Thursday, September 25, 2008

The origins of Tolkien’s “Errantry” — Part 1

We’ve been talking a little bit about Tolkien’s early poetry over the last few days, in the comments to my last post, as well as in some email the post prompted (a more selective we there :). In one of those comments, I mentioned that I had once considered assembling a variorum edition of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. That statement led N.E. Brigand to share via email an abstract for a paper he’s proposed writing on a related subject, and in that abstract was a comment which jogged a faint chord of memory — all of which “set the rocket off” for a post on some of the sources (or at least some overwhelming analogues) for “Errantry”, one of Tolkien’s most famous early poems.

That catalytic statement, which I don’t think N.E. Brigand will mind my sharing, was this: “even ten years later [i.e., after the publication of ATB], Paul Kocher, one of Tolkien’s most astute interpreters, was treating ‘Errantry’ as if it derived from ‘Eärendil was a mariner’, when the reverse is true.” Indeed, and this is what I remembered: that it was not only Kocher who missed something important in his approach to the poem, but also Randel Helms.

Just over twenty-five years ago, John Rateliff published a short but valuable piece in Notes and Queries. He writes:

In his book Tolkien’s World Randel Helms suggests that many of the poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil are scholarly parodies and singles out one, ‘Errantry’, as ‘a friendly parody of Charles Williams’ Taliessin poems’. Aside from the fact that ‘Errantry’ was originally published [...] five years before Taliessin Through Logres, Helms has missed a much more obvious parallel: that between ‘Errantry’ and Chaucer’s ‘Tale of Sir Topas’. [1]

I would add that not only was “Errantry” first published in a 1933 issue of Oxford Magazine, it was certainly drafted much earlier. Tolkien recalled reciting it during one of the earliest meetings of the Inklings, in the early 1930’s, and it was in existence well before that. A penciled draft survives, along with five further revisions, all predating the first publication. [2] It may therefore have predated Williams’s Taliessin poems by perhaps as much as a decade!

Chaucer’s tale, for those unfamiliar with it, is something of a parody of more serious works of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the “Thomas Rhymer” traditions. It’s well worth reading. In his note, Rateliff offers a half-dozen illustrative lines from the poem. I’ll give you a little extra here, to give you a bit more of the flavor [3]:

His heer, his berd was lyk saffroun,
That to his girdel raughte adoun;
His shoon of Cordewane.
Of Brugges were his hosen broun,
His robe was of ciclatoun,
That coste many a Iane.
His Iambeux were of quyboilly,
His swerdes shethe of yuory,
His helm of laton bryght;
His sadel was of rewel boon,
His brydel as the sonne shoon,
Or as the mone lyght.

His spere was of fyn ciprees, [...]

[And so on. I could easily have quoted a dozen other lines of much the same sort.]

One can’t help but notice just how similar these lines are to those in “Errantry” (and to those in its more serious-minded descendent, “Eärendil was a mariner”). And if you don’t know what Cordewane, ciclatoun, or quyrboilly might be, well, did you really know what habergeon, chalcedony, and malachite were? ;)

And I hope you noticed the “rewel boon”. Ruel-bone (variously spelled, rewel, rowell, reuel, etc.) refers to a somewhat uncertain material, but probably whale ivory (note that Sir Topas’s sword-sheath is also made of ivory), and it’s fairly common in Middle English literature. Tolkien himself used this term elsewhere: in jottings on the story of Tuor and Turgon, where Turgon has a sheath of ruel-bone; also in The Lay of Leithian — “'teeth like ruel-bone”; and in the poem “The Sea-Bell” — “cliffs of stone pale as ruel-bone”). Equally (if not more) interestingly, there is also Tolkien’s middle name, Reuel — unrelated except by a coincidence of its sound and word-shape, but evocative nonetheless. [4]

There are two other important elements in Sir Topas I should mention. One is the presence of the “queen of Faïrye” in the story; the other is “a greet geaunt” going by the name, “sir Olifaunt”. That should naturally strike a third note in the chord of memory — “Oliphaunt” (like “Errantry” and “The Sea-Bell”) is another poem collected in, but written and published prior to, The Adventures of Tom Bomabil. And like “Errantry” (but unlike “The Sea-Bell”), “Oliphaunt” was incorporated directly into The Lord of the Rings. “Oliphant”, of course, has its own history, which I will not rehearse here. But most of the poems comprising ATB were being written and published during the 1920’s–30’s; the three I’ve written about here can be further narrowed down to roughly 1927–34, a time when Tolkien was doing major work with Chaucer (culminating in his 1934 essay, “Chaucer as a Philologist”).

