Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tolkien Studies Volume 12

It's been a long time coming this year, but it seem the 2015 volume of Tolkien Studies is finally right around the corner. The West Virginia University Press website finally has a page up for Volume 12 (here). Take care you're looking at the right issue, because they show the same cover for Volumes 10, 11, and 12 on the Back Issues page, and they show the cover for Volume 9 on the Volume 12 details page! And how about this: the Volume 12 details page does not show the contents ("Coming soon"), but if you take a look at the details page for Volume 11, you'll see the contents not for that issue but for the new one, Volume 12. Gaah! Get it together, WVUP!

Although David Bratman reported that Tolkien Studies will be in softcover starting with this issue, it appears WVUP has not lowered the price. You can apparently put in pre-orders for the issue now at $60 for individuals. That's a bit steep for softcover, but the contents are more important than the packaging, and as long as the issues are still made reasonably well, I guess we can live with it. They may or may not be as durable as the hardcover, though, so greater care in handling is probably advised from here on out.

Speaking of the contents, the complete issue is now available on Project Muse. If you or your local library have access, you should be able to start reading the issue by following this link. Also note that unlike WVUP, Project Muse has the cover, which I've reproduced above. Quite nice, I think. The illustration is "The White Dragon Pursues Roverandom & the Moondog", drawing by J.R.R. Tolkien (Bodleian Library MS Tolkien Drawings 89, Fol. 3r).

I've been looking forward to seeing this issue a little more than usual because (as I think you all know), I've joined the gang writing the "Year's Work" essays. For this issue, the works reviewed are those published in 2012. I wrote three sections, General Criticism: The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s Work as a Whole, Tolkien’s Subcreation, and Philology and Language Studies, covering 13 books and 17 essays or book chapters. And I think it's probably okay to announce that I'm currently hard at work writing three sections for next year as well, covering more than fifty essays and a few books published in 2013.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A new review of my book — from a surprising reviewer!

It’s been four years since Tolkien and the Study of His Sources appeared, so you can imagine my surprise at seeing a new, and quite substantial, review in The Journal of Inklings Studies. The review is by Faith Liu, an undergraduate at Hillsdale College in Michigan. You read that right: an undergraduate.

Liu will be earning her bachelor’s degree in English and Music next year, and in the meantime, she is also a pianist, voice instructor, and producer at a small, independent film studio. I didn’t know any of this when I read her review, nor would I ever have guessed. Her review does not read like the kind of work one normally expects from undergraduates; it’s far more mature and self-assured.

It turns out she also reviewed the late Stratford Caldecott and Thomas Honegger collection, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration, in the previous issue of The Journal of Inklings Studies (Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2015), something that failed to catch my attention six months ago when I leafed through it. The contributor blurb in that issue says (in part) that Liu’s “passion for storytelling has led her to study Tolkien at Oxford University, direct college opera and short film, and read the entirety of LOTR aloud — ‘with voices’ — to her siblings.” Her blurb in the most recent issue says much the same and confirms that her review of my book is just the second time she’s written for the journal.

And that may be the entirety of her work in the field to date. At least, I haven’t been able to discover anything else. If that is true, and these two reviews comprise the bulk, or even the entirety, or her contributions to Tolkien studies to this point, then the quality of her reviews and her obvious familiarity with the subject matter are all the more surprising and impressive! You don’t normally see this kind of work without a few false starts leading up to it. Don’t take my word for it; read them and see for yourself! You can read the Caldecott/Honegger review here, and the review of my book here.

To sum her up on my work, here is her concluding paragraph:
It is refreshing to see, in what is already a thriving community, a discussion of why and how to go about Tolkienian source study, and rarely is it undertaken with such attention to detail and demand for high standards. Though the collection could use a conclusion (one is otherwise left with the melancholy aftertaste of Glyer and Long’s discussion of Smith of Wootton Major), and more attractive cover design, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources is, on the whole, a triumph: a collection accessible to both the enthusiast and the academic, with extensive footnotes and bibliographies providing ample food for the reader seeking to go beyond. The work of these scholars is not chemical analysis of predigested dinners; rather, it is the attempt to unlock the secrets of an old family recipe. Some attempts bring new insight into a dish, while others indulge in more insubstantial speculation, but all serve to promote a greater appreciation for the discipline, for the dish, and for the chef himself.
To judge by the example of these two reviews, I would say Faith Liu is off to a great running start in the field, and not just because she liked my book — though of course, liking my book is an obvious sign of intelligence! ;) All kidding aside, she is critical at several points, and I found her to be criticisms fair and articulated well. I certainly look forward to seeing more of her work, whether more book reviews or, even better, some scholarship of her own.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Scattered leaves

