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.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tolkien Studies 5 — at long last!

As regular readers of Lingwë will know, the latest volume of Tolkien Studies has been available online to Project Muse subscribers since the middle of July, and I’ve been chomping at the bit (to fall back on a regionalism here in Texas) for my copy ever since. I’d hoped to have it in my hands before I left for Mythcon in the middle of August, but that date came and went too. I’ve now learned that due to a miscommunication between WVUP and their distributor, the contributor copies never went out! At least, not until I had squeaked about it several times. My most recent nag resulted in the discovery that the distributor had never dealt with the list of contributor copies, and once WVUP realized that, the copies went out immediately. I got mine, at long last, this past Friday. Since then, I’ve been looking through it eagerly. I suppose I can take credit for the whole throng of contributors finally getting their copies, if I’m willing to admit I’m a real whiner. ;) (Actually, I was very nice and pretty patient in each of my messages.)

The issue contains loads of great stuff, as usual, and it will take some time to digest, again as usual. Some of the highlights include the featured essay by Brian Rosebury, on revenge and moral judgment; an article by Carl Phelpstead on the prosimetric qualities of The Lord of the Rings; Corey Olsen’s paper on the Ents and Entwives, which I saw delivered in Vermont in 2007; and my own essay on the Three Elven Rings. Even better, immediately following my essay, Tolkien’s substantial essay on “Chaucer as a Philologist” is finally brought back into print after more than 70 years, along with the version of The Reeve’s Tale Tolkien prepared for recitation in 1939 (an even rarer piece). That’s Chaucer’s Reeve pictured on the cover of the issue (above), from the Ellesmere MS.

Volume 5 also contains the usual assortment of book reviews, an extensive Year’s Work essay by David Bratman, and the Bibliography for 2006. I am pleased to say that I have two entries in the bibliography, and that I am mentioned (also twice) in the book reviews. (I may get into Bratman’s Year’s Work essay next year. :) The two items in the bibliography are my essays on Tolkien and George MacDonald, published in North Wind, and “‘Man does as he is when he may do as he wishes’: The Perennial Modernity of Free Will”, published in the collection, Tolkien and Modernity (Walking Tree).

The latter is also one of the book reviews. My essay is really only mentioned, not judged, in the review by Shaun Hughes. He had an awful lot to cover in his review, so I suppose I would rather get no more than a mention than be severely criticized, hahae. Still, something more substantive would have been nice. In actuality, there may be more of an engagement with my essay than is at first apparent: Hughes spends nearly a full page [p. 250] on the Boethian view of free will, something I took up in my essay at some length. Though he says nothing so specific, perhaps those comments were stimulated by my paper.

The real easter egg was in the same review, but in a quite unexpected place. Talking about Tolkien’s treatment of wanhope (“despair”) [pp. 246—7], Hughes directs readers to the article by Anthony Burdge and Jessica Burke on that subject in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment — and to my own review of that entry in the Tolkien Encyclopedia Diary. Which actually gave me another unforeseen citation in the issue [p. 256]. Hughes makes no judgment of his own on the Burdge / Burke essay, or on my critique of it, but I wonder very much what he was thinking.

I will be reading and absorbing the rest of the issue for some time to come, but in the meantime, I welcome any and all feedback on my essay, as well as comments of any kind of the issue in general. I have read one reaction to my essay already, here. The review was highly complimentary — which I appreciated, of course — but with a couple of small quibbles too — which I welcome just as much. Anyone else care to comment, question, or critique? :)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

WOTD: Oubliette

I found my arms swathed down — my feet tied so fast that mine ankles ache at the very remembrance — the place was utterly dark — the oubliette, I suppose, of their accursed convent, and from the close, stifled, damp smell, I conceive it is also used for a place of sepulture.

Ivanoe, Sir Walter Scott (1819)

This is a wonderful little word. An oubliette is a dungeon or prison cell whose only means of egress is through a trapdoor in the ceiling. For that reason, it’s usually deep underground, dark, cold, and made of earth and stone. It’s basically the opposite of the chamber in which Frodo was imprisoned in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, which was at the very top of the tower and could be reached only through a trapdoor in its floor, though I daresay one might still call that an oubliette.

The etymology of the word should be readily apparent to French speakers. It derives (fairly recently, too) from the French oublier “to forget”, which in turn comes from Latin oblīvisci “to forget” (and from which we derive the Modern English oblivion). With this etymology in mind, the chamber in the Tower of Cirith Ungol really would have become an oubliette if Sam hadn’t come along, and all the Orcs had killed each other off leaving Frodo all alone in the Tower!

