Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Flirtations with minor celebrity

For those who haven’t seen it yet, I was recently interviewed for PBS NewsHour. Not the television program, but their website. You can read the parts of the interview they published by following this link. The interview has been picked up and shared on a number of different PBS affiliate websites, and PBS shared it on their Facebook page as well. The Facebook post has been shared by more than 200 people. Nice!

But the biggest surprise came today. This morning, Andrew Sullivan, perhaps the world’s best and most-read blogger, mentioned me by name, quoted something I said in the PBS interview, and told his more than a million loyal readers about my book! You can read his blog post on The Dish (part of The Daily Beast). Please feel free to share the interview and the Andrew Sullivan blog post!

Funnily enough, this isn’t the first time political bloggers and pundits have picked up stuff I’ve said. Some time ago, I was consulted on the whole “tea party hobbits” kerfuffle. You can read the original piece in the Christian Science Monitor online. That interview also made the rounds of various political websites. Then-Senator Jim DeMint even quoted me (that was pretty surreal!), but catching the attention of Andrew Sullivan is much more gratifying!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Deep discount on my book!

The Kindle edition of my book is now available at a fantastic discount as part of a limited-time promotion by McFarland and Amazon. The softcover normally retails for $40, and the Kindle edition for $24.99, but for a short time, you can get it on Kindle for only $3.99! That's a savings of 90% off the softcover list price! Follow this link to buy it.

There’s no better time than now to get a copy if you don’t already have one. Or if you have a print copy but not the Kindle, this price makes it easy to get both formats. And please note that you don’t even have to have a Kindle to get the Kindle edition. Amazon provides a PC version of the Kindle reader as a free download. So if you’d benefit from having a digital, searchable copy of the book, now’s your chance. Even if you already have the Kindle edition, please share the link on any Tolkien websites or forums you frequent, and tell your friends about it.

In the old days, deep discounts usually meant that printed books were being remaindered, the first stop on their way into oblivion. But that’s not what this is about. This is part of deliberate, short-term marketing promotion designed to get my book (and some others McFarland has selected) into more people’s hands by Christmas. McFarland also hopes that the increased traffic and sales will catch the attention of Amazon’s cross-promotional algorithms, resulting in a boost in softcover sales as well. Let’s hope so!

Sorry for the blatantly commercial post, but the more people reading my book, the better. I’m sure you understand. :)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mystery Tolkien passage, solved!

A passage caught my eye in Alliterative Poetry in Middle English (Volume 1), by James Parker Oakden and Elizabeth Ruth (Manchester University Press, 1930). Discussing matters of Middle English dialectal orthography, the authors quote Tolkien thus: “The local names originally beginning with hw, written down at Cockersand in Furness are spelt qu, whereas such local names south of the Ribble are spelt wh, w.” (p. 29)

Does anyone recognize this? It’s not ringing a bell, and the authors don’t footnote their source.

Though the book was published in 1930, the manuscript would have been completed in 1928 or 1929. In an addendum (p. 273), the authors make reference to a new edition of Alexander A and B by F.P. Magoun, published in 1929, “too late to be considered in the present volume”. This suggests that any work by Tolkien  to which they could have had access must have been published, at the latest, by early 1929. That leaves a relatively short list.

  • A Middle English Vocabulary (1922)
  • “Philology: General Works.” The Year’s Work in English Studies 4 (1923) [1924]
  • “The Devil’s Coach-Horses.” The Review of English Studies 1.3 (July 1925)
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon (1925)
  • “Some Contributions to Middle-English Lexicography.” The Review of English Studies 1.2 (April 1925)
  • “Philology: General Works.” The Year’s Work in English Studies 5 (1924) [1926]
  • “Philology: General Works.” The Year’s Work in English Studies 6 (1925) [1927]
  • “Foreword.” In Walter E. Haigh’s A New Glossary of the Dialect of the Huddersfield District (1928)
  • “Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meiðhad.” Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association 14 (January 1929)

The passage in question could be from Tolkien and Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because the authors do cite that edition, but they normally refer to Tolkien and Gordon together (e.g., pp. 73, 257, 266, 267). There is one instance where they refer to this text by Tolkien’s name alone (p. 17), so the passage quoted above could be from Sir Gawain. But I don’t remember it and didn’t spot it at a glance. There are sections of Tolkien’s review essays for YWES discussing place-names, but at a quick glance, I didn’t see the quoted passage their either. Likewise, I scanned through his other works of the period and didn’t come across it. Some of these works I know pretty well, and I don’t recall this passage. It’s certainly possible I missed it in hasty skimming.

Anyone? And if we can’t track it down, what does that mean? That the authors err in attributing the remarks to Tolkien? Or could they be quoting a statement Tolkien made privately? Or what? If any of you reading this can track down the passage, please do tell.

Update: Utúvienyes and eureka! I’ve found it! See the comments. :)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sméagol — what’s in a name?

On Facebook today, Marcel Aubron-Bülles sent out an appeal to linguistically minded Tolkien scholars, tapping me on the shoulder along with Michael Drout, Thomas Honegger, Rainer Nagel, and others. His question: “Sméagol is derived from ‘smygel’, in itself an OE noun (see Bosworth/Toller). Is ‘Sméagol’ therefore a modernised adaption, i.e. a noun?”

Michael Drout was the first to weigh in, suggesting Sméagol derives not from smygel “burrow, cave” but from sméagan “to inquire, investigate, be curious about”, on the grounds that Sméagol was “the most inquisitive member of his community, and he got his name before the murder of Déagol (which means ‘secret’).”

Then, Marcel quoted from the guide to the people, places, and things that Tolkien prepared for translators in the mid-1960’s: “Smials. A word peculiar to Hobbits (not Common Speech), meaning ‘burrow’ […]. It is a form that the Old English word smygel ‘burrow’ might have had, if it had survived. The same element appears in Gollum’s real name, Sméagol.”

To this, I would add that Tolkien had already addressed this point in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, where he wrote:
This assimilation [i.e., the same as in “the forms and spellings of place-names in Rohan”] also provided a convenient way of representing the peculiar local hobbit-words that were of northern origin. They have been given the forms that lost English words might well have had, if they had come down to our day. Thus mathom is meant to recall ancient English máthm, and so to represent the relationship of the actual Hobbit kast to R. kastu. Similarly smial (or smile) ‘burrow’ is a likely form for a descendant of smygel, and represents well the relationship of Hobbit trân to R. trahan. Sméagol and Déagol are equivalents made up in the same way for the names Trahald ‘burrowing, worming in’, and Nahald ‘secret’ in the Northern tongues. [App. F, II]
And there is a relevant passage from Tolkien’s letters also, in a 1967 draft letter to “Mr. Rang”, who had written Tolkien to inquire about his nomenclature. Here, he notes that Old English is the source for:
a few […] survivals in Hobbit-dialect derived from the region (The Vale of Anduin to the immediate north of Lórien) where that dialect of the Northmen developed its particular character. To which may be added Déagol and Sméagol; and the local names Gladden River, and the Gladden Fields, which contains A.S. glædene ‘iris’, in my book supposed to refer to the ‘yellow flag’ growing in streams and marshes. [Letters, #297]
Sméagol is not attested in the Old English corpus, though there are many words built from the same roots. In addition to sméagan (as Mike Drout has already noted), there are sméah “creeping in, penetrating”, sméalic “searching, penetrating”, smúgan “to creep, crawl”, sméa(g)ung “search, inquiry, investigation”, etc. But since *sméagol isn’t attested, how do we know whether it would have derived from a noun or a verb. Indeed, how do we know what part of speech *sméagol itself would have been? These questions are at the heart of what Marcel was trying to figure out.

The key lies in its mate, déagol, which is a genuine Old English word. As Mike and others have pointed out, it means “secret, dark, obscure, hidden”, quite suitable for any friend of Sméagol’s. Appropriately enough for an associate of Gollum, déagol also appears in a riddles in the Exeter Book (“Hyrre ic eom heofone, || hateþ mec heahcyning / his deagol þing || dyre bihealdan”). So, if anything can, déagol ought to shed light on *sméagol.

Déagol (also dégol, díegol, dígol, etc.) is an adjective deriving from Primitive Germanic *dauȜilaz. There are cognates in Old High German tougal(i) “hidden”, Old Norse dul “concealment” and dylja “to hide, conceal” (which exhibits palatalization and would probably have been *dylga at some earlier point), and even Modern Swedish dold. The Old English word also survived into Middle English as diȜel. Adjectives ending in –ol normally derive from verbs, and the suffix is indicative of tendency, inclination, ability, etc. Besides déagol (from díegian “to hide” + –ol), there are plenty of other examples: béogol “agreeable”, fretol “greedy”, hetol “hateful”, meagol “earnest, mighty”, numol “capable, nimble”, sprecol “talkative”, sweotol “plain”, þancol “thoughtful”.

