Friday, August 27, 2010

They “saw loose the leaves of the book” — but who?

The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son has been reprinted several times, so it is now seldom read in its original setting: Essays and Studies, the periodical of the English Association. This publication can be rather hard to come by too, so it’s no wonder. But as a work moves from its original setting into subsequent ones, it’s not uncommon to lose something along the way. Texts frequently pick up one variance or another, but I’m thinking of something else: the original paratext. In this case, what I have in mind in the author blurb about Tolkien in the “Notes on Contributors”. Here it is:
J.R.R. Tolkien, born in 1892, is Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. Well known for his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (with the late E.V. Gordon), for his work on Beowulf, and for his verse trans-lation of The Pearl. Professor Tolkien’s fairy-story, The Hobbit, is a great favourite. [1]
Something caught my eye here: that Tolkien was “well known […] for his verse translation of The Pearl”. Was he really? This is surprising, considering that it wasn’t published until two years after his death!

According to Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s précis, Tolkien made his translation of the poem during 1925–6 while he was supposed to be working on an edition of it with his Gawain collaborator, E.V. Gordon. In 1936, he submitted the translation to J.M. Dent for publication, but although they rejected it, it caught the attention of Guy Pocock, who arranged for part of it to be read on the radio in August of that year. Shortly thereafter, George Allen & Unwin considered publishing it, but all thought of that was swiftly swept aside in the wake of The Hobbit the following year. [2]  A few years later in 1942, the renowned publisher and bookseller Basil Blackwell prepared to publish the translation at last. Galley proofs were even printed in March 1943 (Christopher Tolkien owns a set). All Tolkien had to do was write an introduction. Alas, the ever dilatory (and at this point, very distracted) Tolkien could not get the job done, and — to make a long story a little shorter — the translation never reached the public during his lifetime. [3]

He certainly intended to publish it, discussed it repeatedly, and was forever on the verge of actually doing it, but this simply never happened. So how did he become so “well known” for it? That is a riddle worthy of Gollum (or better, Bilbo, since it’s not actually a proper riddle :).

I suppose private copies may have been circulating among Tolkien’s friends and colleagues, rather like Songs for the Philologists and Tolkien’s edition of Sir Orfeo. But if so, I have not read of any surviving. Perhaps he passed around his own (only?) copy. But that would have been risky, wouldn’t it, my precious, yesss. The radio broadcast probably helped, but how large a portion of the translation was read? It’s a long poem, well over a thousand lines! Was the unknown author of the contributor blub in Essays and Studies exaggerating? Was this one of Tolkien’s friends, someone who had indeed read and passed around the translation?

All these questions prompted by an all but forgotten note on a contributor! Perhaps someone can unearth a little more infor-mation. In the meantime, I suppose it’s true after all that “lesser work can earn more pay; / And the longer you reckon, the less hath more” [4].

[1] Essays and Studies, Vol. 6 (1953), [n.p.].

[2] Gordon died unexpectedly in 1938, and plans for the edition of The Pearl went on hold. The edition was eventually completed by Gordon’s widow Ida (with assistance from Tolkien) in 1953, the same year Beorhtnoth was published!

[3] Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 748–9, et seq.

[4] This, like the title of the post, is from Tolkien’s translation of The Pearl, finally published in 1975. The title comes from 70.9, the closing quotation from 50.11–2.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

They say Brazil is a tough nut to crack ...

Who the heck is this?!
At the beginning of June, I came across a Brazilian website devoted to J.R.R. Tolkien called Dúvendor. It came to my attention through nothing more than idle ego-surfing. As it happens, my essay in Tolkien Studies 5 — “Three Rings for whom exactly? And why? Justifying the disposition of the Three Elven Rings” — has been translated into Portuguese and posted there without permission (one of seven articles from Tolkien Studies). It comes out as “Três Anéis para … quem exatamente? E por quê?” The subtitle evidently got lost in translation. ;)

This doesn’t bother me personally, especially since I have learned that the site administrator, Daniel De Boni, posts fans’ translations of certain articles because many readers in Brazil can’t read them otherwise. I should say that I haven’t yet studied the translation closely to assess its quality. Reading through the first few paragraphs (without the original in front of me), it seems pretty accurate. Anyway, the question of permissions is something for others to sort out. But I was quite amused when I saw my essay there. Why? Have a look for yourself by following this link. Anything look odd to you here?

