A matter of perspective - chapter 3
It was later in the evening. Telperion's cool light illuminated a festive crowd that showed no signs of slowing down. Nerdanel, however, was flagging.
She hadn't spoken to the Prince, or the King, or the Queen. She'd approached the group around Queen Indis, close enough to hear her voice, but lost her nerve and moved away again. She'd talked to Vilyië briefly, a few forced words of politeness before both of them found an excuse to move on. Once Lissiel had rushed up and grabbed her, all bubbly and excited, saying "Isn't this fun! I'll talk to you later!" before vanishing again. She'd avoided Arawendë altogether. There'd been a few other conversations with groups of strangers; polite enquiries and casual chit-chat. She didn’t want to seem anti-social, after all.
At length she'd found a quieter room, where a series of small tables had been set up for people to sit at, maybe enjoy a drink or a light snack, engage in more private conversations, or just chill out and relax. More intriguingly, though, there was a series of low, waist-high columns of stone down the centre of the room - and featured individually on each of them was a small sculpture or artwork.
Nerdanel wasn't sure if they were always displayed like this, or if they'd been put out specially for the party. Maybe King Finwë particularly wanted his guests to see them, for some reason. Nerdanel was happy to oblige. This was, as they say, relevant to her interests.
She first walked slowly the length of the room, taking an unhurried look at each sculpture in turn to get an overall feel for them. There was no common theme that she could make out: - several humanoid sculptures (Elves or Ainur), one of a spray of roses, another of a cat nursing a kitten. She grimaced at the last one; that was a little too over-sentimental for her own taste.
The flowers were very impressive, though. She didn't often do still-lifes herself, but she could appreciate the technical skill needed to carve the delicate stems and thorns and petals without cracking the stone. In fact, she thought, that was a subject that she'd have done as a bronze casting rather than marble. Carving the roses out of stone seemed almost ostentatious; a way of announcing to the world, "Hey, I'm a master sculptor, look at me!" She shook her head. To her mind, art was its own reward, not a medium for advertising your genius. Though admittedly, it was nice when people appreciated your work...
There were no abstract works; everything was a life study, done with great precision. Despite the lack of a theme to the collection, there was certainly a commonality between them. The same artist, she thought, or perhaps students of the same teacher.
She returned to the first sculpture and studied it more closely. It was a female figure with waves washing around her feet — whether it was meant to be Uinen, or a lesser Maia of the sea, or just an Elf-woman going for a paddle, wasn't clear. She was naked, but her long hair was coyly arranged to cover the essential bits.
From the front at least. As Nerdanel walked in a circle around the plinth, she saw that the sculptor had spent quite a lot of care and attention in carving the statuette's bare bottom. She rolled her eyes.
Not, she admitted to herself, that she hadn't enjoyed sculpting the occasional well-chiselled (hah!) male torso in her time. She wasn't in a position to judge. And anyway, there was nothing to be ashamed of in the nude Elven figure, and physical beauty was there to be admired, wasn't it? But still, she reckoned that she had a pretty good idea of the likely gender, and possibly the age group, of the artist who made this statue.
She bent down to study the base of the statuette, with its waves frozen in white marble. There were three small letters chiselled carefully into the stone - CFF. She considered them for a moment, then smiled wrily. She might have known. From everything she'd heard of him this was exactly the sort of thing Curufinwë Fëanáro, Finwë's son, would make.
'But this means he's an artist! Like you!' said a tiny voice in the back of her mind. She pushed it aside sternly. An ostentatious, conceited artist who makes lascivious statues of naked women, she scolded her subconscious. And worse still, statues of kittens. Clearly beyond help.
She straightened and took a look around the room. Just people minding their own business, a sanctuary of quiet in the hubbub of the royal party. She turned her attention back to the statuette and forced herself deliberately to examine it with the critical, neutral eye of a professional artist. Forget who made it, forget his choice of subject material; just how good is it from a technical point of view?