This suggests very strongly that *sméagol could well have been a genuine adjective (derived from Primitive Germanic *smauȜilaz), even though it is nowhere recorded. It would apparently have been formed from sméagan “to consider, meditate, examine” + –ol. It probably would not have come from smúgan. That verb could have given rise to an adjective *smugol “creeping, crawling, gliding”, and indeed the Middle English smuhel “lithe, gliding, stealthy, slippery”, a hapax legomenon occurring only in the Ancrene Wisse, is its likely descendant (and cp. Old Irish smugall). This is a word that probably attracted Tolkien’s eye at some point, considering his work on the Ancrene Wisse. But indirectly, the verb sméagan probably did arise metaphorically from smúgan “to creep, crawl”, with its more appropriate sense of Gollumishness. And cp. Old Norse smjúga and of course, Tolkien’s Smaug. Although *sméagol is not recorded, the element sméa– is attested in the adjective sméa-þancol “contemplative, sharp-witted”. And although an adjective *sméagol hasn’t survived in English, at least the noun smygel has. I’ve wondered whether this may be the source of the Germanic/Slavic/Jewish surname Smigel, Smiegel, Schmiegel, etc. Does anyone know?

So, to bottom line this meandering meditation on our slippery friend. The name Sméagol has not been modernized. It retains the form of an unattested but straightforward Old English adjective, precisely analogous to Déagol. And I agree that Mike Drout is probably right that Sméagol derives directly from sméagan (with the addition of a suffix of tendency), and not from smúgan or smygel directly. Moreover, we must conclude that Tolkien was a little bit, well, wrong, when he suggested that Sméagol had to do with burrowing, creeping, worming, etc. Or rather, that sense is there, but it’s buried deeper (appropriately enough), underneath the more immediate sense of inquiring, investigating, being curious about things.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Reconstructed lexis in Tolkien and Gordon’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I recently posted a list of reconstructed word-forms compiled from Tolkien’s Middle English Vocabulary, which met with some enthusiasm. Thus encouraged, and as a further public service, I have now compiled a similar list from the glossary to Tolkien and E.V. Gordon’s 1925 edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for which Tolkien was responsible for the text and glossary, Gordon the notes. There are several entries common to both glossaries, but there are a lot more French forms in Sir Gawain. In addition, the Old English forms are predominantly Mercian. This list adds to the raw material available to researchers into Tolkien’s philological work.

My copy of the book is a 1946 reprint with the corrections of the 1930 impression, and it happens to be somebody’s Examination Prize from Pembroke College, Cambridge. I wonder whose? The impression is important, because in 1967, the edition was revised by Tolkien’s student Norman Davis; therefore, the glossary may not be an entirely reliable guide to Tolkien’s work from that point on.

As before, please let me know if you spot oversights or errors. The only deliberate change I’ve made is not to mark vowels that were long but in the process of shortening with both the macron and breve. Since most fonts do not contain those glyphs, I’ve simply marked them long.


*ǣniges cynnes; at any
*be līfe; at biliue
*bitācnung; at bytoknyng
*boþm; at boþe
*byldan; at bylde
*byrde; at burde
*clædde, pret. of rare clǣþan; at clad
*cyllan; at kylled
*dræht; at draȜt
*drūhþ–, drūgoþ; at droȜt
*dylle, rel. to dol; at dille
*féldan; at felde
*fician, cf. befician; at fyked
*forþ, ford; at forþe
*gēgan, rel. to ON geyja; at ȜeȜe
*gelping; at Ȝelpyng
*georran; at Ȝar(r)ande
*glimerian; at glemered
*halian, or OFr haler; at hale
*hecg; at hegge
*hyppan; at hypped
*lēofman; at lemman
*mān, rel. to mǣnan; at mone
*mysig; at misy
*piccan, cf. late pīcan; at piched
*pīn; at pine
*pīpian; at pipe
*rāmian; at rome
*rīfe; at ryue
*rittan; at rytte
*ryccan, cf. ON rykkja; at ruch(ch)e
*(ge)sǣte; at sete
*scaterian; at schaterande
*slīet, *slēt, cf. MLG slōte; at slete
*slittan; at slyt
*slūmerian; at slomeryng
*stecan; at stoken
*stertan; at start(e)
*stihtlian; at stiȜtel
*stiorne; at sturn(e)
*strāc; at strok(e)
*talcian; at talk(ke)
*toht; at toȜt
*trȳstan; at tryst
*unto; at vnto
*wæ(c)st; at wast
*smīlan, cf. OHG smīlan; at smyle
*wíld; at wylde


*a(u)mail; at aumayl
*blanc de mer; at blaunmer
*cel(e)ure, cf. L cēlātura; at selure
*cout(i)ere; at cowters
*daliance; at dalyaunce
*malgred; at mawgref
*molein; at molaynes
*reuerenc(i)er; at reuerenced
*sa(u)ve-nape; at sanap
*teme; at teme


*kenil; at kenel
*lekerous; at lykkerwys


*avanter; at avanters
*entrelude, Anglo-Latin interludium; at enterludeȜ


*banke, later bakki; at bonk(e)
*beiðna, later beina; at bayþe(n)
*blenkja, later blekkya; at blenk(e)
*drahtr, later dráttr; at draȜt
*fjaska; at fyskeȜ
*glenta, cf. Norw glenta; at glent
*hrunka; at ronkled
*ke(a)rr–, later kjarr; at ker(re)
*renk, later rekkr; at renk
*skiuj–, later ský; at skweȜ
*slenta, later sletta; at slentyng
*sprenta, later spretta; at sprent
*þoh, later þó; at þof
*trýsta; at tryst
*dréug–, later drjúgr; at dreȜ


*cauelaciounȜ; at kauelacion
*inurned; at enn(o)urned
*quoþ; at coþe


*crag, cf. Middle Breton cragg; at cragge

Friday, November 30, 2012

Reconstructed lexis in Tolkien’s Middle English Vocabulary

Most of my regular readers are aware that Tolkien’s first published book was a glossary of Middle English compiled to accompany Kenneth Sisam’s collection of Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose. I won’t rehearse the history of the book here, but you can learn more at the Tolkien Gateway.

In the glossary, Tolkien offers etymologies for the words he glosses, and many of these etymologies contain reconstructions, or “asterisk-words”. These are word-forms that do not survive in any recorded text. Their form and shape have been reconstructed according to the principles of historical linguistics. Such words are of enormous interest to me in my philological work, just as they were to Tolkien in his. I found myself wishing that I had a list of the words Tolkien had reconstructed, so I made one.

As a public service for the linguistically minded, here is the complete list of the asterisk-words from Tolkien’s Middle English Vocabulary, arranged by language and then alphabetically. I had thought this to be a complete list, but seemingly I missed quite a few words in the initial compilation. See Diego Segui’s comments below! Eventually, I’ll update the list here in the main blog post, but it may take a little time.

The headword in the glossary where the asterisked etymology may be found is given in boldface. I think that all the abbreviations I’ve used will be obvious to anyone who would actually have an interest in this list, but if not, just ask. And if anybody spots any typographical or other errors, please let me know. Typing these out almost gave my word processor a seizure! Enjoy! :)

OLD ENGLISH (“frequently differ[ing] from the normal West-Saxon”)

*ǣniges cynnes, later ME eny kyns; at Eny
*alra cynna; at Alkyn
*be līfe; at Belyue
*be-cwiss, rel. to be-cweþan; at Biqueste
*blencan, poss. identical with blencan; at Blenk
*brēo; at Bre
*cāpe, from ML cāpa; at Cope
*clēat; at Clete
*cyllan; at Kille
*dasian, cf. darian, ON dasa-sk; at Dase
*dawe; at Daw
*dearf-, cf. ON djarf-r; at Derffe
*dingan, cf. dencgan, ON dengja; at Dynge(n)
*dræht; at Draught
*dūfe, cf. ON dúfa; at Dowue
*for-fǣran; at Ferde
*halian, from OFris halia or OFr haler; at Hale
*hecg; at Hegges
*hlysnan, ONth lysna, infl. by hlystan; at Lystens
*hyppan, cf. hoppian; at Hypped
*lēfn–, from *lau(h)mni–, cf. Goth lauhmuni; at Levyn
*lēof-man; at Lemman
*lēomian, cf. ON ljóma; at Leme
*mylnere; at Mullere
*naglas; at Naule
*nēdig; at Nedy
*on-bufan, var. of abufan; at Aboue(n)
*pīn; at Pine
*pīpian; at Pypynge
*rāmian; at Rome
*rīfe, var. of rȳfe; at Rife
*ryccan; at Ryched
*salu; at Sale
*scǣre, rel. to scīr, cf. ON skǽr-r, skír-r; at Scere
*slūmerian, cf. slūma; at Slombrende
*smīlian, rel. to MHG smielen, Swed smila; at Smyle
*snēowan, var. of snīwan; at Suewe
*solgian, cf. solian; at Solowe
*spræg, cf. spraec; at Sprai
*stēorne, var. of stȳrne; at Sturn(e)
*stertan, var. of styrtan; at Start
*strāc, rel. to strīcan; at Strok(e)
*talcian, rel. to talu; at Talk
*þeorc; at Þerk
*toht, rel. to tēon; at ToȜt
*tollian; at Tolled
*untō, cf. OS untō (prep.), Goth, untē (conj.); at Vnto
*widr(i)an; at Widder
*ymb(e)-þencan, cf. ymbe-þanc, but prefix infl. by ON umb; at Vmbethoncht
ān + *hǣdu; at Onehed
+ *ryccan; at To-rochit
+ *rittan; at To-rett
wōd + *hǣdu; at Wodehed


