the romantic connections literary connections, and we see that and through the visual representation too.

File:Joseph Mallord William Turner 008.jpg

Canal Grande in Venedig – Joseph Mallord William Turne


Jay: That’s right. Just to clarify I know you Turner was not a pre-Raphaelite.

Deanne:  No.

Jay:  But, he was a romantic 19th century painter English painter. I think that’s a great connection.

Don:  The scene really reminds me, in terms of the way it’s synthesizing in nature, architecture, and this harmonious or paradisiacal whole, seems to be borrowed from video games actually. It recalls for me moments in The King’s Quest series or the Final Fantasy series.

Jay:  I love that comment because it really illustrates right here, at the end of our class, one of the things we’ve talking about all throughout the course which is the circulation of imagery and motifs back and forth between video games, film, literature, art, the romance tradition. It really becomes irrelevant which had priority, which he borrowed from, which was first. Our culture has become so deeply intertextual, so deeply intermeshed with all the other elements of media, that this cross fertilization is really a characteristic of our digital age. Your comment about paradisiacal synthesis of architecture in nature goes way back to the motif of the temple and the labyrinth in romance literature with the temple in nature being the image of the golden age, the paradise on Earth and labyrinth, or the cavern being the oppositional image of what it was and being lost in the bottomless pits of the cavern or in a labyrinth. Peter Jackson is drawing on that deep cultural motif of the temple in the landscape to animate what in Tolkien was just a single sentence.

The Consummation of Empire. Oil on canvas, 1836-Thomas Cole


Turner could be an inspiration I was thinking of Thomas Cole, and his Course of Empire series. Here you see his image, The Consummation of Empire with the same harbour opening. There it’s not evening, so that’s clearly not a direct inspiration but opening toward the sea with the temples along each side. This is the third in the series, and the last is Desolation. There you see even more, I think, clearly. Jackson leaves his temples intact. But you’ve got here the ruined temple in the landscape that we’ve seen in scene after scene after scene of LOTRO the game and the film and the books as well.

Desolation. Oil on canvas, 1836 – Thomas Cole


Deanne:   I think it’s also significant that this scene, this ekphrasis and moment of eckphrasis in the film is happening when we know that the age of man is dawning. So we have this transitional period. This also made me think of another Turner painting that’s in Skyfall, the most recent James Bond movie, where, Q, who of course has the technology that James Bond is not that keen on. Q meets him in the national gallery in front of The Fighting Temeraire being pulled to her last berth to be broken up. This beautiful sailboat, that was part of the Spanish Armada, is being tugged by this ugly steamship.  You have little unassuming Q with his tiny gun, handing it off to Bond, who still wants to be the old fashioned muscle. Again, it’s evoking not only the shift in media that we’re seeing here but, a shift in relations between humans too, I think.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838 J. M. W. Turner

Jay:  That I think it’s a splendid way for us, to end our discussion today.


Gameplay: Helm’s Deep and the Breaking of Isengard

Battle of Helms DeepJay:  The game we’ve been playing, The Lord of The Rings Online, is still a work in progress. The story has not reached its end. No doubt the game developers hope to carry their narrative on to an epic conclusion. If all goes as planned, I imagine the game’s climax is still years away with the taking of Modor, and the destruction of Sauron.  The game designers may even envision a quota involving the return to the Shire and the departure of Frodo, Gandalf and elves for the western lands. But until that final expansion is released, players are caught up in the middle of the story, fighting and exploring along the route taken by the fellowship in Tolkien’s novel. Since launching, the game has followed the path of the Fellowship through the Mines of Moria, into Lothlorien, and out onto the plains of Rohan, where we have had the chance to be present at the battle of Helm’s Deep, the sacking of Isengard, and the Paths of the Dead.