Okay, I suppose you have to actually know me personally to see the problem. But here it is. The picture? That’s not me! It’s just some random dude! How I laughed when I saw this!

Some of the photos on the site are of the right people (e.g., Anne Petty, Tom Shippey), but others are not (e.g., Verlyn Flieger and me). Mark Hooker’s photo was also a purely random one, but when I told him about the site, he got in touch when them and had this corrected. I’ll probably do the same … eventually. In the meantime, I found this too funny not to share. (At the same time, it’s flattering that somebody out there felt my essay was one of the few — so far — worth translating for a Portuguese-speaking audience. Muito obrigado!)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A new Tolkien reference — well, almost new

A couple of years ago, Tom Shippey wrote a guest editorial for Mallorn, the journal of the Tolkien Society, in which he identified several areas of Tolkien studies as yet un- or under-explored. I had reason to read this editorial again recently, in prep-aration for a panel discussion at the Mythopoeic Society’s annual conference (Mythcon) last month. (And I read it again just a few weeks ago and cited it in a book review, forthcoming in the next issue of Mythlore.) Well, when Tom suggests something ought to be looked into, then it really ought to be looked into. He even encourages others to take the lead, generously sharing his ideas:

Reverting to images from World War I, much of the above must sound like “château generalship”, with the old guy well to the rear urging the young enthusiasts forward to do something he does not care to try in person. If all these are such good ideas, why not use them myself? The answer is, and I will say it in Latin to elevate the tone of this piece, non possumus omnia omnes, and in English to make sure everyone gets it — “we can’t all do everything”. There just isn’t time. I look forward to pursuing some of these thoughts, I hope for quite a long way, but I would be very pleased as well if someone else would get there first. There is, after all, a great deal of juice in Tolkien, more than enough to go round. [1]
One of the items Tom singled out in his editorial was this:
[R.G.] Collingwood and Tolkien were both Fellows of Pembroke College for nearly a decade till 1934, when Collingwood took up a Chair at C.S. Lewis’s college, Magdalen. Did the three of them ever talk about, agree about, disagree about the subject of folktales, on which Collingwood was working and publicly lecturing in the 1930s? […] Tolkien was furthermore surely aware of W.G. Collingwood, R.G.’s father, who not only helped to found the Viking Society and wrote influential works on Icelandic sagas, early English inscribed stones, and the “historical” King Arthur, but also published several historical novels set in Dark Age England of a kind which (I think) Tolkien would have liked. [2]
About a year later, Tom mentioned Collingwood again in an online chat celebrating the release of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, in which I also participated. There, he said, “I suspect [Tolkien’s] Oxford milieu has not been much investigated. Did he ever talk to R. Collingwood? They must have known each other, and Collingwood was taking a deep interest in folktale at that time. Tolkien also, I think, had a high opinion of his father. There may have been other social/intellectual connections, which could be researched” [3].

I begin to wonder about this too. Over the past week or so, sparked by having just read the editorial again, I started to poke around. There were extremely few references to R.G. Collingwood in the usual places. Nothing in Tolkien’s biography or published letters, for example. I found a reference to Collingwood in the bibliography for Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s wonderful Reader’s Guide, but nothing specific about him in the book. The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia makes one reference to W.G. Collingwood, the father — totally incidental, as far as Tolkien is concerned — and none to R.G.

