Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reviewed, reviewing, and reviewing reviewed

I learned recently that Hither Shore, the annual publication of the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft (German Tolkien Society), printed a review of The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On in its most recent number. I contacted Thomas Honegger, who sits on the editorial board for Hither Shore, and he kindly put me in touch with the reviewer, the esteemed Thomas Fornet-Ponse, who in turn kindly sent me a copy of the review.

Mit Hilfe von einem Freund (danke, Mark Hooker), I polished up a translation of the two paragraphs that pertain to me, the first explicitly, the second more implicitly. I’ll give you the original German first, then the translation — and please feel free to suggest improvements:

Strukturanalogien zwischen Elias Lönnrot, Tolkien und Hieronymus fragt, insofern alle drei ähnliche, nämlich mythopoetische Aufgaben in ihrer jeweiligen Sammlung und Kompilation von Texten durchgeführt hätten. Andererseits widmet er sich auch der Rolle Christopher Tolkiens, die in ihrer mythographischen Dimension ebenfalls große Ähnlichkeiten zu derjenigen Lönnrots und Hieronymus’ aufweise.

Wie bei den beteiligten Personen nicht anders zu erwarten, sind die Beiträge durchgängig von hoher Qualität und versprechen sowohl dem schon gut informierten Leser einige interessante Einblicke als auch dem weniger gut informierten (dem allerdings wohl noch einige mehr).

Jason Fisher had an entirely different approach [from that of Michaël Devaux]. On the one hand, he looked at the coincidences in the area of content or structure between the works of Lönnrot, Tolkien and Jerome [i.e., Hieronymus], in so far as the three are similar, namely the mythopoeic aspect of each of their collection and compilations of texts. On the other, he discusses the role that Christopher played in the mythographic dimension, and how it was similar to those of Lönnrot and Jerome.

As is to be expected with the people taking part in the project, the contributions are of a high quality throughout, and promise to provide the already well-informed reader with a number of interesting insights, and the less-well-informed reader with even more.

Thomas informs me that this review, essentially unchanged, will also appear in the upcoming Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, published by the Inklings Gesellschaft. His favorable comments are counterbalanced against the first Amazon review of The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On (if review you can call it). One Carol Reed has this — and no more than this — to say: “Some of these people need to get a life. I was hoping for some discusion of the inconsitencies and contridictions in Tolkien’s work..” The spelling errors are hers; I’m resisting the temptation to [sic] my dogs on her. ;)

And so, I suppose in the category of “needing to get a life”, I’ve written four new book reviews of my own recently. The first, on the Douglas Anderson collection, Tales Before Narnia, was printed in the current issue of Mythprint. You can read it here (and don’t forget about this post, where I track my Mythprint reviews).

I have two book reviews in the current issue of Mythlore. I review Myth and Magic: Art According to the Inklings, edited by Eduardo Segura and Thomas Honegger (read it here), and Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion, by Douglas Charles Kane (read it here). The latter is currently on sale; if you follow the link to Amazon, it’s 27% off right now — very helpful for an expensive book like this!

Finally, I think I can let this cat out of the bag officially, now that the issue has gone to press, I have a review forthcoming in Tolkien Studies, Volume 6. There, I review Martin Simonson’s The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition. I’m afraid I can’t give you a copy of this to read, but I’m told the issue should be arriving around the end of June. For those of you with Project Muse access, you may see it a couple of weeks sooner.

As I hinted in the title of this post, some folks have been discussing my reviews too. This is invaluable to me, not just as proof that my hard work is actually being read, but also in terms of substantiating (or not) the opinions I made such an effort to share. Some of you may have noticed that Eduardo Segura and Martin Simonson visited Lingwë to comment. If you missed them, back up to this post and read the comments. John Rateliff also gave me a little feedback in the comments to a post on his own blog (I admit, I solicited feedback). Furthermore, rank and file readers — as opposed to the authors or editors — have brought up my reviews in various recent online discussions: here (in the comments), here (you may have to register), and here (in Dutch).