Helm's DeepWith the Helm’s Deep expansion, the game introduced several new features that have interesting consequences for the way the game handles narrative. Helm’s Deep brings you closer into sync with the action of Tolkien’s texts, than earlier chapters in the game. You begin in western Rohan, where you assist in the evacuation of women and children to the mountain refuge called Helms Deep, and you fight rear guard actions against the armies of Isengard. When you ultimately arrive at Helm’s Deep it’s the day before the battle. You’re welcomed in to the ranks and given tasks to help prepare the fort for the coming engagement. These tasks help familiarize you with the layout of the mountain stronghold, and introduce you to the role you will play in the coming battle.

Helms deep 2For the first time since the launch of LOTRO, you will have the chance to fight alongside the main characters from the books. You’ve crossed their paths from time to time but never before have you been allowed to play a real part in any of the major events from Tolkien’s story. However, the decision to allow you to stand shoulder to shoulder with Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn presented the game designers with several interesting challenges. They had to come up with a way to have your character participate in the events in Tolkien without tampering with the story itself. We’ve talked about this problem in earlier lessons when we discussed session play. But, now the game is attempting to involve you in a deeper layer of the Meredith. The designers want to give you a chance to be there at the moment the battle occurs, not re-visit a moment from the past or from a dream, as in most of the previous session plays. Why should this make a difference?

The problem, it seems to me, stems from the fact that your character participates in two rather different fictions at once. Tolkien’s story of the battle for Helm’s Deep and your own, emergent story involving the character you’ve created in the game. In this second story you spend much of your time worrying about levelling up, doing quests designed by the game makers and socializing in the game world. Each of the two fictions has a different status as narrative. Tolkien’s fiction is complete and self-contained. It is fixed and many fans regard it as sacrosanct, something not to be tampered with for any reason. As evidence, allow me to mention the outrage in some circles that greeted the embellishments Peter Jackson brought to his film of The Hobbit.

Your character’s fiction on the other hand is a blended creation. It is participatory and still evolving, a mixture of your own interests, the traits your game character has acquired and the narrative pointers that quests provide. The problem is compounded by the fact that you must be able to roam around Helm’s Deep at different time periods to be able to fight at different stages of the battle. You arrive the day before the battle. As evening comes you fight at Helm’s Dyke outside the walls. During the night, you are driven back behind the walls. At around midnight, the outer walls are breached allowing Orcs to storm into the fort. The explosive charge that leaves the outer walls in ruins creates a scene of devastation that is powerfully rendered in the game. How then can Helm’s Deep be depicted both as a scene of devastation following the battle for some players and it’s an impregnable fortress girding for war for others? The problem was designing a mechanism that rolled it out players to visit Helm’s Deep at each of these stages without having the zone locked in at any one moment in time. The solution was to create a series of items in the fort that became portals to different temporal zones. When your character reaches a new stage in the battle, you’re directed to click on the table or the banner or the spear and you’re transported to a different time of night.

Interesting as these game mechanics may be, I want to draw your attention to something else in the game play in Helm’s Deep. In keeping with the focus of the last week of the course on endings, I want to draw your attention to the deepening elegiac tone of the expansion. We may not be accustomed to thinking of the providing mood or tone of the game module, a feature of narrative we’re more familiar with encountering in literature and film. The games are capable of creating a predominant mood of comedy, of violence, of phonetic action, of cynicism, of mystery, or of countless other emotional states. Throughout Lord of the Rings Online, an elegiac tone has lain just below the surface. Think of the ruined film landscapes, the sunken city of Annuminas, and the lost mines of Moria. You feel a sense of melancholy in the golden leaves of Lothlorien or in the stories of exile told by you companions on the trip down Anduin. But with Helm’s Deep and the last march of the Ents, the elegiac tone deepens. We see King Theoden learn of the death of his only son, Theodred, We watch what he believes will be his last charge through the crumbling gates of Helm’s Deep.

