Thursday, December 27, 2007

’Tis the season ...

During my wife’s fifteen-year college reunion a few months ago, I learned that the son of one of her fellow alumni was a big Tolkien fan. The last time we saw them, Leo was just a toddler, but now 10 or 12, he had been drawn into Middle-earth as fully as readers three times his age (like me). Of course, I don’t doubt the movies did their part too!

So, to help him along, I sent him a copy of the Ace “pirate edition” of The Two Towers (1965), like the one you see here. I happened to have two copies of it, actually, but I didn’t have an Ace Fellowship of the Ring or Return of the King. These are relatively valuable as collectible copies in their own right, but they’re also a comparatively economical way to get a copy of the first-edition text (although unauthorized and likely riddled with small errors). I’m just sorry I didn’t have a complete set to send him.

Now check out the very nice Thank You/Christmas card I got in the mail recently (above; click to enlarge), complete with a hand-drawn illustration. That’s obviously Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in the foreground; a Ringwraith mounted on his Fell Beast in the background; and an Eagle swooping in from above. I love the stubble on Aragorn. Clearly Leo’s conception of the scene was strongly influenced by Peter Jackson — which doesn’t bother me a bit. There are worse interpretations out there.

I do have to say it feels a little strange to be called Mr. Fisher. Am I really getting that old? To a ten-year-old, I suppose I probably look as old as Gandalf. ;)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Beedle the Bard story reviews

Amazon has now published reviews of all five of the tales. Again, note that these contain spoilers! But since none of us has a crack at the real Beedle the Bard anyway, this hardly seems to matter. How else are you going to find out what the book really contains? Unless you happen to have more than £2 million lying around.

Since that was obviously rhetorical, hahae, you’ll find the summaries here. I’d add that these are pretty detailed; one has to guess they’re almost as long as the tales themselves in some cases!

Enjoy! :)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

“Tollkühn” in German Beowulf translations

Now this is just for scholarly fun. I don’t mean to imply anything serious by it, but if you’ll indulge me, I think you may find this interesting. (Yes, I have seen a girl naked; and no, I do not play World of Warcraft. Why do you ask? :)

Last month, I posted some new thoughts on the etymology of Tolkien’s surname. In that post, I quoted Tolkien’s explanation for the name, where he gives German tollkühn “foolhardy” as its etymology. Shift gears with me now. We all know that Beowulf was, in some ways, at the center of Tolkien’s professional study of ancient Germanic literature. How do the two come together? The answer is in ... hwæt for it ... German translation! (Okay, I know that was bad, but give me a break; I’m just trying to entertain you people! :)

If you have access to a rather ponderous tome entitled (with an acute lack of flair) The Translations of Beowulf: A Critical Bibliography — put together by one Chauncey Brewster Tinker (as Dickensian a name as you’re likely to find in real life) — you’ll quickly see what I mean. If you have a copy (and doesn’t everyone?), follow along ...

Tinker shows that the German word tollkühn is used in three different translations of Beowulf from Old English into Modern German (all of the same passage). The first of these is Karl Simrock’s 1859 translation, with caesura (which I’ve replaced with // below). Here’s a little taste:

Bist du der Beowulf, // der mit Breka schwamm,
Im Wettkampf einst // durch sie weite See?
Wo ihr tollkühn // Untiefen prüftet,
Mit vermessnem Muth // in den Meeresschlünden
Das Leben wagtet?

Chew on that for a moment ... Okay. Moving on, we have G. Zinsser’s “selection” (just the first 836 lines of the poem done into German iambic pentameter) of 1881. Zinsser doesn’t represent the half-line structure visibly as Simrock does, and the translation is very loose (as you can see, four and a half lines in the original expand to a full six below). A bit of its flavor:

Du bist gewiss der Beowulf, der einst
Im Meer mit Breca um die Wette schwamm?
Ihr masset damals euch in kühnem Wagen!
Das mühevolle Werk euch auszureden
Vermochte niemand, tollkühn setztet ihr
Das Leben ein und schwammt ins Meer hinaus.

Finally — in Tinker, at least; perhaps there are other examples yet to be mined? — there is Therese Dahn’s “paraphrase,” apparently done with Simrock’s translation in hand. From a “selection” to a “paraphrase” — things seem to be going from bad to worse for German admirers of Old English literature in the late 19th century, don’t they? This was meant to be an abridged prose version suitable for General Readers, whatever that meant in 1883. But evidently those General Readers appeared in droves, as the book went through numerous editions, including an eleventh edition in 1891, just a year before Tolkien’s birth. Dahn had an innovative solution to the poem’s most difficult cruces: “obscure words, phrases, and lines are omitted.” Now why didn’t I think of that?! (What? No, I am not rolling my eyes! :) Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s a bit of her version:

Bist du der Beowulf, der einst im Wettkampf mit Breka durch die See schwamm? Wo ihr tollkühn in vermessenem Mut euer Leben in den tiefen Wassern wagtet? [3]

For reference, here’s the original Old English against which these efforts were made (give or take; I haven’t searched out the specific editions each translator used, though Tinker gives ample details if anyone cared to):

Eart þú sé Béowulf, // sé þe wið Brecan wunne,
on sídne sǽ // ymb sund flite,
ðǽr git for wlence // wada cunnedon
ond for dolgilpe // on déop wæter
aldrum néþdon?

The word for which our three Germans turned to tollkühn is the noun dolgilp “foolish pride, vain-glory”, which is a compound (sometimes hyphenated) of dol “foolish” [Anyone thinking of Tom Bombadil? :)] + gilp “pride, haughtiness”. Thus the choice in German, whatever other faults those translations may have, is quite apt. The English translations I’ve seen offer various solutions — “wantonly”, “idle boasting”, “vainest vaunting”, and so forth — in its place. Seamus Heaney takes us in a somewhat different direction (as he does throughout his translation) with “sheer vanity” [4]. But none of these seem quite as good as “foolhardy” to me. Does anyone know of an English translation that uses this word?

So, in a sense, Tolkien’s name was stamped right onto the poem of which he made such close study. Fitting. I would be very interested to know how Tolkien rendered and annotated these lines himself, but unfortunately, Tolkien’s translations have not been published. Even working from the Old English, Tolkien would hardly have missed this, but I also wonder whether he knew of the use of tollkühn in the German translations that appeared only a generation before him? It’s almost as if Simrock, Zinsser, and Dahn were presaging the arrival of a new Shirriff in Beowulf town. And indeed, in 1936, when he challenged the dismissive and critical milieu of the current scholarship with a groundbreaking essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien might have been aptly described by many as tollkühn. But he opened the gates to the modern study of the poem, and Beowulf has never been more popular than it is today (even if it is as a cartoonish blockbuster movie).

[1] Tinker, Chauncey B. The Translations of Beowulf: A Critical Bibliography. Yale Studies in English, Volume XVI. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1903, p.62.

[2] Ibid., p.127.

[3] Ibid., pp.133–4.

[4] Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, p.35.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Convalescing ...

No posts in the last few days, as I’ve come down with a nasty winter cold and have been laid up in bed the last two days. I actually returned to work today, though I was really here only in body. (Oh, and it didn’t help that our smoke detectors all went off at 4:30 this morning for no reason whatsoever, completely unsettling both us and the dogs.) Ah well, I seem to be on the mend, and at least it’s not trench fever.

Speaking of which (and let it never be said I can’t turn any post into a chance to talk about Tolkien — to my wife’s chagrin!), here’s an interesting piece of Tolkien ephemera for your perusal — while I lie here sniffling and hacking. Go on, enjoy yourselves; I don't mind. ;)

The page includes reproductions of Tolkien’s application for an army commission on 28 June 1915; a copy of the report from Tolkien’s service record confirming his case of trench fever, dated 22 November 1916; and a letter from Tolkien to the War Office on the 2nd of January 1917, declaring himself fit for duty. The opening to a very important year for Tolkien. Fortunately for everyone, a series of relapses, followed by the birth of his first son, John, kept him in England. Had he returned to the western front, he would certainly have joined the “many bereaved or maimed and millions dead” [1].

Wonderful to get a look at these artifacts, isn’t it?

[1] Tolkien actually wrote these words to his son Christopher about World War II (Letters, #96, p.111), but mutatis mutandis, they seem to apply equally well to the Great War.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Amazon buys The Tales of Beedle the Bard

As some of you may have heard, the seventh copy of J.K. Rowling’s book within a book, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, sold yesterday for a pretty sizable sum: just shy of $4 million. About forty times what Sotheby’s initially projected. And now, this morning, news of the buyer’s identity is spreading quickly: What that means exactly — “corporate ownership”? — isn’t completely clear to me. Does it actually belong to Jeff Bezos? Can he just flip through it any time he likes? Anyway, that’s beside the point.

