Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Seldom-read early poetry by Tolkien

In the early part of the twentieth-century, Tolkien published a number of poems that are little-known today — some of which I’ve talked about recently. Today, I thought I’d share some even less familiar lines than those, which Tolkien published at the very early date of 1903. Have a look first at this passage:

He knew the history of our own clime,
From early days down to the present time;
And it was whispered through the villes, around,
He was a prophet and that he had found
Out many signs and secrets of the stars
And planets, and of Mercury and Mars.
Good qualities he had and bad ones too—
For, human nature is the same all through—
There never lived a man on earth who had
Not in his nature points both good and bad.
He understood the language of the trees
And flowers, and their many mysteries;
And often he would talk, around the cots,
About the goblins, to the little tots. [...]
But, owing to his age, he would forget
And contradict himself quite often, yet,
He always found the words to set him free [...]
More than a little redolent of Tolkien, the man, as we would come to know him many decades later, wouldn’t you say? With hints of Gandalf perhaps? Have a look at another passage:

A kind old face with long and hoary beard; [...]
Had bade him enter from the dusky hall,
And join their fellowship with words and song. [...]
The lines seem to prefigure Gandalf as well, with possibly a little of Treebeard thrown in — but once again, decades before those characters would take their more familiar forms. And now, a few lines of a different mood:

The keen suspense began to work on me;
I glanced aside to see what she could see;
Beneath a black veil gleamed two fiery eyes;
A cold sweat on my face began to rise.
I took all in; now firmly I believed,
That, through my good turn, I had been deceived.
That face was coarse and not a woman’s face,
Or else a man had stolen in her place.
Here, it feels as though we might be sensing the earliest inklings of the Black Riders, the Barrow Downs, and perhaps even the evil Corrigan in “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun”, some forty years yet unconceived. Were all these ideas really running around in Tolkien’s mind as long ago as 1903? One more, shall we?

This is where the baby dwells—
In the land of fairy-bells,
Where the goblins grin and lurch,
Straddled on a fairy perch,
Dressed in blue, and red, and green,
(Finer sight was never seen)
Where the fairy maidens come,
When the goblins beat the drum,
Pumpkin, hollow, yellow, bright,
Calling to the dance of night,
To the ring of fairy bells;
This is where the baby dwells.

Shades of Draytonesque “pigwiggenry” again here, on which I dwelt at some length in my series on the longer poem, “Errantry”. Fairies and goblins were indeed a much greater part of Tolkien’s early imagination than his later, as illustrated here once more. All these preceding passages fit in rather nicely with the rest of Tolkien’s juvenilia, don’t they, and yet these lines are all but unknown to scholars of the Oxford don — and entirely unknown, I daresay, to more casual fans. Why should that be? They aren’t any worse than the rest of his juvenilia. In any case, when these poems were published, Tolkien was leaving adolescence behind, already 22 years old ... Let that number sink in a moment ...

Nonplussed yet? Okay, some of you are probably waiting for a straightforward explanation, but those more knowledgeable should be scratching your heads in confusion by this point. Tolkien was born in 1892, you say, meaning he would have been only 11, not 22 years old, in 1903. And how is it we haven’t heard of these published poems, anyway? On the other hand, these lines do sound like others he wrote in his youth. Is this all just an elaborate hoax? No, I assure you, it’s no prank.

So, did somebody get the date wrong? No, not the date. The name. And it’s not wrong, just incomplete. Allow me to explain.

J.R.R. Tolkien was indeed born in 1892, as many of you know. But, er, I may have forgotten to mention, these lines were written by James Kenneth Tolkien, a Canadian, born in 1881. They’re part of a collection of poems called The Inn of Gahnobway, published in Montreal in 1903. The collection even begins with a “Publisher’s Letter” in which it is maintained by a “Mysterious Traveller” that he “came across these manuscripts in a hollow rock,” a topos at once familiar to readers of the English Tolkien.

The other Tolkien — J.K., not J.R.R. — would go on to publish at least two other collections, the last I know of in 1928 (Thoughts Here and There). But I haven’t been able to learn much else about the elusive Canadian — and certainly not whether he might be one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “remoter cousins to the ninth degree” as it is so tempting to suspect. This is actually a distinct possibility, I’d say, given the common spelling of this uncommon surname. One can easily imagine the two Tolkiens, close in age, undoubtedly unaware of one another, shared a common Prussian ancestor among the Tollkühn’s of Saxony. But until more information comes to light, we can’t know this for sure. If there are any genealogists reading, we’d all appreciate anything you might be able to uncover.