In the latter, I was thrilled to find these two opinions: “Ach, Als Jason Fisher er enthousiast over is, heb ik er redelijk wat vertrouwen in” [Well, if Jason Fisher is excited about it, I have a lot of confidence]; and “die recensie van hem is nogal een lap, maar ook zeer de moeite waard om door te lezen” [This review from him is quite a piece, but also very worth reading].

It’s quite something to realize that there are people as far away as the Netherlands reading my reviews. And I am humbled to learn of their faith in my judgment. It spurs me to work ever harder. :)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Two years online!

It’s hard to believe I’ve really been writing Lingwë – Musings of a Fish for two years now, but yesterday was indeed the two-year anniversary of my first post. And in the strangest of coincidences, that very first post just attracted a new (and relevant!) comment, two years later to the day, from Harvard professor Marc Zender. Strange are the ways of chance, I suppose — if chance you call it.

I have really enjoyed writing Lingwë — sharing news as well as the occasional internet oddity, trying out theories and arguments, and engaging in thought-provoking conversations with literally tens of dedicated readers, hahae. Actually, perhaps I’ve graduated up to dozens or even a few score by now, if Google Analytics is to be trusted. I’ve also had visitors from well over a hundred different countries — including even Iraq! And the sometimes bizarre search terms that lead people to Lingwë would make for a post all of their own!

I feel I can look back with genuine pride on some of the entries of the past two dozen months. I will resist the temptation to iterate a list of “greatest hits” — and in any case, there have been more than few forgettable posts and greatest “misses” too. And speaking of the greatest missus, I would like to take a moment to mention my partner and inspiration, who has (unfairly to her) been mentioned waaay too rarely here: my wife, Jennifer. She has the patience of a saint — a cliché, but true — and has been nothing but supportive of my extra-curricular work. I wish all of you could meet her. She’s quite simply the best person I know. Thank you for your unwavering support and enthusiasm, darling! (I know, I sound like I’m accepting a Webby or something, hahae.)

So, while looking back, let me also look forward. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen over the past two years, watch this space: I hope to keep bringing you more of the same for many years to come — if this whole “interweb thingy” catches on. ;) As always, I welcome comments, feedback, corrections, and criticisms. So far, I have managed to avoid the radar pings of the trolling bots that would force me to moderate comments (*knock on wood*). And I still receive few enough that I can (and do) respond to each one. Feel free to make requests too — and yes, that is a tip jar. ;)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Marjorie Burns reviews The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, I happened upon a review of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by Marjorie Burns. Marjorie was a particularly good choice (as was Shippey in the TLS) to review this work, because of her own background in Norse literature and mythology. For those who haven’t read it, definitely make the time for her own book, Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In the present review, Marjorie provides the all but obligatory allusion to Richard Wagner and William Morris, but she explains the distinctions between their versions of the legend and Tolkien’s quite well:
Unlike Wagner, the sometimes heavy-handed librettist, and unlike Morris, whos long lines and rhymed stanzas hold to Victorian tastes, Tolkien aimed for directness an authenticity. He did so by imitating poetic meters used by the early Norse—meters that (much like those in Old English) depend on alliteration (rather than rhyme) and a spacing of pauses and beats.
She also suggests that not all of Tolkien’s alterations to the traditional story may be to everybody’s liking. As an example, she highlights Tolkien’s diminution of the werewolf episodes (clearly among her own favorite scenes). Marjorie closes the review by acknowledging the enormous value of Christopher Tolkien’s foreword, commentaries, notes, and appendices. I would definitely echo this myself. To those already familiar with the Völsung material, they are very helpful indeed; but to those who are not, they’re nothing less than indispensable.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More information on The Book of Jonah

I have received some additional details on The Book of Jonah from the publisher — still scant information, but I thought I would share what I have. First of all, it appears that the July release date is looking more like the end of August. I have put in a request for a review copy — fingers crossed. :P

I can also tell you that the book is being edited by Brendan Wolfe and will feature a foreword by Sir Anthony Kenny. The nephew of Alexander Jones, general editor of The Jerusalem Bible, Kenny had a first-hand perspective and may be able to offer one or two interesting morsels. He described a meeting with Tolkien about the project in his memoir, A Path from Rome: An Autobiography (1985), calling Tolkien “a difficult collaborator” [1].