Hop on over to Amazon’s Beedle the Bard page for some sumptuous new photos, a short video, and a review of the first tale, “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” (with spoilers). Reviews of the others tales will follow, so you may want to bookmark the page. I’m not sure who exactly is writing this content, but in his or her own words:
There is no easy way to define the experience of seeing, holding, or reading J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, so let’s just start with one word: “Whoa.” The very fact of its existence (an artifact pulled straight out of a novel) is magical [...]
The reaction is a bit “Keanu” — but probably accurate. :)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Much more than just a Tolkien bibliography!

Like me, you’ve probably heard about Wayne G. Hammond’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography many times. Written with the assistance of Doug Anderson, published in 1993, very thorough (but a bit dated now), expensive — that pretty much sums up what I knew about it. That, and the fact that it’s often cited in arcane discussions of the minor differences between one printing and another (for example, this one).

Well, I’ve gotten hold of a copy for the first time (an interlibrary loan), and I can tell you that it’s all these things but much more, too. For one thing, I hadn’t realized there were quite so many letters by Tolkien published in such a scattering of other books; and Hammond summarizes the important points of most, and offers a quotation from many (see the section “Separately Published Letters and Excerpts”, pp.353–68). These letters include plenty of useful tidbits on sources, etymology, specimens of Old English and Elvish, commentary on the meaning of The Lord of the Rings, and on and on. What a time-consuming process to gather them all together! But Hammond has already done the work for us. All of which reminds me just how much I’d love to see a new, expanded edition of Letters. I know that Hammond and Scull would like to do one; but it remains a difficult matter to convince the publishers of its commercial viability.

Also, for each work whose bibliographical details Hammond presents, he also writes an expository introduction to the history of the work. Some of these are pretty lengthy, and all of them are interesting. Many contain surprises I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. (I expect a lot of these may have found their way into Hammond and Scull’s later books, such as the Companion and Guide, but those are dense enough — wonderfully dense! — that I haven’t read every page of them yet. Far from it.)

A few of those surprises:

I expect that all of you know the titles of the three books of the “trilogy.” But did you know that before these decisions were finalized, Rayner Unwin made some alternative suggestions. If he’d had his way, the three books would have had quite different titles: instead of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book would have been The Lord of the Rings; instead of The Two Towers, The Ring in the Shadow or The Shadow and the Ring; instead of The Return of the King, The War of the Ring. Tolkien responded that he preferred the books be called The Return of the Shadow, The Shadow Lengthens, and The Return of the King. A little later, Tolkien evidently leaned back toward The War of the Ring again, writing in August 1953 that this title “also is more non-committal, and gives less hint about the turn of the story.” He went on to say, “the chapter titles have been chosen also to give away as little as possible in advance” (89–90; see also Letters, p.170–1). Tolkien was spoiler-conscious — I love that! :)

As a child, Rayner almost had another unexpected influence on the course of Tolkien’s work. Some of you know that Stanley Unwin paid his ten-year-old son Rayner a shilling for a “reader’s report” on The Hobbit. Fortunately for us, he liked it! Well, a little later on, Rayner was asked whether Tom Bombadil might make a suitable hero for a new story (see Letters, p.26). But Hammond quotes from Rayner’s answer:

I think that Tom Bombadil would make quite a good story, but as The Hobbit has already been quite successful I think the story of Old Took’s great grand-uncle, Bullroarer, who rode a horse and charged the goblins of Mount Gram in the battle of the Green Fields and knocked King Golfimbil’s [sic] head off with a wooden club would be better. This story could be a continuation of The Hobbit, for Bilbo could tell it to Gandalf and Balin in his hobbit hole when they visited him. (177)
What a different sequel to The Hobbit that would have been!

And here’s another surprise. Many of you might know that the artist who painted the covers for the now infamous Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings was Jack Gaughan (who also did the cover for the Ace edition of Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen — the copy I’ve read for years). Looking at them (see the top of this page), it comes as no great surprise to learn that Gaughan didn’t actually read the books before painting the cover illustrations. But Hammond goes a step further, telling us he was “said to have painted all three covers [...] in a single weekend. He did not have time to read the book, but was ‘talked through’ his art by fantasy writer and critic Lin Carter” (105) — who made a name for himself with Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, one of the first attempts at deconstructing Tolkien’s great opus. I had no idea that Carter and Gaughan teamed up on the covers! Another lesson in six degrees of separation, eh?

And finally, a few quick tidbits. Did you know that an illustrated special edition Hobbit being planned in 1963 was going to be illustrated by Maurice Sendak, of Where the Wild Things Are fame? He did a sample sketch of Bilbo and Gandalf, but the planned collaboration was never completed. A few years later, Sendak did the illustrations for a reissue of George MacDonald’s The Golden Key (which was, indirectly, the inspiration for Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major). Tolkien had been approached to write its introduction but in the event, he left the project (as Sendak had left the collector’s edition of The Hobbit), and instead, an afterword was provided by W.H. Auden, who had been one of Tolkien’s students (201). A year before this, Auden had been asked to write an introduction to The Tolkien Reader, but unfortunately, he couldn’t find the time. Clyde Kilby and Dick Plotz were also considered before the eventual “introduction” — a separately published essay by Peter Beagle — was included (198). It’s a small, tangled world, isn’t it?

And that’s just scratching the surface. So, to bottom-line it for you: this is a book well worth its admittedly steep cover price. Hammond is actually working on an updated and expanded new edition, but I have no idea how long it will be before he can complete it. However long, you can be sure it will be worth the wait, but you may want to get a copy of the first edition now to tide you over (or put in an interlibrary loan request). I know I’m going to raid the piggy bank for a copy just as soon as I can!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Thinking about Radagast

How often does anyone say that?!

Tolkien’s Radagast has to be one of the most overlooked characters in his entire legendarium. And why not? Though he’s one of the few characters who bridges The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, his actions occur entirely off-stage in both books. Tolkien writes almost nothing about him in the published letters, though we do learn a good deal more in his posthumous essay on “The Istari” (published in Unfinished Tales).

Now, by strange coincidence, we now have two extended treatments of Radagast, published almost simultaneously. I discussed one of them recently: Nick Birns’s essay for Mythlore (Fall/Winter 2007, pp.113-26), “The Enigma of Radagast: Revision, Melodrama, and Depth” (read it here). The other is a chapter of about the same length in John Rateliff’s fantastic two-volume study, The History of The Hobbit (Part One: Mr. Baggins, pp.268-80). I’m reading Rateliff’s monumental work in preparation to review it for Mythlore.

Between the two essays, many new insights and theories about Radagast emerge, along with a pretty thorough discussion on the meaning of his name. Thorough, but perhaps not the final word. Since both are available in print now, and some of you may have read them (or will soon), I’d like to offer some thoughts of my own here — specifically on the etymology of the name.

Put on your waders. It’s going to get kinda deep. :)

Birns merely scratches the surface, referring us only to Ruth Noel’s theory that Radagast is “‘Radigost’, a pre-Christian Slavic deity” (116); Rateliff discusses a Slavic source as one of several possibilities, too, but he bypasses Noel and goes right to the source with much greater detail. But Birns does make one satellite point which I think very good: he points to the Elvish root RUSKĀ “brown” for a hint of Russian flavor. (117) This root was the source for Rhosgobel, the name of Radagast’s home; and of course, brown was Radagast’s color in the Order. This is something Rateliff misses in his footnote on Rhosgobel (289). Something Birns misses, on the other hand, is the fact that Beorn’s original name, Medwed, is decidedly Slavic, improving the evidence of a Slavic source for Radagast. Medwed simply means “bear” (or more literally, “honey-eater”) — cf. Slovenian medved, Serbian medvjed, Russian медведь, Czech medvěd, etc.; from an Indo-European root medh– “honey” > English mead. Rateliff acknowledges the name is Slavic but says little more about it.

This is the bulk of what Birns has to say on the subject (since it’s really outside his main purpose), so allow me now to visit Rateliff’s other theories and offer my own comments and further suggestions. In addition to the possibility of a Slavic source, he also posits Old English and Gothic. Well, actually, he first considers the possibility of an Elvish interpretation, though he dismisses this as yielding no low-hanging fruit; and in any case, Tolkien himself decided Radagast was to be “a name [...] of Mannish origin.” So, then, Rateliff turns to Old English and Gothic. What about Old Norse? Rateliff contends “Old Norse is not an option here” (289); however, I’m not so sure I buy his reasoning fully — more on that in a moment. To me, there is the very interesting possibility of Old Norse ráðgast “to take counsel” informing Tolkien’s choice.

But moving on, for Old English, Rateliff suggests a potential reading as “Spirit of the Road”. This would be composed of rád “road” + gast “spirit”; appropriate, considering his reading of Bladorthin as “Grey Traveller” — and I would add that Mithrandir is also quite close to this as well. Rateliff dismisses the element rǽd “counsel” for reasons that seem defensible to me. But then, Rateliff dismisses Old English entirely on the grounds that Tolkien had not yet changed Medwed (Slavic) to Beorn (Old English). I’m not completely convinced, as with the dismissal of Old Norse, and I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Rateliff goes on to talk about the Slavic candidates, with some meaty details, but I’ve already touched on that evidence (above). This leaves Gothic, which Rateliff finds the most probable source. What troubles me here is this: if one may dismiss Old English — “despite the excellent fit in sound and etymology” (277) — and Old Norse on the basis of the Slavic name, Medwed, then why should one not also dismiss Gothic? But to continue ...

