Monday, March 29, 2010

Before Tolkien’s unexpected party, an unexpected reference

In 1935, C.S. Lewis let slip into print a curious reference to J.R.R Tolkien: “Professor Tolkien will soon, I hope, be ready to publish an alliterative poem” [1]. He offers no explanation of who “Professor Tolkien” might be, so we must assume in these days before the publication of The Hobbit that Tolkien was already well enough known among the likely readers of Lewis’s essay as to require no further identification, not even a first name or set of initials.

What indeed had Tolkien published by this time? As I said, not The Hobbit, nor had he yet published (nor even delivered) his famous lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. By 1935, Tolkien would have been chiefly known for his and E.V. Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1925); his Middle English Vocabulary (1922); two substantial essays “Sigelwara Land” and “Chaucer as a Philologist” (both 1934), and several smaller ones; his reviews of new publications in philology for The Year’s Work in English Studies (1924–7); and a handful of published poems.

But here, Lewis refers to an alliterative poem, and it seems to me he has a specific work-in-progress clearly in mind. If so, which one was it? There are several possibilities, among them the following.

Still during Tolkien’s lifetime, J.B. Bessinger and S.J. Kahrl decided that Lewis must have been thinking of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, which Tolkien published in Essays and Studies in 1953 [2]. Maybe, but Beorhtnoth is really a drama, though one written in verse form. In any case, Lewis was clearly very wrong to think it would “soon” appear, “soon” being an adverb seldom, if ever, applicable to Tolkien. By 1950 — if not long before — Lewis had learned better, calling Tolkien “that great but dilatory and unmethodical man” [3].

But I’m inclined to think Lewis might have been referring to something else. The emphasis in Lewis’s remark is squarely on a forthcoming alliterative poem by Tolkien. Lewis might have had in mind Tolkien’s Lay of the Children of Húrin. Tolkien worked on this long alliterative poem in the 1920’s, but he never managed to finish it. Tolkien shared with Lewis parts of The Lay of Leithian, another work on which he was engaged during roughly the same years. This was a rhyming, not an alliterative work, but they may have also discussed the great alliterative poem that had occupied his imagination during the same decade. It is unfortunate he never completed either of the great lays, but Lewis said it best when he wrote of Tolkien: “His published works (both imaginative & scholarly) ought to fill a shelf by now: but he’s one of those people who is never satisfied with a MS. There mere suggestion of publication provokes the reply ‘Yes. I’ll just look through it and give it a few finishing touches’ — wh[ich] means that he really begins the whole thing over again” [4].

There’s another possibility, this time something that Tolkien actually did finish. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Tolkien worked diligently on the two companion poems, Völsungakviða en Nýja [“The New Lay of the Völsungs”] and Guðrunarkviða en Nýja [“The New Lay of Gudrún”], each executed in hundreds of meticulously crafted Eddic fornyrðislag stanzas. The Old Norse alliterative meter was, for all intents, nearly identical with the Old English. Indeed, immediately following his reference to Tolkien’s poem, Lewis writes that “the moment seems propitious for expounding the principles of this meter to a larger public than those Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse specialists who know it already”. Tolkien was a “specialist” in both, and fortunately for posterity, he finished the two Volsung poems — though if this was the work Lewis had in mind, then “soon” turned out to be almost seventy-five years! It was only last year that The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún was finally published.

This is not, by the way, the only time Lewis promised a forthcoming work by Tolkien. I suppose he may, in part, have been attempting to motivate Tolkien further by putting the promise of the work into print, thereby exerting a friendly pressure on Tolkien to “get on with it”. The most famous example is in the preface to That Hideous Strength, where Lewis wrote in 1943: “Those who would like to learn further about Numinor [sic] and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien”. If such was Lewis’s aim, it seems Tolkien got the point; he wrote to a correspondent in 1955, “[Lewis] used the word [“Numinor”], taken from my legends of the First and Second Ages, in the belief that they would soon appear. They have not, but I suppose now they may” [5]. Of course, they didn’t — not for another twenty years.

But getting back to alliterative verse, I’d like to close with an amusing bit of Lewis’s own (of which his essay is full of examples). This one, which refers to Tolkien by name, was probably concocted out of an old bar anecdote [6]:

We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye glanced towards us;
‘I seen ’em myself’, he said fiercely. [7]

[1] Lewis, C.S. “A Metrical Suggestion.” Lysistra, Volume 2 (May, 1935): 13–24. Reprinted as “The Alliterative Metre” in Rehabilitations and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939: 117–32. Reprinted again in Selected Literary Essays. Ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969: 15–26. The curious reference appears in the opening paragraph of the essay.

