Friday, June 26, 2009

A(nother) new book on Tolkien

I’m delighted to announce the immediate availability of Mark Hooker’s new col-lection, The Hobbitonian Anthology of Articles about J.R.R. Tolkien and his Legendarium (Llyfrawr, 2009). This is the follow-up to Mark’s previous volume, A Tolkienian Mathomium (Llyfrawr, 2006), with articles of much the same style and approach. The product description from Amazon (link above) summarizes the book as follows:

This is a second volume of articles by Mark T. Hooker that picks up where A Tolkienian Mathomium left off. Hooker’s analysis is from a linguistic perspective similar to Tolkien’s. “If you liked the last one, you’re going to like this one,” says the Foreword. Beyond Bree and Hither Shore said that there is “something [in A Tolkienian Mathomium] for everyone with even a passing interest in Tolkien. All of the articles are well researched, insightful, and highly infor-mative.” Tolkien Studies said that it is a “pleasantly eccentric volume ... Hooker has a wide variety of things to say that have not been heard before.” Tolkien Collector’s Guide said A Tolkienian Mathomium “is one of the most unique sets of essays on Tolkien I have read in the past 10 years.” An early review by The Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza of the analysis of the origin of the name Tom Bombadil appearing in The Hobbitonian Anthology ranks it as “the best explanation yet of how the name Tom Bombadil came into being.”

That short quotation from the Foreword, as it happens, is mine. Since I had the honor of writing the Foreword to Mark’s new book, that means I have also read it already and can recommend it without reservation. Mark’s translation studies are fascinating (and often quite amusing), while his linguistic explorations are sharp and resourceful. I can honestly say, without hyperbole, that there are interesting ideas on virtually every page of his books. And the price definitely can’t be beat!

Tolkien once wrote that he liked “to wring the juice out of a single sentence, or explore the implications of one word”, and this is exactly what Mark does in his essays. If you’re familiar with him already, from his previous books or articles in Beyond Bree, you’ll no doubt greet The Hobbitonian Anthology like an old friend in a new suit. If you aren’t familiar with him, take my advice and pick up a copy of the book. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tolkien in Who’s Who in Literature, 1925

Quite by chance I recently came across an interesting piece of very early Tolkien ephemera: an entry in the 1925 edition of Who’s Who in Literature. The publication is “[a] continuance”, so we’re told, “of the Bibliographical Section of THE LITERARY YEAR BOOK (Founded 1897)”, and edited by one Mark Meredith.Tolkien’s entry, which long predates The Lord of the Rings and even The Hobbit, reads as follows:

TOLKIEN, John Ronal [sic] Reuel, M.A. B. 1892. Au. of A Middle English Vocabulary (Clar. Pr.), 1922; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (do.), 1924; Selections from Chaucer (do.), 1925. C. Times Lit. Suppl., Year’s Work in English Studies, Yorkshire Poetry, The Microcosm. 2, DARNLEY ROAD, WEST PARK, LEEDS. [1]
Yes, the typographical error for Ronald is right there in black and white, for all posterity to gawp at. Thank heaven they spelled his surname correctly!

This is the earliest such entry I have seen. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull do make reference to entries for Tolkien in Who’s Who, citing previously unpublished sources such as the archives of Tolkien’s publisher, George Allen & Unwin. But these appear to be much later ones, long postdating The Hobbit and in some cases even The Lord of the Rings. It is also clearly not the same early entry still in print, as the Who’s Who entry discussed later also contained Tolkien’s telephone number. [2]

First, let me explain the abbreviations, because I chose not to intrude with square brackets of my own. Most are pretty self-explanatory: Au. “Author of”, B. “Year of Birth”, and C. “Contributor to”. Clar. Pr. refers to the Clarendon Press, an imprint of the Oxford University Press. A bit more opaque to us today is “do.”, which is (or was) the standard abbreviation for “ditto”. That is, each of the three books attributed to Tolkien are identified as Clarendon Press publications.