Rateliff suggests the possibility of “the Gothic king or war-chieftain Radagaisus (died 406 AD), whose name is rendered Rhadagast in some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources” (278). One such source is an 1829 translation of Alfred’s Old English Boethius. But Rateliff missed an even better piece of evidence: the actual form Tolkien used, Radagast, occurs in at least one other, roughly contemporary, edition of the same [1]. Tolkien’s spelling also occurs in Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [2]; Rateliff cites this source, but gives the spelling of Rhadagast. Perhaps a different edition? The edition I examined showed both spellings.

Despite the dispute I raised above, I do think that a Gothic source is very likely. Turning to David Salo, Rateliff gives *Radagais (“counsel-spear”) as a possible original Gothic form for the Latin Radagaisus. Could be; but why not *Radagast (“counsel-stranger”)? Otherwise, if Salo is correct, where does the –t in Radagast come from? Is it simply excrescent? In any case, I find “counsel-stranger” much more à propos than “counsel-spear” — for Radagast, at least, if not for Radagaisus.

And let’s also consider Radagast’s Quenya name, Aiwendil (given in “The Istari”). Clearly, the name is Quenya and means “friend of birds” — aiwë “(small) bird” + –(n)dil “friend” — as both Birns and Rateliff explain. But could it also be Gothic? Names with double-meanings in two languages are not uncommon in Tolkien — e.g., Orthanc and Mordor, to give a couple of the better known. It just so happens that Gothic aiwaggeli “evangel, gospel”, when pronounced, is quite close to Aiwendil (the Gothic –gg– is pronounced like English –ng–). This is a loan-word from Greek, related also to Gothic aggilus (άγγελος) “angel, messenger”; and it seems pretty compelling to me when taken in the context of Tolkien’s statements that the Istari were essentially “incarnate angels” (certainly in the sense of “messengers”, but also, arguably, in a more theological sense as well) — see Letters, #156.

Is it too great a stretch to suppose that the Gothic aiwaggeli could have helped to inform Tolkien’s choice of the name Aiwendil? Perhaps. Pehaps not. In any event, though the recent treatments of Radagast have brought us much further in understanding him, I’m not sure the final final word has yet been said.

[1] An excerpt in Thorpe, Benjamin. A Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue from the Danish of Erasmus Rask. Second ed. London: Trübner & Co., 1865, p.188.

[2] Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Volume 3 (of 6). London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854, p.364-6.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Six months online!

My, my, tempus fugit. It seems like only yesterday that I finally sat down to create a weblog. I’d wanted to do so for ages, but one thing led to another and that, to something else again, none of which was leading to a blog. But toward the end of last May, I decided it was time: and “Lingwë – Musings of a Fish” was born.

And here it is six months later, and verging on 100 posts. Lingwë seems to be doing well. Some posts have generated a fair amount of commentary (though admittedly, much of it is mine, hahae). A few posts have been on the frothy or gossipy side, but I think a good majority have been a bit meatier and (I hope) more interesting.

It also seems that I have a small, but growing, audience, and I’ve earned a spot on several blogrolls. Lately, I’ve been gathering statistics on the site’s traffic, with fascinating results. On average, it seems I get about 30 visitors a day, which isn’t too bad for a new, and rather arcane, website. The most surprising discovery is the fact that I’ve been visited from 55 different countries, including some really unexpected ones, like Libya, Thailand, Guyana, and even Iran. Here’s the Top 10:

01. U.S.
02. U.K.
03. Belgium
04. Canada
05. Germany
06. Japan (Yes, I’m “Big in Japan” ;)
07. Philippines
08. Australia
09. Finland
10. Bulgaria

Finland — score! Elias Lönnrot would be so proud.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Another update on The Silmarillion: 30 Years On

I have just received my contributor’s copy of the new Walking Tree collection, The Silmarillion: 30 Years On, and have started leafing through it. I’ve noticed a few websites and blogs picking up the table of contents I posted (e.g., here at Tolkien Library; here, in Polish; here, in Finnish; here, in Italian; and here, in French), so I wanted to take the opportunity to provide the actual table of contents, as well as the final order (as published).

Allan Turner, Preface
Rhona Beare, A Mythology for England
Michael Drout, Reflections on Thirty Years of Reading The Silmarillion
Anna Slack, Moving Mandos: The Dynamics of Subcreation in ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’
Michaël Devaux, The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research
Jason Fisher, From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, and Jerome
Nils Ivar Agøy, Viewpoints, Audiences, and Lost Texts in The Silmarillion

The cover also has a beautiful watercolor illustration: Anke Eissmann’s 2006 painting “Following the Swans”, which depicts Tuor’s journey from Nevrast to Vinyamar, following “seven great swans flying south.” Heretofore, the Walking Tree covers have been rather, well, plain, so this is a very welcome change.

I do have one small gripe: there’s no index! Nor was there an index in another recent title, Ross Smith’s Inside Language: Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien. Why not? Both books are short (c. 175pp.), so it cannot be the constraints of length. I hope these are not harbingers of an emerging trend at Walking Tree. [Update: It does not appear so. The omission of an index in this volume was only due the tight timetable for publication, I have learned.]

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gandalf disses Dumbledore

Okay, not exactly. But for those who enjoy a little gossip, I came across a tasty tidbit this morning. Apparently, when Richard Harris passed away, Ian McKellen was approached about the part of Dumbledore — dueling sirs. :) But McKellen has this to say about the question:
People say to me, ‘Don’t you wish you’d played Dumbledore?’ I say no! I played Gandalf! The original. There was a question as to whether I might take over from Richard Harris but seeing as one of the last things he did publicly was say what a dreadful actor he thought I was, it would not have been appropriate for me to take over his part. It would have been unfair.
That sounds like a reasonable response to me. Though with the recent revelations about Dumbledore’s sexual preferences, perhaps Sir Ian would have been the best choice after all. (Sorry, couldn’t resist teasing.)

The rest of the article is also well worth reading, ranging, inter alia, from Tolkien to Rowling to Pullman (McKellen is the voice of Iorek Byrnison in the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, debuting next week). How I wish I could see his King Lear! He was brilliant in the 1995 film adapation of Richard III.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Upcoming publications on Tolkien and Lewis [Updated]

Forgive the surfeit of ego, loyal readers, but what is a blog for if not to trumpet one’s own successes from time to time? And so, armed with that flimsy excuse to crow, I have several announcements of impending publication to share:

First, my contribution to Walking Tree’s The Silmarillion: 30 Years On is finally on the horizon. There’s even a cover design — quite a nice one, too. Walking Tree have finally opted for cover illustrations. The book hasn’t shown up in Amazon’s inventory quite yet, but it should be there any day now. [Update: It’s on Amazon now, here.] Uncharacteristically, the Walking Tree page doesn’t enumerate the contents, so here’s what I have (the titles may have changed; this was early, provisional information):

- Nils Ivar Agøy, The Supposed Audiences of the Ainulindalë, Valaquenta, and Quenta Silmarillion
- Rhona Beare, A Mythology for England
- Michaël Devaux, The Origins of the Ainulindalë
- Michael D. C. Drout, Reflections on Thirty Years of Reading The Silmarillion
- Jason Fisher, From Mythopoeia To Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, And Jerome
- Anna Slack, Moving Mandos: Subcreation and the Voice in the Tale ‘Of Beren and Luthien’

There was also supposed to be a seventh chapter, but its author (who shall remain nameless) was unable to deliver it after all. Too bad. It promised to be very interesting indeed. Perhaps we’ll see it in another collection some day. In any event, I’m absolutely delighted to join the ranks of these other seasoned scholars, some of whom I’ve worked and corresponded with before, others of whom I’ve never personally met.

Second, another book chapter, which began as a conference paper in early 2006: “Tolkien’s Felix Culpa and the Third Theme of Ilúvatar.” This will be appearing in Truths Breathed Through Silver: The Inklings’ Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy, edited by Jonathan Himes, and forthcoming from Cambridge Scholars Publishers in February 2008. I don’t know the full table of contents for this volume yet, but I can tell you that it’s got chapters by some very big names in Inklings studies, including: Tom Shippey, Rolland Hein, Thomas Howard, Ralph Wood, and Joe Christopher, just to name a few. And again, I’m humbled to share pages with such luminaries.