*, cf. OE ; at Cou
*certel, cf. OE cyrtel; at Kirtel(l)
*scettan; at Vnschette


*anowrned; at *Anowrned
*blissefulest; at Blisseful
*kyþeȜ (MS lyþeȜ); at Kyþe


*demeur, in demeurement; at Dimuir


be + *veila; at Beweile
*bredd–, cf. Swed. bräddfull; at Bretfull
*dreog–, later drjúg-r; at Dregh
*myk(i)-dyngja; at Mydyng
*stern–, later stjarna; at Starne
*þéht–; at Tyste
*þoh, or unacc. form of OE þah; at ÞaȜ(e)
*wrá; at Wro
*wrang–; at Wrang(e)
*þoh, later þó; at Þogh

Monday, October 22, 2012

How to review books

I read reviews, I edit them, and I write them. It stands to reason, then, that I ought to have some opinions about book reviewing. Moreover, my approach to reviewing books has evolved a good deal over the years. I’ve been mulling over sharing some of these opinions for a while now, and I’ve decided that today is the day. What follows should not be taken for any more than it is: some, not all, of my opinions about how to review books; some of what I think makes a review good or bad (i.e., successful or unsuccessful); what, in my view, are the most important goals of a book review; and so on. This is hardly exhaustive, and will hardly be my final word on the subject. I’m also interested in thoughts and feedback from you.

I’d like to begin with the appropriate scope and subject for book reviews, mainly because this is something that often sticks in my craw when I’m reading and editing them. Here, I’ve got a visual aid. If you take a look at the pie chart I’ve included above, you’ll get a rough idea of what I think book reviewers should spend their time discussing and in what proportions. Perhaps 70% of the review should discuss what a book is actually about. Maybe 18% of the review can then talk about what the book should have been — that is, oversights and missed opportunities closely related to its central argument, without which the argument is weaker, or with which the argument could have been made stronger. Then another, say, 10% of the review might touch on what the book might have been — that is, more digressive, or more distantly related things that the author missed, chose not to include, or perhaps hinted at or merely adumbrated. The final 2% (if even that) of the review could be used to talk about what the book is not. These numbers are, of course, not absolute. The idea is to illustrate what I take to be the relative importance of each of these four kinds of review content.

You might think this is all pretty obvious. It should be. But I have read a surprising number of book reviews that do not conform to this model at all. A good (or rather a bad) example which stands out in my mind is the review of Truths Breathed Through Silver (ed. Jonathan Himes; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), by Charles Foster, published in The C.S. Lewis Chronicle (6.2 [April 2009]: 40).

The review is short, a shade under 300 words, already almost too short to be of much value, and most of it is not about what the book is, but rather about what it is not. It consists of three paragraphs, of which the first might be summarized thus: “The Inklings were a tweedy crowd who shared a common belief in inescapable myths, of which Christianty was the supreme.” The second, thus: “Their respect for myths shaped their writings, some of which took the form of new mythologies.” At this point, the reviewer, who is already two-thirds of the way through his commentary, writes: “That is what I thought this book would be about. But it isn’t.” When I read this review, an inner voice wanted to snidely reply: “Actually reviewing the book in question is what I thought this review would be about. But it isn’t.” The reviewer limits his actual commentary on the book to about three or four sentences, of which even these make little attempt to assess the merits and flaws of the collection under consideration. An unbalanced, unsuccessful review.

At this point, it might be worth taking a moment to consider the purpose of book reviews. The first and most important goal of a review ought to be to answer the question, should anybody read the book being discussed? An enormous number of books are published every year, and nobody can read them all. Even within a narrow field of interest such as Tolkien studies, it can be hard to keep up. Reviewers are meant to be knowledgeable guides who can advise which books are worth a reader’s time. A review like Charles Foster’s is not useful in this regard. All it really manages to convey is that Foster was disappointed with the book. But of course, he would be, since he expected it to be something it wasn’t.

Speaking of bad reviews, what about bad reviews? That is to say, reviews of bad books. Edgar Allan Poe used to be notorious for his “tomahawk” reviews, reviews that were so relentlessly vicious it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a suicide or two on his conscience. These can be very entertaining to read — for people with no connection or vested interest in the target, at least — but I have come to agree with Auden, who felt that reviewing bad books was bad for you.

“Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character,” Auden wrote. “If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” (W. H. Auden, “Reading”, in The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays, New York: Random House, 1962, p. 11).

If I take a good, hard look at my own early reviews, I can see some evidence of the truth of this, especially where showing off is concerned. Reviewers are normally engaged to review a book because they are more knowledgeable in their field than the average reader (on the other hand, sometimes you get this kind of tripe). That knowledge provides a larger context for judging the successes and failures of a book, so it’s a very important ingredient in a successful review. But, like paprika, it is an ingredient of which a little goes a long way. It is shockingly easy for even a well-intentioned reviewer to lapse into intellectual ostentation. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I now make a deliberate effort to avoid it in my reviews, and that deliberation is an attitude which I think can only come from experience. And when it comes to books I think so bad as to be unworthy of any but the most scathing review — the kind of book Auden had in mind — I’ve been known to decline the assignment and return the book to the editor. There is an argument to be made for reviewing even books this bad, if for no other reason than to warn away readers, but I have decided that I will leave that task to others. It’s not about sparing the feelings of the book’s author(s); rather, it’s about sparing my own character and freeing up my time for more rewarding pursuits.

What else is a book review for? I’ve said the most important thing it should do is help potential readers to decide whether to pick up a book or pass it by. Its next most important purpose, in my view, is to describe the contents of the book and offer judgments about those contents. A large part of a book’s appeal is subjective, depending on what’s in it. In the case of a multicontributor collection, especially, potential readers would like to know what the collection contains as this will normally help them to decide whether they want to read it. It’s true that readers have other sources of information besides book reviews — Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Books, publishers’ websites, etc., will often enumerate tables of contents — but reviews should do likewise if they can. If space is at more of a premium, they still ought to at least summarize the contents. It’s worth pointing out that enumerating the contents of a collection and describing every piece can be taken too far. The best example I know of this is Deidre A. Dawson’s recent review for Tolkien Studies of The Ring Goes Ever On, a two-volume conference proceedings. Dawson’s review is an astonishing 100 pages long, nearly one-eighth the size of the collection under review. To put this in perspective, if my own book had been reviewed with a corresponding level of attention, that review would have been thirty pages long instead of four!

Rehearsing a book’s contents falls into the category of describing what a book is actually about, and it gives the reviewer an organized, intuitive structure for then offering opinions and value judgments on each constituent part of the book. As the reviewer works his or her way through each chapter, section, or what have you, there will also be an opportunity to point out oversights, on perhaps a one in four (~18:70) ratio. Less often still, perhaps for one piece in seven, the reviewer could venture further in opining about what the piece might have been. And there might — might — be room for just one or two observations about what the book isn’t. All of this requires good judgment, and ample room. When the length of a review is severely constrained, these extra digressions have to be sacrificed.

One other quick point, on the subject of noting errors. I think it’s important for reviewers to call out major errors, but this has to be done with care. Far too easily, the exercise of nit-picking errors falls into the category of showing off (and again, I’ve been guilty of it). I have also seen situations, and narrowly avoided them myself, where a reviewer’s attempt to point out an error is itself in error. But reviews themselves are seldom reviewed, and so, sometimes, an unfair or mistaken criticism can stand unchallenged. Another good example: I have seen situations where a quotation is wrong in an advance reading copy, but has been corrected in the final published book. And finally, there is the situation where a reviewer criticizes grammar, spelling, typos, etc., only to commit them him or herself. A real-world example to back this up: “Another rather serious flaw is the apparent lack of any proofreading of the manuscript, which would have spared some of the authors […] embarrassment”, followed closely by: “A set of eyes real eyes, not virtual ones is necessary”. Tsk, tsk, clearly a set of eyes — real eyes, not virtual ones — was necessary in this review as well. I should note that the author of this particular review does indeed point out some very serious editorial errors, such as the appearance of the same essay twice between the same covers.

Better to avoid getting egg on your face by refraining, except under exceptional circumstances, from this kind of criticism. Unless it is very frequent and conspicuous (and naturally there are legitimate examples of this extreme), it is unlikely to affect a reviewer’s ultimate recommendation. And if you are going to make a point of noting grammatical and spelling errors, triple-check your review to make sure you aren’t equally guilty. :)

So, there you are. To me, all of this constitutes a recipe for a pretty successful and useful book review. Agree? Disagree? Things I missed?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Book giveaway!