According to the marketing collateral DL&T sent me, “Kenny [in his foreword] recalls his own memories of working on the Jerusalem Bible and the impact made by its groundbreaking publication” — no mention of Tolkien there. But then:
[Editor] Brendan Wolfe tells the little-known story of how Tolkien, then at the height of his fame as the author of The Lord of the Rings, agreed to join the team of Catholic writers and scholars working on a major new translation of the Bible into English in the early 1960s.The result was the Jerusalem Bible, still celebrated for its elegant, timeless English. Wolfe shows the resonances between the story of Jonah and the whale, Tolkien’s contribution to the JB, and themes in his other writings.
Just what form the exploration of these resonances will take — whether an introdutory essay, footnotes, commentary, or some combination of all of these — we’ll have to wait and see. I still have a difficult time imagining how the book will be more than a hundred pages.

And finally, as to the question of the translation itself. The marketing collateral sheds little light, I’m afraid. It refers only to an “[e]xclusive translation”, calling the book “[a] beautiful new presentation of one of the best-loved Bible stories in a translation by J.R.R. Tolkien.” Note that the credit for the translation is here given entirely to Tolkien (pace Carpenter). Moreover, “exclusive” does not mean new — it may simply acknowledge that the trans-lation is and has always been copyright DL&T. The flyer gives no indication whatsoever of any material by Tolkien not previously published. It’s probably safe to assume there won’t be any. Update: Or perhaps there will be. See the comment from Jeremy Edmonds below.

One final note: this isn’t the first foray into the world of Tolkien by DL&T. They’ve published one previous book about him — Stratford Caldecott’s Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, a 160-page [2] monograph examining Tolkien and his works from a theological vantage.

[1] Kenny’s memoir is cited both by Scull and Hammond in their Reader’s Guide, and by L.J. Swain in his entry on “Judaism” in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Ed. Michael D.C. Drout. New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 314–5.

[2] This figure is from the DL&T website, where the book is apparently still for sale for £9.95; however, according to Amazon, the book is only 144pp. and is no longer available. Has anyone read Caldecott’s book? I’ve read one or two of his essays, but not Secret Fire.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More new Tolkien material coming this summer ... sort of

This just in — It appears that Darton, Longman & Todd (publishers of The Jerusalem Bible) will be publishing The Book of Jonah, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, on 20 July 2009. I have really mixed feelings about this. It feels like a real stretch, and I would be willing to wager a tidy sum that the text will simply be a word-for-word reprint of the same Book of Jonah that has been available in The Jerusalem Bible for forty years now. On the other hand, it’s convenient to be able to buy a copy of just the one biblical book Tolkien is known to have worked on (instead of the whole JB). And what a nice cover! :)

What do we really know about Tolkien’s translation? Not as much as we’d like to, but some. First of all, Tolkien did not translate Jonah from the original Hebrew as is so commonly supposed [1]; rather, the text he worked from was a French translation from the Hebrew, so one step removed [2]. It has also been reported that Tolkien translated the Book of Job, but the best evidence we have suggests that Tolkien did no more than look over a draft trans-lation by another hand, and perhaps not even that much [3]. Tolkien also produced a sample translation of the first chapter of Isaiah, but we have no reason to suppose it was used in the preparation of that book for publication.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling in light of this new book, Humphrey Carpenter reports that Tolkien’s translation of Jonah “was extensively revised by other hands before publication” [4]. If Carpenter is correct (and I have no reason to doubt it), and further, if my guess is correct that the text will simply be the same as already in print, then what have we gained by this new publication? How much of the final published translation is even in Tolkien’s own words? Not much, according to Carpenter. And so indeed, where is the value?