Helms deep 4The morning after the battle, the tone of melancholy is pervasive. You access the zone by clicking on the banner labelled ‘sunrise’, which ports your character to early morning. There you witness the aftermath of war, the rows of bodies laid out for burial, tended my women in mourning. Then you emerge on the plain before Helm’s Deep, a scene of carnage and destruction. You are sent to speak with each of Tolkien’s heroes, Gandalf and King Theoden, Legolas and Gimli, Eomore and his prisoners. You help with the wounded and bury the dead. The tone of melancholy continues into the next set of quests, the breaking of Isengard. Not long after the battle for Helm’s Deep you were directed to journey back to Isengard to see what has become of Saruman. There you discover Merry and Pipin presiding in comfort over the wreckage of Isengard.

March of the entsA highlight of this episode is the chance to enter a session in play as one of the Ents engaged in the sacking of Isengard, called the last march of the Ents. This session play is suffused with sorrow and rage the Ents know their way of life is drawing to an end, and even though they triumph in battle, the focus is on loss. Creatures who have lived for thousands of years have died in this struggle and much of the forest that was their home has been chopped down and burned. As with the Elves, who know their time in Middle-earth is ending, the Ents too feel an era drawing to a close. This is how Lord of the Rings online has chosen to respond thus far to the elegiac tone of Tolkien’s masterpiece.


Quest’s end: Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

File:Adventures of Ulysses 02.jpg

Adventures of Ulysses

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Jay:  With these famous words, Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses comes to a close.  We near the end of our course with this session on Tennyson’s great early lyric Ulysses.

Tennyson wrote this poem in 1833 shortly after his dear friend Arthur Hallam’s death and there is an elegiac sense to the poem though it’s certainly not an elegy. He published it in book form in his 1842 volume of poems. It’s really one of his more famous poems. It’s not too long and I think we can read it together during this session and explicate it. I chose this poem because it captures the difficulty of what comes after the great heroic epic actions.

File:Villa Romana de La Olmeda Mosaicos romanos 001 Ulises.jpg

Ulysse, La Olmeda à Pedrosa de la Vega

The poem is set well after Ulysses, or Odysseus, as he’s called in Greek, has come back from his voyage. He’s come back from the plains of Troy, to Ithaca, where he has found his wife Penelope fending off the suitors and dealt with the suitors. Now decades appear to have passed before the opening of the poem. He’s unhappy with life. It must be hard for him to be living in such mundane circumstances after the adventures he’s been through. We know from our discussion of the third volume of The Lord of the Rings that Frodo was forever changed by his voyage, and couldn’t settle down in the Shire. Tennyson portrays Ulysses in a rather different way. His reasons for being unable to settle are quite different from Tolkien’s. I underline again that I don’t see this poem as a likely source for Tolkien’s depiction of the end of the Lord of The Rings. There’s not a shred of doubt that Tolkien would have known this poem. Every educated Englishman knew this poem in Tolkien’s day.  I think that Tolkien has taken such a different approach to, the fate, the lot of the hero after the epic adventure. That if anything he wrote against Tennyson’s vision. This poem will give us a good perspective on what Tolkien chose to do.

So let’s read this poem. I’ll start.

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.


Don:   One thing that I think is interesting is this person is clearly reflecting upon experience. And you can tell, perhaps reflecting upon, experience from a vantage point of great distance.

Jay: Do we know who’s doing the reflecting?

Chelsea: If you’re familiar with Ulysses the character then you can make a pretty good guess.

File:Odysseus pushkin.jpg

Odysseus. Cast in Pushkin museum

Jay:  So the title is your cue that it’s Ulysses. It’s interesting in that, that you don’t get the I, the speaker until the third line “it little profits then an idle king”  he was talking about himself in the third person. You only realize that in the third line when he says I. Why’s he calling his subjects there in Ithaca savage?

Deanne: One of the most interesting things to me about the opening of the poem is the characterization of his own people who seem, he says, savage, that, he uses these verbs, they hoard, and feed, which we think of animals doing not human beings. I think that this characterization is meant to clue us in that he’s seeing his own people, from the distance that you mentioned earlier that maybe he’s bored by them, he’s seen so much else in his adventures.

Jay:  What would lead him to be that jaded about human beings, really?

Chelsea:  It’s interesting, he’s not just talking about them in unflattering tones, but he says that he ‘metes and doles unequal laws’. So he’s even including himself in this, it’s almost disgust.