Several libraries hold copies of books once owned by Tolkien, often inscribed and in some cases annotated by him. I’ve been fortunate enough to see and handle some of these myself at the Cushing Library at Texas A&M (a topic for another day, but you can read about these books here), but the Bodleian library system has perhaps the largest collection of such copies. Judging from an excavation of their online catalog, the Bodleian and its satellites hold about two dozen books once owned by Tolkien. Three of these have been digitized so that we all read the very copies that once sat on Tolkien’s own bookshelves.

As a public service, I thought I’d share the results of my excavations. I’m not going to the trouble of providing all the individual library and shelving details here, but if you’re in the area and want to find any of these books, you can look them up yourself with SOLO (Search Oxford Libraries Online).

Although merely owning a book doesn’t always mean one has read it — that is certainly true for me! — the books Tolkien owned do give us some insight into the man’s interests. Perusing the following, there isn’t a whole lot here that is strikingly new, but we see books on Indo-European linguistics; the Germanic languages, including Primitive Germanic, Gothic, Middle Low German, Old Dutch, Old Frisian, Old English, Old Norse; other European languages, including Middle Scots, French, Flemish, Galician, Spanish, Lithuanian; as well as history (the Vikings), legend (northern Germanic heroic sagas), and literature (Caxton).

As I said, there are other libraries with books once owned by Tolkien, and I have been gradually searching these out as time and inspiration strike. Anyone who has links and other information, please feel free to share it in the comments. Or if you’ve written up your own findings somewhere, please let us all know!

I. Books owned by Tolkien (with digital scans)

Bremer, Otto. Ethnographie der germanischen Stämme. Strassburg: Trübner, 1904. Gorgeous calligraphic inscription on the title page: “John Reuel Tolkien | e. coll. exon. | oxon. | mdccccxiv”. That’s 1914 — a very early book in Tolkien’s library. Illegible marginalia on p. 20; possibly another on p. 122. You can see Tolkien’s inscription above.

Persson, Per. Studien zur Lehre: von der Wurzelerweiterung und Wurzelvariation. Upsala: Academiska Boktryckeriet, 1891. Inscribed on the first flyleaf: “J.R.R. Tolkien | 1926”. Illegible marginal note on p. 50; a partially legible note on/in Greek at the top of p. 130 with an x in the left margin; a legible Greek word in the right margin on p. 157; and a final, only partially legible note on the rear endpaper. These appear to be in Tolkien’s hand, but I have examined them only very hastily at this point.

von Richthofen, Karl Freiherrn. Altfriesisches Wörterbuch. Göttingen: Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, 1840. Inscribed on the first flyleaf: “J.R.R. Tolkien”, along with a date that is nearly illegible but looks to me like it might be 1926 or 1928. No inscriptions in the body of the book as far as I could tell on a quick inspection.

II. Books owned by Tolkien (without digital scans)

[No Author Given]. Festschrift für Berthold Delbrück. Special issue of Indogermanische Forschungen, Bd. 31, 1912/13. Strassburg: Verlag von Karl J. Trübner, 1912–1913. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Einenkel, Eugen. Geschichte der Englischen Sprache: II. Historische Syntax. Strassburg: K.J. Trübner, 1916. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Faust. Historia von D. Johann Fausten dem weitbeschreyten zauberer und schwarzkünstler. [Jena]: [E. Diederichs], [1911]. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Feist, Sigmund. Einführung in das Gotische: Texte mit Übersetzungen und Erläuterungen. Leipzig: Teubner, 1922. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Gessler, Jean. Le livre des mestiers de Bruges et ses dérivés: Quatre anciens manuels de conversation. Bruges: [Fondation universitaire de Belgique], 1931. Flemish translation, vocabulary, and French-English parallel-text version of Caxton’s “Ryght good lernyng”. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Heusler, Andreas. Deutsche Versgeschichte: mit Einschluss des altenglischen und altnordischen Stabreimverses. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1925–1929. Inscribed by Tolkien; no further details provided.

Horn, Wilhelm. Beiträge zur germanischen sprachwissenschaft: Festschrift für Otto Behaghel. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1924. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Karsten, T. E. Die Germanen: eine Einführung in die Geschichte ihrer Sprache und Kultur. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1928. Inscribed by Tolkien; no further details provided.