Now, there are several interesting things in this blurb. For one, Tolkien and E.V. Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was actually published in 1925, not 1924 as stated here. Gordon, by the way, is not in the 1925 Who’s Who. But more interestingly, Selections from Chaucer, given a date of 1925, probably refers to the so-called Clarendon Chaucer. Assuming so, this was originally conceived as a collection of writings other than The Canterbury Tales, aimed at younger readers. A half-title proof survives, in which the proposed volume is entitled Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose, which matches Who’s Who well enough. Tolkien was a co-editor of this volume with E.V. Gordon George S. Gordon, under the supervision of Kenneth Sisam — familiar names at this point in Tolkien’s bibliography. From its first conception in 1922 through roughly 1925, the volume took shape, but then it stalled until around 1930. Following this, some additional progress was made over a year or two, after which it stalled again, never to recover. The inclusion in Who’s Who was therefore, sadly, premature, as the material Tolkien prepared for it was never published. [3]

Regarding the contributions referred to in the blurb, these are (taken in the order given above):
  • “Holy Maidenhood”, a review of Hali Meidenhad: An Alliterative Homily of the 13th Century, edited by F.J. Furnivall (Early English Text Society, 1922), written, but unsigned, by Tolkien, and published April 26, 1923.

  • Tolkien wrote substantial essays on “Philology: General Works” for The Year’s Work in English Studies covering 1923–5, and appearing in 1924, 1926, and 1927, respectively. Most likely, the Who’s Who blurb refers only to the first of these three.

  • Tolkien’s poem “The Cat and the Fiddle” appeared in the Oct./Nov. 1923 issue of Yorkshire Poetry (Vol. 2, No. 19), published by the Swan Press, Leeds.

  • And finally, Tolkien’s sonnet “The City of the Gods” appeared in the Spring 1923 issue of The Microcosm (Vol. 8, No. 1). For those who would like to read the poem, it has been reprinted in John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War and in The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Interestingly, Tolkien’s rhyme scheme — a b a b c d c d e e f g g f — appears to be a nonce form; it’s not the Petrarchan, Shakespearean, or Spenserian. Does anyone recognize that rhyme scheme?

And last, but not least, there is the address of Tolkien’s home in Leeds. The helps us to zero in a bit further on the date of the blurb. The Tolkiens were living in the house on Darnley Road from March 5, 1924 on, and they moved out of it (to their better known address of 22 Northmoor Road, Oxford) on January 7, 1926. Because the blurb identifies the edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as 1924 (unless this is a mere slip), my guess would be that the edition was then still forthcoming, and that the blurb therefore dates to the period between March and December 1924. It is also possible that the Who’s Who appeared later, with much of its contents already stale or otherwise in error. It doesn’t really matter too much, but with ephemera such as this, it’s always nice to try to get the best idea one can of its origins.

A couple of closing questions. Isn’t it nice, and perhaps even a bit surprising, to see Tolkien being recognized for his literary efforts (philology, criticism, and poetry) so long before his eternal fame would be made by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? And who might have submitted his name and abbreviated vita to Who’s Who in the first place? Was it Tolkien himself? Leeds? Or Oxford or its Press?

[1] Meredith, Mark (ed.). Who’s Who in Literature (1925 Edition), A continuance of the Bibliographical Section of THE LITERARY YEAR BOOK (Founded 1897). Liverpool: The Literary Year Books Press, [1925], p. 433.

[2] Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 396, 486, 590, 664, et seq.

[3] For more information on the Clarendon Chaucer, see Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 153–6.

Friday, June 19, 2009

WOTD: Fitt

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three months since my last Word of the Day — that really has become a misnomer, hasn’t it? But here I am with a new one, fulfilling the promise I made last year that “one of these days I’ll get around to something genuinely English, ab origine.” In today’s installment, I’m looking at the word fitt, familiar enough to most medievalists but probably unknown to anybody else. It’s a word I tend to take for granted, but it caught my attention again in couple of posts I was reading on the subject of Beowulf, here and here (and a tip of the hat to Unlocked Wordhoard for these). It’s a word of very limited use, part of a specialized academic nomenclature, but hey, when has that ever stopped me before? :)

So what exactly is a fitt? With its double terminal stop, it’s a rather strange-looking word for English, isn’t it? The word refers to a section of medieval Germanic verse, basically the equivalent of the Latinate canto. More on that in a moment, but first, to clarify the meaning and source of the word:

Like all the longer Old English poems, Beowulf is divided into sectional divisions that were in all likelihood denoted by the term fitt ‘fitt,’ pl. *fitta. [Footnote: This is to be deduced from the Latin preface to the Heliand, which states that the author ‘omne opus per vitteas distinxit, quas nos lectiones vel sententias possumus appellare’ (‘divided the whole work into fitts, which we can call “readings” or “passages”) [...] [1]

As you can see by the footnote above, fitts weren’t limited to verse in Old English but were also present in the literature of other Germanic languages, as in the Old Saxon Heliand. Fitts were sometimes delineated by punctuation, sometimes with numerals, sometimes by elaborately decorative initial capitals. Other times, one has to deduce where one fitt ends and another commences. Fitts often ended with general statements of summary, reflection, or wisdom [2], as for example in the advice concluding fitt 35 of Beowulfsibb æfre ne mæg wiht onwendan þám ðe wel þenceð (“kinship can never aught pervert in him who rightly thinks”).

