Thursday, December 15, 2011

New reviews of past work

Reviews of my book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, are beginning to appear — so far, they’ve been unanimously positive! I’ll be writing some posts about these in the near future, but today I wanted to share excerpts from newly published reviews of two other books to which I contributed. Both reviews appear in the new issue of the journal VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review, Volume 28 (2011).

Jonathan Saylor, a professor of music at Wheaton College, which publishes VII, reviewed Brad Eden’s collection, Middle-earth Minstrel: Essays on Music in Tolkien (McFarland, 2010), to which I contributed the opening chapter, “Horns of Dawn: The Tradition of Alliterative Verse in Rohan”. The overall character of the review is mainly positive, and of my own essay, Saylor has this to say:
In relating the Kingdom of Rohan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, Jason Fisher underscores the singing of alliterative verse structure and the Rohirrim [sic] militaristic use of horns. He also defends Tolkien’s sensitivity towards things musical though not a musician himself, using words and phrases that resound “like harp-strings sharply plucked” (19).
Turning the page, veteran Tolkien scholar Richard C. West reviews Middle-earth and Beyond: Essays on the World of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Kathleen Dubs and Janka Kašcáková. For those who have not heard, Kathleen passed away very recently after an illness — very sad that she didn’t live long enough to see reviews of her last published work. My contribution to this collection is titled, “Sourcing Tolkien’s ‘Circles of the World’: Speculations on the Heimskringla, the Latin Vulgate Bible, and the Hereford Mappa Mundi”, and West had the following remarks on it:
An editor tries to open a collection with a particularly strong essay, as is the case here with Jason Fisher’s tracing the sources of Tolkien’s oft-repeated phrase “the circles of the world” to Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (a thirteenth-century collection of Old Norse sagas that takes its title from its opening words “Kringla heimsins” meaning “the circle of the world”), and the common Latin phrase “orbis terrarum” with the same meaning (with particular reference to the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom in Saint Jerome’s Vulgate Bible where Fisher noticed that the phrase occurs ten times in a short text). That Tolkien revised his original phrase “the girdle of the Earth” to “the circles of the world” just may have been suggested to him by such sources. Fisher is properly cautious that there is no direct evidence of his reading either one, but it is virtually certain that Tolkien read all of the sagas in the original Old Norse — he founded the Coalbiters at Oxford for that purpose, and would not have overlooked Snorri whom the Icelanders consider their greatest saga writer — and highly probably that he read Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, both because it is still the official Roman Catholic Bible and because it was the version known throughout the Middle Ages and therefore relevant to his work. Fisher offers a good deal more linguistic speculation, filled out with information about medieval maps and their possible relation to Tolkien’s shaping of the world of Arda (chiefly the Hereford Mappa Mundi which was created and is still housed in Tolkien’s beloved West Midlands). I was particularly struck by the discussion of the relation between Old Norse kringla (circle) and hringr (ring), which I agree would have delighted Tolkien whether or not he had already thought of it himself.
So there you have it. Both books are recommended by their reviewers, especially Middle-earth and Beyond, and I am gratified my contribution to each elicited comments and some praise. If you haven’t read these two essay collections, let me recommend them again now. Both are a bit expensive, but I think they’re worth owning — both have a lot of interesting things to offer that have not been said before. If they are too dear, then maybe you can look for them at your local library. And if they don’t have copies, suggest they buy them! For those who would like a taste, you can read all of one of my essays and part of the other online (here and here). I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tolkien’s translation conceit — new evidence?

As you probably know by now (and if not, read this), HarperCollins is publishing several new books, both this year and next, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit — “a literary party of special magnificence”, as it were. One of these, “the flagship book of the anniversary year” according to David Brawn, is The Art of The Hobbit, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. I have had my copy for a few days now, dipping in here and there, and it is simply gorgeous!

It’s a beautifully produced coffee-table book, an oversized hardcover, slip-cased like the original Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien (1979). The new book attempts to collect together in one place every known sketch, drawing, and painting Tolkien made with any connection to The Hobbit — more than 100 of them! Many have never been published before, and of those that have been, some are reproduced in color for the first time. Many are larger than the reproductions in earlier books.

The editors have written a short but valuable introduction, as well as running commentary on the works, which they present in the order of the events from the novel that they represent. This commentary is kept to a minimum, allowing the artworks to speak for themselves. Four gatefolds show the evolution of particular scenes — Hobbiton, Rivendell, The Elven-king’s Gates, and the Forest River. Another page brings together every known illustration of Bilbo for easy comparison. In a nutshell: it’s a must-have!

In perusing the artworks, I’ve noticed a few interesting things already. For instance, on the reverse of Death of Smaug, Tolkien wrote some calligraphic lines pertaining to the story, in one of which he refers to “Elrond the half-elfin” — quite a late date for the spelling Tolkien rejected (consistently preferring “elven” from this point on).

Another interesting thing is some Old English and Old Norse associated with Thror’s Map. Actually, there is some Elvish as well — a bit of ammunition for those who argue (as John D. Rateliff does) that The Hobbit was far more connected to Tolkien’s legendarium than many people believe — but I will leave that to the Elvish scholars!

As you will recall, Thror’s Map contains some ordinary runes, which say in English, “five feet high the door and the three may walk abreast”. In a pen-and-ink drawing of “Thror’s Map, Copied by B. Baggins”, Tolkien has added a mostly legible passage in Old English translating the same passage: “fif fóta heah is se duru and þrie mæg samod [?] þurhgangend” [1]. The question mark is a tiny scrawl which seems to have been meant for insertion, but I can’t even pretend to read it. Another word, above duru, has been erased. Leaving these out, the Old English literally means, “five feet high is the door and three may together going-through.” If this look ungrammatical, it’s because it is. The word þurhgangend (which actually ought to be þurhgangende) is a participle; I think Tolkien should have used the infinitive, þurhgangan.

More interesting, but more difficult, is an Old Norse translation of the Moon-letters. To refresh your memory, the moon-letters on Thror’s Map run, again in English: “stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.”

The Old Norse is very hard to read, in places totally illegible — to me, at least. Have a look at the text (above) and see if you can add anything to my transcription. The best I can do is something like this:
Staltri[?] hjal{la}[?] steininum þeima[?] hvenar[?] grá[—?]
Þar sein[?] þrostr[—?] þa nein[?] sól
Søkkvandi[?] með nogh[?] lys[?] Durnis dags
L[?]j[?] [?] lykill[?] [?] [2]
As you can see, I’ve numbered the words in the image at the top of the post, leaving out a couple which are (partly) repeated in the main passage. Let’s see what we can make of it! Update: Make sure you read the comments below, where bits and pieces are teased apart and worked out. I’m not going to revise the numbered list below (at least, not for now), so that you can follow my first thoughts.

1) This should be a verb meaning “stand”, but I’m puzzled right from the outset. The Old Norse verb I would expect to see is standa “to stand”, but I’m not sure what we’ve got here. I can’t find anything in my sources to explain it. I could certainly be transcribing it incorrectly, but there’s no way it’s a form of standa.

2) This appears to read hja, but notice the extra squiggle below? It looks like this might be hjalla, a form of hjalli “a shelf or ledge in a mountain’s side”. This would be the ideal word-choice for the sheltered bay where the Secret Door is located, but if I’m reading this correctly, then the Norse word, an addition by Tolkien, doesn’t correspond to anything in the English moon-letters.

3) Surely steininum — and finally a word I am pretty sure I am reading correctly. This is the definite dative plural of steinn “stone”, but it’s often translated in the singular. Here, following the English closely, it means “near, by the stone”.

4) This could be þeima “to this, to them”, but it’s hard to be sure.

5) Not much more than a squiggle. Tolkien himself seemed to realize he was jotting too hastily and went back over the beginning of the word to clarify it. Based on where we are in the moon-letters, it looks like it might be hvenar “when”.

6) All we can read we any confidence is grá—, but since grár is “grey”, it must be something along those lines.

7) Legible again! Þar is “there, at that place”.

8) This probably should be the verb “knocks”, but it is pretty much impossible to read. This word looks like it might be sein, senn, seim, or something like that. To translate “knock”, Tolkien probably ought to have opted or of knía “to knock, strike (poet.)”, but he could have used drepa, banga, klappa, or another word of the same sort. If the word is something like senn, it would mean “chatter”, which I suppose could work as a substitute for the knocking of the thrush. But I doubt this is the right answer, because it would be hard to explain such a departure from the English. I’m at a loss.

9) Although the word fades away into a mere scribble, this is without a doubt a form of þröstr “thrush”.

10) The word appears legible, which is a problem, because it appears to read þa, and I know of no such Old Norse word. I am going to make a daring suggestion: that Tolkien inadvertently code-switched into Old English, where þá is a conjunction meaning “when, then”. This fits the moon-letters very well at this point in the passage, so I think it’s plausible. On the other hand …

11) This squiggle could be hvenar, if we allow Tolkien a totally misshapen h. This would do the job of the conjunction “when, then”, discussed in the previous point. But I really can’t read this word. It looks more like it begins with an n, not an h. Anyone have any idea?

12) Another clear word: sól “sun”.