In addition to the similarity of their verses (not to the point of being uncanny, but certainly to the point of being intriguing), J.K. Tolkien even seems to resemble J.R.R. a little bit. Sensitive eyes, patrician cheekbones. Though I guess there’s a tendency toward resemblance in most daguerreotypes, hahae. And his signature also has a similar calligraphic quality (though no doubt partly a function of its Age). Take a look. A pretty remarkable coincidence, all of this, isn’t it?

Monday, December 29, 2008

A “juxtalingual” translation of Beowulf

Juxtalingual BeowulfI don’t think it would be quite accurate to say that I collect editions and translations of Beowulf — certainly not the way this fellow does! — but I do own several. I tend to buy editions / translations that I find useful in some way, especially ones that offer something the other copies I own do not. The first copy I ever bought was a mass market paperback of the Burton Raffel translation, which I read at the tender age of twelve or thirteen (before I could really appreciate it). Almost a decade later, I found myself learning Old English, and so I started picking up copies of the poem in the original tongue — copies with full or partial glossaries, facing-page translations, and so on. Some of these I still own; others I do not (e.g., Raffel).

I’m a big fan of interlinear translations in particular. These are translations where, instead of putting the original on one page and the translation on the facing page, each line in the original language is followed immediately by its translation. I own a few of these — The Aeneid and The Canterbury Tales spring readily to mind — and I’ve used others (e.g., interlinear translations of the Bible can be helpful for settling arguments ;). I don’t have one for Beowulf, though, mainly just because I haven’t come across one during my book-hunting excursions. In fact, I’m not sure there’s even one in print.

But out hunting books on Christmas Eve, I came across something very interesting: a 1960’s collegiate reissue of Benjamin Thorpe’s transcription and translation of Beowulf, together with the short poem, Widsith, and the fragmentary Fight at Finnesburg. Thorpe called his 1855 translation a “literal” one, and the book’s cover calls it a “word-for-word translation”, but what really caught my eye was the publisher’s blurb on the inside of the front cover. Here, it has been described as “a juxtalingual translation with alternating columns of Anglo-Saxon and modern English” (emphasis added).

The meaning of “juxtalingual” is obvious enough — but as much as I like it, I don’t think it’s a real word! I haven’t found it in any dictionary (online of off; I don’t have access to the O.E.D. — anyone?), and a Google search yields absolutely no results * — rare indeed! Searching Google Books returned some hits, but all of them were snippets of this very marketing blurb, from a series of high school and college book catalogs published in the 1960’s and ’70’s. So who exactly coined this interesting word? Was it an editor at Barron’s Educational Series, in Woodbury, New York? Or perhaps Vincent F. Hopper, who wrote the introduction for the reissue?

And with all this fuss, what does a “juxtalingual” translation look like? Basically, the lines of the original are split at the caesurae, producing a narrow column, facing which (on the same page) is a corresponding column in translation. Words inserted for sense (but not literally present in the Old English) are shown in italics. With the exception of the front matter, the copy I hold in my hands is identical to the 1855 edition — so identical, in fact, that I suspect it may have been photographically reproduced, rather than reset.

I’ve given you a taste in the photo above (click to enlarge). What do you think? I like it. The translation is quite serviceable, and it’s handy to have it carved up into such bitesize pieces.

* Er, until now, that is. As soon as the Googlebots finish digesting this post, “juxtalingual” will suddenly appear, like a conjurer’s coin — er, if anybody ever happens to search for it. Don’t you think there ought to be a long, jaw-cracking German word for “the act of producing (perhaps deliberately) the first indexed reference to be returned by an online search which previously yielded no results and/or the glee accompanying it” ...? I certainly do!

Note to self: learn more German. :)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Imaginative and the Imaginary: Northrop Frye and Tolkien

For goodness sake, has it really been two weeks since my last post?! I’m terribly sorry about that. :)

Part of my silence of late is explained by the fact that I’ve been busy organizing and selecting from my notes, doing satellite reading for, and then writing a book review. I haven’t been working on it for quite six months, but it almost feels like it. Anyway, the review is finished, and at almost 4,000 words, it’s pretty substantial.

I’m not going to dig any deeper for now (you’ll have to wait for it to appear in print), but I wanted to share some related findings, specifically on Northrop Frye’s view of Tolkien. In the book I was reviewing, the author bases part of his analysis on Frye’s theory of literary modes (as systematized in Anatomy of Criticism), so I’ve found myself reading Frye again.

