Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The origins of Tolkien’s “Errantry” — Part 2

Last week, I offered some thoughts on the origins of one of Tolkien’s fairly early poems, “Errantry” — mainly a partial and tentative refutation of Randel Helms’s theory that it (along with the other poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) was a scholarly parody of Charles Williams, as well as an expansion on John Rateliff’s 1982 identification of Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topas as a likelier source for the poem. I ended that post with the promise to return with another possible source, this one (I suggested ominously) “more controversial”. And so here we are.

I may as well not beat around the bush. The source I have in mind is Michael Drayton’s Nimphidia ... *crickets* (no pun intended) ... I know, the most probable reaction here is to object that Tolkien very specifically belittled Nimphidia and castigated Drayton as responsible in large part for all that Tolkien felt was wrong in the portrayal of fairies and Faërie. Be that as it may, I believe there are grounds from which to mount a pretty successful comparison, and so I mean to make the attempt. Drayton, in fact, offers encouragement in the very first line of his poem: “Olde Chavcer doth of Topas tell” [1].

Coming up next week, I’ll have a third and final part to this series, in which I’m going to touch on some further similarities between Nimphidia and Tolkien’s very early poem, “Goblin Feet” (1915), arguing that, to some extent, the latter may be a kind of bridge between Drayton and “Errantry”. And as a sidebar to this secondary comparison, I’ll offer a comment or two on George MacDonald, yet another early influence whom Tolkien would later disavow and throw to the wargs. Ambitious? In the end, it will be up to you to tell me whether I’ve made my case. For now, let’s press on with Drayton and “Errantry”.

Nimphidia: The Court of Fayrie is one of those poems, so common during the Elizabethan period, in which fairies and elves were tiny, precious things, smaller than a cowslip, drinking from a dew-drop, and so on. The portrait was perhaps epitomized best in Queen Mab, who appears not only in Nimphidia, but in works by Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, Robert Herrick, Thomas Hood, and others (all the way to Percy Bysshe Shelley and beyond). This was the image Tolkien came to deplore, calling down “a murrain on Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs” [2]. But Nimphidia is, for its type, a marvelous poem, vivid in detail, and quite long (more than 700 lines). That being said, the poem will certainly not be everybody’s cup of tea (though the same has been said of Tolkien).

I won’t take the time to rehearse the entire story-line of the poem, but I recommend reading it in full if you haven’t. In a nutshell (appropriately enough), the poem is essentially a love triangle cum heroic quest. The hero is a “Fayrie knight” errant called Pigwiggen (Harry Potter fans might remember J.K. Rowling’s use of the name). He loves the “faire Queene Mab”, which angers her spouse, the “king Oberon”. The tale unfolds in a bucolic and diminutive “Eluish” setting, where Pigwiggen encounters ants, bumblebees, butterflies, glow-worms, wasps, among other miniature friends and foes in quest of Mab’s love. It is adorable, delightful fare. Let me hit a few specific points, and offer a few quotations, which I hope will establish the validity of comparing it to “Errantry”.

Remembering those lines from Sir Topas so reminiscent of Tolkien’s “Errantry”, consider the following assortment of lines from Nimphidia (the lines all occur in close proximity, but I have edited out a few intervening passages in order to emphasize, but not distort, the similarity to Tolkien):
A little Cockle-shell his Shield, [...]
His Speare a Bent both stiffe and strong, [...]
The Pyle was of a Horse-flyes tongue, [...].
And puts him on a coate of Male,
Which was of a Fishes scale,
[...]
His Rapier was a Hornets sting,
[...]
His Helmet was a Bettles head,
[...]
And for a plume, a horses hayre,
[...] (ll. 490–509)

The resemblance is rather striking, don’t you think? The “Rapier [...] a Hornets sting”, furthermore, reminds one immediately of Bilbo and the Elvish knife he used for a short-sword in The Hobbit. I need hardly remind you he called the sword Sting. This should come as no great surprise, since soon after writing “Errantry”, and (I would argue) still very much in the same imaginative place, Tolkien set to work on The Hobbit. During Pigwiggen’s encounter with the Wasp, too, we find this passage: “I am a Waspe behold my sting, / At which the Fayrie started” (ll. 211–2). Compare this to the Mirkwood Spiders’ answer: “Ugh! He’s got a sting has he? Well, we’ll get him all the same [...].”