Coming back to canto, as many of you will know, this too is a word denoting a section in a long poem. It comes to us through Italian from the Latin cantare “to sing”. A fitt, it transpires, seems to show precisely the same derivation, but on the Germanic branch of the Indo-European Stammbaum. There, the immediate source would appear to be Old English fittan “to sing”. It appears to me not to be related to fitt “strife, stuggle”, though some have claimed it is. OE fitt “poem, song” is attested only four times, and it was not until Chaucer that the word fitt was used in the same sense as canto (in The Tale of Sir Thopas, there spelled “fit”).

But the more common OE word for “to sing” was singan; so where might fittan have come from? I think there are two possibilities, both metaphorical — and I’m not sure which one I favor:

(I) A phonologically similar Old High German word, fizza “yarn, skein, hank (of thread)”, suggests that singing could have been related to the spinning of a yarn (= a tale). Cognate to this are Middle High German vitzen and Old Norse fitja “to web, knit, weave”. [3]

(II) Alternatively, the Old Norse fet “pace, step”, secondarily “foot (as of a poem), a part of a poem” — one must assume related to fótr “foot” — suggests the possibility of singing while walking, measuring out a poem (or other oral literature) at or by the pace of walking, etc.

But these theories are really just speculation. Various dictionaries suggest the possibility of one or the other (or both), sometimes with certainty, sometimes not. In the end, I think we must admit that one can only go back so far before the vagaries of linguistic change become lost in the haze of history. Arguing backward, we just make the best fitt we can.

[1] Klaeber, Friedrich. Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 4th ed. by R.D. Fulk, et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008, p. xxxiii.

[2] Loc. cit., and xxxv. [The translation of the passage that follows is Benjamin Thorpe’s.]

[3] R.D. Fulk, one of the editors of the most recent edition of the Klaeber Beowulf, has an article on this subject: “The origin of the numbered sections in Beowulf and in other Old English poems.” Anglo-Saxon England 35 (2006): 91–109. There, inter alia, he talks about the possibility of a derivation from the OHG fizza.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tolkien Studies 6 available on Project Muse

For those of us with Project Muse access, the latest volume of Tolkien Studies is now online, here. For those without, print copies should be shipping any time now. I’ll report back when I’ve received mine. But now that the issue is officially available through at least the one channel, and now that I’ve had a chance to skim through it (with a more thorough reading to follow), I beg your indulgence while I crow a little*. Yes, I know how self-involved that sounds — but this is my blog. :)

First, and most significantly, I have a book review published in this volume, on Martin Simonson’s The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition (Walking Tree, 2008). I won’t summarize it here, other than to say the book is well worth reading — but I invite you to check out the full review and to send me any feedback you may have. The author himself commented on it, here at Lingwë, noting that “[i]mpressive references to [Northrop] Frye’s notebooks and quite inconceivable cross-checkings in obscure e-magazines denote an uncommon seriousness.” I hope that whets your appetite to learn more, but on the other hand, it might scare you away, hahae. The review runs on pages 264–72.

Elsewhere in the issue, two books to which I made contributions are reviewed. One of these is Truths Breathed Through Silver: The Inklings’ Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy, a rather slim volume edited by Jonathan B. Himes, assisted by Joe R. Christopher and Salwa Khoddam (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). The eminent Richard C. West is the reviewer, and I’m pleased to report that he endorses the book with a very positive review. My essay, “Tolkien’s Fortunate Fall and The Third Theme of Ilúvatar”, (he writes) “examines the topos of the felix culpa (God bringing a greater good out of an evil deed) from Melkor to Gollum, noting that the author’s mythology is not completely consistent with his Catholic orthodoxy (he was not originally trying to do that and his models, after all, were mostly pagan) but is imbued with his deep-rooted Christianity.” He goes on to conclude the review by saying that “[t]he editors should feel gratified that every chapter in this little book is well-written, scholarly, and worthwhile for students of mythopoeic literature.” Especially, I would add, for fans of C.S. Lewis, the subject of the majority of the essays.