She spent some time on considering the matter - Lissiel could never understand how Nerdanel could spend so much time staring at one single work of art without getting bored, not understanding how each tiny shift of perspective brought a new insight. Her conclusion, reluctant though it was, was that the artist who carved this was highly skilled. A master, in fact. But - she thought this with no small degree of smugness, which left her feeling rather shocked at herself - it wasn't quite as good as her own work.
It was difficult to say why not. Certainly there were no technical flaws in the carving. But there was something just indefinably off about it. Something that nagged at her artistic senses. She remembered a similar feeling from her own half-finished work back in her studio. What was it?
She bent down to take a closer look at the statuette, putting her head at its eye level, then straightened again.
Then it hit her. Of course!
"Hey, I see you're looking at that statuette. Do you like it?"
The voice came from behind her, and made her jump. A man's voice. She felt a flash of irritation. She'd just had the most important idea ever, something that could change the whole way she made her art, and now some guy was interrupting her to make polite conversation?
"Mmm", she said, in as non-committal way as possible. Hopefully he'd get the hint and leave.
"That was a very non-committal 'mmm' sound", he replied.
Nerdanel almost screamed at how accurately he'd read her. Yes of course it was, it was meant to be, she wanted to say to him. Congratulations, you read my mind! But that little voice inside her was saying, Hey, that was pretty good, you know? He's sharp. And also sarcastic, and a lot more honest than most everybody else you've spoken to today.
Instead she settled on a much more neutral, "Yes, well, it's not bad, I suppose" as she turned to face him.
He was a young man, fashionably and expensively dressed. Long black hair with that 'slightly-tousled' look that took a stylist an hour to achieve (so Lissiel told her, anyway. Nerdanel kept her own hair cropped short for convenience.) He was smiling politely at her. He was alone; Nerdanel didn't know why he would have come to this out-of-the-way room. He looked more the sort to be out on the dancefloor, surrounded by hordes of admirers. He was... well, let's just say he looked the type to have hordes of admirers.
Nerdanel suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to sculpt a statue of him. It would be magnificent. It would be glorious.
The little voice inside her told her to get a grip on herself and not scare the poor guy off. He was being perfectly friendly. Sociable, even. In fact, the voice told her, don't get your hopes up too far, don't jump to conclusions, but there might just possibly be a small chance that he's chatting you up. Yes, I know that doesn't happen very often. Are you interested?
He was looking at her. As their eyes met Nerdanel's stomach gave a lurch. There was such an intensity in his gaze. She...
She'd totally blanked what he just said to her, hadn't she? Get a grip, woman.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Oh smooth, Nerdanel. Tell him you've not been paying attention to him, why don't you?
"I asked if you knew who made the statue. Normally... well, let's just say I'm curious."
Nerdanel's flustered state suddenly flared into irritation. Of course she knew who made the statue. His name was on the base. She told him that, in as many words. She'd just about had enough of social climbers, and mindless flattery, and palace politics, and bitchy so-called friends, and people who thought that Prince Fëanor could walk on water or fly to the stars just because he carved a few statues. Not even very good statues.
The poor man looked quite taken aback. He was probably sorry he ever came over to talk to her. The voice inside her was frantically waving its hands and telling her to slow down, but Nerdanel's blood was up now. Apparently other people had said good things about the statues, he was saying - or trying to say, since she wasn't really letting him get a word in edgeways.
Of course other people praised the statues. What else were they going to say? Prince Fëanor was the king's eldest son, the Crown Prince of the Noldor, and the most eligible bachelor in Tirion. It was obvious that anyone praising him or the works of his hands was likely to have ulterior motives!
She finally wound down, breathless. The man was staring at her, a look of pure shock in his eyes.
Nerdanel began to feel much the same way herself. What was wrong with her? She never spoke like that, not in public. Not to strangers. She'd probably offended him mortally, Not to mention that her comments about the Prince had quite possibly been treasonous. Maybe she should leave now. While she still could.
"Do you really think it's not that good?"
His words were challenging, incredulous... but Nerdanel's hyper-alert senses detected something beyond that. A touch of uncertainty? A need for reassurance? She doubted he'd admit it to her, but something inside her softened nevertheless.