Now, on the other hand, were we to get notes, jottings, and drafts of the translation, revealing something of its intermediate stages and giving insights into Tolkien’s approach, along with facsimile pages in Tolkien’s hand and an insightful introductory essay to go along with all of this — well, then I would be delighted to eat my words. The only bit of hope: The Book of Jonah (trans. Tolkien) is supposed to be 104pp., even though the Book of Jonah itself is extremely short (only about three pages in The Jerusalem Bible). But I’m still skeptical at this point. How about the rest of you?

[1] Scull, Christina, and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Volume II: Reader’s Guide, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006, p. 468.

[2] See also Scull & Hammond Reader’s Guide, p. 437ff.

[3] Kilby, Clyde. Tolkien and the Silmarillion. Wheaton (IL): Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976, p. 54. I suspect this was simply a slip, but one which unfortunately has been taken up and repeated many times. According to Scull and Hammond, “[o]n 26 January 1958 [Jerusalem Bible general editor Alexander] Jones solicited Tolkien’s opinions of a first draft of most of the Book of Job” (Reader’s Guide, p. 437), but that seems to have been the extent of it — at least, so far as anyone can now verify.

[4] Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, p. 274.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Teaching Tolkien

I’m working up a post to share some of my initial thoughts about The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, I promise, but I couldn’t let this pass without commenting. It is a fact often bemoaned by Tolkien scholars and students alike that the literary establishment has been reluctant to admit the Professor into their sanctum litteratorum. Only slowly, over decades, have Tolkien’s works crept into collegiate curricula. And I suppose there is a dispassionate argument to be made for this. Nevertheless, I will set it aside, as I admit I am not a disinterested commentator. More and more schools are now offering courses on Tolkien, and teachers’ roundtables are becoming more wide-spread. I myself will be presenting a class at a Summer Institute for Teachers this summer — more on that to come. But in spite of this progress among rank and file students and instructors, there is still resistance among the more, how shall I put it, elite schools.

But at last, and for the first time I know of, Tolkien has come to Harvard. True, it’s a summer course, not one offered during the busier, higher-profile fall or spring semesters. True, it’s being offered by the Anthropology and not the English department. And yes, the course is being conducted by a lecturer, not a tenured professor. But even this is a big step.

The course itself looks quite good. I suppose you could say Tolkien is getting “the Harvard treatment” — rather than a straightforward survey of Tolkien’s literary contributions, Anthropology and Archaeology S-1641 (“Tolkien as Translator: Language, Culture, and Society in Middle-Earth [sic]”) is a systematic exploration of “the important role of language in The Lord of the Rings, applying concepts from linguistic anthropology that shed light on Tolkien’s methods and purpose as the ‘translator’ (both linguistic and cultural) of Middle-Earth [sic].” Hardly a “gut”, in the traditional Ivy League parlance.

Even a cursory glance at Dr. Marc Zender’s web pages for the class (linked from the previous paragraph) reveals that this is serious academic business, and it’s very refreshing to see. Take a look at the syllabus [PDF] for even more detail. Zender’s web pages and syllabus demonstrate a close familiarity with the subject matter, and a broad reading of the scholarly literature — ranging from out-of-print classics to the most recent research. Indeed, some of my friends will probably be delighted to learn that their books and essays are being used at Harvard this summer.

The only change I would have suggested is that Zender use the more complete “Nomenclature” published in Hammond and Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, rather than the abridged version published in A Tolkien Compass. Still, the material Lobdell omitted was small enough not to make much difference. Also, in spite of the shortcomings of the Tolkien Encyclopedia, one of its entries makes it onto Zender’s assigned reading. I was a little bit surprised not to see Tolkien’s own essay, “English and Welsh”, assigned during week five or six. But I suppose it’s too easy for me to engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking here; the class really does look absolutely first-rate. In fact, I wish I could take it. Or teach it. ;)

Speaking of teaching ... I thought I had written something about this here on Lingwë, but apparently I haven’t, so here goes ...