The most specific references to R.G. Collingwood I have found come from J.S. Ryan, who mentions him in two of the essays recently collected in Tolkien’s View: Windows into His World. But the references are anecdotal and short on specifics. “Tolkien had had so many significant conversations with R.G. Collingwood […] in his own earlier years in Pembroke College”, and things of that sort [4]. Ryan is a little more specific in another essay, offering a few more details and even citing the book we’ll be coming to shortly [5].

But on my own, I had come across a nice, rather juicy reference to Tolkien in one of Collingwood’s books. Even better, it seemed as if no one had yet printed it! The references (two, actually) occur in Collingwood’s Roman Britain and the English Settlements, where he noted that “special debts must be mentioned. My colleague Professor J.R.R. Tolkien has helped me untiringly with problems of Celtic philology. […]” [6] Of which there is one example of this assistance:
Let us look at the evidence. Sulis,¹ the goddess of the hot springs at Bath, came into her own at a very early date; her temple, with its classical architecture and very unclassical sculpture, was probably built in the Flavian period. But less than thirty miles away across the Severn, Nodens, the hunter-god of the Forest of Dean, who survived in later mythology as Nuada of the Silver Hand, king of the Tuatha dé Danann, and later still as King Lear, […]

1. She is traditionally called Sul; but Professor Tolkien points out to me that the Celtic nominative can only be Sulis, and our authority for believing that even the Romans made a nominative Sul on the analogy of their own word sol — perhaps meaning the same — is not good. The Celtic sulis may mean ‘the eye’, and this again may mean the sun. [7]
Clearly , Tolkien was still thinking about Nodens, a subject he had explored four or five years earlier, in 1932. Tolkien does not mention Collingwood’s work in that essay [8], but it’s probable that he knew it and that they discussed the subject at Pembroke. Collingwood had published previous versions of his research, Roman Britain (1932) and The Archaeology of Roman Britain (1930), either of which might have made references to Tolkien, but I found nothing there. But the two references quoted above are interesting because they give additional weight to the argument that Tolkien was well-versed in Celtic philology (however, at least one contemporary reviewer criticized Tolkien on that score [9]).

But in any case, so far as I knew, no one had ever reprinted this quotation. Ah, but I said the reference was “almost new”, didn’t I? I often forget (and should never) that it’s not enough to consult Wayne and Christina’s printed books — one must also never forget to check their online addenda and corrigenda! As it happens, sometime after their Chronology appeared at the end of 2006, they wrote an addendum online:

p. 181, insert before entry for 14 January 1936:

By 14 January 1936 Tolkien assists R.G. Collingwood, the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford and a colleague at Pembroke College, ‘untiringly with problems of Celtic philology’, as Collingwood will write in the preface (dated 14 January 1936) to Books I–IV of Roman Britain and the English Settlements by Collingwood and J.N.L. Myres (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936; 2nd edn. 1937), p. vii. On p. 264, Collingwood mentions in a footnote regarding Sulis, the goddess of the hot springs at Bath, that ‘she is traditionally called Sul; but Professor Tolkien points out to me that the Celtic nominative can only be Sulis, and our authority for believing that even the Romans made a nominative Sul on the analogy of their own word sol – perhaps meaning the same – is not good. The Celtic sulis may mean ‘the eye”, and this again may mean the sun.’ [10]
Alas, I have to confess my disappointment at having been beaten to the punch. But how can I even pretend surprise? Wayne and Christina are two of the best researchers the discipline of Tolkien studies has ever seen. I must try to keep in mind Tom Shippey’s pleasure “if someone else would get there first”. The important thing is to excavate these references and to bring these little gems into the light of scholarly study. If I’m not the first to mine the same vein, at least it’s being mined. Much ado about nothing? Probably. Well ... back to the dig.

[1] Shippey, Tom. “Guest Editorial: An Encyclopedia of Ignorance.” Mallorn 45 (Spring 2008): 3–5, p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 4.