13) In Old Norse, the “setting of the sun” is usually rendered sól at setri komin. But søkkrendi means “sinking”, which is perfectly a propos here as well.

14) Although difficult to make out, this is certainly með “with”.

15) Anyone? Anyone? I can’t make this out.

16) This looks like is must be a form of lýsa “gleam, shimmering light” or lýsi “lighting, brightness”, though the appropriate grammatical ending is lost or omitted.

17) This is clearly Durnis, the genitive of the proper name, Durin, meaning “Durin’s”, and …

18) This is clearly dags, genitive of dagr, meaning “of day”; hence, “of Durin’s Day”.

19) This is hard to make out. It seems to begin with an l, and to contain a j, but I’m not sure what the loopy ascender is. In any case, we are looking for something like ljóma “to shine”, which seems to be quite close to what Tolkien scribbled.

20) This word is scratched out, so I think we should conclude Tolkien rejected it and move on.

21) This word is scrawled well enough to make out lykill “key”.

22) I can’t read the last word at all: nothing but a descender, a scribble, and an ascender. It could be almost anything. But “hole” should be hola, or perhaps auga “eye”. Neither seems to fit this blob, but it must be the second element of the compound “key-hole”.

So, allowing for Tolkien’s untidy scrawl and a few mystery words, this is plainly pretty close to the original English passage represented by the moon-runes on Thror’s Map. Why would Tolkien bother to translate these Dwarvish instructions into Old Norse? Why is this significant? Was it merely a personal amusement, or was it perhaps more?

As we all know, the names of the Dwarves are Norse names, drawn from the Völuspá, but until now, there haven’t been any other significant signs of the elaborate “translation conceit” in The Hobbit. One could just as easily hypothesize (and I suspect it usually has been hypothesized) that the translation conceit Tolkien describes in the Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings emerged later, as a way to explain away the choice of Old Norse names from the earlier book, long ago committed to and unavoidable now in the sequel. But this jotting suggests the conceit might have begun to take shape earlier than previously thought.

I have had reason to suspect this before, actually. The real formalization of the conceit certainly must have emerged later, in fact, in February, 1942 [3]. But this translation into Old Norse suggests that Tolkien was playing with the idea of representing much more than just the names of the Dwarves in The Hobbit as Old Norse. As early as December, 1937, Tolkien admitted that “[Old] Icelandic was in a foolish moment substituted for the proper language of my tales” [4]. Not just the names, but also the language, it seems Tolkien is saying. And here, in The Art of The Hobbit, is a bit of hard evidence to back this up! The map, in fact, predates the letter to Selby by at least a few years, implying that a nascent translation conceit may have been swimming around in Tolkien’s mind for a good deal longer than previously thought. Amazing, isn’t it, the things you notice when you hold a map up to the light!

[1] Art of The Hobbit, bottom of fig. 25, p. 51.

[2] Art of The Hobbit, middle of fig. 30, p. 56.

[3] See The Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 70, where Tolkien first jots down the rubric of Old English for Rohan, Old Norse for Dale (and the Dwarves of the region), etc.

[4] Tolkien makes this rather significant admission in a letter to G.E. Selby, dated December 14, 1937. Christopher Tolkien quotes a selection from this letter in his foreword to The Return of the Shadow (p. 7) — but not the passage I have quoted. The complete letter to Selby was printed in the exhibition guide, J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit: Drawings, Watercolors, and Manuscripts, Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, June 11–September 30, 1987, p. [4].

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Beware the Neekerbreekers

“There were also abominable creatures haunting the reeds and tussocks that from the sound of them were evil relatives of the cricket. There were thousands of them, and they squeaked all round, neek-breek, breek-neek, unceasingly all the night, until the hobbits were nearly frantic.” [1]
Neekerbreekers (as Sam calls them) are an incessantly noisy insect species inhabiting the Midgewater Marshes, about three days’ east of Bree. In the “Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings”, Tolkien explains that this is “[a]n invented insect-name” and that translators should render it by an “invention of similar sound (supposed to be like that of a cricket)” [2].

This is straightforward enough. Tolkien suggests the name is onomatopoeic. As Steve Walker succinctly puts it: “Neekerbreekers sound their name” [3]. My friend Mark Hooker has aptly noted a parallel in H. Rider Haggard. In his novel She, there are “sullen peaty pools” filled with “musqueteers”, “tens of thousands of the most blood-thirsty, pertinacious, and huge mosquitoes” [4]. What else can I add to these clear-cut comments? Maybe a bit more.

First, consider that the word mosquito itself, a Spanish diminutive of Latin musca “fly, gnat”, is thought to be imitative in origin too (cp. Greek μύζειν “to mutter”). Cognates in the Germanic languages include Old High German mucca, Middle High German mücke, Middle Dutch mugge, Old Saxon muggia, Old Norse , and Old English mycg, from which we derive the Modern English midge — as in Midgewater Marshes. That’s rather a nice coincidence, and possibly a bit of ammunition for Mark’s case that Tolkien may have had Haggard in mind.

Second, something else struck me recently. This is a bit more of a stretch, but I offer it as food for thought. Consider this passage from Laȝamon’s Brut
Þat is a seolcuð mere | iset a middel-ærde
mid fenne & mid ræode | mid watere swiðe bræde
mid fiscen & mid feoȝelen | mid uniuele þingen
Þat water is unimete | brade nikeres þer ba[ð]ieð inne
þer is æluene ploȝe | in atteliche pole.
For those whose Early Middle English is a bit rusty: “It is a strange lake, set in Middle-earth, with marsh and with reed, with waters exceedingly broad, with fish and with fowl, with evil things. The water is immensely wide, nickers bathe in it, there elves play in the dreadful pool.”

The passage has the Dead Marshes dead to rights, don’t you think? But perhaps there is a hint of the Midgewater Marshes with its neekerbreekers as well. After all, what are these Middle English nikeres, which I translated above as nickers?

The word usually means something like a water-monster, sprite, sea-goblin, siren, mermaid, etc., depending on the tale in which it appears. It is the source of the folkloric nixie (a kind of water sprite), and it has cognates in all the Germanic tongues — e.g., MD nicker, ON nykr, OHG nichus, and OE nicor. The latter has been glossed as hippopotamus and crocodile, but OE nicor, as well as the compound nicor-hús “nicker-house”, occur throughout Beowulf to describe sea monsters and their lairs. Indeed, the haunted mere in Laȝamon’s Brut is sometimes compared in the scholarly literature to the abode of Grendel’s dam in Beowulf. As C.S. Lewis put it: “[Laȝamon’s] nikeres and their pool might have come straight out of Beowulf.” [5]

The word survived into Modern English, spelled nicker, though it has been obsolete for a long time now. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a supernatural being supposed to live in the sea or other waters; a water-demon, a kelpie. Formerly also (in Middle English): a siren, a mermaid (obs.).” E.R. Eddison used it as late as 1922 in The Worm Ouroboros: “on the walls strange portraitures: lions, dragons, nickers of the sea, spread-eagles, elephants, swans, unicorns” [6], but otherwise, the word is all but dead.

Is there any reason to think Tolkien had this word in the back of his mind when he invented the neekerbreekers? Not a strong reason, certainly, though it’s fun to imagine he might have. Why not? The neekerbreeker is an abominable creature inhabiting a marshy region in Middle-earth — and precisely the same could be said of the nicker, nikere, nicor, however you wish to spell it. Admittedly, “evil relatives of the cricket” are not quite the same as water-demons, but the phonological envelopes of both the real-world word and the first part of Tolkien’s are identical. The second half is probably an imitative reduplication, not at all uncommon in English.

In any case, I think it’s fair to say neekerbreekers are best avoided. They might be no more than noisy crickets, but maybe not. Better safe than sorry. ;)

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. 50th anniversary ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004, p. 183.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien. “Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings.” The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 760.

[3] Steve Walker. The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-earth’s Magical Style. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 23.

[4] Mark T. Hooker. A Tolkienian Mathomium: A Collection of Articles on J.R.R. Tolkien and His Legendarium. Llyfrawr, 2006, p. 148.

[5] C.S. Lewis. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966, p. 28. And for much more on the mythological background of the nicor, including older theoretical underpinnings in Roman and Greek mythology, see Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, especially Vol. II, Ch. XVII.

[6] E.R. Eddison. The Worm Ouroboros. New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1926, p. 192.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

And now for something a little more löwenbräu

Right off the bat, I have to point out to my European readers that the pun in my title only works with the American pronunciation of Löwenbräu, where it is usually said /loʊənbraʊ/. As with so much English and American humor, this is much too low-brow a jest to stand up to a stolid German pronunciation. If you haven’t already inferred this, I should warn you that the remainder of this post might even be more crude than this one. Once in a while I can’t resist a coarse pun. But if the low-brow was fair game for Chaucer and Shakespeare, let no one judge me ill for plucking an easy double entendre now and then.

Regular readers and friends know that I’m a tippler of some repute. I’ve written about beer and spirits before, but it’s been a while. High time for a potable post.

This is where beer snobbery meets the bizarre foods world. Not that the food I’m about to discuss is at all strange on its own, but together with beer? You be the judge, but let me whet your whistle with the most exclusive of beer styles — beer brewed with meat. Sound good? (Cue the gagging.)

