Monday, November 3, 2014

Jonah and the Colocynth

After more than five years of (recent) anticipation, which might easily have stretched on indefinitely, Tolkien’s translation of Jonah has arrived! You can read my previous posts on the subject, of which I found there were a surprising number, by following this link.

Tolkien’s translation appears in the new issue of the Journal of Inklings Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 2014). It is short — naturally, since Jonah itself is one of the shortest books in the Bible — spanning just four pages (5–9). But even so short a translation is valuable new primary material for Tolkien studies. The translation is followed by Brendan N. Wolfe’s essay, “Tolkien’s Jonah”, which is also full of interesting material, including liberal quotation from Fr Alexander Jones’s letters to Tolkien as well as Tolkien’s draft opening to the book of Isaiah! Just to give you a taste, but without stealing all the journal’s thunder: “Heavens hearken, earth give ear, for Jahveh speaks […]” [1] It reads almost like a piece of Beowulf.

Tolkien’s Jonah is a very interesting piece of work and will take time to explore thoroughly. But one small thing in particular really caught my attention while reading it.

Here is the King James Version of Jonah 4:6: “And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.” The English Standard version also uses “gourd”. The Common English Bible calls it a “shrub”, the Complete Jewish Bible “a castor-bean plant”, the Contemporary English Version “a vine”, the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition “an ivy”, the International Standard Version “a vine plant”, the New American Standard Bible “a plant”, the New International Version “a leafy plant”, the New Revised Standard Version “a bush”, and so on. That pretty much covers all the variations I’ve seen in English language Bibles. So what does Tolkien say?

If you’ve read Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible, you’ve seen “castor oil plant”, but that’s not what Tolkien originally wrote; that was the work of the reviser. And that proves the importance of seeing Tolkien’s original translation. He did consider the castor plant. According to Wolfe, Tolkien even “cop[ied] out the entry for ‘castor’ in the OED, exchang[ed] notes with Jones on the subject, and ultimately opt[ed] for ‘colocynth’.” Colocynth? I can’t recollect ever having seen this word before. Here is Tolkien’s translation of the verse in question: “Then Yahweh God appointed a colocynth to grow up over Jonah, so that it might cast a shade upon his head and relieve his discomfort; and Jonah had great delight in the colocynth.” Now that’s interesting!

The original Hebrew here is קִיקָי֞וֹן [qî·qā·yō·wn], and apparently no one is quite sure what kind of plant this is. It’s a hapax legomenon in Scripture [2], and no further explanation of it is ever given. It’s quite singular in my experience that Tolkien chose this word. Colocynth (I have learned) derives from Ancient Greek κολοκυνθίς “wild gourd”, and it is known more commonly as the bitter apple, bitter cucumber, desert gourd, vine of Sodom, etc. It’s native to the regions of the Biblical world, and it looks like a tiny watermelon (see the photo above).

The reviser evidently didn’t like Tolkien’s theory. This may have been Alan Neame, who was engaged to edit and harmonize the translations of the books of the Old Testament for the Jerusalem Bible, or it may have been someone else involved. This person changed “colocynth” to “castor oil plant”, but how interesting is Tolkien’s translation! And so typical of Tolkien to expend so much thought on a single word!

[1] Quoted in Wolfe, Brendan N. “Tolkien’s Jonah.” Journal of Inklings Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 2014): 11–26, p. 19. Wolfe is quoting with permission from Tolkien’s unpublished draft of the first chapter of Isaiah, Bodleian Library, Oxford (Tolkien A37/1). Wolfe quotes a little less than fifty words, meaning a sizeable chunk of primary work remains unpublished.

[2] See this blog post for some further commentary on the Hebrew word.


  1. Tolkien here is following the Septuagint, which has κολοκύνθῃ 'gourd, pumpkin".

    1. Ah, thanks, Carl; much obliged for that information, which I had not thought to check. Isn't it interesting that no other English translation (at least, that I know of) uses the English word "colocynth", opting for "gourd" or similar instead? Maybe it's just a matter of choosing a word likely to be more familiar to readers. Or maybe it's a matter of consensus among biblical scholars that the Septuagint translation is wrong? Though Tolkien apparently thought it may have been right. Even the New Oxford Annotated Bible has "a bush", with a note: "Heb[rew] qiqayon, possibly the castor bean plant".

      The French Jerusalem Bible, on which the English translation was based (though not without reference to the original languages) has: "Alors Yahvé Dieu fit qu'il y eut un ricin qui grandit au-dessus de Jonas, afin de donner de l'ombre à sa tête et de le délivrer ainsi de son mal. Jonas éprouva une grande joie à cause du ricin." This is a clear choice of the castor plant, but skepticism obviously prompted Tolkien to copy out its OED definition for further rumination. He evidently found it unsuitable when looking at the Hebrew and considering, as Carl notes, the Greek translation in the Septuagint.

  2. Tolkien may simply (and arguably quite rightly) have thought that the witness of the ancient Jewish translators who produced the Septuagint as to the meaning of this Hebrew _hapax legomenon_ carries more weight than the speculation of translators/critics from a much, much later time.

    1. Yes, that certainly seems reasonable to me, so I wonder why other later translators have not done likewise. And what's in the Vulgate? I haven't looked but probably will — unless you get to it first. :)

  3. The Vulgate has _hederam_ (nom. _hedera_) 'ivy'.

  4. There is also this: 'colocynth', being not so common as (say) 'gourd', is stylistically more appropriate for translating a h.l. Note Tolkien's letter #234 concerning his choice of 'plenilune' and 'argent': 'They are beautiful words before they are understood - I wish I could have the pleasure of meeting them for the first time again! - and how is one to know them till one does meet them? And surely the first meeting should be in a living context, and not in a dictionary, like dried flowers in a hortus siccus! [...] I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies - and alas! little desire left (even when they had the gift which has been stultified) to refine or enlarge them.' [emphasis added]

    Not that it makes 'colocynth' a better solution semantically. But once one admits that one is not in a better position than other translators to decide which meaning is better, capturing the effect of the h.l. in the Hebbrew text is surely a gain.

  5. Nice points, Hlaford. I especially like your observation that an uncommon word is a better stylistic choice to translate a hapax legomenon than a common word would be.