Third, I’m currently in a mad dash to finish a promised chapter for Tolkien: The Scholar as Minstrel, a new book edited by Bradford Lee Eden. This title is forthcoming — or perhaps I should say it’s being considered; I don’t know the state of their agreement — from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, some time in 2008. My contribution will be “Horns of Dawn: The Tradition of Alliterative Verse in Rohan.” No clear idea of the rest of the contents, but I’ll post with more information when I have it. I do have an idea of the dozen or so contributors, but sharing that list might be premature.

And finally, another conference paper turned book chapter: “Tree of Language, Tree of Tales: A Shared Metaphor in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien” was accepted for inclusion in Through the Wardrobe: Essays on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, to be published next year. The editors are John Briggs and Craig Svonkin of the University of California Riverside, but I don’t know the publisher yet. More details as they develop.

So there you have it. From soonest to latest to appear. And I trust you’ll all rush out (or rush online) to get your copies the minute they’re available — if only to read the chapters by Shippey, Drout, Agøy, et al. But hey, I’ll take whatever exposure I can get. :)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New thoughts on the etymology of “Tolkien”

J.R.R. Tolkien famously discussed the etymology of his own surname in a letter to his American publisher, Houghton Mifflin in 1955, where he also seemed to register some annoyance at repeated misspellings of it. This misspelling probably owes something to the frequency of a similar suffix, –stein, in German names; I run into the same thing myself when people assume that my last name must be spelled Fischer — which I hate. Even when there’s a logical reason, misspelling a prominent individual’s name is simply careless, and I can certainly understand why Tolkien would have lost patience with it. And as if spelling it incorrectly weren’t enough, many people mispronounce it, too. Tolkien himself explained: “I am nearly always written to as Tolkein [sic] (not by you): I do not know why, since it is pronounced by me always –keen.” [1] But I digress ...

Of his cognomen, Tolkien wrote the following note:

My name is TOLKIEN (not –kein). It is a German name (from Saxony), an anglicization of Tollkiehn, i.e. tollkühn. But, except as a guide to spelling, this fact is as fallacious as all facts in the raw. For I am neither ‘foolhardy’ nor German, whatever some remote ancestors may have been.” [2]

Here we have Tolkien’s typical sense of philological humor, as the German tollkühn, of course, means “foolhardy” in English. It’s a compound, actually; just as “foolish” and “hardy” are more or less antonymic in English, so are German toll “mad, crazy” and kühn “bold”. Tolkien puns on his own name in The Notion Club Papers with the invention of Rashbold — so far as I know, unattested as an anthroponym, but actually attested as an English calque for Germanic dummkúhn “foolhardy, rash, rashbold, temerarious”. [3] I wonder whether Tolkien knew this (apparently unique) source!

But though this was Tolkien’s sense of his own name, was it correct? Could there be another explanation? It’s a somewhat strange, almost denigrating meaning, isn’t it? But even so, I would never have questioned this etymology had I not come across a rather arcane volume called The Teutonic Name-System Applied to the Family Names of France, England, and Germany. This surprising treasure trove takes a topical / etymological approach to anthroponymy, with introductory chapters on simple forms, diminutives, phonetic additions, patronymics, compounds, and so forth; followed by more fascinating chapters on Our Natural Enemies, The Brute and Its Attributes, The Gods of the North, and The Station in Life, among many, many others. In a chapter called The Warrior and His Arms, we find the surname Tolkien attested, like so:

The following root seems to be referable to Old Norse dolgr, foe, Ang.-Sax. dolg, vulnus [Latin “wound, injury”]. SIMPLE FORMS. Old Germ. Tulga (West Gothic king, 7th cent.), Tulcho. Eng. TULK. Mod. Germ. DULK. PHONETIC ENDING. Old Germ. Tolcon, 10th cent. Eng. TOLKIEN, TOLKEN. Mod. Germ. DULCKEN. [4]

As a side note, is the similarity between the names Tolkien and Tulkas a mere coincidence? Probably, but it’s tantalizing fodder for wild theories nonetheless! ;)

Does it make more sense for the etymology of one’s surname to refer to foes, weapons, wounds, and so forth, than to a state of foolhardiness (by which attitude I suppose one might have acquired more than one’s share of wounds, hahae)? I don’t know. Was Robert Ferguson right about its origins (e.g., he does not explain, merely asserts, the arrival of the –n)? Again, I don’t know. But it is interesting to see the name attested, on record, and with a very different etymology. Would that I could ask the Professor about it. I am sure it would have made for a very lively discussion!

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p.428.

[2] Ibid., p.218.

[3] Bailey-Fahrenkrüger’s Wörterbuch der Englischen Sprache. Zwölfte Auflage, gänzlich umgearbeitet von [Twelfth edition, completely reworked by] Adolf Wagner. Jena: Friedrich Frommann, 1822, p.182.

[4] Ferguson, Robert. The Teutonic Name-System Applied to the Family Names of France, England, and Germany. London: Williams & Norgate, 1864, p.184.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beowulf and Tolkien

There’s an interesting article in Salon today comparing the new Beowulf film by Robert Zemeckis with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Much better researched and argued than usual for its type. And it gets major bonus points from me for the author’s discussion of Tolkien’s landmark essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” as well as for quoting from his poem, “Mythopoeia.”

Here’s a nice excerpt that gets straight to the point of how and why Zemeckis’s Beowulf is fundamentally flawed (even if it may be an exciting and dazzling visual spectacle — I haven’t seen it yet):

“Beowulf” doesn’t fail because it changes the story: It fails because it is so busy juicing up the story that it does not create a mythical universe. It has no transfiguring vision. It seizes upon an ancient tale, whose invisible roots run deep into our psyches, and uses it to construct a shiny, plastic entertainment. It takes a wild fable and turns it into a tame story. But “Beowulf” is the kind of story that is meaningless unless it is part of a cosmology. It is, in short, a myth.

A very astute criticism.

Has anyone seen the film yet? Anyone planning to? I probably will, but with carefully managed expectations. I haven’t seen any of the previous film versions, but I have read Michael Crichton’s The Thirteenth Warrior (the novel’s original — and better — title is Eaters of the Dead). A very enjoyable retelling of the myth. Speaking of which, another very original adaptation is John Gardner’s Grendel.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Another item for my to-do list

Frightening!There’s something I’ve had on my to-do list for quite a long time now: to blog about my wife Jennifer’s to-do lists. I’m not trying to be all “meta” — I’m serious. Her to-do lists are, depending on how you look at them, either a thing of terrifying beauty — or just terrifying. You can see one of them above (that’s right: I said one of them). Click on it for a closer look (not that this will make it any more legible, hahae). And it may sound like a joke, but sometimes, if you look closely, one of the items on her to-do list is ... wait for it ... to make a new to-do list. No kidding! :)

And here’s the truly amazing thing: as much as you can see on her lists, she’s got probably ten times that much in her head, stuff that never makes it all the way to a list. It’s impressive, and a bit intimidating.

But I just came across someone else with an interest in to-do lists. Sasha Cagen has written a book about them, with many examples (culled from the over 5,000 she’s collected). Some are strange, some disturbing, some sad, some funny. All are pretty interesting. Here is a book trailer (a surprisingly good one, unlike others I’ve blogged about).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Weasleys’ Magic Clock can be yours — sort of

This is fun. Microsoft Researchers in Cambridge (appropriately enough) have developed a technology-based answer to the Weasleys’ Magic Clock — you remember, the one with a hand that indicates the location of each member of the family. Microsoft’s version, which they call the Whereabouts Clock, was clearly inspired by Rowling’s — which is pretty incredible in an of itself. From one of their documents:
The idea of a clock displaying location rather than time, of course, is not new. In the Harry Potter books, the Weasley family has a magic clock with hands for each member of the family indicating their location or state. Our initial design for the home uses icons rather than mechanical hands, and displays only four categories of location [...] We also rely on technology rather than wizardry to make the clock work!
How about that! Where most technology solutions of this sort plot the location of friends and family on maps or cell phones, Microsoft’s new test product shows just how far-reaching J.K. Rowling’s influence on popular culture has become.

Now, if only the Microsoft Whereabouts Clock had a setting for mortal peril like the Weasleys’ Clock!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lloyd Alexander, before Prydain

Before Prydain, there was Time Cat, Lloyd Alexander’s first foray into fantasy fiction for young people (and a very entertaining read), but before that, Alexander wrote several memoirs which are all out of print and pretty difficult to find. Growing up, I can remember seeing them atop the flyleaf “Also By” list again and again: And Let the Credit Go (1955), My Five Tigers (1956), Janine is French (1959). I always wondered about these books, but I could never find one. And it’s gotten still more difficult. Recent searches on Bookfinder show that Alexander’s first published book, And Let the Credit Go, will set you back quite a bit of your own credit: anywhere from $90 on up to more than $300! Janine is French goes for upwards of $65; but My Five Tigers, at least, you can get for an affordable price: $15 and up.