I came across a tasty treat in the venerable tome, Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine, by William Carew Hazlitt (not that William Hazlitt; rather, his grandson) — cock ale. Yes, you read that right: cock ale. For audacious home-brewers, here’s the recipe:
To make Cock Ale: — Take ten gallons of ale, and a large cock, the older the better, parboil the cock, flea him, and stamp him in a stone mortar till his bones are broken, (you must craw and gut him when you flea him) put the cock into two quarts of sack [sherry], and put to it three pounds of raisins of the sun stoned, some blades of mace, and a few cloves; put all these into a canvas bag, and a little before you find the ale has done working, put the ale and bag together into a vessel; in a week or nine days’ time bottle it up, fill the bottles but just above the necks, and leave the same time to ripen as other ale. [1]
It sounds a bit like Dogfish Head’s Raison d’Être — with chicken bits floating in it. Notice there was no mention of straining or filtering the ale. And I don’t think parboiling would cut it with the FDA, do you? Mmmm, salmonella! :)

So that’s cock ale. The name sounds so dirty. As does another beer brewed with meat: oyster porter. Another relic of the 19th century. Yes, this is English porter brewed with oyster meat, or sometimes ground up oyster shells. Yum. Oysters, of course, and more specifically prairie oysters, are a euphemism in America for fried bull testicles. Goodness gracious, I can’t imagine going into the local organic market and telling the clerk I want cock and oysters! Oh, Shakespeare, come to my rescue: “I warrant / it had upon it brow, a bumpe as big as a young Cockrels / stone? A perilous knock, and it cryed bitterly.” [2]

Even worse — and believe me, I know I’m pushing my luck here — in the parlance of Hazlitt’s time, a cask of this ale could be referred to as “cock in a butt”. A butt is a cask for storing wine or ale, the source of the word butler. Jeeves, what have you been up to?! (Rest assured, I am properly ashamed of myself for this.)

Hazlitt’s cockbook — er, excuse me — cookbook is full of interesting tidbits like this. Just peruse the index, and before long, everything starts sounding dirty. A sampling of some of the more fetishistic-sounding dishes: Forced meat (p. 191), Jumbals (p. 128), Spread-eagle pudding (p. 114), White grease (p. 58), and what has to be my personal favorite: Rear-supper (p. 239, 242). God, I hope you are laughing at this 

Anyway, there you go: cock ale and oyster porter. Knock back a few of those, and I daresay the clothes are coming off. Just pray you don’t remember anything the next morning.

[1] William Carew Hazlitt. Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine. London: Elliot Stock, 1886, p. 152.

[2] Romeo and Juliet, I.iii.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Poros and the Bosphorus

Through the hot, seldom-traveled plain of southeastern Gondor runs an overlooked river, the Poros, southernmost tributary of the great Anduin. Running more or less east to west, it forms a natural boundary between the furthest reaches of Gondor and lands under the sway of Harad to the south. The Harad Road fords the river at the Crossings of Poros, continuing north through Ithilien to the Crossroads and still further to the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Poros is barely mentioned. Apart from its proper place on the maps, it figures only in the appendices as a site of frontier skirmishes between Gondor and the Haradrim (Appendix A.I.iv; and see Appendix B at TA 2885). With so few references, why should this far-flung river be of any interest to anybody? Well, it’s the name that attracted my attention. In the context of Middle-earth and its languages, we don’t know what it means — and that is pretty rare.

Such puzzles always pique my curiosity, and I think I have an answer. Having a look through the materials available to me, and performing some moderately thorough (though not exhaustive) searches of the Internet, I don’t come across anyone with the same theory I am about to share. If anyone has seen this, please let me know. Anyway, here goes.

Tolkien doesn’t discuss the name in “The Rivers and Beacon Hills of Gondor” (Vinyar Tengwar 42); it seems not to be glossed in “Words, Phrases & Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings” (Parma Eldalamberon 17); it’s not in the “Nomenclature” Tolkien prepared for translators; nor is it in the Eldarin Etymologies. It’s really a bit of a mystery. As a result, guesses as to the meaning of this name are just that — guesses. The common element in most of these guesses is Sindarin ros “foam, spray”, but the first element is pretty much totally unknown. Eldarin roots with similar sound silhouettes seem to be red herrings (“flour”? “north”?). Jim Allan once suggested that it might be the same element in the equally rare (and also appendiceal) name, Araphor (= aran + por), but this doesn’t help much since we still have no idea what the element por is supposed to mean. And that’s assuming the name is Sindarin at all. A welter of names in the south of Gondor are said to be of pre-Númenórean origin and not Eldarin. The fact is, we just don’t know.

Here’s my theory, something I’ve been meaning to share with you for a long, long time. I can’t help wondering whether the name might have a primary world etymology. After all, it looks like a standard form Greek noun of the second declension, doesn’t it? In fact, there is such a word. Ancient Greek attests πόρος, matching Tolkien’s spelling exactly, and what is more, its meaning is highly suggestive. Of several connotations and uses, there are these in particular: (1) “a means of passing a river, a ford or ferry”, and (2) “a narrow sea, straight”. Through the regular laws of sound change, the Modern English words firth and ford are related, as are fjord < Old Norse fjörðr, and port “a haven” < Latin portus. I think Latin vadum “shoal, shallow, ford, sea, etc.” may be related to this same root as well.

The general sense of the Greek word is of a “passage, way, journey”, and it is also connected to the English fare (as in wayfarer and farewell) as well as ferry. It traces its ultimate origins to an Indo-European root √PER meaning “to lead, pass over, pass through” (also the source of prepositions and prefixes of directional meaning: e.g., for(e)– and peri–). This root has all sorts of interesting descendants; not only those previously mentioned, but also such an odd bunch as führer, porter, pier, parsely, fern, feather, gaberdine, and even the proper names Ferdinand, Portugal, and Parvati.

Plato wrote of Poros, a god of expediency, contrivance, and ease (i.e., passage). His antithesis was Aporia, goddess of difficulty, powerlessness, lack of means (i.e., impasse < α + πορία “without passage, means, device”). Aesop and Plutarch each have something to tell us about her. Aporia is a term still used in philosophy to express a state of puzzlement or doubt.

Finally, and I think most significantly, there is the Bosphorus, the Turkish strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. The original meaning of the name is literally an ox-ford (βοῦς “ox” + πόρος “passage, ford”). This is amusing to me, and might be to you too, because it recalls the humble origins of the English Oxford and the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford, the original editors of the Oxford English Dictionary whom Tolkien affectionately parodies in Farmer Giles of Ham.

I also chose the word “boundary” with good reason. If you were paying attention, you noticed I used the same word in the first paragraph of this post. Among drafts and notes for The Lord of the Rings (see The Treason of Isengard, p. 312), Tolkien explicitly identified the River Poros as a “boundary”. In Middle-earth, this was the boundary between Gondor and Harad, but if one overlays Middle-earth very roughly onto a map of our own real world, this corresponds pretty well to the boundary between Europe and Asia, making the Poros roughly analogous to the Bosphorus. Given this analogy and the similarity of the names, the likelihood the Greek word was in Tolkien’s mind seems hard to ignore.

By way of a closing fillip, I’d like to note that this isn’t the first time I’ve speculated about the specific influence of Greek on Tolkien’s nomenclature. If you’re interested and haven’t seen it yet, you might want to read my post on the name of the wolf, Carcharoth. I also wrote the entry on Greek Gods (among others) in the Tolkien Encyclopedia. In the same part of the ancient world, the Colossus of Rhodes seems like a possible model for the Argonath. And I could go on. A culture as rich as that of Ancient Greece could hardly fail to leave traces in Tolkien’s fictive world, especially when you consider that he began his academic career by specializing in Greek philology. A word like πόρος could easily have swum to the front of Tolkien’s mind when he needed a name for a boundary river. This, in fact, could explain why there is no adequate Eldarin gloss for the name. It was all Greek to him. :)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The curious lives of French prepositions

When you study comparative Romance philology, it’s only a matter of time before you notice that French exhibits some prepositional anomalies. These have interested me for years. For heaven’s sake, you might wonder, how do we explain Spanish con, Italian con, Portuguese com, Romanian cu, all from Latin cum, but French avec? Where did parmi “among, between” come from? And how about dans “in”? What about chez “at the home of”, which is so useful it has made its way even into English? None of these are found in the other Romance languages — and there are plenty of other examples — but why?

I was asking myself questions like these twenty years ago, and though I have now long known the answers, it struck me that some of my readers might be interested as well. Since chez is my favorite example, I’m going to save it for last. Let’s start with the strange-looking avec.

This word is the modern reflex of Middle French avecques, in turn from Old French avoc, avuec, avoec. The latter is the spelling found in The Song of Roland, used prepositionally near the beginning of the poem (l. 186), but used adverbially near the end (l. 3626). The word is a contracted or elided form of Latin apud hŏc “with this (thing)”. The path would have been something like Latin apud hŏc > ap[ud] hŏc > Vulgar Latin *abhoc > Old French avoc. What is most interesting is that French kept a vestigial trace of the pronoun, hōc, the neuter form of hīc “this”. Quite separately, the Latin preposition apud eroded directly into an Old French preposition od, ot, o “with” — which occurs with greater frequency than avoc in Roland. There is also one occurrence of the construction o tot “with all” (l. 1357), with the same meaning as modern avec, and which looks something like the obsolete English withal.