Jay: Yes. “I feel disgust for the human species” and if you know Homer’s epic you can understand that he’s seen the world. He’s seen more sophisticated places. He’s seen the most bestial possible depictions of human behaviour when Circe turns all his men on the ship into beasts, usually depicted as swine but in fact they’re all manner of beast. That’s a metaphor for what they already were in Homer. Part of that disgust that Chelsea has so well identified in that tone, I think comes from all he’s seen and learned about who he is as well as what humanity is. It’s not a pleasant view certainly it’s not a view that, that Tolkien would attribute to Frodo or to Sam on their return so you can see right away the difference.

Don:  Sorry.

Jay: So Chelsea, why don’t you pick up the next lines?


I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea:

Jay:  Alright, splendid. So Hyades a different, unfamiliar word to many people. It’s a constellation and it was often thought that if it rises with the sun, that was a weather portent for a rainy season, hence Tennyson calling it rainy. “Thro’ the scudding drifts” so he’s thinking about his time on the ship. The ship is scudding through the drifts. “Vext, the dim sea”. Great rhythm there. What is the phrase “drink life to the lees” mean? Yes?

Don:  Basically drink until you finish your, your wine.

Jay:  Quaff it down, take the whole mug. “Drink it to the lees,” it just means really indulge in life. He feels like he’s not doing that anymore. Only when he was on adventures, on quests was he drinking life to the lees. Pick up, Don, with “I am become a name.”


I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

Deanne:    “I am become a name” is such powerful sentence, and in that is the title. It’s this legend that we recognize immediately when we see the man’s name, we see the legend. Such a powerful line!

Chelsea: And yet, a certain amount of emptiness for a real, actual person.

Deanne:  We’re always roaming with a hungry heart. That was reminding me of “drink life to the lees,” the insatiability but if you drink life to lees, it’s also drinking the worst part, like the very last, and so I think that situates us in a poem temporally too, that he is at the last part.

Jay:   One similarity between Ulysses’ situation and the end of Tolkien’s trilogy, is “myself not least but honoured of them all.” I think one of the great pleasures of reading one of those chapters of denouement where they’re homeward bound, is seeing Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin be treated so differently. Deanne, why don’t you skip the two lines and start with “I am part of all that I have met.”


I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

Jay: “Wherethro’ Gleams that untravell’d world,” really powerful image.

Don:  Yes, I think it’s really powerful, this, image of this arch adventure gleaming through it, this arch of experience, tempting and engaging the hero to move onward and continue onward., and this idea of forward momentum and movement being really essential to his ethos.

Jay:   With Turner and Thomas Coal’s fresh in my mind, the Grey Havens as depicted by Peter Jackson, I see this as a similar visual image. Here it’s looking through an arch rather than out through a harbour. But it focuses the eye on this distant goal that you can’t see; all you see is the glimmer.

File:Claude Lorrain 024.jpg

Odysseus returns Chryseis to Her Father


Quest’s end: Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” continued

Jay: So let’s move on:

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Jay:  What has Tennyson done here when he references following knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bounds of human thought? How has he changed the goal?

Chelsea:  It’s also interesting that he’s chosen a quest that does not have a completion. You can’t catch a star. Theoretically, that would then mean that the quest would then last indefinitely.

Jay:   Exactly, and that goes back to the image of the margin fading forever and forever when I move. He’s intentionally setting himself a goal that can’t be reached. He’s discovered what it means for him at least to fulfil a goal. Upmost bounds of human thought, very evocative words. One thing that he’s done is he’s taken that quest inside. He’s turned it into an interior quest. That’s really the last unexplored terrain, inside yourself. If you’re looking for an image of a quest that’ll never end it’s exploring the utmost bounds of human thought. So in that respect it’s certainly about poetry itself. I hear Tennyson reflecting on himself as a poet, that his poetry does engage in that infinite quest.