So imagine my surprise when I came across a copy of My Five Tigers at Half Price Books recently. In fact, it was an original hardcover, published by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1956, with a pristine dust jacket identifying the copy as a second printing. Also interesting is the fact that, as a pre-Prydain book, the dust jacket blurbs talk Alexander up for his translations and memoirs alone, which offers a very interesting, and very different perspective on the man who would later become so famous for his fantasy. So, altogether a fantastic copy in rare condition for its age (just over fifty years old). The price? $3.00. No, I’m not kidding! Is that good fortune smiling down on me, or what?!

The book is a wonderful read, especially for fans of Lloyd Alexander, cats, humorous memoirs — or all three. The books is also charmingly illustrated by Peggy Bacon. In it, Alexander recounts how he became a “cat person” (a reluctant one at first) after returning to America with his new (French) wife, Janine in 1946. Settling in Philadelphia:
That first spring, while Janine set about getting the house in livable shape, I undertook to find a pet. Naturally, I chose a dog: an eight-months puppy from the local animal refuge. I named him Barkis — Barkis the Unwilling — and his conduct was enough to try the patience of the most unshakable dog-lover [...] One day he ran off and never came back. (p.2)
So, at Janine’s urging, they turned to cats. And over the ensuing 120 pages, Alexander recounts the adventures of daily life with their first five felines: Rabbit, Heathcliff, David, Solomon, and Moira (the only female). Each has his (or her) own unique personality, hangups, entertainments, and habits. All of it is delightfully shared with readers. (There is one sad story, but I will say no more than that.) The other thing I should point out is how well-written the book is. Alexander fans will know (and I wrote about this recently) that as good as his novels are, they can begin to feel a little — how shall I put this? — stale? recycled? Again, I mean only the gentlest criticism by this. But My Five Tigers feels very fresh and original! There are very few of the “Alexanderisms” we’ve all come to recognize (e.g., “vexed”, “took to his heels”, “his head swam”, “into the bargain” — sound familiar?).

Also, attentive readers might notice a few images that pop up again in Alexander’s fiction. For example, Rabbit likes to curl up next to an old Irish harp and occasionally pluck at the strings (p.7) — perhaps this helped Alexander to envision the relationship between Fflewddur Fflam and the great mountain cat, Llyan, for The Castle of Llyr. And then there’s the image of Alexander practicing the violin, the noise of which Heathcliff could not tolerate — “Balancing himself on his hind feet, he reached up and sank his claws into my knees. The more I played, the harder he scratched” (p.35). I can’t help but picture Sebastian and Presto from The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian.

So, if you can get your paws on it, look for My Five Tigers. It’s a charming, wonderfully entertaining (and short), book. Alexander fans will simply devour it like so much catnip. And now — any of you have a copy of And Let the Credit Go or Janine is French you could lend out? :)

Monday, November 12, 2007

I Am Legend — a must read!

I don’t read a lot of horror. Well, modern horror, anyway. I’ve read Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gustav Meyrink, and other, proto-horror. Plus some quasi-horror by people like Ray Bradbury, Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Crichton, and Scott Smith. But Stephen King, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, no, not a one. (Well, not their horror novels; I did read Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, and Anne Rice’s fetish novel, Exit to Eden, published under a pseudonym). It’s a bit surprising, I guess, since I love horror movies, but I digress ...

I just finished reading Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Somewhere between horror and science fiction, but closer to the former, it’s not only a creepy thriller, but an extremely well-written novel. Taut, exciting, inventive. With some very original things to say about vampires. And though written fifty years ago, it doesn’t feel at all dated — which in itself is quite an amazing accomplishment. Give it a look, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

I saw a trailer for the upcoming film version, starring Will Smith, which looked quite good. So when I learned the film was based on a novel, I got it from the library. If a movie I’m interested in is based on a book, I’ll usually read it first (as with Jurassic Park, Big Fish, Little Children — to name just a few). Invariably, the novel is better, and I’m sure this will be true of I Am Legend also.

Has anyone else read it? Or other Matheson?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Baltika Porter

“Beer me” another country, folks! (Did anyone see the episode of The Office where Andy Bernard keeps using “beer” as a verb, roughly synonymous with “give”? Classic! And don’t get me started on the Writers’ Strike, but if you love television, help these guys and gals out. Write to the networks and show some solidarity with the people who put all those words in your favorite characters’ mouths!)

Anyway, sorry for the screed; back to the topic at hand: Baltika Porter (or perhaps I should say Балтика Портер), a delicious dark beer from St. Petersburg, Russia that I just got the chance to try. And when I say dark, I’m talking about a dark chocolatey brown you can’t see through — even if you hold it up to the light (which I did). It looks like a Guiness Stout, and the taste compares favorably. Sweet and malty, with just a hint of bitterness. Not overly carbonated, and therefore a very smooth glass. Porters tend to be a little heavier on the alcohol content, and this one weighs in at 7% by volume.

I can highly recommend Baltika, so if you like beers of the world, give this one a try. (And if dark beers aren’t your cup of ale, Baltika has a lager, a wheat beer, and a pale ale as well.)

Friday diversion: Middle-earth fan film project

Ordinarily, I’m a bit wary of “fan projects”, especially of the film variety. I really have nothing against fandom or its varioius manifestations, honestly, but the production quality of most self-professed “serious” Tolkien-inspired video clips is just so awful, I can hardly watch them. Not to mention the cringe-worthy acting I usually see. Spoofs are a different matter, of course; there, poor production quality can be part of their charm. Here’s one of those that I like.

So it was without particularly high hopes that I pointed my browser to Born of Hope: A Lord of the Rings Fan Film this morning. Well, I was quite surprised by what I found. For a non-commercial project (which it must be, for questions of copyright), the quality is quite astonishing. Take a look at the trailer they’ve put together (on their Media Page as well as here, on Youtube), and I think you’ll be impressed. The acting is not at all bad, the film quality is terrific, and the story appears to be on the right track from what I can see. They’re using samples from the Howard Shore soundtrack(s) of the Peter Jackson films for now (and they should probably think about changing that before they get a C&D), but they have plans for their own original music as well.

The settings look a bit too Anglo-Saxon (which comes as no surprise, considering the film is being made in the countryside of England), but apart from that, they’re doing a really fine job so far. Their orcs were extremely impressive, helped in large part by the involvement of some of the folks who worked with New Line and WETA on Peter Jackson’s films. On their Media Page, they also have a number of “featurette” clips on the project, as well as a couple of pretty professional-looking movie posters they’ve designed.

Stop by and take a look. If only all fan efforts were of this caliber.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tesser well, good readers!

As many of you know, Madeleine L’Engle died only two months ago, not long after Lloyd Alexander’s passing; and so, thinking about all the books I had enjoyed as a child, I decided I would read A Wrinkle in Time again — for only the second time since I first read it some twenty-five (or more?) years ago. The fog of those years had left me with only a few very vague memories of the book, and even those dim recollections were superseded in my mind by images from a Wrinkle in Time filmstrip I can remember seeing in elementary or early junior high school. And now that I’ve read it again, it turns out that some of things I’d remembered must have been from A Wind in the Door or A Swiftly Tilting Planet and not from Wrinkle at all.

Also, interestingly, the library copy I picked up was — in addition to suffering from major water damage and a splitting spine — autographed. “For Heather Winslow,” the neatly penned inscription reads, “Tesser well — Madeleine L’Engle.” When I return it to the library, I’ll have to make sure they know it’s a bit more valuable than they may have thought. I could see a book in its condition landing in the landfill, actually.

So. Impressions.

First, I have to say, at the risk of turning off some readers or offending any big L’Engle fans, that the book is much more obvious and treacly than I remembered. Perhaps this is because it really is genuinely intended for children (as opposed to some books usually classified “for children” but actually suitable for readers of all ages). Its lessons are rather facile and are delivered by a heavy hand wielding a pretty blunt instrument. Not to be insensitive, but it isn’t terribly surprising that the book was rejected by 26 publishers before it finally found a home at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. But it went on to win the 1963 Newberry Award — and made its creator a celebrity of children’s literature — so what do I know? ;)

But setting these complaints aside, the book is enjoyable and interesting overall. The settings and situations are pretty creative, and the characters are appealing. Camazotz and IT are suitably unnerving. Aunt Beast is still a remarkable, inscrutable character. And Charles Wallace is still an enigma, even after all these years. The three angels qua witches — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which (> Witch, get it? :) — are intriguing. Think of a reverse image of the three Weird Sisters of Macbeth (in fact, Mrs. Who makes the comparison and contrast an obvious one, quoting those famous lines: “When shall we three meet again, / In thunder, lightning, or in rain.” The novel even opens with those famous, and nowadays all too banal, words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But somehow, here, it works.

There were a couple of things I noticed this time, which I would not have on my first reading. For one, Mrs. Whatsit, some of you may remember, had once been a Star who sacrificed herself in the struggle with the Black Thing. Reading this now, I wonder whether this is a direct borrowing from C.S. Lewis. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the character of Ramandu had likewise once been a Star. Wrinkle was published only a decade after Dawn Treader, and both authors were well known Christian allegorists, so it seems a plausible connection.