[3] “Transcript of chat session with Pr. Tom Shippey during The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun Online Release Party (09.05.09)”,

[4] Ryan, J.S. “Tolkien’s Concept of Philology as Mythology.” Tolkien’s View: Windows into His World. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2009. 103–20, p. 120. Interestingly, this reference comes in the last footnote to the essay, but it’s missing from the original essay, published in Seven in 1986. There, there is no mention of Collingwood. Ryan evidently added this reference for the reprint!

[5] Ibid., “Mid-Century Perceptions of the Ancient Celtic Peoples of ‘England’.” 189–98, pp. 194, 195, 198. I don’t have a copy of the original essay from Seven, 1988, to compare, but I expect the references to Collingwood are there in this case.

[6] R.G. Collingwood and J.N.L. Myres. Roman Britain and the English Settlements. The Oxford History of England, ed. G.N. Clark. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936 [2nd ed. 1937], p. vii.

[7] Ibid., p. 264 and note 1.

[8] Reprinted in Tolkien Studies 4 (2007): 177–83.

[9] T.F. O’Rahilly, who wrote: “Stokes, followed by Rhys and Thurneysen, would refer Nuadu to the IE. root neud–, ‘acquire possession of ‘, seen in Germ. geniessen and nutzen. The same etymology is adopted by J.R.R. Tolkien in his discussion of the name Nodons […]. A serious objection to this etymology is that this root neud–, so far as is known, is peculiar to the Germanic and Baltic languages ; there is no trace of it in Celtic.” In Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1946, pp. 495–6.

[10] “Addenda and Corrigenda to The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006), Vol. 1: Chronology”,

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

German — warum störrisch?!

I’ve been wondering about this for some time. I haven’t researched the question, in part because I’m not quite sure where to begin, and I’m hoping some of you can help me. In a nutshell, why has declension survived into Modern German, almost unchanged after more than a thousand years? Three genders and four (sometimes five) cases make learning the language more difficult for those unaccustomed to case systems. It’s a complaint I hear a lot about such languages (not only German, but Russian, Polish, Irish, Finnish, Greek, to name a few). It’s a little easier to learn the paradigms for “dead” languages (e.g., Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit), because one generally tends only to read fixed texts, not to attempt to converse in these languages. One must only recognize inflected forms; one is not normally called on to summon them up during ad hoc conversations. It’s a question of passive versus active mastery.

I know there have been a few changes to German declensional paradigms over the centuries, sure, but the rest of the Germanic family has pretty much given up on them entirely, or nearly so. In Modern English, the only really conspicuous survival of the system is in the personal pronouns. Everywhere else — articles, numbers, adjectives, and of course, nouns — they’ve been swept almost completely into the dustbin of history. This is pretty universally true of the Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Frisian, Dutch (though Dutch held on perhaps longest of all of them). Of the Germanic family*, it’s really only Modern (High) German that has stubbornly retained its original declensional system, and the system in use today is almost the same system in Middle High German, and it’s easily recognized even in Old High German texts more than a thousand years old. Why?

Just to give you an idea of the similarities, take a look at the following table representing the definite article in Old High German, Modern German, Old English, and Modern English. As you’ll see, the ancient forms are readily recognized, and it’s very clear that the Old English forms are close cognates to those in Old High German and even Modern German. This gives German speakers some advantage over English speakers when each attempts to learn Old English. Why have these distinctions survived in German, when they have been mostly abandoned by the rest of the family? (Note: I omitted the plural forms from the OHG paradigm because these have, in fact, changed a good deal, with distinct forms for each gender collapsing into a single plural form for each case in the modern language.)

 OHG masc.neut.fem.
all casesthethe

* Modern Icelandic is the other notable exception. It’s still a highly inflected language, but in this case (no pun intended ;), an insular history explains how the grammar has been preserved, virtually unchanged, since the days of Snorri Sturluson. But German is its antithesis: spoken in the middle of a busy continent, by more than one hundred million (compared to less than half a million for Icelandic). German has also been widely used as a language of science, philology, literature, and even music. One should have expected substantial erosion. Why hasn’t this occurred? Any theories?