Kauffmann, Friedrich. Deutsche Altertumskunde. München: Beck, 1913–1923. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Kendrick, T. D. A History of the Vikings. London: Methuen, [1930]. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Kretschmer, Paul. Die indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft : eine Einführung für die Schule.
Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1925. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Leskien, August. Litauisches Lesebuch mit Grammatik und Wörterbuch. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1919. Inscribed by Tolkien; no further details provided.

Mansion, Joseph. Oud-gentsche naamkunde : bijdrage tot de kennis van het oud-nederlandsch. ’s-Gravenhage : M. Nijhoff, 1924. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Nuñez, Marcial Valladares. Diccionario gallego-castellano. Santiago [de Compostela]: Impr. del Seminario Conciliar Central, 1884. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Schneider, Hermann. Germanische Heldensage. Bd. 1. Einleitung: Ursprung und Wesen der Heldensage. Buch 1: Deutsche Heldensage. Bd. 2, Abt. 1: Buch 2: Nordgermanische Heldensage -- Bd. 2, Abt. 2: Buch.3: Englische Heldensage. Festländische Heldensage in nordgermanischer und englischer Überlieferung. Verlorene Heldensage. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1928–34. Each volume has a bookplate, “Presented by the executors of Professor J.R.R. Tolkien”, and is inscribed by Tolkien.

Smith, G. Gregory. Specimens of Middle Scots. Edinburgh; London: W. Blackwood & Sons, 1902. Inscribed on the first flyleaf: “John Reuel Tolkien. Exeter Coll. March 1914”. Another book in Tolkien’s library from a very early date!

Stammler, Wolfgang. Mittelniederdeutsches Lesebuch. Hamburg: P. Hartung, 1921. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

Wood, Francis A. Indo-European ax: axi: axu: A study in ablaut and in word formation. Strassburg: K.J. Trubner, 1905. Tolkien’s copy; no further details provided.

III. Tolkien’s own books (given by Tolkien to others)

Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and Leaf. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964. The Bodleian has two copies of interest, one inscribed by Tolkien to his son, John, in July 1964, and the other inscribed to his wife, Edith (no date given).

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954. Inscribed by Tolkien to his son, John. No date or other information given.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Two Towers. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954. Inscribed “J.F.R. Tolkien from J.R.R.T. Nov. 1954”.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955. Inscribed “J.F.R.T. from J.R.R. Tolkien for Nov. 16 1955”.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit or, There and Back Again. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937. The Bodleian has a second-impression copy inscribed “J.F.R. Tolkien from J.R.R.T.”. The Merton College Library also has a second-impression copy, this one inscribed to “Norman Davis from J.R.R. Tolkien” on the recto of the first flyleaf. This copy contains an inserted card with printed address, “Merton College, Oxford OX1 4JD Telephone no. 49651”, followed by a handwritten note, “Presented to the Library by Professor Norman Davis, Emeritus Fellow of the College, 18th October 1983”.

And finally, one especially interesting copy not owned by Tolkien.

[Unknown]. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Edited by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925. C.S. Lewis’s personal copy, with detailed glosses throughout and in which he drew and “annotated a knight’s armour as a key to the technical vocabulary used by the poet for the arming of Sir Gawain, as he prepares to set out in search of the mysterious Green Knight (pp. 18–19)”. Recently, this book was displayed as part of the Romance of the Middle Ages exhibit that ran 28 January through 13 May 2012. It was also part of the Bodleian exhibit, “Tolkien: Life and Legend”, in his centenary year, 1992. If you have a copy of the exhibit catalog, you can see Lewis’s illustration of the knight’s armor on p. 39, item 70.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A standalone edition of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun — in Serbian!

Although the text of Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun has been floating around the Internet for ages, it has been difficult to get a legit copy of the poem in print. Copies of the publication in which is appeared, Welsh Review (Vol. IV, No. 4), have been out of reach of all but the most dedicated (and/or luckiest) collectors for decades, and the poem has never been reprinted in the United States or England since its first appearance seventy years ago. It has been reprinted just once, however, in a Serbian translation in 2002. This was a limited print run of just 500 copies and is, so far as I know, the only authorized translation ever made. The book was a softcover of just 88 pages, rare enough that I have never seen a copy. Fortunately, the Serbian translator, Aleksandar Mikić, released an updated and expanded second edition this past June.