Deanne: This idea of trying to think beyond thought. I think it’s related to his craft as a poet. We think about the use of alliteration in these lines, and he’s got the iambic rhythm throughout the lines. It’s a rhythm like that in poetry. It takes poetry, beyond intellectual thought, in the sense that it becomes really bodily. When you read it, you feel the rhythm; you are compelled forward, like he is in the poem.

Don:  That line “for some three suns to store and hoard.”  Yes, I hear it, I hear it there especially.

File:Telemachus and Mentor1.JPG

Telemachus and Mentor

Jay: That’s one of the ways poetry fuses emotion to thought, is almost bodily in the meter, in the rhythm and, in the sound, as Don is pointing out. I’m going to ask us to skip the next paragraph. It’s devoted to Telemachus. Telemachus is Ulysses’ son if you remember the opening books of the Odyssey, goes off with his tutor Mentor, to find out what has happened to his father, why he’s been away at Troy for so long. Here Tennyson depicts Ulysses as leaving his kingdom to his son. His son is really engaged in the ordinary everyday life of governing. In some ways, I think his son is really admirable. He has taken on the responsibility of running a kingdom, which Ulysses is shirking as he takes off for further adventures, whether inward or outward. He’s taking care of the household gods, the last line of the verse paragraph.

He works his work, I mine.

It’s pretty memorable. I think we want to focus on the hero returning. Let’s jump to the next section. Chelsea, read to us from “there lies the port.”


There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;


Don:  There’s the sense here that he’s preparing for his voyage in the most literal sense. “There lies the port, the vessels puff her sails.” He’s basically ready to go. This is, what these lines indicate.

Jay:  If you remember, that’s essentially the entire line of description that Tolkien gave to the Grey Harbour. Just a white sail, in a harbour, tied up next to a keel Here it’s a gesture, there lies the port. The vessel puffs her sail, is eager to get off. They’re old. They’ve been brave with him, they’ve experienced everything he has, he’s showing his sailors so much more respect than he shows his countrymen, his people, his subjects. “You and I are old, but, but old age hath yet his honour and his toil.” Don, read on.


Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices.

Jay: Those lines are pretty self-explanatory. Anything strike you?

Deanne:   I really like this phrase, “not unbecoming men that strove with gods”. Because it assumes we’re unassuming. We may not do anything becoming or complimenting or fitting for men who strove with gods. We’re going to do something that’s not unbecoming to them.

Jay: More imagery of the end of the day. “The long day wanes, the slow moon climbs. The deep [the deep sea] moans round with many voices.”

Don:   Yes, and even the vocabulary choices, “the lights begin to twinkle from the rocks”. This suggests twilight and this is the space that poets often invoke to think about those moments before death. That’s what this is about “Death closes all but something ere the end,” Something before death that’s this moment of high drama and expectation.

Deanne: Yes, so what I also love is the image, the mental image, of setting sail in the middle of the night, or in the beginning of the night. The darkness of the sea reminds me again, to go back to the part where he imagines thinking beyond thought and complete obscurity and he’s setting off into something that he doesn’t know.

Jay:  It’s an entirely new interpretation, or an interpretation we haven’t mentioned yet, of this poem, which is that it’s about death.

Deanne:  But isn’t death the unknown? What I think……….

Chelsea: The next great adventure.

Deanne: It’s fairly safe to say that no one is confident of what lies beyond the gone.

Johannes Stradanus - Ulysses at the Entrance of Hades, the Underworld (Odyssey, Book XI)

Ulysses at the Entrance of Hades, – Johannes Stradanus Credit – Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Jay:  Yes, Exactly. Alright. That is a way to read this entire ending, just as it’s a way to read Tolkien’s treatment of the Grey havens, that it’s a metaphor for death. We will see that Tennyson brings that out even more in the ending lines of the poem. Who’s turn is it?


 …….Come, my friends,

‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

 Jay:  “Smite the sounding furrows”, the furrows being the troughs in the waves. To sail beyond the sunset, I don’t think we need to underline anymore that it’s the end of evening.