Another thing I noticed this time was the sonnet analogy (in my copy, pp.191–2). Mrs. Whatsit tangles with the perennial question of free will versus predestination versus the omniscience of God, much as Lewis did in The Screwtape Letters. Her argument amounts to this: the sonnet form itself is a very strict, very rigid structure, comprising various unforgiving rules of rhyme and rhythm; however, within the constraints of the form, the poet is free to choose whatever words he or she likes. This resonates well with the idea that Lewis (and Tolkien, too) tried to convey of a system where both omniscience and free will are compatible. Put another way, the relationship between providence and free will is perhaps like chess: God makes the rules, but Man is free to choose any moves allowed by the rules. Some choices lead to victory, some to defeat, and some to a draw. Though not a religious person myself, I liked the simplicity of the sonnet analogy very much.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Some thoughts on Lloyd Alexander

Over at Sam Riddleburger’s blog, there’s an interesting post (among several) on Lloyd Alexander. Specifically, after reading The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, Sam, a big fan and defender of Alexander, nevertheless asks the question that probably occurs to most of his readers sooner or later, namely:

Why did Alexander write the same book over and over again? Prince Jen, The Iron Ring, The Arkadians and his last novel Carlo Chuchio are basically the same book set in respectively, the Orient, India, Ancient Greece and the Mideast. Meanwhile, other books of his, including Westmark and the Prydain series also feature some of the same characters & situations. By the time you’ve read a lot of his books, it’s hard to tell Lukas Kasha from Gypsy Riska from Sebastian.

I can’t argue with this, really. Nor with the basic Lloyd Alexander plotline Sam presents as applicable to most of his fantasy for children. In my own forthcoming review of Chuchio, I acknowledge as much, pointing to “Alexander’s usual cast of misfits” and other recurring elements from his body of work. So, if this is true, one might ask why, as Sam does in his post. Was it creative myopia or deliberate reflection?

He wonders whether Alexander “felt that he had a great story (and it IS a great story) and he wanted to polish it, to perfect it, to try it out with different backdrops and cultures,” or maybe whether “he didn’t quite realize what was happening. Perhaps he started writing and the characters just always pushed him in that direction. He set a kid on a quest and partway through the book realized that the quest was lame compared to a bigger lesson he could offer.”

I think both are part of the answer. In an interview conducted shortly before he died (part of the press material for Chuchio), Alexander wrote: “I have to hope that maybe this time I got it right. As objective as I can be (which is never really objective), the architecture is right, the structure works.” It sounds to me like Alexander had a sort of prototype story in his mind, an edifice of moral lessons he wished to convey — and he built many (perhaps most) of his novels on this foundation, varying the details and settings in whatever ways interested him at the time, but always retaining that same moralistic foundation. The prototype story does work, and he left us with many examples of similar, but very satisfying retellings of it. I can, however, understand where this could become a bit hackneyed. Fortunately, Chuchio varies in other ways — for example, in its use of the first-person, which was very uncommon for Alexander until late in his career.

I also think that Alexander felt he was doing an important service by representing the underlying values common to all cultures, showing children that we should respect people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Elsewhere, I put it like this — “Alexander’s sensitivity to ethnic and cultural diversity continues to teach young readers about the cultural mores of China, India, Greece, and the Middle-East as well as Europe” (this is from my forthcoming encyclopedia entry on Alexander for Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: An Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, edited by Robin Reid, 2008).

Could Alexander have stretched himself, creatively, more than he did? Yes, he could have. Whether he should have is perhaps not for us to judge; we’ll have to let his reputation stand against the test of literary history. But if I were a betting man, I’d say his place in the canon of children’s literature is perfectly safe.

Amazing Lord of the Rings Origami

If you read the comments on my posts, or Boingboing, you may have seen this already: my friend Gary sent me a link to some pretty incredible origami, including several great Tolkien-themed pieces. These include an Ent, several Hobbits and Dwarves, and a majestically posed Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. In the latter, there’s a very detailed step-by-step look at how these figures were made.

I may disagree a little bit with how they’re depicted — Look at the ears on Legolas! And why does Gimli have a club and not an axe? And shouldn’t the Hobbits be a little more rotund, a little less vertical? — but there’s no denying that the workmanship is simply stunning. I can scarcely conceive of the effort involved.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Mythlore 99/100

I just got my contributor’s copy of the Fall/Winter 2007 issue of Mythlore. Though I have been a Mythopoeic Society member for some time now, I have never subscribed to Mythlore, but I see now what I’ve been missing. The issue is quite handsome, well designed and put together, and with only an absolute minimum of “advertising” — all of it relevant and tasteful. No “come out to our commune and pretend to be Hobbits in Middle Earth [sic]” type stuff. It’s also bigger than I expected, weighing it at more than 200 pages, all of them packed with content.

As some readers will know, and as I announced here, I have two reviews in this issue. These are C.S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy, edited by Bruce L. Edwards, on pp. 201–5; and Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien, by Tom Shippey, on pp. 209–12. I’ve read the other two reviews in the issue now, too.

I’ve also read Nick Birns’s essay on Radagast, an almost completely overlooked character in The Lord of the Rings (and even more overlooked in The Hobbit). A very interesting essay which attempts a clever solution to the “enigma” of Radagast. Birns connects his disappearance from the narrative with Tolkien’s own continued revision and transformation of The Lord of the Rings into a progressively darker and more poignant story, growing ever more distant from its origins as a mere fanciful sequel to The Hobbit. In Birns’s own words:
The elegy [reflected in the disappearance of Radagast] is for a kind of storytelling that is now gone from a reconceived Middle-earth, for a light-hearted tale of adventure now turned into a somber legend of loss. (125)
If the rest of the issue is as good as the parts I’ve read and dipped into so far, and I think it will be, then I have a lot of great reading to look forward to. And congratulations to the editor, Janet Croft, for a terrific 100th issue!

Friday, November 2, 2007

New Harry Potter book — but not for you and me

This story is just breaking. Have you heard that J.K. Rowling has finished her first post-Harry Potter book, and that it’s ... another Harry Potter book? Well, sort of. In fact, it’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the fictive tome that plays a pivotal role in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — but fictive no more. And the collection of five tales is illustrated by Rowling herself this time (those familiar with her website have probably seen some of her own sketches, which are really very good, actually). The five stories are “The Tale of the Three Brothers”, recounted in Deathly Hallows, plus four entirely new tales: “The Fountain of Fair Fortune”, “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart”, “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” and “Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump”. This is exciting news for Pottermaniacs!

There’s just one problem: there are only seven copies, all hand-written by Rowling, making copies of the real Tales as rare as the fictive one. Seven is a portentous number, no doubt — one for each of the novels in the Harry Potter series (so far). Worse, only one of those copies is for sale. For auction, I should say. Rowling gave the other six away as very special gifts to “'those most closely connected to the ‘Harry Potter’ books during the past 17 years,” while the seventh and final copy is going on the auction block for charity. Sotheby’s is starting the bidding at $60,000, but one can only guess at the final price! And all the proceeds will go to the Children’s Voice Foundation — very laudable. Read Sotheby’s press release here.

This is all wonderful and thrilling, of course. But it’s very disappointing that Rowling’s millions of fans (myself, included) will probably never get to read this new book. At least, not unless or until it is subsequently reprinted — as I hope one day it will be, perhaps as part of Rowling’s rumored Harry Potter Encyclopdedia. Until then, The Tales of Beedle the Bard will remain one of the rarest of Harry Potter treasures.

PS. If you live in the greater London area, stop by Sotheby’s between December 9–12 for an up-close look at the book. And if you do get to see it (Andy, I’m talking to you!), be sure to give us a personal report. For the rest of us, there will be an auction catalog, hopefully including some photos of the book and its contents.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Twenty years!

Jennifer and MaxIn addition to being Halloween, and much more important to me than Halloween, today is the twentieth anniversary of the day Jennifer and I became best friends, back in high school (Grapevine High School, the classes of 1988 and 1989, respectively). We had met a couple of years before that, and we wouldn’t become a couple for a further eight, but today’s a very special day to us. We also just attended Jennifer’s fifteen-year college reunion (University of Dallas, class of 1992), where I had the opportunity to hear a great many wonderful things about Jennifer — all of which (and more) I already knew, of course.

So, what does all this add up to? I thought it was high time I introduced my better half. Actually, she’s more like my better two-thirds. ;)

We first met in French class — once again, French opens a romantic door for me! (But that’s another story for another post.) Jennifer was a sophomore in French II, and I was a freshman in French III, having already taken two years in junior high school. Jennifer was going to be participating in a French spelling bee (which I had done — and won — a year before, in my old school district in Houston), so our French teacher sent Jennifer my way. (I’m tempted to leer at you and suavely say, “Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly”, except those who knew me then will tell you just how unsuave I was. And am. :) I made a pronunciation tape for her (the geeky equivalent to a mix tape?), and we had a couple of practice sessions, too, I believe.