Originally, Latin apud and cum had different connotations, the latter more often associated with coincidence of time than with people or things, but French took one path, all the other Romance languages the other. Why is a difficult question, one that would require a lot deeper investigation that we have time for here, but it was during the Carolingian/Merovingian dynasties that avoc began to outshine od, likely under the influence of Frankish (i.e., Germanic) constructions and preferences. (Let us remember too that Old English wið was originally “against”, preserved now only in withstand; whereas, it was mid that connoted the sense of our modern preposition “with”.)

Many of the other anomalous French prepositions evolved along similar lines from Latin collocations of either preposition + noun/pronoun, preposition + preposition, or preposition + adverb. By contrast, the other Romance languages (particularly Italian) usually derived their forms directly and solely from the original Latin prepositions. The “French model” explains parmi and dans, among many others.

Parmi, also attested in Roland, is formed from a preposition + noun, from L per mĕdium “in, through the midst of” > VL per mĕdiu > OF par mi, parmi. The preposition dans is similarly formed. The usual Romance preposition from Latin in “in(to)” became French en (cp. Sp en, It in, P em, Ro în), but dans came from OF denz, in turn from L de ǐntus “from within”. There is also an alternative (and redundant) form in dedans, from OF dedenz (< L de de ǐntus). Other “compound” prepositions of this sort include avant, dehors, dessous, dessus, delà, dépuis, avant, devant, envers, devers, etc. Some of these have direct cognates in the other Romance languages, but not all of them.

As promised, my favorite: chez. This wonderful preposition is unique among the Romance languages, and so valuable and concise that is has been borrowed from French. We all know what it means: “at the house of”, as in, “party this weekend chez Jason and Jennifer.” (That’s just an example; please do not knock on our door tonight unless you come bearing wassail! ;). This one is the real anomaly, because it is essentially just a noun repurposed into a preposition. This becomes pretty obvious when you consider that the only way to translate it requires the use of a noun, “house, home, etc.”.

So, as you may have guessed already, French chez goes back to Latin casa “house”. The c > ch sound change is among the most common in the language; cp. OF castel, chastel < VL castellu, OF cheval < VL caballu, OF chien < VL cane, OF chose < VL causa, and hundreds more.

The use of chez as a preposition comes along after Roland. In Old French, chez was not a preposition, but rather a noun meaning “house”. The prepositional use today has pushed this noun out of the language. Instead, the common French word for a house is maison, of which the English cognate form is mansion (< VL mansiōne < L manēre “to stay, remain”). The other Romance languages retain the derivatives of L casa in common use, cp. Sp casa, It casa, P casa, Ro acasă — but the Latin noun still survives in modern French as the specialized noun case “a small house or hut; or a square on a chess-board”. In the 11th century, the usual construction would have been je vais à chez Gautier (translating Latin vado ad casam Walterii), but à chez contracted rapidly to chez alone.

And the rest, as they say, is histoire. :)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

One more obscure reference

At the heart of anything you might care to say about C.S. Lewis, there is this: he was a great polymath and bookworm with the habit of salting diverse, often obscure quotes into his own essays, frequently without attribution. This can be frustrating for those reading his works. Tom Shippey gives a perfect example of this:
[English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (OUP, 1954)] makes for very hard reading, as Lewis no doubt knew. The first few pages refer casually to Pico della Mirandola (1463–94), Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), Paracelsus [Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim] (1493–1541), [Heinrich Cornelius] Agrippa [von Nettesheim] (1486–1535), names barely known (if at all) to most students of English literature. A little later Lewis switches casually from the De Rerum Natura of [Bernardinus] Telesius (1509–88) to the De Rerum Sensu et Magia of [Tommaso] Campanella (1568–1639), giving no introduction to either name. Six pages later he mentions that “pleasing little tract De Nymphis”; from what Lewis says I would be interested to read it, but he gives no reference. [1]
Earlier today, a friend of mine sent me an email to inquire what I knew (if anything) about another of these unidentified quotations. This one comes from Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism. In the third chapter, Lewis writes without preamble, translation, or citation: “Zum Eckel find’ ich immer nur mich” [2]. My friend wanted to know what this meant and whether Lewis was quoting.

The meaning is straightforward enough. I told her to translate it, “ad nauseam, I find only myself.” Lewis uses this passage almost to translate his own phrasing in the sentences coming just before: “The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there.”

But is Lewis quoting? If he isn’t, why German? It’s reasonable to suppose he is, so I poked around a bit, and it looks like he is indeed quoting — or to be more accurate, paraphrasing. There are two clues in proximity to the passage that point the way: (1) “Arthur Rackham’s [illustrations] to The Ring […] at a time when Norse mythology was the chief interest of my life”, and immediately following the German passage, and signalling a change in subject, (2) “In music […]”. [3]

I think the source is the libretto to Richard Wagner’s opera, Die Walküre. In Act II, Wotan (equivalent to the Norse Odin) sings: “Zum Ekel find’ ich / ewig nur mich / in Allem, was ich erwirke!” “Only I find / Myself in all I am planning!” [4] As you can see, Lewis turns immediately from pictures to music in the essay, right at the moment of this paraphrase. Prior to it, he discusses Arthur Rackham’s illustration’s to Wagner’s Ring operas. These include wonderful illustrations for The Valkyrie, published in 1910, when Lewis would have been twelve years old. Lewis even mentions Valkyries directly a few pages before trotting out this German passage. It all seems to fit. The German phrase is the fulcrum in the subject matter of the chapter, making it all the more intriguing that Lewis chose to signal the shift in untranslated German. Of course, in Lewis’s day, the majority of his readers could be relied on to understand simple phrases in the most common European languages. Whether they would have gotten the reference, I’m not sure. It seems likely enough. But today, not so much.

So, mystery solved? Does anyone have an alternative theory? I do think that some of Lewis’s works could really benefit from annotated editions, along the lines of Douglas Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit. I’ve thought this before, but I’ve never undertaken any such project myself, both because I have my hands full with Tolkien, and because I know so many other scholars better qualified than I am to take on Lewis at his most obscure.

[1] This is from an essay called “New Learning and New Ignorance: Magia, Goeteia, and The Inklings”, given as the keynote address at the C.S. Lewis and Inklings Conference in 2006. It was later published in the collection Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings (ed. Seguro and Honegger, Walking Tree, 2007), but since I don’t have the collection in front of me, the quotation I give above is from the keynote paper, which Tom kindly sent me in 2006. The published quotation might be slightly different.

[2] C.S. Lewis. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 22.

[3] Ibid., pp. 14–5, 22.

[4] Richard Wagner. Die Walküre. Trans. Charles Henry Meltzer. New York: Fred Rullman, Inc. 1904, p. 28, 29.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Read a free excerpt from my book

McFarland works closely with Google Books to provide previews of the titles they publish. I’m happy to report you can now read an excerpt from my book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, online. Just point your browsers here. The amount you’ll get to read may vary depending on where in the world you are, but if you can see what I am seeing right now, then you’ll be getting the preface, all of Tom Shippey’s essay, the first couple of pages of E.L. Risden’s essay, and some of the front matter (copyright, abbreviations, acknowledgements, table of contents, epigraph).

A little more than a month out, the book seems to be selling well, as near as I can judge. It is starting to appear in library catalogs. Thirteen now report having it on their shelves, a new one every two or three days, though the nearest to me so far is more than 500 miles away! And I’m starting to hear from people who have read it. As of today, there are four reviews at, all of them five stars. There is another at GoodReads, also five stars. I’ve been getting some private email about the book as well — please keep the feedback coming!

Reader reactions so far are overwhelmingly positive, which I find extremely gratifying. I’ll be sharing published reviews as they appear. The first of these are likely to be in the monthly periodicals, Mythprint and Amon Hen, with Mythlore following this fall, and other journals such as Tolkien Studies in the new year. If anybody sees a review somewhere, or a mention of the book that goes beyond merely listing it, I’d really appreciate hearing from you.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Fiat Lingua!

From David Peterson, President of the non-profit Language Creation Society (LCS), comes the welcome announcement of a new journal aimed at the interests of language creators.
The LCS is launching a new online journal called Fiat Lingua. A new article will appear on the first of every month. Articles will be available in PDF form on publication, and will be free to download. Articles themselves are self-selected and published with permission, with the copyright reverting to the author upon publication. On occasion, when we’ve received enough material, LCS may publish an anthology of Fiat Lingua articles in print and electronic form. Information about such anthologies will be released when relevant.

If you’d like to contribute an article to Fiat Lingua, contact us at We’re looking to include both formal academic-style papers and informal contributions (humor, news, tips, reviews, editorials, interviews, interesting works in progress, poetry, short fiction, conlang sketches, puzzles, etc.). All contributions, academic and nonacademic, should be of interest and value to a readership of people primarily interested in invented languages. You may include color, but future print anthologies will likely be in black and white. And, as publication will be online, authors will also have the opportunity to edit articles after they’ve been published. If you have a question about a project you think might be suitable but you’re unsure, feel free to send us an e-mail and we can discuss it.