Rateliff doesn’t mention any of this (the ruel-bone; the Queen of Faëry, to use Tolkien’s spelling; or the Giant called Olifaunt) in his short piece — he presses no further than the similarity of the lines of the formula, “his this was of that” — but I think all these points deepen the probability that Sir Topas was a conscious source for Tolkien. In my next post, I’m going to discuss another possible source (or analogue, at least), and probably a more controversial one. Stay tuned for that, and in the meantime, please feel free to comment on this first post. I will probably put this post and the next one together as a conference paper, to be eventually rewritten and submitted for publication, so I welcome feedback.

[1] Rateliff, John D. “J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘Sir Topas’ Revisited.” Notes and Queries Volume 29, Number 4 (August 1982), p. 348.
[2] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Treason of Isengard. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1989, pp. 85–6.
[3] The text quoted here is from Walter Skeat’s 1880 edition.
[4] See also Gilliver, Peter, Jeremy Marshall, and E.S.C. Weiner. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 181–2.


  1. Thank you, sir. Your post is very much appreciated. Now that's the sort of thing I'm interested in. Not to mention that "Errantry" is one of my all-time favorites :)

    The link to Chaucer has eluded me. I have somehow always linked it to the Major-General's Song from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance as its rhythm closely follows the latter. (Just try and recite "Errantry" to the music of the Major-General's song, hahae)

    I will be eagerly awaiting for the next installment of the series :)

  2. Adanedhel, you are most welcome. And I owe some thanks to you as well for the comment on my last post. Your questions about Tolkien’s poetry prompted a return to some of my earlier thinking on the subject, which is why I detoured into this territory (despite having a long list of things I want to write about here at Lingwë).

    I smiled at the suggestion of Gilbert and Sulivan. I feel like somebody has said that before, but I can’t quite recall. It’s a bit like people saying that you can sing every Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, hahae. :)

  3. The connection is made in two of the longest articles in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Verlyn Flieger's "Poems by Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings" (525) and Dale Nelson's "Literary Influences, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (368).

  4. Ah yes, that must be where I read it. At least, most recently; others may have said it too. It feels like something Tom Shippey might have said, though maybe just in conversation or the Q&A period after a paper or something. Too much swimming around in my brain right now to recall.

    Thanks, N.E. Brigand. We can always count on you to recollect a reference! :)

  5. david bratman9/30/2008 6:42 PM

    I don't think the connection between "Errantry" and the Inklings, by itself, proves much about its date of composition. "Errantry" was published in 1933, which is also generally thought to be the year the original short-lived Inklings ceased to meet. So as far as that goes it could have been written immediately before publication.

    Better evidence that it had been written some years earlier comes in the existence of seven pre-publication texts, suggesting it had been worked on for some time, and in Tolkien's recollection that it was read to the group "later" after its composition (HoME 7:85).

  6. Thanks for the comments, David.

    Better evidence that it had been written some years earlier comes in the existence of seven pre-publication texts, suggesting it had been worked on for some time, and in Tolkien's recollection that it was read to the group "later" after its composition (HoME 7:85).

    I had thought this was the very same line of reasoning I pursued in my post, but perhaps my argument was more implicit than your statement here. As you may have noticed, I gave the same citation from Treason in my post that you did (just above).

    On the other hand, “As much as a decade” may be overstating things, especially since I know nothing about how long drafts of the Williams poems may have predated their publication, though Tolkien would not have known them then. He only met Williams, I believe, toward the end of the 1930’s, and even if he had read the poems before meeting Williams, one can’t imagine he read them before their publication!

    In fact, this timing, to me, throws into doubt the very idea that Helms’s theory about ATB could be correct, at least, as pertains to “Errantry” and other poems written before, say, 1939. Do you have any further thoughts on this, David? (Or anyone else?)

  7. david bratman10/01/2008 10:25 AM

    I certainly agree with your general reasoning. Helms is just guessing. And CSL has a great line somewhere about critics who make declarations about sources that turn out to be chronologically impossible when you know the facts.

    I didn't mean to imply that you didn't cite the earlier drafts: I just meant to say that that's the significant evidence, not the reading of the poem to the student Inklings.

  8. Thanks for clarifying. I think you’re right that the existence of multiple pre-publication drafts (taken together with our knowledge of Tolkien’s extremely methodical working habits) is the best evidence the poem had been around for a good while. Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond suggest 1931 as a possible date for the composition of “Errantry” (Chronology), but it might even have been a little earlier.

    And CSL has a great line somewhere about critics who make declarations about sources that turn out to be chronologically impossible when you know the facts.

    That’s great! It reminds of people talking about E.R. Eddison or Roger Lancelyn Green as sources for Tolkien, improbable or impossible as the case may be. Any chance you could track down this Lewis quotation, or at least point me in the right direction to find it?