Tom Shippey was probably the first to invoke Frye in Tolkien studies, though several others have done so since (and with varying degrees of success). I don’t have a first edition of The Road to Middle-earth, but I’m assuming the short discussion of Frye’s modes goes all the way back to 1981. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know. In any event, Shippey pointed out that “[t]here is another way of approaching the question of the trilogy’s literary status, which has the further merit of concentrating attention on its prose style as well as on poetry. This is via Northrop Frye’s now-famous book, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), a work which never mentions The Lord of the Rings, but nevertheless creates a literary place for it with Sibylline accuracy.” He goes on to explain: “Mr. Frye’s theory, in essence, is that there are five ‘modes’ of literature, all defined by the relationship between heroes, environments, and humanity. [...] Clearly the mode intended [to characterize The Lord of the Rings] is the one below ‘myth’ but above ‘high mimesis’, the world of ‘romance’ whose heroes are characteristically ‘superior in degree [not kind] to other men and to [their] environments’.” [1]

Shippey is correct: Frye does not mention Tolkien or The Lord of the Rings in Anatomy of Criticism. (However, he does mention C.S. Lewis and other writers related to Tolkien studies.) Who would have expected him to? Frye’s book was published only two years after The Return of the King. But ... As part of my research for the book review, I came across a couple of very interesting items which, together, tell a somewhat different story.

First, I learned that Victoria University Library (in the University of Toronto system) holds first edition copy of The Lord of the Rings personally annotated by Frye — among some 2,000 other similarly marked volumes! Apparently, Victoria is to Frye was Marquette and the Bodleian are to Tolkien. According to VU, the copies Frye read are British impressions from 1956. I am unaware of any definitive proof he read and annotated them in that year or the early the next, but I suspect he did (more on why in a moment). If he did, it would have given him a hypothetical opportunity to have included Tolkien in Anatomy of Criticism. I would love to get a look at the scholia with which Frye illuminated his copies! It’s possible there is some date evidence there as well, which would also be valuable.

As a short sidebar, there’s a slight question in my mind about the date of 1956 – because there was no impression of The Return of the King in that year. The second impression dates from November 1955, and the third, January 1957. But it could simply be an oversight. Assuming the date is correct for the other two volumes, Frye’s set was most likely a 5th or 6th impression of The Fellowship of the Ring, a 4th impression of The Two Towers, and a 3rd impression of The Return of the King. A valuable set, even without Frye’s annotations! And I’ll just leave it there for now. </geekOut>

As I hinted above, there is a little more evidence to place Frye’s reading as early as 1956. The University of Toronto Press has been systematically publishing the hundred or so personal notebooks Frye kept on his academic research, and from which he produced most of his published scholarship. Last year, Volume 23 in UTP’s Collected Works of Northrop Frye, imaginatively entitled Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism, hit the scholarly circuit. My local library doesn’t own a copy, but I managed to get one from Texas Tech University through interlibrary loan. And hwæt to my wandering eye should appear?

Frye mentions Tolkien three times in the material from which (in part) he assembled Anatomy of Criticism. The raw material for Anatomy published here consists of some eighteen notebooks — now that is some meticulous work! Frye continued adding notes to some of these after the publication of his book, but the internal evidence (as I make it out) suggests that Frye’s comments about Tolkien date from c. 1956–8. In a couple of cases, it’s pretty apparent to me that the notes antedate publication of Anatomy of Criticism. The bottom line? Frye apparently had read The Lord of the Rings before publishing his watershed book, and he had even imagined where it fit into his theory of modes! Shippey was correct on both counts: that Frye never mentioned him in Anatomy (a mere technicality, as it transpires), but also that the “romantic” is the most applicable mode. By the way, for those keeping score, Frye did mention Tolkien a number of other times in other books — e.g., The Secular Scripture (1976) and in the Notebooks on Romance (2004). The point here, though, is the evidence to connect Frye’s thinking about Tolkien to the early and seminal Anatomy of Criticism, published immediately on the heels of The Lord of the Rings.

In two of the three instances where Frye mentions Tolkien, it is in the context of laying out his theory of modes (six of them, rather than five, in these drafts; in itself, probable evidence to antedate the notes). Tolkien is connected in both cases to a mode Frye calls “sentimental romance” — in the company of writers such as Goethe, Hugo, Scott, Hawthorne, Melville, Morris, and MacDonald. Sounds about right. In the first of these two, Frye just happens to mention “Faerie” on the same page! [2] He also mentions “mythopoeia” elsewhere (in association with William Blake).

The third Tolkien reference is of a more subjective nature. Here, Frye writes: “I thought I had this in: in reading Tolkien, which I did with great & almost uncritical pleasure, it nevertheless struck me, somewhere around Appendix VI, that there was a point at which the imaginative turns into the imaginary.” [3]

Some thoughts:

1) “Had this in” — what? Does Frye mean to say he thought he had included the observation in the manuscript of Anatomy of Criticism, but then realized he hadn’t? Or is he referring to another notebook? There’s no immediate context to clarify that. And herein lies the difficulty in trying to interpret personal notes! 2) “Appendix VI” must be Appendix F; the appendices in The Lord of the Rings are represented by letters, not Roman numerals. Assuming he does have Appendix F in mind, unless his memory lapsed, what would he mean by identifying it (i.e., the very end of the book) as the point at which he questioned the imaginative vs. imaginary? Any theories? 3) It appears here pretty unequivocal that Frye enjoyed reading Tolkien. Elsewhere, I have seen mildly disparaging comments (e.g., The Secular Scripture) reported to suggest Frye did not. 4) And what about that larger assertion he makes here, that “there was a point at which the imaginative turns into the imaginary”? Any comments, anyone? I’ll save mine for another day; I’ve rambled on too long already. I know that Frye wrote a relevant essay, “The Imaginative and the Imaginary”, but I haven’t managed to read it yet. Obviously, much food for thought — and a cud to last a good while longer still.

It is fascinating to see this early discussion of Tolkien, even at such brevity, and especially associated with Frye’s most important work. And the irony of finding the needle in this haystack of notebooks is hardly lost on me. Frye’s voluminous notebooks are indeed not unlike Tolkien’s own mountain of drafts, recensions, and scribbled notes. The History of Middle-earth, too, stands analogous to (and a mere shadow of) the “notebooks project” at UTP. That both these Zettelkasten are now available should keep scholars busy for many years to come.

[1] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Rev. and expanded ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2003, p. 210, 211.

[2] Northrop Frye. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, Volume 23: Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, pp. 111, 274.

[3] Ibid., p. 284.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Brushing up on your Old Norse?

I meant to share this last week, but what with the holidays, I’ve fallen a little behind. The Viking Society for Northern Research has decided to make its entire catalog of publications (going back to 1895) available in high-quality PDF format, free of charge! Those of us who go in for this sort of thing will hardly be able to conceal our staggerment! Yes, yes, I can see how excited you are already. Go ahead and follow this link and start downloading. Go on now; I’ll wait. :)

Okay, now that you’ve probably got several downloads in progress (believe me, I did the same thing), let me continue. Personally, I think this ought to be the new model for academic publishing. After all, as one commenter here pointed out, “Our works are too obscure to charge money for them, at least after a few years when their usefulness has increased but demand decreased.” So true. And we scholars want our works to be read, don’t we? And to be built upon. Too many useful works sink into total obscurity once they go out of print. Sure, you can still find the odd copy now and then, mostly through antiquarian booksellers, online and off — but we’re scholars, not rare book dealers; how many of us have the budget to pick up a personal copy of everything we need? And sure, there are often (though not always) library copies available, but this kind of book is usually non-circulating. How much better to be able to conduct our research in the comfort of our own homes? (They tend to frown on coffee, scones and jam, and carelessly-belted bathrobes in the reading rooms of special collections. What? That’s how I do my research! Don’t you? ;)

The Viking Society will continue to sell “hardcopies” of books currently in print, and they reserve the right to wait five years from the publication of new books to make them available online. Both are perfectly reasonable limitations. Also bear in mind that many more recent works are still protected by copyright. Just because they’re made available to scholars here at no charge doesn’t grant anybody license to redistribute the files, print them out and sell them, reissue them via print-on-demand, or any other careless thing. I hope it goes without saying we shouldn’t abuse the Viking Society’s generosity. :)

Anyway, I won’t post a laundry list of all the many goodies available now (with more on the way), but suffice to say that the first thing I downloaded was Christopher Tolkien’s facing-page edition and translation of The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, published in 1960. I had been looking to add this to my collection for years! I’ve come across copies now and then, but I always shied away from the price tag (usually in the neighborhood of $200 USD). It just goes to show you: patience is usually rewarded. I still want a hardcopy for my library, but until I can get one at a price I can afford, it’s wonderful to have the work available for research.