The purpose of Fiat Lingua is to provide conlangers with a visible forum to publish papers related to conlanging or conlangs — especially subjects or projects which don’t lend themselves easily to listserv or forum posts.
The new journal’s first essay is “Case Marking and Event Structure: One Conlanger’s Investigations” by Matt Pearson, a professor of linguistics at Reed College. This essay is one of the “academic-style papers”, not an “informal contribution”. Some amateur conlangers may find this sort of thing a bit dense and intimidating, especially as the first half of the essay explores nominal cases systems in various real-world languages, some of them pretty obscure. It’s only in the second half that the author gets more “autobio-graphical” and talks about his own invented language. But if this essay is anything to judge by, the journal should be a valuable new venue for the discussion of artificial languages. I look forward to seeing more.

Having said that, I must now digress …

I’ve always found it interesting that the vast majority of conlangers devise complex case systems for their languages, with eight, ten, or more cases — much more complex than most real-world languages today. Seemingly, these conlangers don’t mind their languages going unlearned and unused (except by themselves), as intricate case systems are usually quite an obstacle (usually, but not always: witness Quenya and Klingon). Why do they do it? I guess I should rephrase — why do we do it — since I have been just as guilty. I haven’t worked on invented languages of my own in quite a few years, but at one time, I was simply mad for it. I was a conlanger avant la lettre. As I’ve written before, my friend Gary and I used to call them “Artificial Dialects”, and we had binders full of them. (They still exist, but they’ve been doing no more than collecting dust for what feels like a century now.)

So, why? Sometimes it’s out of the wish for “results [that] are sufficiently bizarre to satisfy my taste for the exotic”, as Pearson says. He also aims at “retaining the feel of a natural human language”, but the majority of the most widely spoken languages in the world today are shedding (or have already shed) their case systems. Of widely spoken languages that still do have case systems, real or vestigial, most are usually much simpler today than they were in centuries past. As a result, real-world languages tend to be more easily learned by wide audiences (which, in turn, often further erodes case systems and other complex grammatical features). The most successful artificial languages (like Esperanto) are usually the ones with the simplest grammatical systems.

Faced with that reality, why push on and do it anyway? Maybe your language is meant to have been spoken millennia ago, or by isolated pockets of indigenous people? Or maybe the real, secret reason is just to show off. “Look at me! Look how much I know about linguistics! I’m going to demonstrate every single oddity I’ve ever read about in my conlang, so buckle your seat-belts!” Things that are complex, it stands to reason, require more careful devising, more knowledge, more effort, and we want people to be impressed, by golly! And it’s not just nominal case systems. The same motivations apply to all aspects of conlang grammar, syntax, phonology. “Look at me! Look at this amazing inventory of sounds! I can pronounce a full range of aboriginal clicks, so you had better learn too! Look, I’ve discovered consonants for which I had to invent new glyphs! Oh, and I’m giving you tones as well. Why wouldn’t I?”

Why indeed? Such languages might be fun in theory and for study — and I don’t wish to deny anyone their fun, or their learning by doing — but with only a handful of exceptions, they will never be spoken outside the conlangers’ basements. My own invented languages certainly never got any further. :)

Friday, August 12, 2011

My book is now published and available!

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, by Jason Fisher
“Well, I’m back,” he said.

It’s been too long, my friends. My apologies for the long pause here at Lingwë. The reason should be obvious enough to regular readers — my book has been occupying just about all of my free time up until just the last few days. But even so, I’ve been remiss in making the announcement that my book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays, is now published and available for purchase!

It can be ordered directly from McFarland, as well as from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, The Book Depository, and many other retailers. If you’re going to order from Amazon, I’d like to request that you use this link — it has my affiliate tag attached to it, which will earn me just a little bit extra on each book. This helps to offset the fact that I will be making a smaller royalty on copies sold through Amazon. This book was never about getting rich — and I certainly won’t — but every cent helps underwrite my research career. Getting to conferences, for example, comes entirely out of my own pocket. Anyway, you get my drift; no need for me to nag you. :)

Now the real, somewhat obsessive fun begins: watching my Amazon rank go up and down, keeping an eye on the price of the book, pouring over sales data from BookScan (of which I’ve only just gotten the first update today). The highest Amazon rank I’ve reached so far is in the neighborhood of 78,000. That sounds dismal, I know, but it’s really not — not when you consider that Amazon has over 8 million books in its inventory. In its particular genre (science-fiction and fantasy / criticism and biography, or something like that), my book has been ranked as high as #45, and when you count just the books about Tolkien, it’s been as high as fourth or fifth place. That is certainly nothing to complain about!

Copies are also wending their way to journals for review. I am very excited to see what kind of critical reception the larger Tolkien community has in store for my book. It will be some time before these reviews start appearing, especially in the case of annuals like Tolkien Studies, but at the risk of immodesty, I have reason to expect a good response. In fact, I’ll give you three reasons.

A few weeks ago, I sent out page proofs to a few colleagues in the hopes of a blurb or two. All three of these notable Tolkien scholars read my book and answered with generous and glowing comments, and I wanted to share them below. These endorsements appear on the back cover of the book as well, where the one from Verlyn Flieger was edited for space. I give her full endorsement here.
“The most exhaustive examination yet published of demonstrable, probable, and conjectural sources for Tolkien’s legendarium ransacks myth, history, astronomy, literature and popular culture for clues to Tolkien’s raw material. This collection will stimulate readers and scholars alike.”

—Verlyn Flieger, author of Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World

“This critical collection provides a solid defense of the sometimes-maligned literary discipline of ‘source-hunting’ along with outstanding examples of the value of this approach in understanding the depths of Tolkien’s literary creation.”

—Douglas A. Anderson, author of The Annotated Hobbit

“A valuable book for anyone serious about Tolkien. It not only adds new, confirming material to what is known about Tolkien’s sources but covers areas of influence previously denied or underplayed.”

—Marjorie J. Burns, author of Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth
I hope those of you with an interest in Tolkien will get a copy of the book, read it, and share your thoughts with me. If you read and enjoy the book, a positive review on Amazon, even a short one, would be much appreciated. Positive reviews — like blurbs — help convince people who might otherwise be undecided.

I would also be grateful to anyone who recommends the book to their local or university library, or both. Now that school is getting ready to start, if you are teaching Tolkien please give some thought to assigning my book to your students, or at least recommending it to them. And please feel free to share my blog, announce my book on Facebook and Twitter, share links to Amazon or McFarland, etc. We starving scholars have to find a way to eke out a meager living, don’t we? :)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Proofing, indexing

After a few quiet months — quiet on my end, anyway — my book is back in my lap again. I now have page proofs in front of me, and I have two tasks to complete: (1) proofreading the entire book one more time, now that it has been copyedited by McFarland and laid out by their design staff; and (2) writing the index for the book.

The first task shouldn’t be too tedious. My editor at McFarland made a point of telling me the manuscript was already very clean, and I don’t think a great deal of copyediting was done silently. I have noticed a few changes (e.g., I had written an “about the editor” blurb for myself, separate from the rest of the “about the contributors” blurbs, but McFarland collapsed them into a single list, and put me in the proper spot alphabetically). Now that the book has been laid out, I can tell you that it is [xii] + 217 pages in length. That’s not counting the index, which might add another ten pages or so.

The second task will be more of a challenge, since I have never put together an index before. Well, I guess I can’t say never. I included an index with my fourth-grade school project on Saturn (the planet, not the god), and perhaps for one or two other school projects in the two or three years following. But somehow I don’t think these early experiences will help very much. For one thing, the material being indexed was only ten or so handwritten pages, each half-filled with photos cut out of National Geographic Magazine. Fortunately, for this index, I have the benefit of the advice of friends and colleagues who’ve been through it before.

The quicker I can get the proofing and indexing finished, the sooner the book will be out. Not that I’m going to sacrifice quality for speed. I’m a patient guy, and it’s been nearly three years since I first began to think about this book already. A little while longer isn’t going to hurt. As Gollum said, “more haste less speed”. Eile mit weile, am I right? Or, maggior fretta minor alto. See also: proverbs (cliché), proverbs (foreign language).

McFarland has tentatively scheduled Tolkien and the Study of His Sources to go to the printer four weeks from yesterday: July 13. I don’t know how long the printing process takes, but it is beginning to look like the date shown on most of the major booksellers’ websites (that is, August 16) might actually be accurate after all. Or at least close. My editor had warned me it would likely be later in the Fall.