"I didn't mean it like that. Technically, it's flawless."
He met her eyes, and once again she felt that strange physical reaction inside her as their gazes linked. He raised an eyebrow, and she knew he'd sensed the unspoken 'but' in her last sentence.
Something compelled her to be honest with him. And as she spoke she felt the rightness within her, because this was the secret she'd perceived that gave her the key to her own art.
"It's the proportions. They're all wrong."
"No they're not! They're perfect!"
"Yes, and that's why they're wrong!"
He was being very defensive about the statuette, Nerdanel thought. A nasty suspicion as to the reason why was lurking in the back of her mind... but it was much too horrible to contemplate, given the long fiery rant she'd just aimed in his direction about Prince Fëanor and his circle of flatterers. Also the very idea was ridiculous and impossible. He was obviously just some random stranger with an interest in art.
He was protesting now, complaining that the proportions couldn't be wrong, they were modelled exactly on life. How exactly would he know that? wondered Nerdanel. But it was too late to reconsider - and anyway, she had to explain her idea to him. About the proportions, and why they could be right and yet wrong.
It was about the perspective. The angle from which you looked at something changed the way it appeared to you. Stretched and thin, or squat and foreshortened. It was an optical illusion. But it didn't have to be. This was the idea that made her heart pound in her chest, her eyes glow with excitement as it unfolded within her mind. Art didn't have to follow life strictly one-for-one. Art was representational, and that meant you could change it. Create the angles and proportions the way the viewer would expect to see them in her mind, instead of the way they'd appear by nature. You could make art that looked more realistic than nature itself!
She was working it out in her own head as she spoke, fumbling each idea into place, trying to understand how they fitted together. She knew she was right, and he was letting her speak. In fact, he had a very odd expression on his face, as he watched her pace up and down, waving her hands as she struggled to express the concepts that were bubbling up inside her. He seemed rapt, and his eyes... his eyes were shining.
He even seemed to understand what she was saying, which was pretty much a first in her experience. Although... understanding wasn't the same as agreeing. Far from it.
"But that's ridiculous! Are you saying you should make it wrong deliberately?"
Nerdanel was used to people rejecting her ideas in scorn, usually because they hadn't really understood them and weren't interested enough to listen to her explanation. But this was different. He did understand her, and he even seemed interested. She'd have to convince him through reason and rational argument. Well, that was intimidating. And exhilarating. And maybe a few other things, when his eyes locked with hers and seemed to burn right into her...
She did her best, honestly she did. Their argument was like a rushing stream, leaping from rock to rock down a mountainside, every point opposed immediately by a counter-point, jumping from one challenge to another, ideas spinning off at tangents that were entirely related to the main argument even if they seemed not to be at first. It was exhausting, it was exciting, it made Nerdanel's heart pound and her breath come faster as she heard the passion in his voice, in his words that countered all her arguments...
He was cleverer than her. The realisation came as a shock, but she couldn't deny it. He understood her arguments immediately; he usually (but not always) had a counter-point ready to go straight away. She, on the other hand, often didn’t quite grasp what he was saying at first, had to poke his words around in her mind a little before she could reply - though at least she always had a reply eventually.
Oddly, this discovery didn't upset her. She wasn't particularly arrogant, she thought. She'd never imagined she was the World's Most Intelligent Elf. For another thing, she'd spoken to several of the Valar, and she knew nobody incarnate could ever approach their vast, deep wisdom. But even so... she was used to being the quickest on the uptake of all her friends. The one who understood things faster. Usually, the one who had to explain them to the others, often several times in increasingly simplified language. She had enough ego that it felt a little bruising to be on the other side for once. But it also felt... in a peculiar way, it felt liberating.
It was like a horse which lives its whole life harnessed to a cart, plodding slowly through the streets of the city... but one day, its harness is released and it sees the immortal horses of Lord Oromë galloping across the plain. It runs to join them, wild and free, all burdens cast off, free to run as fast as it can, not having to look back to see what it is leaving behind, not worrying about who it is outpacing. No, it might not be able to keep up with them forever - but for a time, a mortal horse has run side-by-side with the Wild Hunt.