Attention, fans of Ursula K. Le Guin, Earthsea, and free stuff! Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Simon & Schuster have worked together to produce a brand-new set of all six Earthsea books with beautiful new art and packaging. Thanks to their kindness, I have a set to give away to a fan. For the next 24 hours, leave a reply here to enter the random drawing. Tell me what you like about Le Guin and/or Earthsea, leave a reminiscence about the first time you read her books, or whatever else you might like to share. I'll take the names of everyone who leaves a comment on this thread by 12:00 PM PST Thursday, October 18, and randomly pick a winner. Good luck!

You can get a sneak peek at the new set here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

WOTD: Tooken

Tooken isn’t a word. This is what you hear from the prescriptive grammarians and their acolytes. If they have children, sooner or later they end up correcting them. Children use tooken naturally as they attempt to understand and internalize the “rules” of our language. But rules are made to be breaken. :)

It starts with take. This goes back to Old English tacan, adopted from Old Norse taka “to take” sometime between the end of the eleventh century and the first half of the twelfth, which is pretty late — almost too late to be called Old English at all. Before this very late borrowing, the usual Old English verb was niman “to take, receive, get”, a common word with a wide range of cognates among the other Germanic languages (cp. Old Norse nema; Old Frisian nima, nema; Old High German neman; Old Saxon niman; Gothic niman). It survived into Middle English as nimen, but it was more and more displaced by Middle English taken, táken (not to be confused with tácnen “to signify, betoken”, to which we’ll come back a little later).

The verb take has its own history. The verb originally carried the meaning “to touch”, where the Old Norse (and later Old English) sense of “take” came from the association of touching with the hands, i.e., getting a hold of, grasping, seizing. In the original sense, we find such cognates as Gothic tékan, Old Saxon *takan, West Tocharian täk, Latin tangere, etc. Modern English tackle and attack are clearly related. But take in its modern sense is specifically Northern Germanic.

The Old English verb, like its Old Norse source, is what we call a strong verb, meaning that it forms the preterite (i.e., past tense) with a change in the stem vowel, rather than by the addition of a suffix (in Modern English, –ed). For example, a strong verb speak, has a preterite like spoke, while a weak verb like talk, has a preterite like talked (instead of, say, *telk). In the case of take, the stem vowel, a, changes to a long-o in the preterite. In Modern English terms, we call this kind of verb irregular. Its past tense is not *taked, but took (OE tóc, ON tók). The participles, however, retain the root stem vowel unchanged. Thus, the past participle is taken < OE tacen. It’s worth noting that in Old Norse, the normal past participle (tekinn) does exhibit a vowel change; however, this is umlaut, not ablaut. In fact, the form takinn also occurs, though much less often. (If you don’t understand what I mean by umlaut and ablaut but would like to, start here.)

The point is that, in normal English (that is to say, prescriptive English), we should expect taken, not tooken. But tooken is a legitimate enough word, particularly in historical or dialectal use, in both the U.K. and the U.S. To begin with, the Oxford English Dictionary itself gives tooken as an obsolete past participle of take. Obsolete essentially means here that we ought not to use it, unless we don’t mind appearing old fashioned, but it is attested in the history of the language. That is, it wasn’t “wrong”, at least once upon a time. That’s very different from an accidental form that has never been in use. If a form was once in use, and we decide we no longer like it, well, that’s prescribing use, rather than describing it.

The form tooken also appears in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, both as the preterite and the past participle. For the former, Wright gives a quotation from the Devon dialect: “he tooken off his coat”. For the latter, he gives several examples, from Lanark, Yorkshire, Lincoln, Cheshire, Shropshire, Devon, Cornwall, etc. Except for the last two, these are all in northern England or southern Scotland. A couple of examples will suffice: “I’ve tooken a deal o’ pains”, “for fear I should be tooken faint like”, and how about this wonderfully rich one: “Hoo was tooken wi’ one on her feenty aitches an’ hoo tiped o’er”. But that’s barely English, you might object!

A short sidebar, while you collect your righteous grammatical indignation. Before I give a few more details and examples of the history and validity of tooken as a preterite and past participle of take, I should disambiguate it from a nonce word of the same spelling. It turns out that you can find tooken in Early Modern English as an antecedent form of the Modern English word token (remember, I mentioned Middle English tácnen above). Sir John Cheke, the first Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, translated parts of the Gospels from the original Greek into Tudor English. In his translation of The Gospel of Matthew (c. 1550), Cheke spells the English token with two o’s, as in: “And ye Pharisais and Sadducees cam and tried him, and required him to shew yem a tooken from heaven.”

In an 1843 edition of this translation, James Godwin (also of Cambridge, three centuries later) writes that Cheke “was desirous of […] correcting the orthography and pronunciation of English” and, moreover, of conscientiously avoiding words of foreign origin. “The introduction of these words was begun in the days of Cheke”, he continues. “But Cheke considered the English language to be sufficiently copious without them. In fact, he thought them intruders, and that the English language was degraded by being mixed up with other words and phrases, for which we were indebted to other countries”. Consequently, Cheke didn’t care too much for existing English translations and endeavored to produce some of his own, in which the native wordstock of English was properly showcased. To do so, he invented some words out of native English roots to take the place of recent acquisitions of Latin and Green origin; so, for example, where Wiclif (1380) has centurien, and Tyndale (1534) has centurion, Cheke substitutes hunderder; where Wiclif has apostlis, and Tyndale apostles, Cheke coins frosent (meaning “those sent forth); and where Wiclif and Tyndale have crucified, Cheke has crossed. Tolkien would have been sympathetic to the effort.

Even more unsettling, Cheke adopted some new rules for spelling English, designed (so he thought) to facilitate better pronunciation. One of his rules was to double a vowel pronounced long (dropping the final e, if there was one). For example, taak, Ameen, stoon, and so on. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. To give you a taste, here’s a lengthier passage:

On ye sabbot daí, at night, when ye first daieslight of ye week began to daun, marí magdaleen and an oyer marí cãm to look on ye graue, and loo yeer was a great earthquaak. For y’angel of ye L. cam doun from heaven, and cam yiyer, and rolled awai ye stoon from ye brinke and sat doun apon it, and his face was lijk lightening, and his cloying whijt lijk snow, and ye kepers did schaak for fear, and weer lijk dead men. (Mt. 28:1–4)

But back to the other tooken. Wiclif used this form in his own translation of the Gospel of Matthew. “But the five foolis tooken her lampis, and tooken not oile with hem: but the prudent tooken oile in her vessels with the lampis” (Mt. 25:3–4). This comes toward the end of the fourteenth century, as you saw above. To give another example, Saint Catherine of Siena used the same form in her Dialogues (1370): “And not oonly þat þei plauntid not ony good plaunt in her vyneᵹeerd, but raþir þei tooken up þerefro þe seed of grace.”

In his Middle English Vocabulary, Tolkien cites this form of the preterite (spelled with one o). Under tok(e), token, Tolkien directs readers back to take(n). The source to which Tolkien points readers is from The Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy, an alliterative romance by an unknown “journeyman poet”, based on the Latin Historia Troiana of Guido de Columna (1287). The word occurs in a passage in Book XXXI of the poem:

Thus tho lordes in hor longyng laghton þe watur,
Shotton into ship mong shene knightes,
With the tresowre of þe toune þai token before,
Relikes full rife, and miche ranke godes. (emphasis added)

[Thus those lords in their longing put out to sea,
Sprang aboard ship among their fair knights,
With the treasure of the town they had tooken before,
Rife with relics, and many fine goods. (translation mine)]

For those who fancy another fancifully Tookish Tolkien connection to the word, I’ve tooken up the subject before.

Probably the best known author to use tooken is Geoffrey Chaucer. A few examples: “And tooken awey this martir from his beere” (The Prioress’s Tale), “yet tooken they noon heede of the peril” and “And right anon they tooken hire wey to the court of Melibee, / and tooken with hem somme of hire trewe freendes” (both from The Tale of Melibee). Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, also used this form of the word.

So, you may say, it’s all very well and good to show that tooken was once a valid form, hundreds of years ago, but what has the word done for us lately? Well, as it happens, it’s still being used in dialectal forms. It’s true these are usually looked down on by prescriptive grammarians and those of us who have taken their suggestions as holy writ, but there is absolutely no reason to take a condescending attitude toward dialect. If you’re inclined to, I daresay you’re not a big fan of Mark Twain!

Speaking of Twain, he and his contemporaries were tooken with tooken too. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, tooken is conspicuous in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, a collection that sought to reproduce post-Reconstruction African-American dialect. Setting aside the controversy about their content, the dialect in these stories comes quickly to the fore. “Brer Rabbit,” says Brer Tarrypin at one point, “I’m dat tickle’ twel I can’t shuffle ’long, skacely, en I’m feared ef I up’n tell you de ’casion un it, I’ll be tooken wid one er my spells whar folks hatter set up wid me kaze I laff so loud en laff so long.” And another point: “Brer Fox talk so close ter de fatal trufe, dat Brer Wolf got tooken wit de dry grins” (emphasis added in both quotations).