I suppose we’ll see soon enough, but for those of you interested in the book, you really don’t have that much longer to wait. I am abuzz with excitement at the imminence of hearing what you all think. Review copies will also be going out before too much longer. Then, if the reception is good, it will be time to bask in my accolades — or if not so good, to duck. :)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Professor Quirrell

Potterphiles will remember “p-p-poor, st-stuttering P-Professor Quirrell”, the ill-fated DADA teacher in Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts. For an etymology of the name Quirrell, I’ve seen a few different theories. I give them here in order or popularity and likelihood (in my opinion, of course):
  1. From squirrel, evoking the furtive, fearful, scurrying mannerisms of the familiar rodent — the most common theory, by far, and the most likely explanation;
  2. From Middle English querele (< Old French querele < Latin queri) “complaint, lament(ation)” — going back to same root that gives us querulous — from Quirrell’s whining, complaining personality; or
  3. From Middle English querele “quarrel, dispute, altercation” — going back to the same root as the previous, but with more belligerent than sniveling connotations.
  4. And incidentally, it might just be possible that Rowling borrowed the name from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever series, which has a character named Quirrel.
I’m not sure whether Rowling herself ever said anything about this particular name, but I happened upon a word in the Oxford English Dictionary which may shed some light on the etymology: quirily, an adverb marked both rare and obsolete, meaning “perh[aps]: quiveringly” (the first edition OED has a question mark in place of the “perhaps”). This certainly sounds like a word that could have suggested the name, Quirrell, don’t you think? It definitely reinforces Quirrell’s diffident personality.

The “perhaps” and question mark indicate that the makers of the OED themselves were not sure of the meaning. A single citation is offered to attest the word, from Richard Stanyhurst’s 1582 translation, The First Foure Bookes of Virgils Æneis: “Soom doe slise owt collops on spits yeet quirilye trembling” (Book I). Of all the strange coincidences, coming across collops again is one of the most unlikely! Stanyhurst’s translation is not well-regarded. No less than C.S. Lewis called it “a monstrosity”, “trounced as it deserves” by most critics, with “no place in the history of even the English hexameter, for it is barely English” [1]. Harsh words!

Whether Rowling had ever come across this word is not at all certain, but it’s possible. She’s admitted to getting names from references like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870) and Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653), and she’s resurrected a number of obsolete and dialectal words, such as dumbledore, hagrid, and mundungus. Why not the OED?

On the other hand, it seems she isn’t the inveterate dictionary-diver I would have expected. In a 2005 interview, Stephen Fry asked her, “Now do you actually trawl through books of rare words or OED or things, or are they [your names] just things that you somehow, you’ve got a good memory for words?” Rowling replied, “I don’t really trawl books. They tend to be things I’ve collected or stumbled across in general reading.” It seems more than a bit unlikely that quirily would ever come up in general reading. Then again, neither would dumbledore, hagrid, or mundungus.

[1] Lewis, C S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954, p. 365.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Blurbin’ Cowboy

So, I’m happy to report that my friend Doug Kane’s excellent book, Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion, is being released in softcover. The original hardcover edition was pretty expensive ($65, though occasionally discounted a bit), and while this is not atypical for academic works, it did put Doug’s book beyond the budgets of many. The softcover is about half that price, which should make it possible for more people to read it. And if you haven’t, you should; it’s no accident the book has been a finalist for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies two years running. The softcover is being released June 28, according to the publisher’s website.

But I’m excited about this softcover reissue for another reason too. For the first time in my career as a reviewer, you’ll find me among the blurbs adorning the cover of a book — and not just once, but twice. I had nothing to do with this, by the way. I didn’t suggest myself or anything like that. In fact, I only learned of it when I saw the newly designed cover. In addition to the back cover of the book itself, you can also see my blurbs here, on another page at the publisher’s website. You’ll spot the excerpt from my review in Mythlore right away (read the entire review online); the one from The Literary Encyclopedia is also mine (blurbed without a byline).

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My book is moving forward

My book on source criticism, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays, is moving ever closer to publication. I have learned that McFarland has completed its copyediting with only two questions (each on the length of a quotation from poetry). They called the manuscript “very clean” — something I worked at very diligently myself, and for which I also owe thanks to friends who read the manuscript — see the acknowledgements when the time comes! The next step is the galley proof, coming this summer. It’s during that stage that I will be assembling the index. Following that, it will just be a matter of waiting!

The book is also being more and more actively advertised. McFarland has already produced a full-color promotional flyer for the book (if you want a copy, email me), and I have heard from friends that the flyer was circulating at the PCA in San Antonio in April and at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo earlier this month. My book is now listed on McFarland’s website, and it is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, among others. The number of Google hits on the exact phrase, “Tolkien and the Study of His Sources”, has gone from none to just a few to well over 500 today.

One additional note. Some e-tailers are reporting a release date of August 16, but I’m told that the date is actually not yet firm, so don’t take that to the bank. It could well be later. I’ll keep you posted as the book nears completion.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The ends of worms — and their beginnings

I’m just wrapping up my most recent reading of The Lord of the Rings, and various new things have attracted my attention this time around. (The sign of a truly great book: that after perhaps thirty readings, I am still noticing new things, or noticing old things anew.) I wrote about one of these small observations recently, but here is another, and a somewhat more ambitious one.

First, a reminder of the opening to The Hobbit — “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” Many of you can probably rattle this off from memory, as I can.

I have pointed out before — in a paper delivered at Mythcon a few years ago, and which has been accepted for publication (details to come later) — that “in the opening passage of The Hobbit, the narrator explicitly tells us that ‘the ends of worms’ are not to be found in Bilbo’s comfortable hobbit hole. But metaphorically, the end of a Worm is, in fact, in this particular hobbit hole, the end of the worm, Smaug.” Before you congratulate me on my cleverness, let me hasten to add that I am not the first person to observe this clever wordplay. My friend N.E. Brigand noted this independently, but Richard Matthews beat us both by thirty years! He wrote, “Tolkien tells us in the first paragraph that this is ‘not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms.’ If we pause to consider what he writes, we may conclude that the alpha and omega of Bag End is not limited in its significance to the fact that Bilbo will make an end of that ‘giant worm,’ the dragon” [1].

Returning to The Return of the King, something struck my eye this time — and once again, I may not be the first person to have said it, but I don’t recall having read this anywhere. Perhaps N.E. Brigand, or another friend, will remember if he has seen this before and let us know. It turns out that The Lord of the Rings, like The Hobbit, concludes with the end of another Worm, and on second glance, The Fellowship of the Ring, again like The Hobbit, begins with one, more or less. First, the end; then, I’ll go back to the beginning.

In “The Scouring of the Shire”, the final episode in the hobbits’ adventures unfolds with a confrontation between Frodo and Saruman. As we all know, Frodo prevails and dismisses Saruman. “Worm! Worm!” calls Saruman, and Gríma Wormtongue slinks out to follow his master, reluctantly. First, he was called Gríma — Old English for “mask, helmet”, and a foil for Éowyn’s alter ego, Dernhelm (which means “helm of secrecy”). Then Wormtongue, as his poisoned words undermined the health and authority of King Théoden. Fleeing Rohan after Gandalf sets Théoden’s mind free again, Gríma returns to his true master, Saruman, who insults him still further, shortening Wormtongue to Worm. Not that this is undeserved. [2]

But coming back to Bag End, Frodo offers Gríma the chance to leave Saruman (just as Gandalf did some weeks before, encountering the pair travelling away from Isengard). Long story short (or is it too late for that already? :), Saruman kicks Gríma in the face as he grovels, and Gríma evidently reaches his breaking point at last. Having finally taken enough abuse, “suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane. Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.”

“And that’s the end of that,” Sam observes wryly. “A nasty end, and I wish I needn’t have seen it; but it’s a good riddance.” Notice that? The “nasty end” of Worm(tongue): “nasty”, “ends of worms” — these are the same words in the opening paragraph of The Hobbit. And as “a purely Bywater joke”, the New Row just below Bag End (replacing the old Bagshot Row, which Saruman ordered wantonly dug up) was called “Sharkey’s End”, in reference to the murder of Saruman. This is the second-to-last chapter in the novel, nearly the end of the book (excepting the appendices).

And now back to the beginning, to the second-from-first chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring. “The Shadow of the Past” is a largely expository and mood-setting chapter, in which Gandalf tells Frodo all about the Ring. Part of that story occurs involves Gollum (then still known as Sméagol), who had murdered his friend Déagol, stolen the Ring, then used the invisibility it conferred for finding out secrets, stealing anything he coveted, and killing small unwary creatures. His relatives shunned him, and his grandmother finally expelled him. On his own, he wandered and explored.

Then, notice the telling phrase in this passage (Gandalf speaking): “So he journeyed by night up into the highlands, and he found a little cave out of which the dark stream ran; and he wormed his way like a maggot into the heart of the hills, and vanished out of all knowledge. The Ring went into the shadows with him, and even the maker, when his power had begun to grow again, could learn nothing of it.”

Here at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings is another Worm, one whose name, Sméagol, is derived from the same root as that of the greater worm, Smaug (meaning “one who squeezes into a small hole”), and one who, again, will meet his own end toward the end of the War of the Ring. And another nasty end it is too — and occurring in a hole too, as he falls into the Crack of Doom! This same word, “nasty”, is (unsurprisingly) applied to Gollum on several occasions, the first a mere seven or eight paragraphs after he is likened to a worm.