Monday, August 16, 2010

A treasure trove for George MacDonald scholars

A few years ago, I wrote an essay for a relatively obscure journal called North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies. I accepted with some resignation that the essay would probably fade into oblivion (not that it deserves to be trumpeted as groundbreaking research; it’s really little more than a collation of notes), but I was pleased to see that David Bratman covered it in “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2006”, where he wrote:
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. [1]
Even so, the essay would probably have been quickly forgotten by everyone but me, were it not for this: St. Norbert College, which houses North Wind, has now digitized the entire run of the journal and put all twenty-eight years of its George MacDonald studies online, free for anyone to read! Consequently, anyone who would like to can read my essay, here. You might notice that they misspelled Tolkien’s name in the title of the PDF (and here, in the table of contents for this volume). Regrettable.

Anyway, I wanted to bring this to the attention of MacDonald fans and scholars; this is quite a hoard being opened up to the public. I haven’t done more than merely skim the contents so far, but you can browse the volumes by following the link above, or you can browse essays by contributor, genre/topic, or MacDonald work, here. There’s also a complete index of articles, arranged by title. (Note that the index contains lots of duplicates; I’m not sure why. Probably poor web design.)

[1] Bratman, David. “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2006.” Tolkien Studies 6 (2009): 315–44, p. 334.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tookish musings

Took is one of the few names Tolkien claims not to have “Englished” — that is, adapted into the translation conceit by which he explained so many other names. These “one or two older names of forgotten meaning [which Tolkien was] content to anglicize in spelling” in-cluded “Took for Tûk and Boffin for Bophîn”. [1] In the “Nomenclature”, Tolkien echoes this: “Took. Hobbit-name of unknown origin representing actual Hobbit Tūk […]. It should thus be kept and spelt phonetically according to the LT [i.e., the Language of Translation].” [2]

From a story-internal point of view, this is perfectly plausible, but from the story-external vantage, why wouldn’t Tolkien just “come up with something”? A possible answer is that he was stuck with Took from The Hobbit, long before Middle-earth had come into focus and the translation conceit entered Tolkien’s mind, and he simply couldn’t think of anything. Or perhaps there was a source, but it simply wasn’t appropriate for or adaptable to The Lord of the Rings.

I’m not aware of any real source criticism on this name, not even by my friend, Mark Hooker, who has worked his way pretty systematically through the “Nomenclature”. Perhaps the claim of invention on Tolkien’s part has discouraged scholars and dictionary divers. But let’s not be discouraged!

It turns out that Took, like Boffin, Grubb, Bolger, so many others of the Shire and Bree, is a real British surname. Ernest Weekley points out that the genuine name, Tooke, derives from the Anglo-Saxon Toca. [3] The Anglo-Saxon name, in turn, apparently derived from an Old Norse name Tóki, but had become naturalized in the southern part of England by the 11th century. [4] Tom Shippey has noted the survival of the name: “As for ‘Took’, that too appears a faintly comic name in modern English (people prefer to respell it ‘Tooke’), but it is only the ordinary Northern pronunciation of the very common ‘Tuck’” [5].

Another possibility: it occurs to me that Tolkien might even have chosen Took as the name for his most adventurous hobbit-family in facetious reference to his own name, Tolkien, which glosses (more or less) as “foolhardy”. If so, then this would seem a perfectly appropriate choice.

So, it’s pretty clear to me that Tolkien might have resurrected the genuine English Took(e), just as he did Gamgee, Brandybuck, Bracegirdle, Hornblower, and all the rest. And/or he may have been thinking of the etymology of his own name. Is there any more to be said? Yes, just a little, and here’s where things get more interesting — but more wildly speculative. It just so happens, there was a rather well-known philologist by the name of Tooke!

John Horne Tooke (1736–1812) was a Cambridge-educated etymologist and politician. His best-known work, Επεα Πτεροεντα, or the Diversions of Purley (1786), is a collection of philological dialogues on subjects such as: “Of the Division or Distribution of Language”, “Etymology of the English Conjunctions”, “Of the Article and Interjection”, “Of Participles”, and so on. The kind of thing that was right up Tolkien’s street.