She blushed, embarrassed at her thoughts. He looked at her and shook his head.
He could out-talk her, she'd discovered that. But he was still wrong, and she was right. All his fancy arguing couldn't change that, and she wasn't about to let herself be turned around by mere wordplay and clever rhetorical tricks. She grinned at him.
"And you're a dumbass."
That took him aback. Nerdanel almost giggled aloud, until she hushed herself. Maybe she should have tried playground insults from the start, rather than reasoned debate.
He was practically spluttering. Apparently nobody had ever - ever- called him that before. Nerdanel could believe it, actually. The man was quite clearly some sort of high-level genius - but she'd caught him out a few times, and he'd said some things that she'd known were just plain wrong, and she'd told him so. He wasn't perfect.
It was obvious, though, that he wasn't used to being called out on that. He clearly needed someone in his life who was able to call him a dumbass from time to time. Nerdanel could...
Nerdanel could be astonished at her own presumption and audacity, actually. She didn't even know his name yet and she was wondering how to make herself part of his life! Ridiculous.
His eyes were so intense. He was looking at her again, staring at her, in fact. And an expression of amazement was spreading slowly across his face.
"Well, I'll be— You're right."
What? Right about what? Right that I should be a part of his life? No! I didn't mean... I'm not ready...
"I think you just may be actually right about perspective, after all."
Oh, that. Stupid perspective. Stupid meaningless argument. His eyes...
His eyes were glowing again, like his innermost spirit was on fire as he gazed at her in wonder.
"I was wrong."
Nerdanel quirked a smile. Somewhere inside her, that little voice was jumping up and down and flailing incoherently and trying to call her attention to what she'd just seen, but she didn't care. She knew - forget intuition or foresight or any of that supernatural stuff, she knew because she was actually quite clever and good at reading people, that something hugely, massively, incredibly significant had just happened.
She didn't think this man had ever uttered the words "I was wrong" before in his entire life. And he'd said it to her.
She felt like singing. Instead she said in a tone that was carefully calculated to sound casual, "Am I allowed to look smug now?"
He grinned at her. He said in the driest possible voice, "You were right about the statuette, not the 'dumbass' thing." Nerdanel giggled, she couldn't help it. And he was laughing too, laughing along with her. Together.
Nerdanel took a deep breath, then smiled at him. He gave her a conspiratorial, shared-knowledge smile back. Behind him, she became aware that quite a few people in the room had stopped what they were doing to watch them. Normally this would have embarrassed her, but he didn't seem to mind, so she didn't let it affect her either.
He leaned over to look at the statuette, muttering the words, "Perspective. It's about perspective" under his breath. Then he straightened and looked at Nerdanel with deep respect in his (glorious!) eyes.
"You're absolutely right. There are as many perspectives on something as there are viewers of it..."
"No, there are more," interjected Nerdanel. He frowned - he wasn't someone who was used to being interrupted, she guessed. But she didn't let herself be deterred, and pressed on: "Each viewer can see things from multiple perspectives themselves. It depends on what they bring to it–"
"Of course! Their expectations, their preferences, their—"
"I was thinking of them standing at different viewing points, actually. But you're right! Their memories of similar things they've seen would also influence how they approach the new thing—"
"Yes! Like how people see what they expect to see, instead of looking at the reality—"
On they went, taking each other's ideas and adding to them, passing them back and forward, even completing each other's sentences occasionally. His earlier flash of surprise was long gone; he was letting her speak and listening to her with almost frightening intensity. Sometimes when she was in full flow she'd catch him looking at her with the oddest expression on his face; a look she'd never seen before... at least, not being directed at her.
It made her feel tingly and warm inside. It made her feel she could never possibly live up to his expectations - but because she was a stubborn-headed blacksmith's daughter, she knew she was going to go ahead and do it anyway.
But now he put up his hand and fell silent for a moment. He was thinking hard: she could practically see the thoughts buzzing around him, falling into place...