[2] Bessinger, Jess B., and Stanley J. Kahrl, eds. Essential Articles for the Study of Old English Poetry. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1968, p. 316 note 1. Bessinger and Kahrl reprint Lewis’s essay on pp. 305–16 of their book. Much more recently, Carl Phelpstead pointed to a note — “Alliterative Metre” (1969), p. 15 note 2 — in which Walter Hooper throws doubt on the assumption that this could be Beorhtnoth and gives Tolkien’s own guess that Lewis probably had in mind “The Fall of Arthur” (incomplete and still unpublished). See Phelpstead, Carl. “Auden and the Inklings: An Alliterative Revival” in JEGP, Vol. 103, No. 4 (October, 2004): 433–57, p. 441.

[3] Lewis, W.H., ed. Letters of C.S. Lewis. Rev. and enlarged ed. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966. Reprinted San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993, p. 399.

[4] Ibid., p. 376.

[5] Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, #169.

[6] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 389.

[7] Lewis, “Alliterative Metre” (1939), p. 122.


  1. I think the "Children of Húrin" is the most probable. Also, I don't think that the simple reference "Professor Tolkien" proves much: in America professors are all over the place, but there were only about forty at Oxford and fifty at Cambridge in 1935. Anyone who had any academic connection at all would surely have at least heard of all of them.

  2. What about "The Fall of Arthur", which I understand was one of Tolkien's projects in the 1930s, and is in alliterative mode?

  3. Squire, see footnote 2.

  4. Since Walter Hooper, when he reprinted the Lewis essay in Selected Literary Essays, went to the trouble of asking Tolkien what Lewis had in mind, and, as you report in your footnote, gives Tolkien's answer "that Lewis was probably referring to ... 'The Fall of Arthur'," and that so far as Tolkien recalled, Lewis had not seen "Homecoming" at this time - then I think any speculations about what else it might be (Hurin? Sigurd?) should surely begin here with "Fall of Arthur".

    Formulations of the "Professor N" sort, without further identification, were quite common in the English academic literature of the time. There were, as John Cowan notes, only a few of them, and the entire literary scholarly community was quite small. I've come across numerous references of exactly this kind, and have sometimes undertaken to identify them: this can be amusing when the surname is common.

  5. @John and @David: Regarding “simple references”, I didn’t mean to imply this proved anything, just that I found it interesting and wanted to provide context for readers. Normally, such references are accompanied by explicit reference to a specific work, but as you say, not always. For people connected with Oxford or Cambridge, and probably other universities, Tolkien’s name would have been known, yes. By 1935, he’d been employed at Pembroke College, Oxford, for ten years. But who were the readers of Lysistrata? I haven’t been able to learn anything about the defunct publication. Lewis wrote in the preface to Rehabilitations, “[a]s far as I know this periodical did not survive my contribution, and I have been unable to discover the name and address of the lady who edited it. I hope that if these lines meet her eyes she will forgive me for assuming her permission to reprint” (p. [vii]). Does anyone know anything about Lysistrata? It seems to have died after only two issues.

    @David and @squire: Yes, this is certainly possible, but I don’t know that we can say anything other than that. None of us has seen the poem (other than a few lines), and it’s tricky relying on Hooper’s note. First, Tolkien was thinking back some thirty-five years, an enormous well of time. We’ve seen examples of Tolkien’s erroneous recollections before (e.g., the date of the Andrew Lang lecture). So the “probably” and “does not recall” don’t inspire much confidence. Second, we don’t get Tolkien’s actual words. Was “probably” Tolkien’s word, or Hooper’s inference? Anyway, yes, certainly this could have been the poem Lewis was thinking of, but I had nothing to add.

  6. My first thought was Sigurd and Gudrun, but the i thought that it more likely refers to Beren and Luthien. Hurin seems unlikely to me.

  7. "Normally, such references are accompanied by explicit reference to a specific work, but as you say, not always."

    Actually, I believe such elusive references are common, certainly in Lewis's work. I'm inclined to think, by the way, that the "Numinor" material that Lewis so mysteriously referred to in That Hideous Strength appeared not some 20 years later but over 30, as I suspect it more likely that he was referring to "The Lost Road" ("The Notion Club Papers" might not have been written yet) than the "Akallabeth".