Don:   I think the word “purpose” is useful here to draw attention to. Somewhat like, in my mind, Childe Roland. The protagonist here seems to have a purpose, but the purpose is not defined. Like, there’s no sense that there’s this end goal.

Jay: Yes.

Don: Rather the purpose is to continue questing. The purpose is to not give up, to not rest.

Jay:  I’ll continue.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

I’ll pause there because this ending is so impressive that I want to give us time to savour it. The Happy Isles.

Chelsea:  That’s the Elysian Field?

Jay: That’s right. That’s Elysium.

Chelsea:  Pretty sure Achilles is dead.

Jay:  Achilles is dead, so as I said, that the motif of sailing to death, or toward death. Or is a possible reading that gains reinforcement right there.


Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Jay:  What’s the tone of the final lines here?

Deanne:  Triumphant.

File:Pittore di dolon, cratere lucano a figure rosse, con ulisse che consulta lo spirito di tiresia e giud. di paride, 380 ac. ca 02.JPG

Odysseus in the underworld

Jay: Yes, it’s triumphant. For much of the poem we’ve been registering tones like disdain of what humanity has become. We’ve read, never resignation, but certainly a hint of accepting death. We’ve had tones of adventuring into uncharted seas of thought. Here this really strikes me as a new note.

Don:  A word here that strikes me as important is “will” which is opposed here to time and fate in the sense that it again, this idea of perseverance, this forward movement, this momentum, is part of this triumphant feeling that we arrive at, which is strongly contrasted with this feeling of ( as you were saying) of despair and gloom in the beginning of the poem, so it does come to this crescendo, and really just…..

Jay:  “Strong in will” is strong in an interior strength that we’ve just had in Achilles, one of the great physical heroes. Ulysses was always known for his mind, his cunning and will is another internal characteristic that is what’s being exalted here at the end of the poem.

Deanne:  I imagine he feels exhilarated here. Because he’s finally moving and at sea, if when he say’s “push off”, they’re actually doing that, I imagine. He feels, in a way back at home on the ocean instead of in his own home which he sees as foreign.

File:Francesco Hayez 028.jpg

Ulysses at the court of Alcinous – Francesco Hayez

Jay:  He’s come back to it, the home has changed and he’s changed too. “Push off” shows you what this is somewhat about. Ulysses is an imminent metaphor for the poet as well as a metaphor for – or not a metaphor for a hero but a literal representation of the hero – but a metaphor for all of us in our human lot. He’s a metaphor for the poet in the sense that the word, the language, “push off”, made the action happen. You really captured it when you said that we’ve set sail. We’ve started our voyage of discovery, along with Ulysses. “Though much is taken, much abides.” That’s a brave line in old age, all of those friends taken in battle.

Chelsea: All those faculties, like bodily and mentally.

Jay: Taken much abides.

………and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

Don:  Toward the end of the poem, we are now using the word, or encountering the word “we” so there’s this sense of a collective as though this band of people who come together to do something that it would be impossible for one person to do.

Chelsea:  And not just that, but it adds into the feeling that, Ulysses is already moving into the collective of the dead. You know.

Jay: Let’s end with that thought. I know that it would so appal some people to hear this great revered, canonical English poetry juxtaposed, “The strive to seek, not to yield” juxtaposed with role playing games, but that is one of the largest lessons of this course, which is that our culture integrates all, is open to all, and that hearing these resonances in the most ephemeral of entertainment makes for a richer experience of life, not a poorer.


Optional: Valedictory Video

Jay: What have you learned from participating in a MOOC?

Deanne: I think it’s amazingly powerful how many people can be reached, just the sheer numbers of people who can become a reading community.

Kilian: First of all, there’s a deep sense of humility. I have interacted with my co-participants here, a smaller discussion group, but also in the course at large. It’s been extraordinary to see the quality discussion that’s gone on.

Blaine:  There were so many experts in the forums, who had 80, or level 85 and had brought all of this experience and knowledge that they shared online. So I really liked how we’re learning from multiple sources and people.