This minor work of Tolkien’s is obviously a special favorite of his, as it is of mine, and Mikić has honored the lay’s 70th anniversary (the 80th of its composition) with a beautiful, well-made, collectible copy. The new edition, clearly a labor of love, is a hardcover of nearly 300 pages, consisting of the poem, substantial background material and commentary, and eight accompanying color plates. In addition to the plates, there are illustrations on the front and back covers. Among the plates are illustrations of the lay by the translator himself, along with Anke Eissmann, Ruth Lacon, and three brand new paintings especially commissioned from Ted Nasmith. I always love to see new works from Ted, and my special favorite is “Aotrou chases the enchanted doe through Broceliande”. Apart from the doe, this painting strongly reminds me of Ithilien and the Men of Henneth Annûn. In fact, there’s a painting by Darrell K. Sweet called “Journey to the Cross-roads” — a favorite of mine from childhood — that I find strikingly similar in its setting and color palette.

In the original edition, as I understand it, the poem was presented in both the original English and in facing-page Serbian translation, but the accompanying essays were given only in Serbian. In the new edition, the entire book is in facing-page translation, so that the preface, essays, and contributors blurbs (and even the copyright page) can all now be read in English. Most of the accompanying material is the work of the translator, Aleksandar Mikić, with assistance from Ruth Lacon (also called in the book by the names Elizabeth Currie and Ruth Lewis). Apart from the poem, the book consists mainly of a preface; an extensive essay, “The Lay of Man and the Supernatural”; and a short commentary, “On the Translation”, contributed by Zoran Paunović, a Professor of English Literature on the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade, and a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Novi Sad (about a hundred kilometers to the northwest).

What I’ve called an extensive essay might better be termed a short monograph (it’s about 160 pages). It’s organized into multiple sections, beginning with a short orientation, followed by contextual discussion in “Tolkien and Christianity”, “The Celtic Cosmos”, “Tolkien and the Celts”, “Little Britain”, and “Where and When?” Then we get into some source criticism on “The Source”, which reprints the Breton lay, “Aotrou Nann hag ar Gorrigan”, in full and in Breton! This leads to “The Cognates”; “The ‘Briton Harper’”; three short character studies of the Corrigan, Aotrou, and Itroun; and a final conclusion on “The Message”.

The book only arrived from Serbia a couple of days ago, and I haven’t had time to read it thoroughly yet, so I will have to save further evaluation of the quality of the commentary for another day. For now, suffice it to say that it looks to be a thorough treatment — probably the most thorough the lay has ever received in a long but often overlooked life. It also has an accompanying bibliography (a good sign). In any case, it is quite nice to have the lay in print, along with some beautiful illustrations of it, and substantial commentary, all in one convenient new edition. It might just be a reason to dabble in some Serbian!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Horcruxes: analogues and sources

As you know, I’ve be reading the Harry Potter books again. I’ve also been working on the bookshelves in my office at home. This has involved handling and arranging a large number of books, as well as sorting in all my acquisitions of the last three years or so. One book that came to the surface is something that actually belongs on our fiction bookshelves downstairs, but it’s been bobbing around in my office since the last time I read it too, close to two years ago. On that occasion, I noticed once again something I have been meaning to share since at least the previous time I had read it, some six years ago. The book I’m talking about is Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer, and if you know it, you may already see where I’m headed. It’s a subject I’ve been meaning to tackle on Lingwë for a long, long time, and I think the day has come at last — mainly because I want to be able to put the darn book back on the shelf!

So, you all know what a horcrux is — in Slughorn’s words, “an object in which a person has concealed a part of their soul. […] You split your soul, you see […], and hide part of it in an object outside your body. Then, even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged” [1].

There’s a long tradition of the external soul in folktales, and I’ll come back to that in a little while, but first, consider an episode in Taran Wanderer (1967), the fourth book in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. This is a series, like Harry Potter, that I’ve read many times, and as I said, I made this connection between them some years ago. I can’t remember exactly when now, but I’m guessing it was 2009, or perhaps even a year or two before that.

Without going over the plot of the entire novel (for which, see here), let’s get right to the episode in question (spoilers, obviously!). In a nutshell: Taran and his companions encounter Morda, an evil wizard who has separated his soul from his body and placed it into a small shard of bone, his own severed pinky bone, in fact. With his soul elsewhere, the wizard is now as strong as death and cannot be killed like a mortal man. But as luck (or providence) would have it, Taran has come across this bone. To save the lives of his companions and himself, he tries to snap the bone in half. He can’t do it, but in Morda’s struggle to regain the bone, it does indeed snap and Morda is undone. It’s a memorable scene in a great novel for young people.

