Friday, February 22, 2008

“Old entish swords” in Beowulf and Tolkien

Did y’all miss me? Apologies for the paucity of posts over the preceding days (heh, Germanic alliterative verse on the brain — read on!), but I’ve had the flu. All better now and back to write about Old English swords and words.

As attentive readers will already know, I’m currently reading John Rateliff’s two-volume History of The Hobbit, which I am reviewing for the next issue of Mythlore. In Rateliff’s short essay on Bard the Bowman and his Black Arrow, something caught my eye:

Once again Beowulf may have contributed something to the idea of a weapon that achieves its goal but then perishes: in the battle with Grendel’s dam, Beowulf [...] is able to slay her and to cut off Grendel’s head with an ancient sword he finds within her lair. This ealdsweord eotenisc ([...] literally ‘old entish sword’) then melts away [...], leaving only the hilt behind [...]. [1]
I’m not sure how apt is the comparison between this “old entish sword” and Bard’s Black Arrow, but it got me to thinking about two other melting blades in The Lord of the Rings. The first is the dagger of the Witch-king, which melts away after giving Frodo a near-fatal wound:

He [Strider] stooped again and lifted up a long thin knife. There was a cold gleam in it. As Strider raised it they saw that near the end its edge was notched and the point was broken off. But even as he held it up in the growing light, they gazed in astonishment, for the blade seemed to melt, and vanished like a smoke in the air, leaving only the hilt in Strider’s hand.
The second is the sword of the Barrow-downs, with which Merry “dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.” But the blade perishes in the act (indeed, Aragorn has said long before that “all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King”):

Then he [Merry] looked for his sword that he had let fall; for even as he struck his blow his arm was numbed, and now he could only use his left hand. And behold! there lay his weapon, but the blade was smoking like a dry branch that has been thrust in a fire; and as he watched it, it writhed and withered and was consumed.
Both scenes (of which Rateliff mentions only the second) remind one immediately of Beowulf, where we encounter this vivid description:

[...] // þa þæt sweord ongan
[Then that sword began]
æfter heaþoswate // hildegicelum,
[from the blood of war, the icicles of battle,]
wigbil wanian. // þæt wæs wundra sum,
[the war-blade to wane. That was a wondrous thing,]
þæt hit eal gemealt // ise gelicost,
[that it all melted just like ice]
ðonne forstes bend // fæder onlæteð,
[as when frosty bonds the Father releases,]
onwindeð wælrapas, // se geweald hafað
[unwinds the well-ropes, having wielded all]
sæla ond mæla; // þæt is soð metod.
[seasons and times: that is the true Lord.] [2]
Pretty powerful stuff, but was Tolkien deliberately echoing Beowulf in The Lord of the Rings, or was the allusion perhaps merely an unconscious one? After all, the melting sword motif is used of both an evil blade, then a good, an evil wielder, then an evil victim. Thanks to Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s Reader’s Companion, we have an excerpt from a previously unpublished letter in which Tolkien speaks directly to the point (no pun intended):

The melting of the sword-blade has a dramatic quality, which is attractive to a storyteller and makes it linger in the memory; but the dramatic effect is the only real connexion between the different uses of the motif [in The Lord of the Rings ...] and the Anglo-Saxon poem. But that remains a fact of my personal biography (of which I was certainly not consciously aware when writing), and in no way enhances or explains the incidents in their places. [3]
What about Rateliff’s ‘literal’ translation “old entish sword”? Likewise, the sword is elsewhere called enta ærgeweorc [4], which Rateliff or I might translate “ent-wrought”. I like using “entish” here myself, but it could be a bit confusing unless one remembers that the Old English ent (also eten and eoten) was really just a Giant in the Germanic mythological tradition. In fact, *ent may be taken as the theorized form the Old English word(s) would have eroded into over the intervening centuries. In the long history of Beowulf translations, one often finds eotenisc rendered as “giant”, “giant-made”, “giant-wrought”, “gigantic” (which is not quite right), and so forth (a prodigious sampling can be examined here). But with the proper footnotes, “entish” might do just as well.