In 1805, a reviewer assessed Horne Tooke’s impact on lexicography, thus: “to him the English language owes the pristine introduction of just principles, and a most extensive, learned, and detailed application of them to the etymology of its terms. He has laid the groundwork for a good Dictionary” [6]. But this was an early opinion. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was more critical, writing in 1830 that, although “Horne Tooke was pre-eminently a ready-witted man[, h]e had that clearness which is founded on shallow-ness. He doubted nothing; and, therefore, gave you all that he himself knew, or meant, with great completeness. […] All that is worth any thing (and that is but little) in the Diversions of Purley is contained in a short pamphlet-letter […]” [7].

Indeed, philology has come a long way since Horne Tooke’s days. Most of his ideas have been superseded or proven patently wrong (e.g., his etymology for “Shire” [8] is clearly incorrect [9]). He is viewed nowadays as somewhat of a crackpot. [10] But there can be no doubt that Diversions of Purley made quite a splash, one whose ripples were felt throughout the 19th century, inspiring both argument and imitation. It was clearly a part of the zeitgeist of the century, the lexicographical culmination of which was the launching of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (now known as the Oxford English Dictionary). Tolkien himself was employed by the OED in 1919–20. I do not know of any evidence that Tolkien was aware of Horne Tooke or his philological work more than a century before, but James Murray, one of the original editors of the OED, certainly was [11]. Murray died shortly before Tolkien’s appointment to the Dictionary, but it is tantalizing to think that Tolkien might have learned of Horne Tooke during his tenure in the Old Ashmolean. I know of no reason to assume he didn’t know of him.

Assuming Tolkien learned of Horne Tooke, perhaps even read his work, is it possible the name stuck in his mind, only to reappear a decade or so later as an “Englishy” surname in his children’s book, The Hobbit? A notorious philologist named Horne Tooke is tempting quarry. Even Horne, suggesting a musical instrument, faintly recalls the hobbit names Hornblower and Bullroarer. It’s probably just coincidence, but it’s certainly not impossible that the name influenced Tolkien. After all, Tolkien made reference to lexicography elsewhere in his fiction, as in the “four wise clerks of Oxenford” in Farmer Giles of Ham.

[1] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, III.

[2] Tolkien, “Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings”, in Hammond, Wayne G., and Christina Scull. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005. 750–782, p. 764.

[3] Weekley, Ernest. The Romance of Names. 3rd rev. ed. London: John Murray, 1922, p. 75.

[4] Smart, Veronica J. , 280. “Moneyers of the Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage: the Danish Dynasty, 1017–42.” Anglo-Saxon England 16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 233–308, p. 280

[5] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Rev. and exp. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p. 103. I’m not sure Tom is correct that Tooke and Tuck are the same name; I’ve read contrary views. Tuck and Tucker seem to be vocational names, but I’ve seen no such theory advanced for Tooke. But I’ll keep looking.

[6] Quoted in Tooke, John Horne. Επεα Πτεροεντα, or, The Diversions of Purley. New ed., rev. and corrected, with notes, by Richard Taylor. London: Thomas Tegg, 1840, p. xiv.

[7] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge. 2nd ed. London: John Murray, 1836, p. 62 (see also passim).

[8] Tooke, p. 424.

[9] See for example, Skeat, Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 3rd. ed. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1898, p. 548.

[10] See Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park. New York : Walker & Co., 2009.

