Friday, November 7, 2008

The origins of Tolkien’s “Errantry” — Part 3

The title of this post may prove to be something of a misnomer, since I’ll be talking less about “Errantry” than about “Goblin Feet” and other early verse; however, today’s long-promised post is the continuation (and most likely, conclusion) of Parts 1 and 2, both very much about “Errantry” — so what the present title may lack in accuracy may be made up for, I hope, in other ways.

By way of a preamble, let me remind readers that the last time we met on the subject, I promised

a third and final part to this series, [...] touch[ing] 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.

“Goblin Feet” is part of a cluster of early poems Tolkien composed from roughly 1914–1916, earlier by many years than “Errantry”, and yet the latter bears a strong resemblance to the poems of this early period. Like “Errantry”, “Goblin Feet” embodies “the Victorian tradition of fairy tininess and delicacy that he [Tolkien] was soon to abjure” [1] or, in Carpenter’s stronger words, “to detest heartily” [2]. Carpenter tells us that Tolkien wrote the poem “to please [his fiancée] Edith who said that she liked ‘spring and flowers and trees, and little elfin people’” [3].

Tolkien would seem to have liked them well enough himself, to judge by some of the creative output of these years — is it really likely that he detested these diminutive fairies already, but continued to people his poems with them solely for the enjoyment of his wife? Not too likely, I would think. And just how prevalent were these verse-fairies? Let’s take a quick look at a sampling from the period —

  • “Wood-sunshine” (1910) — with its “light fairy things” and “sprites of the wood” [4]
  • “You & Me and The Cottage of Lost Play” (1915) — where two children “rollicked in the fairy sand” and in “fairy towns”, “dancing fairy-rings / And weaving pearly daisy-strings, / Or chasing golden bees” [5]
  • “Tinfang Warble” (1915) — “O the hoot! O the hoot! / How he trillups on his flute! / O the hoot of Tinfang Warble! / Dancing all alone, / Hopping on a stone, / Flitting like a fawn” — and in the earliest draft, Tinfang Warble is a leprechaun! [6]
  • “An Evening in Tavrobel” (1916) — where “brimmed the buttercups with light”, and “gleaming spirits there did dance / And sip those goblets’ radiance”, and “tiny faces peer and laugh” [7]
  • And of course, “Goblin Feet” [8], which I’d like to examine a little more closely now.

Tolkien wrote “Goblin Feet” at the same time (even over “the same days of April [1915]”) as “You & Me and The Cottage of Lost Play”. It’s a precious little poem, bordering on twee, and very much of the same flavor as “Errantry” and Drayton’s Nimphidia, as we’ll see in a moment. Tolkien, of course, came to hate it. Reminded of it in 1971 (a half-century after writing it!), Tolkien said “I wish the unhappy little thing, representing all that I came (so soon after) to fervently dislike, could be buried for ever” [9]. Such vehemence! But I think it would have been a shame to lose the poem, myself.

Even quoting selectively, the likeness between it, “Errantry”, and Nimphidia is striking:

... I am off down the road
... Where the fairy lanterns glowed
And the little pretty flittermice are flying:
... The air is full of wings,
... And of blundering beetle-things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
... O! I hear the tiny horns
... Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padding feet of many gnomes a-coming!

The poem, with its diminutive vantage point, its “flittermice” and “beetle-things”, not to mention “the gauzy wings of golden honey-flies” near the end of the poem, fits perfectly into the Elizabethan (and later, the Victorian) fairy tradition on which I elaborated in the previous two posts. The use of the word gnome is interesting, though, isn’t it? Around this time (and in the years immediately following), Tolkien was still using words like fairy, fay, and gnome in The Book of Lost Tales — which would eventually become elves (note: not elfs). But Tolkien would come even to lament the choice of elves. He wrote in 1954, “I now deeply regret having used Elves, though this is a word in ancestry and original meaning suitable enough. But the disastrous debasement of this word, in which Shakespeare played an unforgiveable part, has really overloaded it with regrettable tones, which are too much to overcome” [10]. And so we’re back to Tolkien’s grudge with Shakespeare, Drayton, and their mileu, by whom fairies, gnomes, and elves had all been debased. Yet clearly, early on, his poetry was indebted to the “debased” images they developed.

