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.]