[11] See Mugglestone, Lynda. Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In the new volume of Tolkien Studies

Something I look forward to every year in the new issue of Tolkien Studies is David Bratman’s extensive “Year’s Work” essay. For the past couple of years, these have included assessments of my own work. In the newest installment, David discusses The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On (ed. Allan Turner; Walking Tree, 2007). He offered the following thoughts on my contribution to that collection:
“From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, and Jerome” by Jason Fisher (111-38) surveys the thematic and linguistic inspirations from the Kalevala in The Silmarillion, noting also stylistic echoes of the Bible. (Fisher is discussing Jerome’s Vulgate, but one suspects readers who call The Silmarillion Bibli­cal are thinking of an English translation, probably the King James). Fisher hits on his true subject briefly when he notes that unlike the Ka­levala, The Silmarillion is not in verse (122)—though it could have been, had Christopher Tolkien selected different source texts. (Fisher’s error in stating that nothing from The Lays of Beleriand appeared in The Silmarillion is unimportant.) This eventually leads to a comparison between Christo­pher Tolkien and Elias Lönnrot, compiler of the Kalevala. Each smoothed out complex, irregular source material into a coherent text. [1]

I’m not quite sure what David means when he says I ‘hit on my true subject briefly’ in the formal comparison, but David is certainly right to point out the mistake; it was kind of him to call it unimportant. In my essay, I erred in saying that “Christopher elected not to include in The Silmarillion any of the thousands of lines of poetry that would later comprise the Lays of Beleriand” [2]. But I was carelessly forgetting that Christopher did include about thirty lines from the (unfinished) Lay of Leithian. This is less than a drop from that bucket, but it’s a mistake I never should have made — moreover, one that the editor should have caught. My assertion could be made accurate by the addition of a single letter, emending “any” to “many” (though this would produce an awkward-sounding sentence).

And now, speaking of the Kalevala, it’s time to start devouring Tolkien’s “Story of Kullervo” and draft essays on the Kalevala, some very exciting new material published in the latest issue of Tolkien Studies. Isn’t it wonderful, after so many references to these works, to be able to finally read them? It’s wonderful to see Tolkien’s early verses in the Kalevala meter too. You have to read these aloud to get the full effect. I’m hearing Tom Bombadil in my head, with a little of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha mixed in, as in this brief example:

O Terenye maid of Samyan
Little daughter of the forest
Clad in soft and beauteous garments
With thy yellow hair so lovely
And thy shoon of scarlet leather [3]

It will take some time to digest all of the new material, but I certainly hope to see a broad and careful reassessment by scholars who have weighed in on Tolkien’s debt to the Finnish national epic (such as myself). In many cases, we should see our guesses corroborated by these “new” comments and admissions from Tolkien himself; in other cases, we may have conjectures to reconsider.

[1] Bratman, David. “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2007.” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 347–78, p. 359.

[2] “From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, And Jerome.” The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. Ed. Allan Turner. Zollikofen: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007. 111–38, pp. 121–2.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. “‘The Story of Kullervo’ and Essays on Kalevala.” Transcribed and edited by Verlyn Flieger. Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 211–78, p. 225.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Word of the Day: Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge

Okay, I know, my last Word of the Day was nearly five months ago! But however inapt the label is, let’s press on with a new one. Today’s WOTD is a “fair jaw-cracker”, to borrow a phrase from Samwise Gamgee, and quite deliberately so. According to musical legend, Richard Wagner didn’t particularly care for the saxo-phone, and so he dismissed the instrument as “sound[ing] like the word Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge” [1].

Apparently, Wagner coined this word himself. The British Telegraph parses it as meaning something like “nonsense sound factory tools”. But I think Wagner might have shot himself in the foot here without realizing it. If the sound of an instrument he hated could be so easily captured by the ordinary phonology of German, then what does this say about the phonaesthetic qualities of his mother tongue? More importantly, about the libretti of Wagner’s operas? If pressed, wouldn’t he have to admit that his operas sounded like a chorus of saxophones? :)

Setting aside debate about the beauty or ugliness of the German language, would any of my German-speaking friends care to take a crack at parsing out the individual parts of this remarkable word?

[1] I picked the word up reading Omniglot blog, but to give a printed source: Slominksy, Nicolas. A Thing or Two About Music. Westport: Greenwood, 1972 [first published, 1948], p. 30.