Compare Old English eoten with Old Norse jötunn “giant”, and Old English Eotaland “the land of the Jutes, Jutland” with Old Norse Jötunheimr, the World of the Giants in Norse mythology. Tolkien derived the name of his Ents from Anglo-Saxon literature [5], but we also find it used as more or less synonymous for Trolls in the toponym, Ettenmoors, the wild region north of Rivendell inhabited by the Ents’ more, well, trollish cousins. In fact, in early drafts, this area was called the “Entish Lands”. C.S. Lewis also used the toponym, Ettenmoor (singular), in his Chronicles of Narnia. Early on, Tolkien was unsure whether Treebeard the Ent would be friend or foe, or exactly what sort of giant he was (Gandalf “was caught in Fangorn and spent many weary days as a prisoner of the Giant Treebeard” [6]). But I digress. The point to take away from this is that Tolkien developed the idea of his Ents and Trolls (the two races are explicitly linked in some of the later “Silmarillion” writings) from this generalized notion of Giants in the Germanic mythological literature. One wonders whether they ought to be linked to the Stone-giants in The Hobbit as well.

It was just like Tolkien to postulate a feigned history for such a race (or races) of beings. Even so, one can’t easily imagine Tolkien’s Ents (or Trolls) wielding a sweord eotenisc ... And yet, the melting sword (unconsciously, it would seem) also found its way into Tolkien’s imagination.

[1] Rateliff, John D. The History of the Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007, p. 558–9.

[2] Beowulf, ll. 1605b–1611; the more or less literal translation, with any attendant faults, is mine.

[3] Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 182.

[4] Beowulf, l. 1679.

[5] In addition to Beowulf, “ents” are found in the poem The Wanderer, to which Tolkien refers in his letter to W.H. Auden (#163): Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 212, 445n2.

[6] Tolkien, Christopher, ed. The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988, p. 363.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Silmarillion studies: past, present, and future

Feedback continues to roll in on The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. This time, I’d like to share some comments from Doug Kane, whose book, Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion, is forthcoming from Lehigh University Press later this year or early next. Doug’s response is especially germane, since his own work on The Silmarillion grapples with some of the very questions I raise in my essay in S:TYO. In fact, had it been published a year ago, Doug’s book would have been essential reading for me in the preparation of my chapter. At one point in the essay, I wrote:

The full extent of these changes, both in the “Ruin of Doriath” and elsewhere, is not immediately clear — this is one of the side-effects of an invisible editorial hand — however it might be possible to set passages from the published Silmarillion side by side with the corresponding drafts published in The History of Middle-earth (or with the original manuscripts in the Bodleian, where necessary) and to systematically ascertain the precise nature and degree of alteration made by Christopher and Guy Kay. To undertake that analysis is outside the scope of my paper, and the particulars are not central to my argument in any case. What is important to realize is that Christopher became, perforce, much more than mere editor in certain sections of The Silmarillion.
This side-by-side comparison is precisely what Doug is doing in his book, so I for one am very eager to get my copy of it. In some ways, my essay in S:TYO was a call for Doug’s book, or something like it, before I knew of its existence. The process he is undertaking will not be uncontroversial, but I think it’s a project that has merit, and I will be very interested to read Doug’s conclusions.

But to return to my essay, “From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, and Jerome,” here’s an excerpt from what Doug had to say about it:
I jumped forward in the book and read your article. I liked it a lot. It is well researched, well argued and well written. The precedent of the creation of the Kalevala in particular is an apt one, and the point is nicely made (I haven’t read Anne Petty’s article in the first Tolkien Studies, so much of that material was new to me). But most importantly (certainly from my point of view), you shine a rare light on the importance of Christopher’s work in the creation of the published Silmarillion. [...]

That [side-by-side] analysis, of course, is largely what I did do in my work (although, sadly, without access to the Bodleian manuscripts). Interestingly, however, the basic conclusion that I come to is largely the same as yours. Your essay lays a good groundwork for my book, while having a sufficiently different main focus to have value in and of itself. I am pleased that it has found its way into print.
This was very gratifying to hear, as it was precisely what I hoped to achieve with the essay, to “shine a rare light on the importance of Christopher’s work,” the value and importance of which can hardly be underestimated. The question has been approached before, as in Charles Noad’s 2000 essay “On the Construction of ‘The Silmarillion’” (in Tolkien’s Legendarium, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Carl Hostetter), but much work still remains to be done in what we might call ‘Silmarillion studies’, even thirty years on from its first appearance in print.

