Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reading The Lord of the Rings aloud

“Since I had three children, I’ve read Tolkien’s trilogy aloud three times. It’s a wonderful book to read aloud or (consensus by the children) listen to. Even when the sentences are long, their flow is perfectly clear, and follows the breath; punctuation comes just where you need to pause; the cadences are graceful and inevitable. Like Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, Tolkien must have heard what he wrote. The narrative prose of such novelists is like poetry in that it wants the living voice to speak it, to find its full beauty and power, its subtle music, its rhythmic vitality.” [1]

So wrote Ursula K. Le Guin, and I have heard the opinion echoed many times. I share it myself. And if you live in Michigan (or near enough; N.E. Brigand, I’m talking to you), you might think about swinging by a public reading at Hope College this weekend. From a local news story promoting the “marathon reading”:
The department of English at Hope College will sponsor a marathon reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring in the college’s Pine Grove on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 24 and 25. The reading will extend from noon to 11 p.m. on Friday and from 10 a.m. to approximately 2 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. All are welcome to sign up for 10-minute reading slots, either in advance at the department of English, located on the third floor of Lubbers Hall, or at the event itself if slots are still available.
Fifteen hours for approximately 175,000 words (not counting the Foreword or Prologue) — it’s going to be tight. This would be a reading pace of just under 200 words per minute, which really seems like wishful thinking. In all likelihood, the reading will either have to run over its allotted time, or else leave the Fellowship before the breaking at Amon Hen. In any case, it sounds like a wonderful event.

[1] Le Guin, Ursula K. “Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings.” Meditations on Middle-earth. Ed. Karen Haber. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. 101–16, p. 101–2.

Friday, September 17, 2010

More loose leaves on Tolkien’s Pearl

I concluded my recent post on Tolkien’s unpublished translation of the Middle English Pearl with the hope that “[p]erhaps someone can unearth a little more information.” I am delighted to say that someone has. My Frisian friend Jan Veltman is a great admirer of this poem, and as it happens, he wrote a series of letters inquiring about Tolkien’s translation and related matters to some of those best situated to know something. Jan recently sent me copies of the responses he received, and with his permission, I’m going to share some of the highlights. They didn’t know a great deal, but they did know a little, and so I now know a little more as well. Some may find this much ado about nothing, but I find it a fascinating addendum to the story.

As a preamble to this epistolary stroll, the first of the letters Jan sent me was a reply from Christopher Tolkien, dated 13 September 1979 — thirty-one years ago this past Monday! Jan had complimented him on the translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, then only recently published. To this Christopher replied, “It gave me great pleasure to know that you approved of my edition of my father’s translations, which are indeed, as I think, of the highest order.” He had also asked for advice on finding second-hand copies of editions of the poems and asked about St. Erkenwald, which has sometimes been attributed to the Pearl poet.

A year later, Jan wrote to the British Broadcasting Corporation, asking whether a recording of Tolkien’s Sir Gawain radio broadcast was available. Parts of his translation were broadcast on the BBC in December 1953, along with a short introduction written and read by Tolkien. The BBC Secretariat responded to Jan on 24 September 1980 with regrets that “we do not have this recording in our Sound Archives. Even so, we would not have been able to release a copy, for copyright and contractual reasons.”

The following year, Jan wrote to Norman Davis at Merton College, Oxford (by then, retired), asking for advice on building up a comprehensive reading list on Middle English literature. Even though the request was “too tall an order”, Professor Davis replied with some suggestions. At about the same time, Jan made a similar inquiry of John Jones, who held the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1978–83 (immediately following John Wain, one of the Inklings). Professor Jones replied on 20 March 1981, “I fear Merton College has no recording, and I don’t think it is true that Tolkien was a man of great international fame as early as 1953 — though among Germanic philologists he was recognised as a scholar of genius.” He indicated he would pass Jan’s inquiry along to Norman Davis (“Norman knows more about this matter than anybody else in the world”), unaware that Jan had just written to Professor Davis on a different line of inquiry. Jan followed this up, bringing in Tolkien translation of Pearl this time, to which Professor Jones replied (12 April 1981), “Again, Norman Davis is the right man; he will know more than anybody else in the world about Ronald Tolkien’s translation of Pearl.”

