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. :)


  1. I'd guess it was a private remark, not even necessarily written down, given the lack of a citation. "Private communication" wasn't so automatic back in 1930, I'm betting.

  2. I think it must come from the 1925 edition of Gawain. A similar quotation appears in Kiteley, J.F., "The De Arte Honeste Amandi of Andres Capellanus and the Concept of Courtesy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (Anglia - Zeitschrift für englische Philologie 79 (1961) pp. 7–16). Kiteley cites the 1925 edition on the first page, and on p. 14 says:

    Tolkien and Gordon, op. cit., p.xxiii, observe: Thus local names originally beginning with hw- written down at Cockersand or Furness are spelt qu-, whereas such local names written at Lancaster, Whalley, and elsewhere south of the Ribble are spelt wh-, w-.

    H. Huscher in his edition of John Page, Siege of Rouen (Kölner anglistische Arbeiten 1, 1927) quotes on pp. 105-6:

    Tolkien und Gordon in ihrer Ausgabe von Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Oxford 1925), p. xxiii bemerken: "It is notable that in Sir Gawain wh (= OE hw) alliterates with original w, in contrast to such a poem as The Destruction of Troy, in which wh (= OE hw) alliterates with qu (= OE cw). Yet the Destruction of Troy is probably north-west Midland: the general character of its language in the extant copy is confirmed by the occurrence of the West Midland form hom "them" in alliteration. The alliteration of wh and w in Sir Gawain indicates that it was composed further south than The Destruction of Troy. The line between the different developments of OE hw which made possible these different types of alliteration seems to have been roughly the valley of the Ribble."

    There is nothing about this in Davis' edition p. xxiii, but the Appendix on Language has a paragraph "To represent the sound descended from OE hw- [...]" (pp. 136-7) which could be derived from the 1925 text quoted here.

  3. Yes, it’s from the Tolkien/Gordon Sir Gawain and the Green Knight after all! But as Diego says, it’s a passage that has been removed from the Norman Davis revision of 1967. Another cautionary tale in relying on this later revision. Thanks for the prompt to go back to it, Diego. I had, in fact, been much too quick to dismiss it.

    I went back through the earlier edition much more closely, and the passage occurs on p. xxiii, in the section “Dialect” of the Introduction. However, in addition to two other mistakes on the part of the authors of Alliterative Poetry (first, failing to cite the source of a direct quotation; second, attributing it solely to Tolkien, when the edition has two co-editors), it appears they may also have misquoted it. Pretty badly. The passage actually reads:

    “Thus local names originally beginning with hw– written down at Cockersand or Furness are spelt qu–, whereas such local names written at Lancaster, Whalley, and elsewhere south of the Ribble are spelt wh–, w–.”

    I say it appears they misquoted it, because I have to consider the possibility that the authors’ quote is accurate to the 1924 first edition of SG&GK; whereas, the fourth impression that I own takes up corrections made in 1930. But while I could imagine that additional substance (e.g., Lancaster, Whalley) was added in 1930 by Tolkien and Gordon, it seems unlikely to me that the other differences reflect changes they made (e.g., the for thus, in for or). So, we have a cautionary tale in sloppy scholarly practice as well.

    Anyway, mystery solved! :)