I hope that my essay has helped to open the door a bit wider, and that Doug’s research and related studies will continue to develop, furthering our understanding of and appreciation for The Silmarillion in all its actual as well as its potential forms.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Another upcoming publication

After more than a year in preparation, Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, a new encyclopedia edited by Robin Reid and forthcoming from Greenwood, has finally gone to press. This is a mammoth two-volume work of some 320,000 words and 1,500 manuscript pages (700 pages in the final published form). The first volume consists of lengthier, more general essays, by period, medium, subgenre, and so forth (more details here); while the second volume consists of many more, and shorter, entries on specific authors and works (some additional informaiton here).

I wrote two small entries for Volume II, on Lloyd Alexander and Karen Wynn Fonstad. Both topics were, in fact, not on Robin’s original list, but she added them at my suggestion, so I feel good about making sure they weren’t overlooked. Both passed away recently (Alexander, very recently), so I felt the entries afforded me an opportunity for a last eulogy to them. In fact, Alexander was still alive when I submitted my entry on him, and I had intended to write to him again (as I had back in the middle 1980’s) to tell him about it. The news of his death put an end to those plans and necessitated some alteration of the entry on him — mainly in the matter of tense.

Anyway, this new encyclopedia (planned for release this coming June, at a whopping $249.05) promises to be a valuable new resource for the study of its subject(s). Those of you with an interest may want to alert your local library systems to the publication. If it helps, its ISBN is 978-0-313-33589-1, though I don’t see it on Amazon quite yet.

PS. For those curious who wrote the entry on J.R.R. Tolkien (which I desperately wanted), it was Amy Sturgis. So at least if I couldn’t get the assignment, it was nevertheless in good hands. (I also wanted Ursula K. Le Guin, but didn’t get that assignment either. :)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

There’s a copy of the Tolkien Encyclopedia near you — maybe

For anyone keeping score, the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment that I’ve written so much about is both expensive (at best, about $160) and not plentiful (according to its editor, Michael Drout, only 800 copies were printed, instead of the planned 2,500). That makes it pretty hard for the average Tolkien admirer to get hold of one. But don’t forget the libraries, Tolkien fans! With this kind of pricetag, libraries were the real intended market for the Encyclopedia anyway, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet age, it’s possible to track down almost half of the Encyclopedias in print. Just follow me to ...

Worldcat. I’ve mentioned Worldcat here before — blogging about how it can slice and dice academic citations better than any set of Ginsu steak knives! — and here it comes to the rescue again. Suppose you live in Dallas like me, and you want to find the nearest copy. Just follow this link to view all 313 library copies, arranged by distance from my ZIP code. (This was 305 copies just last week, so it’s clear that libraries are continuing to acquire it.) That’s nearly half the original print order accounted for, right there. Some additional number are owned by individuals, too, so who knows how many are actually left? And the Worldcat results may not be absolutely complete; I suppose some libraries may fall under its radar.

But it’s very interesting to see where copies of the Encyclopedia have landed. Currently, here’s the international breakdown:

United States — 285 copies
Canada — 10
Germany — 4
United Kingdon — 3
New Zealand — 3*
Hong Kong — 2
Taiwan — 2
The Netherlands — 1
Denmark — 1
Slovenia — 1
South Africa — 1

No copies in the French, Italian, Belgian, Swiss, Spanish, Polish, or Czech library systems. Only a single copy to share across all of Scandinavia. A single copy for the entire continent of Africa — even though I’ve clearly shown that Gandalf has been to Nigeria, hahae. Nothing for Finland, or even Russia. No copies in Australia or Japan. No copies anywhere on the entire South American continent. You folks better start talking to your libraries before they’re all gone. For the rest of you who haven’t seen one yet but have been eager to, find out how interlibrary loan works at your local lending institution.

* Is this perhaps purely because the Peter Jackson films were made there? “Middle-earth” tourism has become a major industry in New Zealand as a result!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A new review

Andy Higgins has reviewed two new Tolkien books over at his blog, Wotan’s Musings. These are The Frodo Franchise, which I haven’t read myself, and The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, for which you must know by now — *broken record* — I wrote a chapter. In the latter, he singles out two of the essays as his personal favorites: Mike Drout’s moving and highly personal account of his first reading of The Silmarillion (a rarity among academic essays), and ... mine! :)

In addition, he’s taken up the ideas I present in the essay and begun searching for other possible analogues (e.g., in Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Homer). I dropped a comment there with my thoughts, so I won’t be so vain as to simply repeat them here, but stop by Andy’s review and chime in!