Now let’s take a closer look at some of the details here. Apologies if this is a bit lengthy, but there are a number of points I want to call your attention to.

Taran and friends find a small iron coffer, bound in iron bands, and padlocked. Rather recklessly, they break into the coffer, finding a leather pouch containing “a slender piece of bone as long as Taran’s little finger” [2]. Taran’s companion, Fflewddur Fflam, is all for getting rid of it as a dangerous enchantment — quite sensibly. They return it to the coffer, and return that to the hiding place where it was hidden in a hollow tree. But a few pages later, it turns out that Taran’s pet crow, Kaw, has retrieved it, magpie-like, and brought it back to Taran for a prank. Fearing to toss it away now, Taran pockets it. Meanwhile, the companions come upon their friend Doli, who has been transformed into a frog by Morda and left to die.

Eiddileg, King of the Fair Folk, sent to Doli to investigate the theft of one of their treasure troves, and when he was discovered, Morda cast a spell on the dwarf to get rid of him. Casting an enchantment on the Fair Folk was a thing completely unheard of, for which Doli calls “the foul villain of a wizard […] shrewder than a serpent” — the choice to transform Doli into a frog might be relevant here, as frogs are serpent’s prey. Morda mocked him and “savored [his] lingering agony more than the mercy of killing him out of hand” [3].

Seeing no other way to reverse the enchantment cast against Doli, Taran, with Gurgi and Kaw, decides to confront Morda. Morda’s dwelling is surrounded by a great wall of thorns, and Kaw is ensnared seeking a way around or over. Taran and Gurgi attempt to climb the wall, but they too are captured, and Fflewddur likewise, not long after. Morda has “a gaunt face the color of dry clay, eyes glittering like cold crystals, deep set in a jutting brow as though at the bottom of a well. The skull was hairless, the mouth a livid scar stitched with wrinkles.” “Morda’s gaze was unblinking. Even in the candle flame the shriveled eyelids never closed […].” His voice is likened to the hiss of a serpent, and “[t]he glint in Morda’s lidless eyes flickered like a serpent’s tongue.” With a magical ornament that he stole, a gem of great power, Morda transforms Fflewddur and Gurgi into a rabbit and a mouse respectively (note: also serpent’s prey), finally rounding on Taran, who “stared at the ornament like a bird fascinated by a serpent.” Later, as they struggle, “the wizard’s relentless grip tightened,” much like a python’s.

Gurgi, in mouse form, gnaws loose the ropes binding Taran. Freed, Taran runs Morda through with his sword — to absolutely no avail whatsoever. But then Taran sees that Morda is missing a finger, and he realizes that this is the very bone he pocketed. Morda has already revealed he had been seeking ways to extend his life. This is the reason he plundered the Fair Folk’s trove, searching for gemstones to lengthen his life beyond “any mortal’s mayfly span of days.” With Angharad’s magical ornament he has learned even to cheat death. “My life is not prisoned in my body. No, it is far from here, beyond the reach of death itself!” he says to Taran. “I have drawn out my very life, hidden it safely where none shall ever find it. Would you slay me? Your hope is useless as the sword you hold.”

Morda attempts to transform Taran, but surprisingly, the spell fails. Taran is not enchanted; something is blocking the spell. Taran has realized the value of the little bone Kaw brought back to him, and Morda has realized that Taran holds his life in his hands. In the ensuing struggle, the bone is finally snapped in two, and “[w]ith a horrible scream that stabbed through the chamber, Morda toppled backward, stiffened, clawed the air, then fell to the ground like a pile of broken twigs.”

Whew! That ran on a bit, didn’t it? But I wanted to point out some important features of this episode. First, and perhaps most obvious is the strong similarity between the finger bone containing Morda’s soul, protecting him from death, and Voldemort’s horcruxes, each serving the same purpose. None of Voldemort’s horcruxes are parts of himself, though you might remember that when the younger Barty Crouch kills his father, “I Transfigured my father’s body. He became a bone … I buried it while wearing the Invisibility Cloak, in the freshly dug earth in front of Hagrid’s cabin” [4]. An incidental similarity, but an interesting one. Another similarity of this same sort and from the same installment of Harry Potter: Morda sacrifices a finger in his quest for immorality much as Pettigrew sacrifices a hand to serve’s Voldemort’s; and likewise, another of the ingredient’s in Voldemort’s return is a bone of his father, straight from his grave.

There is also the significant amount of ophidian imagery shared by Morda and Voldemort, much of which I’ve highlighted above. Both characters are frequently compared to snakes (more so than to anything else), both have unblinking eyes and other features like a serpent, both speak in a hiss.