"Perspective, viewpoints, viewpoints... I wonder if it would work for painting too?"
"How do you mean?" Nerdanel had tried her hand at painting a few times, but it didn't appeal to her as much as sculpture. Still, she was genuinely curious to see what he had in mind. She could see the excitement building in him as a new idea blossomed in his thoughts. It was a feeling she knew herself so well.
"Yes! I'll show you! I just need something to draw on."
He whirled away and paced down the room, Nerdanel following him. Show me? Did he bring an artist's easel and paints to the party with him? She was intrigued. By this stage she was ready to believe just about anything about him.
But she wasn't expecting him to stride over to one of the side-tables that lined the edges of the room, say, "This'll do!" and grab the white cloth that covered it - to the shock of the two highly respectable senior Elves who were sitting at it quietly sharing a bottle of wine.
Nerdanel's protest was, if anything, louder than theirs. She saw them grab their drinks and lift them up just in time for them to be not sent flying as he pulled the cloth from the table. From over his shoulder, she offered them a frantic, hand-waving apology. He didn't even notice.
She poked him hard in the ribs with her elbow. He looked at her in shocked surprise.
She nodded her head imperatively towards the couple and whispered, aghast, "You can't just do that! What will people say?!"
He looked as if that question had never occurred to him before. He opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. But Nerdanel wasn't done yet.
"Apologise to them! And hope they don't..."
"But I..." He paused, then smiled ruefully. "You know, you're right. Again." He turned to the two Elves and offered them an apology which, if slightly too flowery for Nerdanel's preferences, at least had the benefit of sincerity. She was listening with hyper-critical awareness, so she'd have detected if it wasn't. Certainly the couple whose drinks had been interrupted were happy to accept the apology. Almost anxious to accept it, in fact.
But that duty done, he put them from his mind and unfolded the cloth in the air with a crack, then laid it down on the floor. He patted the pockets of his robes, clearly looking for something.
Nerdanel reached into her own pockets and brought out a stick of charcoal she always kept there for making quick sketches when inspiration struck. He took it with thanks, then looked at her almost shyly and said, "You too, huh?"
Then he knelt on the ground and started drawing on the white cloth with rapid, sweeping strokes. No, thought Nerdanel, not me too. I draw in a sketchpad, or sometimes on a piece of scrap canvas. I do NOT grab one of the King's own tablecloths out from under the glasses of people using it, spread it out on the floor of the Royal Palace and start drawing on it! This man was... he was... unbelievable. That was the only word for it.
She should probably leave now, before he got her into even more trouble.
He turned towards her, excited, wanting to explain his idea to her. Bubbling over with passion and enthusiasm. She felt herself being caught up in it, swept away in the rushing current. She thought perhaps she should try to resist; that if she ever let go of the riverbank, she'd be lost in it. lost In him.
He was pointing to the lines he'd drawn, explaining about perspective, about the new insight her ideas had given him. He said, "You know how everyone says parallel lines never meet—"
"Well, that's pretty much the definition of them."
"Yes, but if you look at them stretching to the horizon - you know, like the lines of trees either side of the road to Valmar, then it seems like they do."
"Yes! You've noticed that too? Nobody ever believed me when I said it!"
"I know! People don't believe their own eyes sometimes. But what if we do like you said, except in the painting we draw parallel lines converging towards each other?"
"How do you mean—Oh! Yes! Yes, I see what you..."
Nerdanel let go and let herself be swept away.
There was a smash of glass echoing loud through the room. The two of them had been kneeling so close together, their heads almost touching as they worked out a new theory of art on the King's white tablecloth, that it was actually quite hard for them both to spin around to see what had caused it. They almost bumped their heads together, which made them both laugh.
Arawendë wasn't laughing. She was staring at the two of them in baffled anger and shock, the wineglass that had slipped from her fingers lying shattered around her feet. Then she turned and fled from the room.
"What was that all about?" asked her companion.
Nerdanel just shrugged, and turned back to the cloth. "Dunno. Listen, I think maybe we need two of these vanishing points, at opposite sides of the eyeline?"