In addition to the American South, tooken persisted in the Scottish North. To give one example, there is John Joy Bell’s Wee Macgreegor (1902), an early story of a familiar challenge: getting a small child to pose for a photograph. “What for dae folk get likenesses tooken?”, Wee Macgregor asks his father. In this case, it’s because his mother wants one to give to his grandfather. But “I’m no’ wantin’ to be tooken, Paw,” he complains. Typical. When he’s finally convinced, he asks, “Maw, wull I get ma likeness tooken wi’ ma greengarry bunnet on?” He wants to keep in on. Okay, so then, “Can I get makin’ a face when I’m getting’ ma likeness tooken?” No. In front of the camera at last, the photographer begins to count to three. Wee Macgregor can hardly sit still, then blurts out, “Am I tooken, Paw?”, to which his father replies, “No’ yet, Macgreegor, no’ yet. Ye near spoilt anither photygraph. Keep quate, noo.” The photos are finally taken, but when they arrive, Wee Macgregor is disappointed that the tassle on his cap, which is black, didn’t turn out red in the picture. He had specifically requested his father to tell the photographer to make it red! It’s a cute story about being flummoxed by new technology, a bit like Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss.

Six hundred years after Wiclef the Bible translator, there’s another man of a similar name, still using the word today: Wyclef Jean, the Haitian rapper and former member of The Fugees. In “Year of the Dragon” from his debut solo album, The Carnival (1997), Jean recalls “comin’ from Haiti, growin’ up in Brooklyn / On Flatbush got my first sneakers tooken”. And in the African-American dialect of today, we keep seeing tooken — Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, Lil’ Wayne. Some will complain that the use of tooken by rappers is of the “tooken isn’t a word!” variety — that is to say, it’s wrong. Some say that you can’t take advice about usage from rappers, because they’re on the fringe of language; they don’t get it; they never learned how to speak properly; etc. Actually, a great rapper is a genius with language, stretching it to the most imaginative limits. Complaining that rappers are wrong is just prescriptive grammar again.

Descriptive grammarians, on the other hand, would argue that since tooken is being actively used, then of course, it clearly is a word. We should merely document when, how, and by whom it’s being used. And if you’re still with me at this point, you’ve realized that it’s not new either; tooken has been a word for centuries. It may not be taught in school, but perhaps that’s just a kind of prejudice. The gatekeepers of language always have their reasons for keeping certain words — or certain people — out. Me? I say the more words, the better. Our children are right to try and force tooken back on us. Will it ever make it into the grammar books? Maybe one day — if enough of us are tooken with it.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A (late) spring harvest

I have been meaning to write something about Tolkien’s childhood friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith, for a long time now. At last, I have gotten the nudge I needed because of an exciting new development, about which you will hear more in a moment.

Who was Geoffrey Bache Smith? Many of my regular readers will already know, but for those who don’t, some background is probably in order. I will try to keep it brief, since others have already written much more extensively about Smith and there is little point in copying their work here. Instead, see the end of this post for suggestions on where to learn more. But to try to put it succinctly —

G.B. Smith was a talented poet and one of Tolkien’s closest friends at King Edward’s School and later at Oxford. With Tolkien, he was a member of that inseparable foursome at the heart of the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), the other two being Rob Gilson and Christopher Wiseman. Smith and Gilson were killed during World War I, after which Tolkien and Wiseman — just Tolkien, really, but he wanted Wiseman credited as well — published a posthumous collection of Smith’s poems, A Spring Harvest (Erskine Macdonald, 1918). Tolkien wrote a short prefatory note — see the scan above, signed by Tolkien (sorry about the tilt; I tried to rotate it, but the quality suffered). The collection runs to some 80 pages, and it has regrettably been out of print for close to a century. We don’t know how many copies were printed, but it can’t be very many. Most of the surviving copies are probably in private collections, but I know of a handful in university libraries.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to track down a copy to read, but it’s proven impossible so far. It hasn’t been practical to travel to one of the universities with a copy yet. This is not a book that would be lent out through interlibrary loan (the note above did come from an ILL request, but I can’t get the entire book reproduced this way).

A few of Smith’s poems, or parts of them, have been appeared in print here and there (particularly in Garth and Scull/Hammond; see the end of this post). Smith’s two short “Songs on the Downs”, appeared in Oxford Poetry 1915, just a few pages before Tolkien’s own “Goblin Feet”, about which I have written more than once (for example, this post). Elsewhere, “The Burial of Sophocles”, a poem Tolkien singled out in his note, was reprinted in The Valiant Muse: An Anthology of Poems by Poets Killed in the World War (ed. Frederic W. Ziv; Putnam’s Sons, 1936). Excerpts from “A Preface for a Tale I never Told” (sic), “We who have Bowed Ourselves to Time”, and “Anglia Valida in Senectute”, appear in For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War (Arthur St. John Adcock; Hodder and Stoughton, 1918).

From the excerpts I’ve seen, “Anglia Valida in Senectute” is a particularly poignant work.

We are old, we are old, and worn and school’d with ills,
.....Maybe our road is almost done,
Maybe we are drawn near unto the hills
.....Where rest is and the setting sun.
Whatever comes, I will strike once surely,
.....Once because of an ancient tryst,
Once for love of your dear dead faces
.....Ere I come unto you, Shapes in the mist.
And [God] grant us at that ending
.....Of the unkindly quest
To come unto the quiet isles
.....Beyond Death’s Starry West

Powerful and somber lines, revealing the wisdom of an old soul. Particularly harrowing when you consider the man who wrote them was only twenty-two years old when he perished. The third stanza I’ve quoted almost sounds like it could be bound up in Tolkien’s mythology, doesn’t it? It almost sounds like a prayer Frodo might send out into the void to Elbereth.

So what is this exciting new development? Surely you’ve guessed.

As it happens, Mark Atherton has just published a new study of The Hobbit and its origins — à propos of its seventy-fifth anniversary — and he includes as an appendix a selection of poems from A Spring Harvest. Eight poems I hadn’t read before (at least not whole): “Rime”, “A Preface for a Tale I Have Never Told”, “A Sonnet”, “It Was All in the Black Countree”, “O There Be Kings Whose Treasuries”, “O, One Came Down from Seven Hills”, “Over the Hills and Hollows Green”, “So We Lay Down the Pen”.

This appendix is a nice treat, but it isn’t the exciting development. Think of this as just a hors d’oeuvre to whet your appetites, because Atherton prefaces his appendix with this surprising announcement: “A new edition of A Spring Harvest is forthcoming, edited by Douglas A. Anderson.” Well, how about that! I wrote to Doug, and he confirmed this is true. So we should shortly be able to read the complete collection, along with, I am sure, some very useful and interesting background material. Keep your eyes on Doug’s blog for a formal announcement to come.


If you want to know more about G.B. Smith, consult the following works (for a start).

Anderson, Douglas A. “Smith, Geoffrey Bache (1894–1916).” Michael D.C. Drout, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York: Routledge, [2006]. 617–8.

Garth, John. “Robert Quilter Gilson, T.C.B.S.: A Brief Life in Letters.” Tolkien Studies 8 (2011): 67-96

Garth, John. “T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society).” Michael D.C. Drout, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York: Routledge, [2006]. 635–6.

Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Hammond, Wayne G., with the assistance of Douglas A. Anderson. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. New Castle, Deleware: Oak Knoll, 1993. 280–1.

Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. “Smith, Geoffrey Bache.” The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Volume 2: Reader’s Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 938–42.

Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. “G.B. Smith: An Inventory.” January 15, 2012.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Teaching Tolkien, revisited

I’ve written about Tolkien in the classroom before (most notably, here), and since then, I’ve heard about more and more professors teaching Tolkien at the university level. There is even a new online school where you can work toward a Masters Degree in Tolkien Studies (The Mythgard Institute, established and run by Corey Olsen; I’ll have more to say about this endeavor another day). My friend Leslie Donovan is also in the final stages of publishing a multi-contributor collection on pedagogical approaches to Tolkien. These are bright days for teaching Tolkien. The purpose of today’s post is to share some exciting news: my own book has been assigned in an undergraduate Tolkien seminar at Texas A&M University – Commerce. This is the first time — but I hope not the last — that my book will be used in the classroom, and so I’m naturally very interested to see how it goes.

The class in question is ENGL 497.01W: The Hobbit, and it’s being taught during the Fall semester of this year by Professor Robin Anne Reid. This is the first time an undergraduate course on The Hobbit has been offered at TAMU-C, and its focus is especially appropriate since the novel celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of its publication this year, and in fact, this month. Professor Reid’s class will use three assigned texts: (1) Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), (2) Jason Fisher (ed.), Tolkien and the Study of His Sources (McFarland), and (3) Douglas Anderson, The Annotated Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin). In case some of you are wondering about the absence of John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit, I think it’s safe to say that book would be more appropriate for a graduate-level course.