Fast forward two years. Jennifer’s now a senior in high school, and I’m a junior. We met again in Physics class, which Jennifer took in a desperate attempt to convince her genius high school boyfriend (who attended a different school) that she was “intellectual” enough for him. Don’t get me started on that! (Maybe Jennifer herself will explain in a comment.) Anyway, Jennifer was struggling with the class, so I tutored her — a process which culminated in her outscoring me on the final exam. I’d say it was because I was a good tutor, but the real reason is that I was too smitten to concentrate! We became best friends that year and have never looked back!

We didn’t go the same universities, but we called and wrote the entire time. Hearing from Jennifer was something I looked forward to just about every week. She even called me on Valentine’s Day, 1990 — from Rome, an event I memorialized in a poem. (Yes, I really am “that guy.” :)

After several flirtations and close calls, and a lamentable (but fairly short) period when we were on the outs, it was in the fall of 1995 that we finally both fell for one another in the same place at the same time. How appropriate, falling in love in the fall. (Cue the treacly music. ;) We fell instantly and completely, too. No need for a coy courtship when we’d been best friends for eight years already! Very When Harry Met Sally. We considered that day our marriage proposal, engagement, ceremony, and reception, and have celebrated it on the same day every year since (September 10). The years that followed haven’t all been a honeymoon, of course; we’ve had more than our share of hardship, but I wouldn’t trade a second of it, since I’ve had Jennifer to share it (or endure it) with.

What can I tell you about Jennifer herself? First, that she’s absolutely perfect for me. She complements my every fault, and she supports me in every possible way — even to her own detriment, which I really have to learn how to stop taking advantage of. She’s the single most generous and thoughtful person (let alone woman) I’ve ever known. She’s also gorgeous, flirty, funny, and the sexiest dancer I’ve ever had the pleasure (and sometimes discomfiture) to try to keep up with. Where she’s a fluid and sensual dancer, I galumph around like a blur of three left feet and half a dozen elbows, and always threatening to dust off the old breakdancing moves — look out for the white guy! But I’m getting better under her tireless terpsichorean tutelage. (As I understand it, I have to learn to loosen the hips. Good advice for any man, no?)

But more than any of this, she gets all the credit for my being who I am today. Without her — first as a high school crush, then as my best friend, and now as my wife (and all three at once) — I would be little more than an introverted and unaccomplished puddle of neuroses. I get credit for my own unbounded enthusiasm for J.R.R. Tolkien, languages, and literature, sure, but everything else is Jennifer. I’m a lucky, lucky man. :)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pasta sauce from Middle-earth?

A few weeks ago, my wife came across pasta sauces by “Middle Earth Organics” at our local Whole Foods Market. She knew I’d get a kick out of that, so she bought us a couple of them. Turns out, they’re very good!

I couldn’t help but wonder whether Tolkien Enterprise (aka Saul Zaentz) knows about this, or would have any legal complaint about the use of “Middle Earth”. They cast a pretty wide net on the worldwide exclusive rights to “names of characters, places, scenes, things and events” from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and they’ve been known to send out many a C&D over even the most modest offenses. They have every right to profit (in perpetuity, even) from their shrewd purchases of these rights, of course; but sometimes, common sense ought to prevail, I think, especially when a company intends no connection whatsoever with Tolkien. Or when a word or name isn’t Tolkien’s own original creation.

There’s a defensible argument to be made that “Middle Earth” is not Tolkien’s own invention (he admitted as much himself), and that “Middle Earth” may or may not be the same thing as “Middle-earth”, but I’ve never known Tolkien Enterprises to care much for fine distinctions like that. If there’s a licensing fee to be bled from somebody, their professional leeches are always ready with the instruments of torture.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Evanesco! I said, Evanesco!!

I first read this yesterday, but today I came across another version of the story with a better headline: “Harry Potter fan turned in to a road cone head”— and it had pictures! The little Harry Potter fan pictured to the right is pretty adorable, isn’t he? And in the wake of the Dumbledore story, about which I hope to weigh in soon (I think), isn’t it refreshing to see something so cute and light?

Apparently, three-year-old Charlie Thomas put the bright orange traffic cone on his head because it looked like a wizard’s hat. Then, when it wouldn’t come off, I read that he tried a vanishing spell. Industrious little chap! Unfortunately, that didn’t work either. Maybe because he didn’t have a wand. Eventually, the family had to call in reinforcements.

What I don’t get is how it could have taken six firemen to get the traffic cone off his head. I could see two or three: one or two holding onto Charlie, while one pulled on the cone. But six? What were they all doing?!

And by the way, little Charlie’s shirt has some pretty good advice on it. But as he’s only three, he probably couldn’t read it. ;)

Funny where you run into yourself ...

Ego-surfing this morning, I happened to come across an unexpected link in a vrey recent laundry list of other links captioned as a “Recopilación de artículos MSDN Magazine sobre Seguridad Informática.” The compiler of the list introduces it with the assertion that “la seguridad es el asunto más importante de la informática hoy en día” — very true!

The link was to an article I wrote about computer viruses some four years ago. I had pretty much given up ever seeing that one again. Those who know me know that one of my biggest complaints (dissatisfactions, really) about computer writing is its very limited and transient nature. What’s relevant today is irrelevant by tomorrow, or at least by the day after. And this is why I’ve largely stopped doing that kind of writing, lucrative though it can be.

Anyway, for those who are used to the more philosophical, literary, right-brained Jason, take a look at my 2003 article for a wholly different perspective on me.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

“The cops are in full chase of the villains” [Updated]

Yes, but are they chasing the right villains?

[Update: I just heard from Carl Hostetter that this item is, in fact, authentic. He himself was its original source, though this auction is not his. See the comments.]

I just came across this auction on eBay for a deluxe edition of The Children of Húrin, accompanied by a bookplate purportedly signed by Christopher Tolkien. The signature on the bookplate actually looks pretty authentic, and Christopher Tolkien has been signing bookplates — so, if it’s a forgery, then it’s at least a competent one. But it all comes crashing down with the “copies of the two letter to authenticate de signature.” That’s right. According to the seller, Christopher Tolkien wrote to him personally, in his own hand, enclosing a dozen (!) signed bookplates for his use. Problem is that the letter, even beyond being a very tall tale to swallow in the first place, doesn’t sound much like Christopher Tolkien. [Update: And yet it is; so what do I know?!] Some excerpts:

Here are the sticky labels, written & signed with great pleasure [...] also the two pages of the Quenya text. On the subject of signatures, the Tolkien Estate with its myriad eyes discovered the other day that copies of The Children of Húrin are offered for sale on e-bay, with forged signatures (mine & Alan Lee’s) for $269.95 [...] These items have emerged in Canada & I’m told that the cops are in full chase of the villains. As to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list — this is truly weird: I hope it will not be followed by clamorous disappointment!

Evidently, we are to believe that Christopher Tolkien is on very close terms with the seller [Update: Not with the seller, but with Carl.] (even signing the letter with just his given name), and that this auction (unlike all those sham-auctions he warns us about) in the authentic one. I do give him credit for some pretty creative chicanery here — in the same way you can’t help but admire the techniques of a master pickpocket. And the penmanship is more convincing than usual in such auctions, but otherwise, there’s just no possible way to believe this was written by CJRT. [Update: And yet it was. I’m still shaking my head in surprise.]

And it doesn’t help that the listing itself is full of spelling and grammatical errors. My favorite is: “A truly unic book for your considerations.”

Sadly, there are ten bids already, with the price up to $68.00 (the publisher’s list price is $75.00; Amazon’s discounted price is only $47.25). And there are still more than six days left in the auction. I know this item has been reported to eBay, but unfortunately, there’s little else to be done. But I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

[Update: So as it transpires, the signature is authentic, so bid away if this is something you want to add to your collection.]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The newest thing: book trailers

Books that do! ;)Have you heard about the relatively recent new trend of book trailers? More and more publishers are starting to actively market their new offerings through video trailers, just like the ones you see for new movies. Well, maybe not just like them — most of the ones I’ve seen are just atrocious!

The first one I saw, strangely, was for J.R.R. Tolkien’s “new” book, The Children of Húrin — and this one’s actually very well made. It helps that most of the visuals come from the illustrated editions of Tolkien’s books and that the music is very good. Watch it here.

Then, for comparison, stop by the Book Trailers blog and watch a few of those. If you can stand it. Every now and then, you’ll come across a trailer that might actually make you interested in reading the book (almost by accident, as it seems) — but most are bad, bad, bad. Dreadful voiceovers, awful choices for images and logos, and even horrible actors putting on scenes from the books. My favorite of the latter (the worst of the worst, if you will; so bad it almost flips the scale over and becomes good, or at least entertaining, hahae) is the trailer for the hackneyed thriller, Power Play, by Joseph Finder. You just have to watch it to appreciate how truly awful (and inadvertently funny) it is. My favorite line is the over-the-top voiceover: “Now, it’s up to one man ... who wasn’t even supposed to be there.” What is this, a suspense novel or Clerks?!