Professor Davis wrote back to Jan on 24 April 1981. Here we draw closer to the subject of my earlier post, so I will quote a little bit more:
I do not believe that a Pearl translation was in any general way ‘being used in the colleges’, as you put it. Tolkien took a long time to satisfy himself about his translation, and no doubt lent copies to friends asking for comments — he gave me one to take abroad for holiday reading, for example. (I didn’t like it much, incidentally.) But these would be only drafts in the process of making the final version, and I do not think it is realistic to speak of ‘this early translation’ at all. There was no single ‘early translation’, and the published text will embody what he wished to preserve.
Professor Davis suggested Jan contact George Allen & Unwin “to make absolutely sure (though I think it would be a waste of time)”, and this is what Jan did next. Rayner Unwin replied to the inquiry on 22 May 1981, “it is true that there was a version of Pearl circulating but not published in the middle 1940’s. In fact, this was little changed from the version eventually published after Professor J.R.R. Tolkien’s death. To the best of my knowledge there are no copies of this early version of Pearl or of Gawain in writing or on tape available. If there were, they would be with the Tolkien executors […].”

And so we come to the final letter in the series, in which Jan made a last inquiry with “the Tolkien executors”. Christopher Tolkien replied on 25 September 1987 — twenty-three years ago next week! —
As with so many of my father’s works, his translation of Pearl was a long-continued process of refinement over many years. The printed text you refer to was not an edition, but was an experimental type-setting carried out by B.H. Blackwell (Oxford). It never went beyond the stage of a first proof in galleys, and was a mass of printing errors. It thus has, in itself, no interest. […] I hope have [sic] made myself clear. The point is, that the printed proof made in the 1940s (which I no longer possess, in any case) is, so to speak, a merely casual incident in the process of refinement of the translation, and did not in itself in any way affect that process.
So, to sum up. Copies of Tolkien’s Pearl translation were indeed “circulating” in the 1940’s (Rayner Unwin, Norman Davis), most likely among Tolkien’s friends, of whom some didn’t like it (Norman Davis, again). We can’t really be sure how closely the early version resembled the final one, as we have two opposing opinions: Rayner Unwin says it was “little changed”, but Norman Davis and Christopher Tolkien imply otherwise. But we are now in a slightly better position to judge the claim in the contributor blurb from Essays and Studies (1953), that Tolkien was “[w]ell known […] for his verse translation of The Pearl”. It was not a total exaggeration, though there should probably be an implied addition: he was well-known for it among his friends and colleagues in the colleges. This is more or less the conclusion we had drawn already — but at least now we have a real basis for it, and knowledge of at least one more contemporaneous reader of the translation.

Monday, September 13, 2010

My next Tolkien publication

At my first Mythcon (in 2006), I delivered a paper on “Sourcing Tolkien’s ‘Circles of the World’: Speculations on the Heimskringla, the Latin Vulgate Bible, and the Hereford Mappa Mundi.” The abstract for that paper ran as follows:
“The Circles of the World,” among Tolkien’s most evocative tropes, appears to have escaped attention in the otherwise exhaustive history of Tolkien source-hunting. Still, I feel it may be possible to unravel some of its origins. Tolkien’s metaphorical “leaf-mould of the mind” was that place where sources, inklings, and mythological images mingled and coalesced into new ideas, and I’ll attempt to show how Tolkien’s figurative “Circles of the World” may have emerged from three such disparate sources: the Ynglinga Saga of Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla; the Latin Vulgate Bible, with particular emphasis on the Book of Wisdom; and perhaps even the Hereford Mappa Mundi, a medieval map of the world on display in the West Midlands of Tolkien’s youth. In the end, at this late stage in Tolkien source-hunting, it can be difficult to uncover substantially new (and sufficiently verifiable) source-traces; however, in this case, I believe I have something new to offer to Tolkien Studies.
The paper was well-received, and it even led to my being invited to give a half-day presentation at a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on J.R.R. Tolkien (in 2009). I’ve been asked more than once in intervening the years whether this paper would ever appear in print. I’m happy to say the answer is yes, the essay will be part of a new collection called Middle-earth and Beyond: Essays on the World of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Kathleen Dubs and Janka Kaščáková. The editors are in the final stages of preparing the manuscript now, and Cambridge Scholars Publishers has accepted the project for publication, perhaps as soon as the end of this year.

I can’t give you the table of contents for the collection just yet; but suffice to say that it’s heavily weighted to the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, I might be the only American in the book (or at least, the only scholar living in America)! I’ll share more detailed information as I get it, but in the meantime, Kathleen Dubs describes the collection this way: “the essays include stylistic analyses, sources and analogues — including the grotesque (a current trend in literary studies), motifs and symbols, and a linguistic analysis, as well two very different interpretations of Tom Bombadil (one rather short but provocative).” More details to come!