They’ve just gotten underway this week, and I’m hopeful that a few of Professor Reid’s students will drop by Lingwë to say hello. I also hope Lingwë regulars will help make them feel welcome. Over the course of the next few months, they’ll be reading most of the essays in my book, with a choice of essays in some cases (e.g., Birns or Larsen on sources from antiquity, Ratefliff or Hooker on Victorian and Edwardian writers). At the same time, they’ll be working their way through Doug Anderson’s indispensible Annotated Hobbit. This will be a great test to see how well the two books — Doug’s and mine — work together.

Dr. Reid also expects her students to begin learning more about literary theory, rhetorical techniques, and critical thinking and writing. To that end, it looks like she’ll have her students read Culler’s book both at the beginning of the class and again at the end of it. I think that’s a great strategy. By beginning with this background, then seeing many of the techniques it describes demonstrated in my and Doug’s books, and then reading Culler again to reinforce the material, students have the best chance of really absorbing it.

I’m also following along with Dr. Reid’s lecture notes, which is really illuminating for me. It’s like reading my own book again with a whole new set of eyes!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Shadows of the past

I was quite surprised to see a new interview with Daniel Grotta, published just today in the newly resurrected journal of Festival Art and Books (available in PDF format here). There are some other interesting things in this issue too — notably interviews with Tolkien artists John Howe, Tim Kirk, Rodney Matthews, and others — but the interview with Grotta caught my full attention since, to paraphrase Bilbo, I had no idea he was still in business. (No doubt Grotta would retort just as Gandalf did.)

For those who may not be quite as long in the tooth as I am, Grotta wrote the first published biography of Tolkien (Running Press, 1976; issued in a second edition in 1978). The biography is widely considered a bit of a joke. It’s full of errors, both of fact and judgment, that I need not repeat here. (And Grotta still has some very wrong ideas about Tolkien. In the interview, he calls him an “ordinary and pedestrian individual”, alas.)

In spite of this preface, I would like to say a couple of things in some small defense of the book. First, I think it’s very easy to criticize first books with the benefit of hindsight. Certainly it could have been better, but it’s pretty easy to say that now, with Carpenter’s, Garth’s, and Hammond and Scull’s far superior books at hand. Something similar might be said of Lin Carter’s book, Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings (Ballantine, 1969). Second, while a disproportionate wealth of sources of information were available to Carpenter and not to Grotta, there were a few that were available to Grotta and not to Carpenter. It’s worth ferreting this material out. There is also the fun exercise (in the first edition, not the second) of searching for the notations, “material deleted for legal considerations”, and to wonder what these redactions might hide.

Anyway, as I said, I saw a new interview with Daniel Grotta today, like a bolt from the blue. There are some interesting comments in it, and I wanted to say a thing or two about some of these.

It’s evident right from the start that Mr. Grotta still harbors hard feelings toward the Tolkien Estate and Humphrey Carpenter. “The Tolkien family not only declined to talk to me,” Grotta says, “they contacted as many of Tolkien’s friends, associates and former students as they could and asked them NOT to talk to me or provide any information. I did not know at that time that they were in contract negotiations with Humphrey Carpenter for an ‘official’ biography and wanted to kill or sabotage any possible competition.” This sounds like paranoid exaggeration, but who knows?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the interview is that Grotta is planning to revise and expand his biography again and reissue it as an e-book. One addition will be “a chapter called The Posthumous Tolkien”. Grotta opines that Tolkien “has become quite prolific since his death, thanks to the creative work and imagination of Christopher Tolkien.” Er, the “creative work and imagination” of Christopher Tolkien? This seems like a gross mischaracterization to me. Grotta certainly isn’t shy about implying that Christopher’s role was not merely that of editor. He elaborates when asked about Tolkien’s posthumously published works:

“I have mixed views. Some works, especially the smaller ones, are literary gems, eminently readable and worthy companions to Tolkien’s central masterpiece. Others should have been left in the drawer or trunk, despite Christopher Tolkien’s heroic efforts to edit, expand and make them readable.” Expand them? Just what does Grotta think Christopher has done, exactly?

Grotta also goes out on a limb on Tolkien’s writing — well, why not? he’s already considered a pariah by most serious Tolkien scholars. He says: “I see Tolkien more as a storyteller and mythmaker than an author, because if truth be told, he wasn’t really a very good writer. Stylistically, The Lord of the Rings suffers from inconsistencies, digressions, plus unresolved story, plot and character lines. It desperately needed a good edit to clean up the language.” For myself, I would say that “a good edit” is just what The Lord of the Rings did not need!

Go read the interview by Alex Lewis yourselves. There are some interesting things I haven’t mentioned here (such as Grotta’s opinions of the Peter Jackson films). I never expected to see Daniel Grotta coming back into the light of Tolkien studies again, but life is full of surprises. Thank goodness! Otherwise, we might get too comfortable!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Esgaroth — what’s in a name?

This is a name I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The bulk of the notes on which I will be drawing for this post are already over a year old, and some of these thoughts are a lot older than that. The name has come up again and again in recent years — in Mark Hooker’s Tolkienian Mathomium, in John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit, in Parma Eldalamberon 17, in Mark Hooker’s new book, Tolkien and Welsh, and so on — and each time I’ve been prompted to ponder the name a little bit more. With the impending Peter Jackson film adaptation of The Hobbit, the name will be at the tip of everyone’s tongues again soon enough. I think I finally have a gloss I like, but first, let’s review the state of the name.

Esgaroth does not appear in the “Nomenclature” Tolkien prepared for translators of The Lord of the Rings. This is not terribly surprising since the name is associated with The Hobbit, and occurs only a few times in The Lord of the Rings, mainly in connection with the earlier tale. Robert Foster did not attempt to gloss the name in his Complete Guide (1971, rev. 1978). Ditto J.E.A. Tyler in his Tolkien Companion (1976, rev. 2004). Neither Foster nor Tyler even guesses at the language, though it has usually been assumed to be Sindarin. Jim Allan doesn’t have very much more in his Introduction to Elvish (1978) — “[c]alled ‘Lake-town’ in Common Speech, which may be a translation” — though he does commit to identifying the name as Sindarin. In The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (1974, rev. 1980), Ruth Noel says the name means “Hiding Foam” (Sindarin esgal “hiding” + roth < ros “foam”). David Salo, surprisingly, omits Esgaroth from his Gateway to Sindarin (2004) entirely.

We learned something of Tolkien’s thinking about the name when the Eldarin Etymologies were published as part of The Lost Road (1987). Under a root √ESEK, Tolkien glosses Esgaroth as “Reedlake, because of reed-banks in the west”. Uh, what reed-banks in the west? Actually, this wasn’t merely an afterthought. In one of their songs, the Dwarves recall that “the reeds were rattling”, and the Elves likewise sing that the barrels of Lake-town will go “Past the rushes, past the reeds, / Past the marsh’s waving weeds”. So, although it is never really pointed out, there must be reeds in and around the Long Lake. Okay, moving on.

John Rateliff comments on Esgaroth and its etymology in The History of The Hobbit (2007, rev. 2011). John has the benefit of Tolkien’s explanation in the published Etymologies, which so many earlier thinkers did not, but he wants to reject it. He doesn’t like the fact that the name should apply to the body of water, the Long Lake, but actually applies to the town. He proposes an alternative etymology, again Sindarin: “city standing in or rising up out of the water, perhaps with a suggestion of pilings like reeds”. John’s instinct that the gloss in the published Etymologies isn’t altogether reliable may have some support from an unexpected quarter: Tolkien himself. In the “Addenda and Corrigenda to the Etymologies” (Part Two), published in Vinyar Tengwar No. 46 (July 2004), Tolkien himself has offered up a completely different gloss. Here we have pieces of Tolkien’s etymological thinking about names of Eldarin origin which were omitted from the version published as part of The History of Middle-earth. Under the root √SKAR², Tolkien explicitly glosses esgar as “shore” and esgaroth as “?strand-burg”. The question mark identifies cases where the editors had particular difficulty reading Tolkien’s handwriting. And editors Carl Hostetter and Patrick Wynne note that this is also a “[h]astily written entry not included in the published text”. John does not mention this additional gloss in his book (including the revised edition published last year). Neither does Mark Hooker.

A year before John’s book was published, but two years after the addenda in Vinyar Tengwar, Mark floated — no pun intended — an entirely new theory in his Tolkienian Mathomium (2006). Mark seeks glosses for Tolkien’s words and names from outside Middle-earth, as indeed I often like to do, and as indeed I will do again very shortly. Mark’s view of the name is that it is really of Celtic origin and means something like “an enclosed or guarded encampment on the water” (cf. Celtic elements es, ys, is, etc. “water” + gardd < garthan “enclosed encampment”).

In the summer of 2007, a year after Mark’s book and in the same year as John’s, we got Parma Eldalamberon No. 17, “Words, Phrases and Passages in The Lord of the Rings”. Although it is easy to miss, there is a peculiar reference to Esgaroth in this work. “Galion and Esgaroth are not Sindarin (though perhaps ‘Sindarized’ in shape) or are not recorded in Sindarin” (p. 54). Well indeed! Now, untangling exactly when Tolkien thought what about which root element is a very tedious exercise, and one, moreover, that is likely to remain inconclusive anyway. Nor is it of major importance here. The point I’d like to make is that Tolkien was clearly not sure about Esgaroth. It seems it was one of those words which had sprung up in his imagination without an etymology, for purely phonaesthetic reasons, and which he had some difficulty fitting into the development of his Elvish languages. Instead, he offers two totally different etymologies, plus a statement that it might not even be Sindarin at all! There are plenty of other examples of this elsewhere in the legendarium (e.g., see “The Problem of Ros”, published in The Peoples of Middle-earth).