Another strange one is the trailer for 13 Bullets, by David Wellington, an FBI-versus-vampire potboiler. The trailer consists of time-lapse footage of a guy getting made up as a vampire. At the end, he hisses at us, and then we see the hilarious (unwittingly, I’m sure) tagline: “Vampires that don’t suck.” Get it? ’Cause vampires do suck. Only we’re supposed to think this book doesn’t. So clever. But I’m afraid the trailer that’s supposed to be getting you interested in the book is going to have you wishing for 13 bullets of your own.

And lest you think the books are as amateurish as the trailers, these are real books from real publishers, like Random House and Simon & Shuster. Or at least, some are reputable; others appear to be self- or vanity-published. But if you ever write that great American novel, be sure to visit Jillett Productions, who can custom-tailor a book trailer of your very own at bargain basement prices. No, no; I’m sure they’re very good. Hmm, let me just take a look at one of their samples ... “If you’re like most people, you probably always wondered how to slaughter a wild boar and then feed its head to some flesh-eating beetles.” (Not kidding.)

Oh the humanity! *smirk*

Friday, October 19, 2007

A first: Google alerts me to ... myself!

Well, this hasn’t happened before: I got a Google blog alert (a sort of email-based subscription to certain search terms out on the web or in the blogosphere) featuring one of my own posts. And in fact, it was that day’s post! Talk about quick indexing! Considering my own rate of ego-surfing, this was quite gratifying to see. :)

Here’s a picture (click to enlarge):

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good article on Harry Potter translation issues

I’m getting this up a few days late, but Great Britain’s Times Online has a good article summarizing some of the key news and issues in Harry Potter translation, some of which I have previously blogged about. The article follows on the heels of the publication of the Turkish translation of HP7 (Harry Potter ve Ölüm Yadigarlar), the second official translation to become available, following only the Ukrainian. Of course, as regular readers will know, quite a few unofficial translations have already been circulating!

The Times article also addresses some of the basic difficulties inherent in translating fiction — especially fantasy fiction involving made-up worlds and words. Tolkien knew this problem particularly well, and he famously prepared a detailed (and sometimes tetchy) Nomenclature to assist translators of The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps Rowling should have done likewise.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Two etymological updates

Toward the end of August, I blogged about the etymology of the toponym, Pakistan. In the comments, my friend Gary and I discussed what we did and didn’t know about the word ferengi, with its apparent meaning of “foreigner”. Two points to make about this. First, surprisingly, the word (spelled ferenghi) is scattered all through Lloyd Alexander’s latest (and last) novel, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, which I am reviewing for Mythprint. There, it’s used with essentially the same meaning of “foreigner” or more specifically, “European”. Second, I continued to search around for better evidence of the word’s sources and meaning, and I finally found it in a Somali dictionary: “ferenji masculine noun: white infidel, non-Islamic European person.” That is to say, very close indeed to kafir, which we were also discussing.

Then, going all the way back to June, I wrote about the etymology of another toponym, Stonehenge. Funny I would have forgotten this, but Tolkien makes clear his own view in the essay, “English and Welsh”, where he writes:
There stands still in what is now England the ruinous fragment of an ancient monument that we have long called in our English fashion Stonehenge, ‘the suspended stones’, remem­bering nothing of its history. [1]
Isn’t the writing here wonderful? I had mentioned Old English hangian “to hang, suspend” in my discussion, and here we have Tolkien’s agreement with that theory on record. I can’t help but think he would also have liked the Hengest interpretation, as I also wrote at the time. Lucky I came across this while reading the essay again (for another purpose altogether).

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983, p.175.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What we’re up against

Take a look at this op-ed from today’s Livingston Daily (out of Livingston, MI), entitled: “Harry Potter can make kids suicidal.” This is the kind of thing Harry Potter fans are up against. It’s the kind of thing book fans are up against, come to that. Visions of Fahrenheit 451 are dancing before my eyes here, folks.

The author starts off with this gem: “Why are Americans duped into reading and admiring Harry Potter books?” First of all, I don’t think one can be duped into admiring anything. One either does or doesn’t, based on one’s own rubric of art. Second, how are we being duped into reading the Harry Potter books? Really, I want to know.

“By reading these Harry Potter books, your children could be opening themselves up to a spirit realm in which they can become depressed and suicidal.” I would tend to agree with one of the commenters, who goes out on a limb “to wager that the bible causes many more suicides than Harry Potter does.” And I think there are plenty of other, more immediate influences than either. How about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, even? :) In any case, I know it’s an opinion piece, but can the author point to any scrap of evidence for such a baldly invective accusation? I doubt it. Rather, it’s a completely unsubstantiated claim aimed purely at alarming and manipulating overprotective parents.

Oh, but it gets worse: “[your child could] become entrenched with it to the point of demonic possession, and then, through hatred or revenge, could cast a spell or curse on a school teacher, classmate, boss, neighbor or you as a mom or dad. As a result of the curse, you could become seriously ill to the point of death.” So, now your child’s going to become depressed enough to kill you (magically, of course) — all because of reading the Harry Potter books. *rolls eyes*

Perhaps I should just dismiss such ravings out of hand; perhaps I shouldn’t even dignifiy them with attention in my blog. But I’m afraid that dismissal could be construed as tacit agreement. Not by you or me, but by others of John Carr’s mindset, or those who are undecided and easily manipulated. “You see?” they may say. “No objections! This John Carr fellow must have an impregnable argument.” *rolls eyes again*

That’s the road that leads to book burning.

Friday, October 5, 2007

“Hringbogan” — it has a nice ring to it ...

About a month ago, I got an interesting comment about the concepts underlying my “wraith” posts from my friend Merlin:
In your third blog post on “wraith”, you write: “From wraiths to bent roads, from rings to dragons (and perhaps orcs and goblins) — we’ve gone there and back again purely by digging into the roots of words.” I’ve just been reading John Holmes’ article on “Art and Illustrations by Tolkien” [in the Tolkien Encyclopedia] and noticed his comments on Hringaboga [sic] Heorte Gefysed, Tolkien’s 1927 painting of a dragon, whose title comes from Beowulf and whose first word Holmes translates as “bent into a ring”.
I replied to Merlin privately, but I wanted to take a little time to assemble some comments for my readers here. One thing led to another, and here it is a month later already! So, at long last, here’s what I thought about Merlin’s very good find.

First, regarding Holmes’s rendering of Old English hringbogan as “bent into a ring”. The word hring is, of course, “ring”, and boga gives us the Modern English word “bow”, as in “arch, angle, corner, anything curved”. Related is bogen “bowed, bent, gave way”, past participle of búgan “to bow (down), bend, swerve”. And here, there definitely could be a connection to the writhen / bent notion I’ve been blogging off and on over the last several months. But Tolkien’s word is a noun + a noun, the common formula for a kenning, so I think I would rather have translated it “ring-bow(ed)” or something of that sort than to introduce the English participial form, but Holmes’s version is close, and more poetic. Its only problem — and a very slight one at that — is that by using the (passive-sounding) participial form, the phrase seems to be begging for an actor, a bender, if you will, rather than simply reflecting the form of a bend, arch, curve, etc. That idea might indeed inhere in Tolkien’s image (as in, looking for the active hand of Morgoth or Sauron in shaping Dragons and Rings, respectively), but perhaps it’s presuming too much, philologically. If Tolkien had meant “bent into a ring”, wouldn’t he have opted for something like hringbogen?

Returning to the title, as Holmes noted, it’s directly from Beowulf, lines 2561-2 — ða wæs hringbogan heorte gefysed / saecce tó séceanne. Several of the editions I consulted translate hringbogan as “coiled (one)” or something similar; however, Harrison and Sharp (roughly contemporary to Tolkien’s early studies of Old English) give “hring-boga, w.m., one who bends himself into a ring: gen. sg. hring-bogan (of the drake, bending himself into a circle)” [1], which accords very well with Holmes’s ‘extraordinary rendition’. :)

Hammond and Scull tell us that Tolkien himself rendered as: “Now was the heart of the coiling beast stirred to come out to fight” [2]. Christopher Tolkien reports a slightly different translation made by his father for the quotation he used as the painting’s title: “the heart of the coiling beast was stirred” [3]. Tolkien, I expect, would certainly have been aware of the idea of a ring hidden in the line, but the fact that he opted for a simpler, more colloquial translation could be taken to mitigate its importance.

[1] Béowulf and The Fight at Finnsburh. Eds. James A. Harrison and Robert Sharp. 4th rev. ed. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1904, p. 256.

[2] From Tolkien’s unpublished translation of Beowulf at the Bodleian, quoted in Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995, p. 53.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Chistopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979, plate 40 [n.p.].