Coincidence? It seems very unlikely to me. It could have been a fortunate accident of Tolkien’s unconscious, but I don’t think it’s coincidence, and it may have been deliberate. There are other uses of the worm metaphor in The Lord of the Rings that might be worth closer attention too. As I recall, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are all compared to worms cowering in the mud when the Nazgûl fly over them on the approach to Mordor. Merry too is compared to “a worm in the mud”, crawling on the ground behind the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields at Minas Tirith. But for now, I find it quite satisfying to see the “ends of worms” at the beginning and end of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

[1] Mathews, Richard. Lightning from a Clear Sky: Tolkien, the Trilogy, and the Silmarillion. San Bernardino: Borgo Press, 1978, p. 8.

[2] It’s actually Gandalf who first calls Gríma a worm (at least, it’s the first time we hear it): “'The wise speak only of what they know, Gríma son of Gálmód. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.” Later, Treebeard too calls Gríma “that worm-creature of [Saruman’s]”. By the way, recall how Gríma desires Éowyn as the reward for his treason? It would appear he inherited his unseemly lustful nature from his father, as Gálmód is Old English for “lustful-minded, licentious”.

Blogger has gone wonky

Termporarily, I hope, but whatever the issue, its symptoms include not being able to sign in and leave comments as yourself, which several of you have experienced (some of you have commented anonymously as a stop-gap). Even I cannot leave comments on my own posts — unless anonymous, which I would rather not do. Strangely enough, I also can’t sign out. Attempting to sign out just reloads the Blogger dashboard!

Blogger is aware of the problem, and they seem to think they’ve got a resolution, but it’s still not working for me. Stay tuned, and thanks for your patience. I will reply to your recent comments, but I would prefer to wait until I can do so under my own proper Blogger profile.

Update: Blogger’s log-in/log-out and comment functions seem to be working better now. Hopefully none of you are still having problems posting comments. After a few days or perhaps a week, if the difficulties really seem over, I’ll most likely delete this post.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The first peek into Tolkien Studies 8

I have begun poking through the essays and reviews in the latest volume of Tolkien Studies, which I now have before me. There is much to read, and much that looks to be of enormous interest, but perhaps the most personally relevant is the review of Brad Eden’s Middle-earth Minstrel, since I am a part of that collection. I hope you will indulge me for beginning there, and offering some excerpts. It is my blog, after all. :)

First, it’s a short review. That was a bit disappointing. Considering the thoroughness of the review of The Ring Goes Ever On, which is nearly one hundred pages, Seaman’s three-page review seems a bit superficial. Two essays in the collection go entirely unmentioned, three others are assessed in just one sentence each, and another two get only two sentences apiece. Four essays form the core of the reviewer’s interest and praise, and each one of these gets a long paragraph, more or less.

My own essay is one of those reviewed in a single sentence, albeit a positive one: “Jason Fisher’s examination of alliterative verse in Rohan and Mercia shows good command of the material and helpfully reveals some of the ‘Old English undercurrents’ in Rohan and its environs” (p. 129). This comes in Seaman’s paragraph on “[o]ther essays in this volume [that] relate somewhat more obliquely to music but deserve mention because they possess inherent scholarly interest” (loc.cit.). That’s good, so far as it goes.

I will say that I agree in large part with Seaman’s overall assessment with the book. But I feel he’s given it rather short shrift. This could be in part because he also reviewed another collection on Tolkien and music in the same volume of Tolkien Studies. That review of Music in Middle-earth (ed. Steimel and Schneidewind, Walking Tree) gets about seven pages of coverage, almost double Middle-earth Minstrel. Admittedly, it’s the longer of the two books, but Seaman discusses every one of the essays in it, and in each case, the essays are described and assessed much more thoroughly — at minimum, in three or four sentences each, often much more. The simplest explanation, I suppose, is that Seaman liked and engaged with Steimel and Schneidewind’s book much more than with Eden’s, but it’s a shame he couldn’t find a little more to say. The latter review, following on the heels of a better, more thorough one, comes across as dismissive by contrast.

Is it a little too self-indulgent of me to spend this much time reviewing a review? Hmm. Well, it’s not very often that reviewers are themselves reviewed, though perhaps they should be. I’ve often thought that reviewers — myself included; good lord, yes! — are given a pass on their errors and oversights even as they criticize authors and editors for theirs. After all, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? So perhaps it’s good to review the reviews, at least from time to time, and not tetchily or at too great a length.

On top of that, it’s my blog, so it should come as no surprise that I want to discuss reviews of my work. If not here, where? ;)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lingwë is four years old today!

Not a proper post, but I didn’t want the day to pass entirely unheralded. I started Lingwë – Musings of a Fish four years ago today, with few clear ideas of what I would end up doing with it. Since then I’ve written some 340 posts, which have been collectively viewed more than 100,000 times by well over 30,000 visitors from more than 150 countries — including some of the most far-flung and alien places I could imagine. 23 visits from Kazakhstan? And not all of them from the same internet cafe either. Most were from the largest city, Almaty, but I’ve also had a few visits each from Astana, Atyrau, and Chimkent. Incredible!

Or to take a slightly more familiar case, there is Japan, with over 800 visits across 85 cities; Ireland, with more than 400 visits from 23 towns; Denmark, with more than 200 visit, from a whopping 78 different localities (most of them small villages, I would think). And many more. It’s a humbling reminder of both how small, and how large, our world really is. A geography lesson every time I dig into my site statistics.

I hope to be at this for years to come, and please keep your feedback coming as well. If there’s one thing I’ve learned doing this and reading all of your comments, always entertaining and insightful (and even sometimes inciteful, hahae), it’s that this is really your blog too.

Monday, May 23, 2011

An apocryphal anecdote?

Stanley Vestal (1877–1957) was a prolific historian of the American West, known more particularly as an expert on the Sioux Indians. He was, in fact, made a member of the tribe by Chief Joseph White Bull, the oldest nephew of Sitting Bull. He grew up in the south-central part of the United States, mainly in Kansas and Oklahoma. In 1908, he became the very first Rhodes scholar from Oklahoma — which had officially become one of the United States less than a year before. In fact, he was one of the earliest Rhodes scholars, full-stop; the scholarship had been established just six years earlier. Vestal carried out his studies at Merton College, Oxford, from 1908 through 1911, earning a second Bachelor’s degree in 1911 and a Master’s in English Language and Literature in 1915 (awarded in absentia). In the same year, he began teaching at the University of Oklahoma. While there, he established a prestigious writing program, authored several textbooks on professional writing, and (much later) left the University an important collection of photographs of the American Western Frontier. Vestal was a pen name (he grew up as Walter Stanley Campbell), under which he wrote a few novels, none of them much remembered today.

These are the facts. But I came across an anecdote recently which gave me pause. Having already mentioned Merton College, you might wonder whether this anecdote has anything to do with Tolkien (who, as most of you probably know, taught at Merton College from 1945–59). It certainly does.

In Stanley Vestal: Champion of the Old West, Ray Tassin describes a return visit Vestal and his friend Frank Reid made to England from the end of June through August, 1953. This was some forty years after Vestal’s time at Oxford, and less than a decade after Tolkien took up his post as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. Tassin writes:
Vestal’s first goal was his old college, Merton. He was eager to see it again, especially his old rooms and certain parts which had not been open to undergraduates when he had been a student there. But the porter was out and his boy dared not leave the lodge. While Vestal and Frank [Reid] talked to him one of the dons came in and volunteered to show them around. He was Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, well-known fantasy books. Tolkien took them everywhere, including the room where the queen lived when King Charles lived at Oxford. The tour concluded with Danish lager in the don’s rooms. [1]
This story — which was published the same year Tolkien died — well, it sounds like a bit of a stretcher, don’t you think? Consulting Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s exhaustive Chronology (and online addenda), there is nothing to corroborate this anecdote. Even if Tolkien were inclined to this sort of friendliness toward an American visitor, he was extremely busy with the galley proofs of The Lord of the Rings during the two months in question, conducting examinations, working with the BBC to set up a radio broadcast of his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and plenty more besides. He was so busy that he was postponing meetings!

So while I suppose it’s possible he showed a Merton alumnus around the College, it’s seems a bit more likely that he didn’t; or if he did, that the rest of the story is exaggerated, or made up entirely. Tassin’s book cites no sources other than Vestal’s letters of the period, but I don’t think these letters have been published. The University of Oklahoma has digitized and put online a pretty extensive portion of the Campbell Collection, but this doesn’t include much of his correspondence. It’s possible his letters are held privately in the Collection, and I know a reference librarian there, so I will have to make an inquiry. It would be interesting to learn whether Vestal himself records Tolkien’s name in his letters (though even if he does, it doesn’t necessarily prove the anecdote, in whole or in part).

It’s an interesting claim, though, isn’t it? Not something I ever expected to stumble on. Who knew there was a direct connection (claimed, at least) between Tolkien and the same U.S. state where I was born!

[1] Tassin, Ray. Stanley Vestal: Champion of the Old West. Norman, OK: A. H. Clark Co. [Imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press], 1973, pp. 260–1.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A new collective plural?