When Mark Hooker returned to this word in his new book, Tolkien and Welsh (2012), he expanded on his view that the name was a hydronym of Celtic origin. I read that book in draft and commented to Mark on Esgaroth at the time (almost a year ago now). I told him that while I felt he had a reasonable, perhaps defensible Celtic gloss for the word, I still had a nagging feeling about it. Why Celtic, when everything else in the region is Norse? I felt that Celtic names might make sense in Bree and the Shire (in the west), but not in Dale and its environs (in the northeast). Tolkien was very clear, at many points in his notes and essays, that the words and names of the northeast had a Norse character — seen from outside Middle-earth, of course. Just as Dale, Bard, Smaug, and the names of all the Dwarves, plus Gandalf, are obviously Norse in form, why not Esgaroth?

Pursuing this line of reasoning, I have always thought there ought to be a clear Norse gloss for Esgaroth, but developing a theory I could defend has taken a while. Mark replied that most of the Norse words with the sound envelope that he could think of had meanings to do with oak trees. Mark thought this was a long-shot to explain a word he took to be a hydronym. I’d seen the same words myself, and some others, and it has taken some ruminating, but now I think I can share some new ideas. I meant to post this in August 2011, not August 2012, but, well, the days and nights got away from me!

I agree that Norse readings relating to eik “oak” might seem a bit improbable — at first. However, there is the fact that Lake-town is built up on wooden piers, so why not start there? There is also the conspicuous name Oakenshield, taken directly from the Norse eikenskjaldi. And don’t forget that the northeastern part of Mirkwood consisted in large part of oak trees. It was a giant oak that Bilbo climbed when the Dwarves hoisted him up to attempt to determine whether they were any nearer the end of their journey through the dark wood. Though they didn’t know it, they were. The Elvenking carried “a carven staff of oak” too. And the trapdoors out of which the Dwarves and Bilbo escaped the Elvenking’s realm were made of oak. Oak is obviously big in this part of Middle-earth! We aren’t told of what type of wood the piers of Lake-town were fashioned, but why not oak? It’s a good choice, and abundant in the right part of Mirkwood. It could have been pine — there were pine trees in that part of the country as well — but mighty Norse eikr suit the name of the town well.

For the second element, there are some “water words” that pop up in the Norse lexicon — e.g., sker “a rock in the sea, a skerry” or skári “a young sea-mew” — but compounds of any of these really strain credulity. But there is skorða “to prop, support by shores”. Aha! So eik + skorða would mean “to prop up with oak”. The k and s could easily swap spots (metathesis is one of the most common linguistic processes; cf. Old English áscian, ácsian “to ask”). This could give us *Eiskorða, which is very close indeed to Esgaroth. Close enough to satisfy me, at any rate, though if anyone can think of an objection, do let me hear from you.

Another word that might inform the toponym is the Old Norse verb, eiskra “to roar, rage”. This could be a reference to water, perhaps the waterfalls on the edge of the Long Lake, or just as likely a reference to the dragon. Moreover, there is auðr, with two compelling meanings: as a noun, it’s “riches, wealth”; as an adjective, “empty, void, desolate”. The compound *Eiskrauðr might therefore imply “roaring desolation” or “raging riches” or something similar. Naturally, from a point of view inside the history of Middle-earth, Esgaroth wouldn’t have gotten its name because of the dragon, but Tolkien could have bestowed such a name on it from the outside, perhaps unconsciously. There is even an echo in the Noldorin asgar, ascar “violent, rushing, impetuous”.

But this strikes me as not particularly likely. It might just be a secondary echo in this case, albeit a fortuitous one. Given the options, I think the real solution is *Eiskorða, meaning something like “a city propped up on oaken piers”. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tolkien Studies Volume 9

Although I have been hearing that paper copies of the new issue of Tolkien Studies (Volume 9, 2012) will not ship until September, I’m happy to announce that the complete issue is now up on Project Muse. Unfortunately for me, I no longer have Project Muse access. Can anyone help?

Omitting the usual front and back matter, here’s what we can all look forward to reading. Notice that my book is reviewed by Paul Edmund Thomas. Cannot wait to see that!

— Articles —

Untold Tales: Solving a Literary Dilemma
Peter Grybauskas

“Beneath the Earth’s dark keel”: Tolkien and Geology
Gerard Hynes

Law and Arda
Douglas C. Kane

“Justice is not Healing”: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Pauline Constructs in “Finwë and Míriel”
Amelia A. Rutledge

— Book Reviews —

Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity (review)
Marjorie Burns

Middle-earth and Beyond: Essays on the World of J. R. R. Tolkien (review)
John D. Rateliff

The Ecological Augury in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien (review)
Kristine Larsen

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources (review)
Paul Edmund Thomas

Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy (review)
Anne C. Petty

The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and The Lord of The Rings, and: Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien’s Work (review)
Jonathan Evans

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Festschrift for Tom Shippey

Greeting, friends! I’ve been holding my breath to share the details of this for a long time now. At last, an agreement with the publisher has been inked, and I’ve gotten a green light to share. Some of you may remember a CFP going out for this project almost three years ago!

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Tom Shippey to Tolkien studies. To me personally, he’s been a huge inspiration. In some ways, he represents my ideal reader, the scholar whose standard I have aimed for and in whose footsteps I have tried to follow. I’m happy to finally share the news that a Festschrift honoring him — the second, actually [1] — is being published by McFarland, probably at the end of this year, or the beginning of 2013. The project has an inexplicable number of editors, but pay that no mind. Just check out this table of contents! Flieger, Rateliff, Burns, West — not to mention yours truly. I heard Burns’s paper in person in Vermont, back in 2008, and I’ve been waiting to see the final version in print ever since.

I think we can all agree this is something to look forward to! Please do note that details are subject to change. I’ve seen a couple of changes in the table of contents over the last couple of years, and one or two more are still possible. I also wonder whether the title might change, judging from my own experience with McFarland.

Anyway, have a look at this:

Author of the New Century:
T.A. Shippey and the Creation of the Next Canon

Edited by John William Houghton, Janet Brennan Croft,
Nancy Martsch, John D. Rateliff, and Robin Anne Reid

I. Memoirs and Bibliography

Counseling the Scippigræd: How T. A. Shippey Taught Us to Read
John R. Holmes

Tom Shippey, and a Few New Leaves on Some Old Roots and Branches
E.L. Risden

A Talk by Tom Shippey
Todd Jensen

Tom Shippey and the Tolkien Society
Jessica Yates

Shippey amongst the Mercians
John Wm. Houghton

II. Answering Questions

The “Lady with the Simple Gown and White Arms” or Possible Influences of Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Book Illustrations on Tolkien’s Work
Nancy Martsch

Places Where the Stars are Strange: Fantasy and Utopia in Tolkien’s Middle-earth
Robert T. Tally, Jr.

Middle-earth and the Waste Land: Greenwood, Apocalypse, and Post-War Resolution
E.L. Risden

The Jewels, the Stone, the Ring & the Making of Meaning
Verlyn Flieger

Tolkien and Apposition
Leslie Stratyner

III. “Philological Inquiries”

Keeping Counsel: Advice in Tolkien’s Fiction
John R. Holmes

Tolkien’s Wraiths, Rings and Dragons: An Exercise in Literary Linguistics
Jason Fisher

‘He chanted a song of wizardry’: Words with Power in
B. S. W. Barootes

IV. “The True Tradition”

Inside Literature: Tolkien’s Explorations of Medieval Genres
John D. Rateliff

‘Poor Sméagol’: Gollum as Exile in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Yvette Kisor

The Presence of the Past in The Lord of the Rings
John B. Marino

Night-wolves, Half-trolls, and the Dead Who Won’t Stay Down
Marjorie Burns

V. Perspectives from Outside the Cycle

Väinämöinen in Middle-earth: The Pervasive Presence of the Kalevala in the Bombadil Chapters of The Lord of the Rings
David L. Dettman

Lack of Counsel Not of Courage: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Critique of the Heroic Ethos in The Children of Húrin
Richard C. West

‘Alone Between the Dark and the Light’: ‘The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’ and Lessons from the Later Legendarium
Kristine Larsen

[1] The first is almost unknown: ConstructingNations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T.A. Shippey. Ed. Andrew Wawn, with Graham Johnson and John Walter. Making the Middle Ages, Volume 9. Brepols Publishers, 2007. In case you are wondering, there is almost no overlap between the two Festschriften. This first one, on the occasion of Tom’s sixtieth birthday, has to do with folklore, national idea, and the so-called “Grimmian revolution”; whereas, Author of the New Century focuses on Tom’s considerable contributions to Tolkien studies specifically.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Saga of Hrolf Kraki reissued

Just a quick book announcement today. Douglas Anderson, the noted Tolkien scholar and manager of the publishing startup Nodens Books, has just reissued Stella Marie Mills’s translation of The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, originally published by Blackwell’s in 1933 and long out of print.