And the resemblance doesn’t end there. Consider the following pairs of lines: “a bridal bed / of flowers and of thistle-down”, “For feare of ratling on the stones, / With Thistle-downe they shod it”; “He wove a tissue airy-thin / to snare her in [...] / He caught her in bewilderment / with filament of spider-thread”, “A Cobweb ouer them they throw, / To shield the winde if it should blowe”; “he made her soft pavilions / of lilies [...] / with blossom for a canopy”, “And for the Queene a fitting bower, / [...] is that faire Cowslip flower”; “in ship of leaves and gossamer”, “Their Harnasses of Gossamere”; “he threaded gems in necklaces”, “A Bracelet made of Emmotts eyes”; and so on. In fact, had I not tipped my hand by retaining the antique spelling, I daresay many readers might find it difficult to tell which lines are Tolkien’s and which Drayton’s.

In addition to their imagery and phrasing, both poems share similarities of meter, too. Tolkien’s is more complex, but both rely heavily on sing-song feminine rhymes. And finally, both poems close with an emphasis on memory. In Nimphidia, the waters of Lethe bring forgetfulness to Oberon, wiping away his jealousy and thus bringing the adventures of Pigwiggen to a happier ending. In “Errantry”, the appeal is not to forgetfulness, but memory: “He tarried for a little while / [...] and coming home / with honeycomb to memory his message came, and errand too!” Finally, I would note in passing the curious reference in Drayton’s Nimphidia to “Nigromancie” (l. 34). This is echoed directly in The Hobbit, but more obliquely in “Errantry”, which has “sigaldry” (l. 28) and “glamoury” (l. 88). [3]

Now let me offer some response to the potential objection, that Nimphidia couldn’t be a source for “Errantry” because of Tolkien’s obvious distaste for the poem. In the essay, “On Fairy-stories”, Tolkien makes this very clear, doesn’t he? He writes of the “flower-and-butterfly minuteness” of the fairy tradition that

it was largely a literary business in which William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton played a part. Drayton’s Nymphidia [sic] is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested.

But did he really detest these fairies as much as he says, or might Tolkien be overstating his odium? It would not be the first time he had changed his mind, and I will dare to gainsay him in this case too. On several occasions Tolkien claimed to dislike someone or something which he demonstrably had liked or which or who had influenced him much earlier on (e.g., Celtic mythology, George MacDonald, the Matter of Britain, not to mention The Hobbit itself). These instances, I think, are reason enough to question, and perhaps even to overturn, this claim in “On Fairy-stories”. After all, if Tolkien really did hate this fairy image as much as he says he did, why the more than superficial resemblance to it, here in “Errantry” as well as in other early poems? Tom Shippey said that “Errantry” itself “seems to be just the kind of fairy poetry Tolkien would later abjure. In it an unnamed but tiny fairy-knight marries a butterfly but then leaves her to battle dragonflies and honeybees” [4]. Mutatis mutandis, this is the very story of Nimphidia.

More likely then, it strikes me, is that Tolkien liked Drayton and the whole precious fairy tradition from the Elizabethan to the Victorian Age well enough to imitate it in his early work (or perhaps he could simply think of nothing more original yet) — even though his opinion of it would make a complete volte-face later.

Clearly, however, his ideas were changing around the time he first drafted the Andrew Lang lecture of 1938–9. He had, by this time completed The Hobbit and begun The Lord of the Rings, which was taking him into very different imaginative territory. In many ways, “On Fairy-stories” represents the critical moment of change, in which Tolkien’s new, more original theories of storytelling began to supplant his older, more imitative ones. By the end of this process, his views on fairy-stories would change markedly. The transformation of the early “Errantry” into the much more mature “Eärendil was a mariner” seems to me to encapsulate perfectly the evolution of Tolkien’s own tastes and conceptions — from fairy to Faërie, as it were. This same change can likewise be observed in Tolkien’s early appreciation and imitation of George MacDonald, which by the middle of the 1960’s would have evaporated into a strikingly similar dislike. More on that in the next installment, where I will examine “Goblin Feet”, elaborate further on these questions (and my suggested answers), and attempt to tie up the loose threads.


[1] Drayton, Michael. Minor Poems of Michael Drayton. Ed. Cyril Brett. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1907, p. 155. We cannot demonstrate this incontrovertibly, but it seems probable this is an edition Tolkien might have read.
[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 143.
[3] For more on these two rare words, see 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. 185–7.
[4] Shippey, Tom. “Poems by Tolkien: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Ed. Michael D.C. Drout. New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 516.

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