“J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Real and Imagined Middle Ages” is a Summer Institute for Teachers funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It runs for five weeks, from July 13 to August 13, at Texas A&M University at Commerce. As I hinted above, I’ll be participating in the Institute as a “visiting expert”, conducting a half-day class on the subject of Old English, Old Norse, and Tolkien’s Fiction during the Institute’s second week. I’m one of fifteen such instructors, plus the two Institute co-directors, Drs. Robin Reid and Judy Ford (take a look at the company I’ll be keeping, here). It’s too late to apply, I’m afraid, but if a program like this sounds interesting to you, keep your eyes open in the future — and watch this space. This is the second Tolkien Institute (the first was in 2004), and it may not be the last. In addition, there’s a good chance some of the material could become available online later this summer (but I’m not promising anything).

Tolkien may not have reached the top of the Ivory Tower yet, but with an ample supply of students, and with intrepid instructors like Marc Zender and so many others, I feel confident Tolkien will gain admittance one day and finally be universally recognized for the brilliant and creative man that he was. And on that day, don’t be surprised if you hear a collective cry from fans and scholars alike, now hoar and hoarse: “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you all along!”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tolkien Studies 6 on the horizon

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again. The arrival of late spring brings with it a new volume of Tolkien Studies. I have been piecing together the contents of the sixth volume for some time now, and with the help of (and their source, Michael Drout), I can now fill in the remaining gaps and give you what I think is a fairly complete table of contents. The issue is not yet available on Project Muse, let alone in the mail to subscribers, but this should satisfy your curiosity for the time being.

Front Matter

  • Editors’ Introduction
  • In Memoriam: Pauline Baynes and Derek Brewer
  • Conventions and Abbreviations


  • John D. Rateliff — “A Kind of Elvish Craft”: Tolkien as Literary Craftsman
  • Douglas A. Anderson — John D. Rateliff: A Checklist
  • Ármann Jakonsson — Talk to the Dragon: Tolkien as Translator
  • Jill Fitzgerald — A “Clerkes Compleinte”: Tolkien and the Division of Lit. and Lang.
  • Stefan Ekman — Echoes of Pearl in Arda’s Landscape
  • Judy Ann Ford and Robin Anne Reid — Councils and Kings: Aragorn’s Journey Towards Kingship in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings
  • Cynthia M. Cohen — The Unique Representation of Trees in The Lord of the Rings
  • Josh Long — Clinamen, Tessera, and the Anxiety of Influence: Swerving from and Completing George MacDonald
  • Verlyn Flieger — The Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth

Notes and Documents

  • J.R.R. Tolkien [Edited by Carl F. Hostetter] — Fate and Free Will
  • Stuart D. Lee — J.R.R. Tolkien and The Wanderer: From Edition to Application
  • Christopher Gilson — Essence of Elvish: The Basic Vocabulary of Quenya

Back Matter

  • Book Reviews
  • The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies
  • Bibliography (in English) for 2007

I know (or think I know) a few of the books being reviewed, but since the reviews comprise a much more fluid section of the volume, I have learned that it’s better not to talk too much about them before they appear. I have also heard that there is supposed to be a comprehensive index of volumes 1–5 published in this issue. We’ll see. I hope so.

If the pieces by Verlyn Flieger and Carl Hostetter sound familiar, then you were either at Mythcon last year, or you read my follow-up discussion (or both). It’s nice to see both of these published, even if Carl was unable to provide the commentary he had hoped. I still have my fingers crossed that he will find the time to write it one of these days. The lead essay by John Rateliff may also sound familiar. He delivered a version of it as the Blackwelder Lecture at Marquette University in October, 2007. I could not be there, so I’m really looking forward to reading the essay now.

Once I’ve read and digested the issue, I’ll share my thoughts about it, as I hope some of you will too. In the meantime, back to The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Viking gag

While I twiddle my thumbs waiting for my copy of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún to arrive, please to enjoy a cartoon from the reliably oddball Dan Piraro. I wonder at what age Vikings get their learner’s permit? :)