    All I can say for sure of Lysistrata, from examining library catalog records for it (New York Public has it, for one) is that it was a student publication issued by the women's societies of Oxford University. All the more reason for "Professor Tolkien" as such to be known to its readership.

    I do not follow the reasoning in your last paragraph at all. Unlike us, Tolkien actually had read "The Fall of Arthur" - in fact, he wrote it. And he'd have better knowledge of what he showed to Lewis when than anybody else. While his memory of such things might not be certain, I'd place somewhat more faith in that than in his memory of a date stamp, and we have no information whatever equivalent to the exterior records confirming the date of his Lang Lecture.

    So if Tolkien's memory cannot for sure be relied upon and Hooper's transmittal is likewise subject to error, how much more perilous is it for us to speculate in even bleaker ignorance? I mean, sure, we can guess about other poems that might fit the description, but we should start by saying what Tolkien thought it was, rather than burying that information down in a footnote.

  8. Yes, David, I think you’re probably right about “The Lost Road” (as opposed to the “Akallabêth”). And thanks very much for adding to what little I could find out about Lysistrata. I’d like to see those two issues. I’ve got a friend in New York who might be able to help. If I get the chance to see copies, I’ll be sure to pass along anything interesting.

  9. I found an even more dramatic example of Lewis assuming his audience knows who and what he's talking about, in another essay in Selected Literary Essays, this one read to a literary club, "Variation in Shakespeare and Others." It begins:

    "One day in March, 1781, Mrs Thrale and Boswell presented the Doctor with a problem. Had Shakespeare or Milton drawn the more admirable picture of a man?"

    Notice the serene confidence, undoubtably justified at the time, that the entire audience would know who "the Doctor" refers to. (I suppose some today would need a hint: it isn't the Doctor from Doctor Who.)

    While I'm back, I should note that we all seem to have missed the real point about the Tolkien alliterative poem. Lewis only mentions it to demonstrate that alliterative verse is not quite dead yet. If Tolkien had written four alliterative epic poems, and not just the one that Lewis mentions, that reinforces Lewis's point, even if Lewis didn't know about the other three.

  10. I don’t know if this is quite a comparable case. I mean, just about everyone referred to Samuel Johnson as the Doctor, in the same way we often tend to refer to Tolkien as the Professor. You still need a contextual hint, though. Lewis probably wouldn’t have assumed readers would know who “the Doctor” was in the absense of any reference to Boswell, would he? And in any case, Johnson had about a sesquicentury of lexicographical fame by the time of Lewis’s essay. This isn’t an obscure reference at all, far less obscure than others of his references to which you’ve alluded.

    While I’m back, I should note that we all seem to have missed the real point about the Tolkien alliterative poem. Lewis only mentions it to demonstrate [...]

    Well, that wasn’t the purpose of my post, David. I would have missed the point, had I been undertaking a review or analysis of the arguments in Lewis’s essay, but that wasn’t my aim at all. You might argue is should have been, but that’s another matter. :)

  11. I think you miss my points. It's because of Dr. Johnson's fame that Lewis can refer to him in this way, and the date and the other names referred to make him confident the reader will get it even if "the Doctor" by itself could refer to someone else. But a reader who didn't know who Johnson was would be helped far less by references to Boswell and Thrale than a reader who didn't know who Tolkien was would be helped by a reference to "Professor Tolkien". Therefore "the Doctor" is a far obscurer reference than "Professor Tolkien" is, even if Lewis would be far more justified in assuming that his readers can figure it out.

    And I don't think that even that is so. Johnson had a greater fame, at least then, and he was better known in the wider world, and an Oxford academic audience would have known more about his work, but the name recognition among that Oxford academic audience would not be any orders of magnitude greater than Tolkien's.

    In fact one might detect a sense of "I can cryptically allude to 'the Doctor' because we are among the elite who know whom that refers to, with enough hints like Boswell's name thrown in; aren't we clever," while the other is more "I say just 'Professor Tolkien' because we all here know him personally; it would be insulting to describe him as if he were a stranger."

    As for the other, I think that is quite relevant to the purpose of your post. I am not undertaking a review or analysis of Lewis's arguments either. I am observing that the reason Lewis chooses to remark on Tolkien's poem underlines your point that "there are several possibilities" of Tolkien alliterative poems to choose from. Alliterative poems are unusual today, and Tolkien wrote several: this points out his unique creativity.

  12. Well, fair enough. I do see your points (particularly in ¶3 — well put), and I suggest we leave it here.