The other book is The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, edited by Allan Turner (Walking Tree, 2008), reviewed by Anne Petty. (I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that she was the reviewer, because my paper builds on some of the work she herself began with an essay in Tolkien Studies, Volume 1.) This book, as some of you know, is also very short, containing only six essays. I therefore expected the reviewer to be able to go into greater detail about each one, and Petty doesn’t disappoint. I’m also pleased to say that she recommends the book highly. She begins: “Allan Turner’s well-balanced and thoughtful collection of essays chosen to commemorate the thirty-year publication anniversary of The Silmarillion is a welcome addition to Tolkien scholarship. The volume is slim at 176 pages, but the depth and breadth of thought encompassed in these essays makes it well worth owning.” So, by all means, buy one! ;)

Now, I’d like to quote Petty’s comments about my essay at greater length, and hopefully two paragraphs is still within the bounds of Fair Use. *smirk* Here’s what she had to say:

Of special interest to me as a reviewer is Jason Fisher’s article, “From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, and Jerome,” because it reflects in some degree my own study of the Kalevala’s influence on Tolkien. Fisher’s essay focuses first on the similarities of content and language (epic themes and linguistic borrowings) found in the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, and The Silmarillion—the “Mythopoeia” section of the article. He then points out that in style, these two works are quite different. The style of The Silmarillion, as many have said, could be better described as biblical, which provides Fisher a segue into his extended discussion of the Bible’s influence (in particular the Latin Vulgate) on Tolkien’s work. Says Fisher, these contact points “between the Bible and The Silmarillion, we will see, extend beyond the purely stylistic and into the domain of content and theological influence as well” (123).

In the “Mythography” segment of his essay, Fisher concentrates on Christopher Tolkien’s role as literary executor for his father’s vast and sprawling creative output. Having convincingly established the resonances of both the Kalevala and the Vulgate within The Silmarillion, Fisher takes an in-depth look at the ways in which Christopher Tolkien’s handing of his father’s legendarium resembles the work done by the compilers/editors of those influential works, namely, Elias Lönnrot and St. Jerome. In clear, logical prose, Fisher explains the major focus of his study: whereas “J.R.R. Tolkien may have been emulating the product of Lönnrot’s and Jerome’s efforts, Christopher Tolkien was emulating the process” (127). Of particular significance is Fisher’s discussion of Christopher’s editorial choices—and changes—that produced the 1977 volume. Fisher suggests that Christopher Tolkien, with assistance from Guy Kay, added more than mere compilation expertise in creating the Silmarillion manuscript, in particular, the section titled “The Ruin of Doriath.” Whether such editorial liberties enhance or detract from the final outcome remains
debatable, but there can be no question, according to Fisher, that “the published Silmarillion more accurately represents a daunting complex of choices” (135) that reveal as much about Christopher Tolkien as the endless revisions do about his father.

Finally, Petty concludes: “As you can see, I’m very favorably impressed by the offerings of The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. Its technical faults (another proofreading round for typos would have been advised) are small, and its contributions to Tolkien scholarship are considerable. Each of the authors in the volume has valuable ideas for readers to draw on and perhaps carry further.” Indeed, I issued just such a call for further research in my essay, and (unbeknown to me then) the call was answered by Douglas Kane in his new book, Arda Reconstructed (which I myself have reviewed in the journal, Mythlore). This is just how a community of scholars should work. One scholar builds on the work of another, whose own work in turn provides a foundation for even further research.

I’m almost finished, but you’ll find my footprint in two or three other places in the issue. First, incidental appearances in the bibliography for 2007, noting the essay just discussed, as well as one of my book reviews from that year (of Tom Shippey’s Roots and Branches). The other two appearances are in David Bratman’s omnibus essay, “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2006”. There, he assesses two pieces of work I published in 2006. One is my essay in the Walking Tree collection, Tolkien and Modernity. This two-volume set was reviewed in last year’s Tolkien Studies, but with very little mention of my paper — unsurprising, considering the sheer number of essays in question, among which mine doesn’t really stand out. Here, Bratman says more:

The title of Jason Fisher’s article, “‘Man does as he is when he may do as he wishes’: The Perennial Modernity of Free Will” (1: 145–75), quotes an Anglo-Saxon proverb on the freedom of power, not philosophical free will at all, but Fisher dives firmly into the latter subject. Devoting most of his space to the backstory of the philosophical debate as far as Boethius and to summarizing C. S. Lewis’s views on divine intention on the (risky, but here possibly warranted) grounds that they also represent Tolkien’s, Fisher uses examples from The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings to summarize Tolkien’s view as one of free will within certain parameters. This is the same point made more elegantly by Fornet-Ponse [in “Freedom and Providence as Anti-Modern Elements?”], and Fisher adequately sources it in Tolkien’s own words without need of recourse to Lewis, or to Boethius. Fisher’s principal assumption of his own is an argument for free will on the grounds that it would be pointless, as well as cruel, for Ilúvatar to force his creatures to misbehave just so he could punish them for it.