Chelsea: I would say that the thing that I’ve taken most from this class is an awareness of how community-based gaming really is.

Blaine: What’s been so surprising and great about the MOOC is how it can bring together this participatory culture online in these learning communities.

Chelsea:  And I don’t just mean the gaming community within LOTRO itself, I mean, even our conversations here in class. The interaction between participants on the forums, all of this has contributed to my idea of gaming as this highly social activity. And it’s in complete contravention of the popular idea of gamers as these people who sit alone in the dark with no friends.

Kilian: The second thing that I’ve taken away that’s been a bit curious is a realization from playing LOTRO that my behaviour tends to go something like this: approach a group of enemies with my friends, run up land a blow on one of the enemies and then run away and make my friends do the dirty work. And I don’t know what that says about me as a person, or as a game player. But this is something that I’ve had to come to grips with about myself.

Deanne: I would say that most of the video games that we played today have adventure narratives from classical romance literature.

Jay: So, how would you bring Lord of the Rings Online to a close?

Kilian: I can’t imagine doing so. The road goes ever on and on, I think that to bring it back to a comment that I made at the very beginning of the course, if I think back to my very, very young self, and the video games that I imagined making of the Lord of The Rings. We’d have to move on from here to the Silmarillion or something like that.  Just keep it going and going.

Don:  You have some of the most difficult foes that you’d encounter throughout Lord of The Rings. And maybe even in books that we had not encountered previously in the books, but in all the Silmarillion. And they just become this epic series of boss battles.

Deanne:  No close, no, it needs to remain open. I want to play Galadriel, that’s my new….. that’s what I want to happen.

Jay:  Really?

Deanne: Yes.

Jay:  So, do you visualize yourself in combat with Sauron?

Don: That’s a frightening prospect, but absolutely I’m up for it.

Chelsea:  I would say that one of the best things about games is the narratives, either the narratives that are part of the game, or narratives that you are building into the game if it doesn’t have one. And so who wants the story to stop? Who wants dawn to come? Who wants parents to finally say, no more stories, it’s time for sleep? No ending, no ending

Jay:  Do any of your friends give you grief for playing online games?

Killian: Yes I think that the trajectory of emotional response tends to go shock, confusion, curiosity, jealousy and then rage, that they’re not able to do the same thing. I think my friends and family have expressed a certain amount of surprise. But I’ve been surprised by the extent to which this is actually, when I’ve mentioned it to people, it has come to seem something really intuitively worth doing. It hasn’t been a tough sell; I’ll put it that way. People seem to be really interested in exactly what, what the course is attempting to do.

Jay:  You helped us design the sequence of first asking students to do screenshots, then asking students to do video captures, and then finally giving students the option to build a game of their own and use screenshots and or video captures for it. Then what do you think about that arch now that that we’ve seen it in action once?

Blaine: I think it was on a……. we thought of it as a way to progress through modes. Starting off simply with screenshots and bringing in more modes and technology as we go. But what I really liked about those projects is that students are not only consumers of these rich, digital texts, but they could also have the possibility to create them themselves.

CheersJay: This is an awfully small stein of beer.

Don: They come in pints.

Everyone: Cheers.


If you enjoy reading my notes consider making a small donation to one of these charities. No donation is too small, you could change a life.




  1. Jay Clayton says:

    Reblogged this on Syllabus – Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative and commented:
    With Week 6, we reach not only the end of the video lectures but of Claire-Louise Taylor’s wonderful, enriching transcripts. They have greatly enhanced the course for us all. Thank you again.

  2. Lillian Alden says:

    Many thanks Claire for your transcribed notes through this course. Your capacity for hard work seems boundless. I hope our paths cross again in some other MOOC in the future.

  3. Solange says:

    Dear Professor Jay Clayton,
    Thank you very much for your lectures! They were amazing!
    Blaine, Chelsea, Deanne, Don and Killian, thanks for your comments and for making the classes so lively!
    Claire-Louise Taylor – last but not least -, thanks for the really useful transcripts!
    Bye! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: