Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Checking in with the Viking Society

About nine months ago, I learned (and shared here) that the Viking Society for Northern Research had taken the decision to put all of its books online for free. As I said then, not all of their books were yet available online. As noted by David Bratman, one of these was Volume XIV (1953–57) of Saga-Book, which has (among many other goodies) Christopher Tolkien’s essay, “The Battle of the Goths and the Huns” (pp. 141–63). Two other publications by Christopher Tolkien were already (and still are) available: his edition and translation of The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise (1960) and his introduction to Gabriel Turville-Petre’s edition of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (1956).

Well, Saga-Book, Vol. XIV, with Christopher Tolkien’s essay, is now available online — along with a number of other additions, all of them here. If you haven’t visited the site and filled out your collection yet, now would be a great time. I will probably save more extended comments on the Christopher Tolkien essay for another post, but in the meantime ...

Here’s another essay to which I’ll call your attention: “Thustable” by (again) Gabriel Turville-Petre, from his 1972 collection, Nine Norse Studies. This piece first appeared in the rather hard-to-find English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday (ed. Norman Davis and C.L. Wrenn, 1962). It’s a short and fascinating study of the toponym Thurstable, in Essex, and its connection to the cult of Thor (Þunor, in England).

And another: an essay by fellow Inkling J.A.W. Bennett in Saga-Book, Vol. XIII (1946–53), “The Beginnings of Runic Studies in England”. An interesting tidbit: Bennett’s mention of the 17th-century Earl of Arundel, at roughly the same time Tolkien adapted that name for his (sadly unfinished) Notion Club Papers, and roughly the same time when Bennett first joined the Inklings. Coincidence? There’s another essay by Bennett in Saga-Book, Vol. XII (1937–45) on the history of Norse studies in England.

How about one more? Saga-Book, Vol. XVII (1966–69) also contains a very good essay by the eminent Norse scholar, Ursula Dronke, called “Beowulf and Ragnarök”, which is essentially a response to Tolkien’s 1936 lecture, “Beowulf : The Monsters and the Critics”. In that lecture, writes Dronke, “Professor Tolkien offered an interpretation of Beowulf in the light of the Norse myth of Ragnarök, the Fate of the Gods. [...] This interpretation has received criticism on two main grounds [...]. Before commenting upon these criticisms, I should like to add a third [...].” And finally, Dronke concludes:
When early scholars traced the mythological parallels of Beowulf, they did not reckon with the mind of a poet well-versed in Christian apologetic techniques against the pagans, deliberately using, and diminishing the stature of, older myths for his Christian didactic purposes; an imaginative explorer who obliterated most of the tracks of his journey; an ingenious craftsman creating from strangely assorted stones of native tradition a mosaic of symbolic design. Yet the assumption of such a mind, and such a context, would do much to explain the enigmas of Beowulf. [p. 325]
And so on and on. So many treasures, ripe for the plucking.

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