A bit later, Bratman describes an essay I wrote in the rather obscure journal of the George MacDonald Society — for which I am grateful, because otherwise, essays (and journals) like this have a way of disappearing without so much as a ripple. That unfortunate tendency is one of the best justifications, in fact, for a “Year’s Work” article in the first place. Of my essay, Bratman writes: “Jason Fisher’s ‘Reluctantly Inspired: George MacDonald and the Genesis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major’ (North Wind 25: 113–20) is less concerned with that particular story than with tracing the history of Tolkien’s attitude towards his predecessor. Fisher lists a few distinct echoes of MacDonald in Tolkien’s pre-1940s children’s fiction, and attributes Tolkien’s later dislike of MacDonald to his increasing distaste for allegory and whimsicality.”

Addendum Addenda: Okay, at the risk of seeming to inflate my ego even more, I’ve just come across another footprint. Reading Thomas Honegger’s review of Dimitra Fimi’s book, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), I see that Honegger has cited my review of Ross Smith’s Inside Language: Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien (Walking Tree, 2007), published in Mythlore 103/104. And yet another, bring the total to nine: it was just pointed out to me that Verlyn Flieger mentions my essay from Tolkien and Modernity in her essay on free will. She did likewise when I heard this paper last summer, though more obliquely than here, but I had forgotten all about it.

And there you have it. All of this is, of course, probably the least interesting stuff in this excellent new issue — an issue with major essays by major scholars, and a never-before-published set of notes by Tolkien himself — but at least we’ve gotten me out of the way quickly. I have to confess that the first things I ever read are reviews of my own work. I hope that doesn’t reflect too poorly on me, but really, wouldn’t you? :)

* Okay, while I crow a lot. Gosh, I’m worse than Chanticleer!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

“English gets millionth word” — *not*

Courtesy of CNN — and the “news” will soon be all over the Web, no doubt — we’re told that English acquired its one-millionth word at 5:22 AM this morning. I really have to roll my eyes at this. The problem, as the CNN article acknowledges (somewhat reluctantly, it seems to me), is that you simply can’t quantify such things with any degree of accuracy whatsoever. Actually, that’s just one problem. A more immediate problem, for me, is the fact that the purported one-millionth word, “Web 2.0”, is not a word. Permit me another eye-roll. In fact, a great many of the words (so-called) tracked by The Global Language Monitor (Orwellian overtones there?) are phrases, terms, expressions, idioms — whatever you prefer to call them — but not words at all. This organization has also developed some sort of mathematical equation for predicting the word-growth of English, which is of course, patent nonsense — and patented nonsense, as, naturally, their entire methodology is proprietary.

In the CNN article, GLM responds to the objections of sane linguists and lexicographers everywhere in the person of Paul J.J. Payack, “president and chief word analyst for the Global Language Monitor” — chief word analyst? Nice title, if you can get it! He says, well, of course, it’s just an estimate, and the real point is merely to celebrate the enormity and continuing growth of English. But on the GLM website, au contraire, it’s all about this particular “word”, “Web 2.0” — nor is it really very surprising that a website should wish to aggrandize Internet-centric terminology. They make quite a big deal out of this particular term being their one-millionth word, even to the point of enumerating fifteen finalists, all of which were beaten out (how exactly?) by “Web 2.0” for the top honors. Of the fifteen finalists, by the way, only about half are really individual words and not phrases. And with only one or two exceptions, each is an ephemeron of one sort or other (usually political, technical, or pop-cultural). “Octomom”, we’re told, is now an English word. Please, say it ain’t so! “N00b” and “defriend”, okay, maybe — and yes, that’s “n00b” with two zeros. But “sexting”? Are you kidding me?!

By the way, the 1,000,0001st word, the GLM informs us, is “financial tsunami”. Again — *sigh* — not a word. And this is only one type of imprecision on this website (although, for me, it is the most annoying). Just start reading along, and you’ll see what I mean. For an organization that supposedly monitors English usage, the GLM could use some English lessons. Not to mention a copyeditor and a fact-checker. All of this is just vacuous hype (with the ulterior motive of promoting their marketing services, I would imagine). Being interested in words — and phrases — is a wonderful thing, but claiming any kind of authority in monitoring, branding, or counting them is simply balderdash. Now there’s a word for you, Mr. Payack!