Continuing my tradition of “explor[ing] the implications of one word” [1], something caught my eye during my current (re)reading of The Lord of the Rings. In “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”, we encounter these stirring words:
For now men leaped from the ships to the quays of the Harlond and swept north like a storm. There came Legolas, and Gimli wielding his axe, and Halbarad with the standard, and Elladan and Elrohir with stars on their brow, and the dour­-­handed Dúnedain, Rangers of the North, leading a great valour of the folk of Lebennin and Lamedon and the fiefs of the South. But before all went Aragorn with the Flame of the West, Andúril like a new fire kindled, Narsil re-forged as deadly as of old: and upon his brow was the Star of Elendil. [2]
It’s the phrase “a great valour of the folk of Lebennin [etc.]” that attracted my notice. This usage struck me as a bit unusual. Here, valour looks like it might be intended as a collective noun, like a gaggle of geese, a skulk of foxes, a swarm of bees, etc. It’s possible to read it differently, of course — valour doesn’t have to be a collective term. But whatever the case, the phrasing is a bit outside normal English usage. The word valour is seldom used with the indefinite article. I did a little poking around and haven’t been able to find an example of the phrasing, “a valour of <plural noun>”, that predates Tolkien. Not saying there isn’t one somewhere, but from what I can tell, it could be original with him. (If someone knows of something similar antedating this usage, please share.)

There are reasons to suppose it might be intended as a collective phrase. Elsewhere in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses a very similar construction many times. A few quick examples will suffice to make the point: (1) “a great following of Hobbits”, (2) “a great expanse of years”, (3) “a great troop of Orcs”, (4) “a great host of men”, (5) “a great cavalry of horsemen”, (6) “a great concourse of trumpets”, (7) “a great company of hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth”, (8) “a great welter of cloud and smoke”, and many others.

Colorful collective nouns for groups of animals and people go back to the middle of the 15th century. Many of these are first recorded in Lydgate’s Hors, Shepe, & the Ghoos (c. 1470); others, in The Boke of St. Albans (c. 1480). These early sporting and hawking terms brought us an unkindness of ravens, a charm of goldfinches, a parliament of owls, a knot of toads. Later, the idea was extended to people — a pity of prisoners, a hastiness of cooks, and so on. These are wonderfully imaginative, so it’s no wonder that people have continued to coin new ones in all the centuries since. We now have the likes of a murder of crows, a frenzy of sharks, an unction of undertakers, a blur of impressionists, and — one of my favorites — a shrivel of critics. [3]

I’m not sure whether Tolkien intended to coin a new collective noun, but doesn’t a valour of knights sound perfect? (Prior to this post, the exact phrase “a valour of knights” returned zero results from Google. Of course, that will no longer be true once this post makes it into their indexes.)

[1] Salu, Mary and Robert T. Farrell. J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 17.

[2] RK, p. 123.

[3] For more, see Lipton, James. An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tolkien Studies 8

Douglas Anderson has just announced the contents for the next volume of Tolkien Studies, which should start going out to subscribers toward the end of next month. In fact, he has launched a new blog, “Tolkien and Fantasy”, for which this announce-ment is first post. Hopefully, Doug will have a lot of other interesting things to say here as well; keep an eye on it!

So, without further ado, here are the core contents of Tolkien Studies, Volume 8, omitting the usual front and back matter and the book reviews, for which see Doug’s blog:
  • “Legend and History Have Met and Fused”: The Interlocution of Anthropology, Historiography, and Incarnation in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”, by Philip Irving Mitchell
  • Tolkien’s Goldberry and The Maid of the Moor, by John M. Bowers
  • Language in Tolkien’s “Bagme Bloma”, by Lucas Annear
  • “Wingless fluttering”: Some Personal Connections in Tolkien’s Formative Years, by José Manuel Ferrández Bru
  • Robert Quilter Gilson, T.C.B.S.: A Brief Life in Letters, by John Garth
  • The Hen that Laid the Eggs: Tolkien and the Officers Training Corps, by Janet Brennan Croft
Of these, the essay on Tolkien’s poem in Gothic has really whet my appetite. John Garth’s short essay should be excellent as well, as I hope the one on Goldberry will be. I know, I know, some of you may be saying, “another essay on Goldberry?!” But I actually think there is still a lot to say about her. I have some notes of my own which I hope to assemble into an essay one of these days.

One final note. It also appears that Brad Eden’s collection, Middle-earth Minstrel, to which I contributed an essay (as you all must be tired of hearing by now), will be reviewed by Gerald Seaman. The same book was reviewed in Beyond Bree by Chris Seeman. Two reviewers with homophonic surnames reviewing the same book — what a bizarre coincidence. :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2011 Mythopoeic Award Finalists

Hot off the presses, the Mythopoeic Society has announced the finalists for its four annual book award categories. The award categories are: Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature, Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies, and Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Myth and Fantasy Studies. Books can be nominated to the reading committees by any Society member in good standing (consider joining). From this larger pool of nominated books, committee members read and then nominate five finalists in each category. Books are eligible for three years following publication, and it is not unusual (as this year) to see repeat finalists.

You can peruse the entire list of finalists by following this link. Normally, I read and vote on both the nonfiction committees (for a couple of years I read on all four committees, until it became too time consuming), but this year I couldn’t vote for a finalist because I am a named contributor to one of the nominated books in Inklings Studies. To avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, Society policy dictates I recuse myelf in such a case. And as it happens, the book to which I contributed the lead essay — Brad Eden’s Middle-earth Minstrel — has now been named a finalist as well, so I must also refrain from voting for a final winner too.

The downside is that I cannot vote for the MSA in Inklings Studies at all this year, but the upside is quite an upside — I am part of a book that has been named an award finalist! Woot! :)

So this year, I’ll be more a spectator than a participant in the awards process. It will be exciting observing the process from the other side for a change. My congratulations to all the finalists! Best of luck to you!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Peskipiksi pesternomi

Pixie Mayhem, © Mary GrandPré
I was thinking about the scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where Professor Gilderoy Lockhart foolishly releases a cage-full of “freshly caught Cornish pixies” into the classroom. Any true Potterphile can probably quote by rote the spell with which Lockhart attempts to subdue the rioting pixies, but in case you’ve forgotten, it’s peskipiksi pesternomi. Totally ineffectual, and probably something Lockhart made up on the spot. It actually looks like it could be the scientific name (genus and species) for the Cornish pixie, doesn’t it? And setting aside Lockhart’s incompetent buffoonery, there’s a bit of interesting word-play going on here. Let’s have a closer look.

On the surface, one would parse the incantation as something like “pesky pixie, pester no(t) me”, which is basically what the Harry Potter Wiki proposes. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but I have a bit more to add.

First, pesky — what’s the etymology of the word? According to the OED, it’s a mid-18th century U.S. colloquial word, “origin uncertain”, “conjectured to be an alteration of *pesty […]”. Most etymological dictionaries agree — e.g., Ernest Weekley: “[U.S.]. App[arently] from pest”. Alternatively, some suggest a source in the Irish Gaelic peasgach “troublesome”, from the noun peasg “impediment” [1]. Whether the word is really of American origin may be debatable. Even if we ruled out the Irish source, Joseph Wright has noted roughly contemporary examples from Scots, Yorkshire, Oxford, and other dialects, and Eric Partridge has found evidence of a possible origin in Essex. Anyway, this is beside the point. What is the point? It’s that we’re not sure of the origin of the word pesky.

Well, here’s a theory I’ve never seen before — could it be related to pixie? It’s a longshot — especially if the word really did originate in America — but a case can be made. Let me offer this longish excerpt from Walter Skeat’s Notes on English Etymology:
Pixy. The Devonshire pixies, or fairies, are well known; in Cornwall the form is not pixy, but pisky, which I believe to be older. I once thought that pixy might be connected with puck, [… but t]here can be little doubt that the word is really Scandinavian; for there is no reason against the introduction of Scandinavian words into a county such as Devonshire, which is easily reached by sea. At any rate, it is well worth notice that the very word, with the same sense, is in use in Swedish dialects, particularly in South Sweden[, … including] the form pysk, more commonly pyske, pjyske, pjäske, pjöske, a little goblin [… etc.]. [2]
Now Rowling’s pixies are indeed from Cornwall, so they really ought to be called *piskies, shouldn’t they? And given this form, together with the “plaguey” nature of elfs and fairies in English folklore (cf. elf-shot, elf-child, etc.), it seems not altogether unreasonable to suppose pesky is not an alteration of *pesty, but of pisky.

Even if the words are not actually related — and they probably aren’t; after all, pest and pester are not (though you’d think they would be) — this view still informs the reading of Lockhart’s spell. The metathesis between the s and k sounds in both words is part of the amusing sound-play of the spell, along with the similar sounding pester. This particular transposition of sounds is quite common in the history of the English language (cp. Modern English ask, but Old English acsian, and in some dialects of Modern English, ax.).

See what happens when you let a few pixies out?! Now, I’ll ask you to just nip the rest of them back into their cage. :)

[1] Since this is not the mainstream view, I’ll offer two sources. Mackay, Charles. The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1877, p. 323; and Hotten, John Camden. The Slang Dictionary. London: John Camden Hotten, 1865, p. 199.

[2] Skeat, Walter. Notes on English Etymology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901, p. 218.