A loose end I promised to come back to is the question of Tolkien’s original liking for George MacDonald, which later turned into a strong distaste. I’ve written about this elsewhere [11], so I won’t rehearse the entire argument here, but in the same letter from which I’ve just quoted, Tolkien acknowledges that his orcs “do to some extent resemble” “the goblins of George MacDonald.” A few months earlier, Tolkien wrote to a different correspondent, “They [orcs] are not based on direct experience of mine; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition (goblin is used as a translation in The Hobbit, where orc only occurs once, I think), especially as it appears in George MacDonald, except for the soft feet which I never believed in” [12]. Hm, now why should the “soft feet” of “goblins” sound familiar? Hm, could it be “the padding feet of many gnomes a-coming” in “Goblin Feet”?

(And as a side note, Gollum has soft, padding feet, too. We read that Gandalf “gathered that his padding feet had taken him at last to Esgaroth, and even to the streets of Dale, listening secretly and peering,” if you remember. Gollum, I daresay, would have been only too happy to grub around among the lines of Tolkien’s early poem for its “flittermice”, “beetle-things”, “coney-rabbits”, “glow-worms”, and “honey-flies”.)

I think it must be admitted that in spite his professed odium for Shakespeare’s and Drayton’s fairies, and later for the soft feet of George MacDonald’s goblins, he owed something to each of them at various points in his early career. Moreover, despite assurances that the dislike came about “so soon after” them, Tolkien’s use of precious, diminutive fairies persisted for at least two decades beyond these early poems (to “Errantry” in the early 1930’s and into The Hobbit, where it finally began to change). And we’re lucky that early work such as “Goblin Feet” was not “buried for ever”, as it allows us to trace this imaginative debt.

Unlike “Goblin Feet” and most of the other early poems we sampled above, “Errantry” evolved into a more serious and mature poem, thereby escaping the murrain Tolkien laid on “Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs.” Had it not, then surely Tolkien would have wished it lost as well. One can only wonder what similar goodies remain unpublished [13]. Perhaps in time, we may see an even greater preponderance of Drayton’s fairies come to light in the lively verse of Tolkien’s youth. I — for one — hope they come indeed. In Tolkien’s own words: “Come sing ye light fairy things tripping so gay.”

For those with a further interest in this subject, let me recommend Dimitra Fimi’s essay, “‘Come sing ye light fairy things tripping so gay’: Victorian Fairies and the Early Work of J.R.R. Tolkien”, published in Working with English: Medieval and Modern Language, Literature and Drama, 2, pp. 10–26. Dimitra has much of interest to say about “Goblin Feet”, “Wood-sunshine”, et al., though her focus is on the Victorian tradition (whereas, I am looking much further back). Read her essay online, here.

[1] Shippey, Tom. “Poems by Tolkien: Uncollected.” The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Ed. Michael D.C. Drout. New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 533.
[2] Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, p. 74.
[3] loc.cit.
[4] The poem is unpublished but quoted in part in Carpenter, p. 47.
[5] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Book of Lost Tales. Part One. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984, pp. 20–1.
[6] Ibid., p. 115. Christopher Tolkien notes that his father dated the poem to 1914; however, Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull date the earliest manuscript to April 1915. See Scull and Hammond’s J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, p. 1007.
[7] Leeds University Verse, 1914–1924. Leeds: Swann Press, 1924, p. 56–8. The poem is a revision of an earlier one, called “Two Eves in Tavrobel”, composed in July 1916. See Scull and Hammond’s J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 125.
[8] Oxford Poetry, 1914–1916. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1917, pp. 120–1.
[9] Quoted in BoLT1, p. 24.
[10] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 185.
[11] Fisher, Jason. “Reluctantly Inspired: George MacDonald and the Genesis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major.” North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies 25 (2006): 113-120.
[12] Letters, p. 178.
[13] “Wood-sunshine”, for example, and a companion poem to “An Evening in Tavrobel”, among others known and unknown.

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