With a slightly related etymology and meaning is perdition. Like oubliette, the word comes to us from Latin by way of French. In this case, it’s the French perdre “to lose” (which is not so different from forgetting), from Latin perdĕre, which means “to lose utterly; to destroy, finish, ruin” (more literally per “to an end” + dăre “to put”). Perdition refers more figuratively to eternal punishment in hell, which is rather what being lost or forgotten in an oubliette must feel like. I can’t help but think of the Man in the Iron Mask.

Are there opportunities to use oubliette metaphorically in the world today? Ever been stuck in an elevator between floors? I have, and I’d say it’s pretty close. A small, claustrophobic cell from which the only escape may be through a trapdoor in the ceiling. More rhetorically, one might use the word to describe a kind of figurative cul de sac in an argument, or perhaps a social or political trap into which one has fallen.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembering 9/11/2001

There are so many possible clips, so many things I might say (even at the risk of too much presumptuousness, for me to speak from such a distance in time and space from those events). So rather than do that, let me offer you this very moving clip of Jon Stewart in what must certainly be The Daily Show’s finest hour.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Rain, rain, go away ...

Rain yesterday, rain today, rain tomorrow. And it’s looking like Hurricane Ike will be pulling into town some time this weekend. Certainly much diminished by then (and I absolutely do not mean to make light of the storm or the travails of anybody in its immediate path, past, present, or future) — but still bringing a lot of rain. Well, I suppose we need it; we’ve been suffering through drought conditions here in North Texas all year. And at least, Mother Nature will be helping me water my lawn instead of the City of Dallas. I try to see the silver lining in any major catastrophe, you see.

But it means wiping my dogs’ feet constantly. Come on! *sigh* :)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Recent ego-surfing

Like most independent scholars of moderate ego (okay, giant ego, but I’m working on that ;), I have a healthy interest in tracking down references to my publications and posts. As such, I find myself ego-surfing on a pretty regular basis, and so I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting places I’ve turned up online recently. (A topic for a different post would be all the weird or terrible things other Jason Fishers are out there doing, tarnishing my good name!)

It wasn’t unexpected, but I was tickled to find myself finally appearing in Google Scholar searches, mainly thanks to my recent article in Tolkien Studies, and to a review in the same issue of a book for which I wrote a chapter. More on that in a future post. What was very unexpected, on the other hand, was to find that I am mentioned by name in Wikipedia’s major entry on The Hobbit. And no, I didn’t put it there myself! ;) In fact, I’m cited twice in the article; in both cases, it’s my review of John Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit (published in Mythlore 101/102) being referred to. In the first case, my own words are quoted; in the second, a modicum of Old Norse source-study I incorporated into my review. The additions, made by one Davemon back in May, came as a pleasant surprise.

I’ve also been making a regular appearance on Richard Nokes’s excellent medieval website, Unlocked Wordhoard. Since he added me to his blogroll about three months ago, he’s linked to me a half a dozen or so times. I’m grateful for it. Over the last year and more, various other blogs have summarized, responded to, and/or linked to my posts, too. A small sampling of some of the more interesting ones: Elendilion, commenting on my post about the Tolkien Encyclopedia Diary, among other posts [in Polish]; a post on “Elven Latin” at Face of the Moon, linking to my musings on the etymologies and relationships between Gandalf and Albus Dumbledore; Sam Riddleburger’s thoughts on my thoughts on his thoughts (wait, what?) on Lloyd Alexander; a response to my post about the mythical Marathi Hobbit, among other posts [in Spanish]; and a detailed answer to my post on “old Entish swords” in Beowulf and Tolkien over at Eldamar [in Italian]. Finally, a nod to L’Imbrattacarte, where I got a special honor of being mentioned in the blog’s very first (and so far, only) post [in Italian].

This mutual admiration society runs both ways, too. Since I posted a link to Randy Hoyt’s new mythopoeic website, Journey to the Sea, for example, I’ve seen two or three other sites pick up on that post and link to him as well. To some extent, we all share our traffic, and these links and blogrolls can be crucial for reaching a larger audience — which, let’s be honest, is really why we’re all doing this: to be read. And so, thanks for reading this post, and thanks to everyone who has linked back to me from their own blogs and websites. Much obliged.

And now, let the ego-surfing resume. :)