I must say: it feels very nice to be among somebody’s favorite essays in a collection. That’s a feeling I could get used to. :)

Friday, February 1, 2008

More readers’ assessments of S:TYO

Earlier this week I stumbled on two threads discussing The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. Both began with capsule reviews — or perhaps it’s more accurate just to call them summaries (like the one I discussed here) — written by the same individual, calling himself Hyalma. The first, and more detailed of the two, was in Russian (13 January); the second, apparently just an abridgment of the first, was in Polish (24 January). I made a crude but almost readable attempt to translate these myself, but I’ll spare myself the embarrassment of sharing those efforts here. :) Fortunately, I had my friend Mark Hooker to help me clean them up. Not only that, but at my request (in a roundabout sort of way), the author has now translated his Polish post into English, which you can read here.

For the more detailed Russian version, here’s the substance of it (just the portion of it pertaining to my chapter — this is my blog, after all!):

The author compares “The Silmarillion,” “The Kalevala,” and “The Vulgate [Bible].” In each instance we are dealing with a great deal of text that has not been completely organized, which should be brought to the attention of its “compilers,” J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien, Lönnrot, and Jerome.

About the influence of “The Kalevala” on Tolkien’s work (The History of Kullervo, The Cottage of Lost Play, Sampo > Silmarils etc., the drawing “The Land of Pohja”). The word kuluvai from the early Quenya text “Narqelion” is associated with the name Kullervo both phonetically and semantically (both are derived from Quenya and Finnish, where they have the meaning “gold”). In addition, the author describes the Quenya borrowings from Finnish: aino, leminkainen, ilma, urulóki, and the names of the bears in Tolkien’s [Father Christmas] Letter[s]: Paksu and Valkotukka. As originally conceived, “The Silmarillion” was supposed to contain a lot of poetry. Christopher simply did not include it in [sic] the “Lays of Beleriand.”

Further about the parallels between “The Silmarillion” and “The Bible”, “The Silmarillion,” and the “Old Testament,” which a number of critics have written about, etc. [In] any discussion of which Bible “The Silmarillion” should be compared to, you have to pick the Vulgate, the basic text of the Roman Catholic Church. St. Jerome’s work also interested Tolkien from a philological point of view. His desire to return to the sources undoubtedly impressed Tolkien, who himself translated the Book of John [sic] for the Jerusalem Bible.

Christopher’s role in the publication of “The Silmarillion” was similar to Lonnröt’s role in the publication of “The Kalevala,” and Jerome’s role in the translation of “The Bible.” The author touches on the problem of “The Fall of Doriath,” where Christopher had to fill-in the blanks in the text himself. It seems that Christopher’s work is only one of the possible “Silmaraillions”, just like Lennröt presents us with one of the possible “Kalevalas”, and St. Jerome one of the possible Bibles. [Reproduced without permission]

Now, let me point out that the assertions made in this summary are those of its author and not necessarily exactly what I wrote in my chapter. A case in point: I never made such a bold claim as that The Silmarillion “was supposed to contain a lot of poetry” (emphasis mine); rather, I said it “might well have been full of poetry [...] For one example, Christopher elected not to include in The Silmarillion any of the thousands of lines of poetry that would later comprise The Lays of Beleriand.” And of course, even there I overstated my case (before all of you descend on me with corrections!): Christopher in fact included about 30 lines closely adapted from The Lay of Leithian. But my point was to highlight the prevalent editorial choice: a great deal of the material underlying the “Silmarillion” was indeed in verse form, but of it, almost none (a mere 30 lines) made it into the published Silmarillion.

Anyway, quibbles aside, it’s fantastic to see that the book is being read. Judging by what I’ve seen so far (in Russian, Polish, and English), it’s being read a good deal more than the previous Walking Tree title in which I was published (Tolkien and Modernity). Many of the comments suggest that there isn’t much in the book that’s new, with the exception of Agøy’s essay, which was roundly praised. I would quibble with the complaint about newness, too, but again, I’ll take being read over being ignored any day.