The announcement contains some useful background information which I won’t parrot here; make sure you visit Doug’s blog and read it for yourselves. Suffice to say that for Tolkien enthusiasts as well as students of Old Norse literature, this reissue is a welcome event! The book is available for sale now for a very reasonable price (follow this link to Amazon). The translation I’ve read is Jesse Byock’s (and here’s a link to that one as well, if you want it), but I’m looking forward to reading Mills’s translation, both because it grew out of a different period in the history of Norse studies, and, perhaps more importantly, for whatever second-hand evidence it may provide of Tolkien’s thoughts and influence.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My book is a 2012 Mythopoeic Award Finalist!

Last year at about this time, I shared the news that a book to which I’d contributed a chapter had been named a finalist  for the 2011 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies. It did not win the award, but it was nice to be (part of) a nominated finalist. This year, I’ve taken another step forward. My own book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays (McFarland, 2011), has been named a finalist!

You can peruse the entire list of finalists here. And yes, once again, this means I have had to recuse myself from voting in the Inklings Studies category, but the upside is that my book is being recognized as one of the top five contributions to the discipline for this year. The winner will be announced on August 5 at Mythcon in Berkeley, California. Fingers crossed! :)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

New book on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings

In the interests of catching up from my long absence from blogging, I’d like to start with a book announcement. Long-time readers might recall the publication of a collection of essays that emerged from C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society conferences. That collection, to which I contributed a chapter, was Truths Breathed Through Silver: The Inklings’ Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy, edited by Jonathan Himes with Joe R. Christopher and Salwa Khoddam (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.) Well, the time has come for a follow-up collection, and this time around, I am not only a contributor but an assistant-editor. It’s still fairly early, so I do not have a release date or a cover image to share, but I can give you the table of contents (below).

Having heard most of these essays delivered at the conference in 2010, and having now read and assisted with the editing of them in print, I can say this is a very good group of essays. Ward’s and Glyer’s are especially strong, as one would expect, and there are several very stimulating essays on less familiar topics and comparisons (e.g., Hall, Moore, Neuhouser, Adkison). Stockton’s essay on the libraries in Narnia wonderfully parallels David Oberhelman’s on the libraries of Middle-earth from the first CSLIS collection. Also, several of the essays were award-winners at the conference (Moore, Wright, my own). The collection leans more heavily toward Lewis than the other Inklings (and para-Inklings), but this is consistent with the mission of the Society. It compliments rather nicely the Mythopoeic Society’s heavier emphasis on Tolkien.

More news as it develops!

C.S. Lewis and the Inklings: Discovering Hidden Truth
Edited by Salwa Khoddam and Mark R. Hall with Jason Fisher

Introduction / Salwa Khoddam and Mark R. Hall

  • “Looking Along the Beam”: Divine Hiddenness in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader / Michael Ward

  • Lewis in Disguise: Portraits of Jack in the Fiction of His Friends / Diana Pavlac Glyer
  • Louisa MacDonald: George’s Tower of Strength / David L. Neuhouser
  • The Motif of Discovery in The Chronicles of Narnia / Janice Prewitt

  • Blood and Thunder: Penny Dreadfuls and the Novels of G.K. Chesterton / J. Cameron Moore
  • The Planetary Architectonics of the Ransom Trilogy / Seth Wright
  • Dwarves, Spiders, and Murky Woods: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Wonderful Web of Words / Jason Fisher
  • Music in World Making: The Creation of the World, Middle-earth, and Narnia / Norman Styers

  • A Tryst with the Romantics: Wordsworth, Keats, and C.S. Lewis on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth / Donald T. Williams
  • “Likeness” and “Approach”: Mikhael Bakhtin, C.S. Lewis, and the Liturgical Consummation of Literary Genre / Aaron Taylor
  • Encounters of a Different Kind: Wittgenstein-Popper and Lewis-Anscombe / Danny M. Adkison

  • The Libraries of Narnia / James Stockton
  • The Journeys to and from Purgatory Island: A Dantean Allusion at the End of C.S. Lewis’s “The Nameless Isle” / Joe R. Christopher
  • The Book of Revelation, Ragnarök, and the Narnian Apocalypse in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle / Salwa Khoddam
  • Reframing Time and Space: Narrative as a Vehicle of Travel, Tragedy, and Transcendence in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra / Mark R. Hall
Afterword / Salwa Khoddam

“Well, I’m back.”

Ah, I wonder how many times Sam’s closing line from The Lord of the Rings has been used to excuse a long absence from blogging! However many it is, one more couldn’t really hurt. :)

I think the past three months or more represent the longest pause in the five-year history of Lingwë – Musings of a Fish. In fact, my five-year anniversary of blogging passed unheralded more than a month ago. The recent silence certainly does not reflect any lack of things to write about. Rather the reverse! A great deal has been going on, and I hope to unspool all of the news and announcements here over the coming days and weeks. I am very sorry to have left you all hanging, and I hope you haven’t abandoned me for good!

Most significantly — and it is this change that really accounts for my long absence — I’ve “gone into the West”, as it were. The Pacific Northwest, to be more precise. I took a new job opportunity, and we have moved from Dallas, Texas to Bellevue, Washington. The difficulty, time, and cost of packing up from thirty-five years in Texas and moving 2,200 miles away can’t be overstated. If it hadn’t been for the relocation assistance of my new job, it would have been impossible. Even with it, it was an incredible challenge. But here we are. We are gradually settling in, and things are slowly returning to normal. The new normal, I should say. And with that preamble out of the way, let’s get back to the usual fare for Lingwë. Stay tuned …

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chasing la fée verte

I’ve wanted to try absinthe since I first started reading Hemingway in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, it was outlawed in the United States in October, 1912, considerably before my time. In fact, Hemingway fans reading The Sun Also Rises when it was first published may have found themselves nursing the same curiosity about the spirit, just as unable to try it as I was. The interesting thing is that it was outlawed in France in 1914, in the decade before Hemingway himself was drinking it in Montparnasse (“every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the café”). I guess there were ways for motivated devotees to track down la fée verte.

In 2007, absinthe was officially (re)legalized in the U.S. I began to hear about French or Czech absinthes one could order online, but the prices were a touch high, and I didn’t want an entire bottle until I had tasted it. I finally managed it yesterday. The absinthe in question is brand-new to Texas, and it has a celebrity sponsor (like some tequilas and vodkas): Marilyn Manson. The portmanteau name for the spirit? What else but Mansinthe. Sounds like a 1970’s Kraftwerk bootleg, doesn’t it?

So, I finally caught the green fairy. How was it? Not bad. Not amazing, but pretty good. For those who haven’t tried it, the overwhelming flavors are anise and fennel (one might just as well say double-black-licorice). I happen to like this flavor — I also like ouzo and sambuca —but many people do not. No doubt I’d enjoy it even more were the whole ritual observed: slowly dripping water over a sugar cube to release the full bouquet of la louche, etc., and I have been promised the whole grand affair when I travel to England later this summer (where absinthe has never been officially banned). I had expected that to be my first experience with absinthe, and perhaps it should have been! But as I say, it was pretty good; just a little anticlimactic after all these years.

I actually tried three other spirits at the same tasting which I like more. The first was Boca Loca Cachaça (80 proof). This is a spirit made from fresh sugar cane, so it’s a sort of cousin to rum, but it tastes nothing like it. The aroma is exactly like fresh sugar cane, and the flavor follows the nose closely. Drunk neat, it has a kind of smooth, milky sweetness, a really wonderful flavor. In cocktails like the Brazilian caipirinha (which I’ve had before), the flavor of the cachaça itself tends to be overpowered by the fruit. I tasted it neat and in a cairpirinha at the event. Next, I tasted an organic rye vodka flavored with organic cucumber, Square One Cucumber (80 proof), which was really delicious and refreshing, and then an unclassified botanical spirit, Square One Botanical (90 proof), which deserves some elaboration.

I should start by saying that it was amazing. If I’d had a little more wiggle room in the budget, I would definitely have bought a bottle. It’s similar to a vodka, perhaps closer to a gin, but really, it’s its own distinct entity — a botanical spirit — so that’s what she called it. More unique, which I like. It’s an “organic rye spirit infused with the essence of 8 organic botanicals: pear, rose, chamomile, lemon verbena, lavender, rosemary, coriander, and citrus peel”. Right up my street! I also met the owner of the distillery, Allison Evanow, who was very nice and answered all my questions. She also made us a cocktail, called Pear of Roses: Square One Botanical, Meyer lemon juice, muddled pear, lavender syrup, and fresh rosemary. Boy, was it good! They also make a Basil Vodka, using four different varieties of organic basil, which I’d really like to try.