Along with their occupations (unstoppable evil wizards), their names are quite similar too. I’ve written about the name Voldemort before (you can read that here). Morda clearly reveals the same root, the Latin mors “death”. In his Author’s Note, Lloyd Alexander refers to him as “deathlike”, offering as good a gloss of the name as we need! Oh and did I say unstoppable? In both cases, Voldemort and Morda are respectively stymied in their attempts to curse the protagonist of the story. Harry is protected by Lily’s love and becomes part-horcrux himself; and because he is part-horcrux, it is that horcrux that Voldemort destroys — not Harry himself — with the Avada Kedavra curse during the Battle of Hogwarts. Not unlike the way Taran is protected because he holds Morda’s life in his hands. Morda is also described as “gaunt”, and Potter fans need no reminder that the same word has great significance for Voldemort too.

So, quite similar in many way, yes? But none of this is to suggest Rowling got the idea of horcruxes from Lloyd Alexander! I have no idea whether she’s ever read his work, and in any case, Alexander himself notes in his Author’s Note to Taran Wanderer that “Morda’s life secret […] is familiar in many mythologies.” Rather, both Rowling and Alexander each independently borrowed an idea familiar to them from folklore for their own use.

Tolkien touches on the motif of the external soul in his essay “On Fairy-stories”. Discussing The Monkey’s Heart, a Swahili tale Andrew Lang included in his Lilac Fairy Book, Tolkien writes:
I suspect that its inclusion in a ‘Fairy Book’ is due not primarily to its entertaining quality, but precisely to the monkey’s heart supposed to have been left behind in a bag. That was significant to Lang, the student of folk-lore, even though this curious idea is here used only as a joke; for, in this tale, the monkey’s heart was in fact quite normal and in his breast. None the less this detail is plainly only a secondary use of an ancient and very widespread folk-lore notion, which does occur in fairy-stories;* the notion that the life or strength of a man or creature may reside in some other place or thing; or in some part of the body (especially the heart) that can be detached and hidden in a bag, or under a stone, or in an egg. At one end of recorded folk-lore history this idea was used by George MacDonald in his fairy-story The Giant’s Heart, which derives this central motive (as well as many other details) from well-known traditional tales.

* [Tolkien’s footnote:] Such as, for instance: The Giant that had no Heart in Dasent’s Popular Tales from the Norse; or The Sea-Maiden in Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands (no. iv, cf. also no. i); or more remotely Die Kristallkugel in Grimm.
This is the same motif seen with Morda’s finger bone and with Voldemort’s horcruxes. I included Tolkien’s footnote in the quotation, because Die Kristallkugel [“The Crystal Ball”] also presents an additional layer of similarity to Lloyd Alexander. In the tale, an enchanter’s power is hidden in an external object, and three brothers confront this wizard attempting to rescue a princess. Two of them have been transformed into animals, an eagle and a whale. All of these motifs resonate closely with the episode in Taran Wanderer.

Tolkien goes on to give an even earlier example:
At the other end, indeed in what is probably one of the oldest stories in writing, it occurs in The Tale of the Two Brothers on the Egyptian D’Orsigny [sic; D’Orbiney] papyrus. There the younger brother says to the elder: ‘I shall enchant my heart, and I shall place it upon the top of the flower of the cedar. Now the cedar will be cut down and my heart will fall to the ground, and thou shalt come to seek for it, even though thou pass seven years in seeking it; but when thou has found it, put it into a vase of cold water, and in very truth I shall live.’
The motif is once again similar, and this time, the hiding place is a tree, just in in Lloyd Alexander. And of course, in traditional tales of two and three wizard brothers, we hear an echo of Rowling’s “Tale of the Three Brothers” from The Tales of Beedle the Bard. That tale doesn’t make use of the external soul motif directly, but of course, each of the three brothers in the parable seeks to escape or delay death, just as do Voldemort and Morda. And their Deathly Hallows are set up as talismans contrasting directly with Voldemort’s horcruxes.

Another interesting story of this same sort is the Slavic tale of Koschei, included by Andrew Lang in his Red Fairy Book as “The Death of Koschei the Deathless”. Again the tale involves wizards, three of them, not brothers this time, but each married to one of three sisters. Each can transform into a bird of prey, so we have animal transformations once again. Koschei is another enchanter, one who has protected himself from death by hiding his soul inside a needle (rather like Morda’s bone), and that in turn inside an egg, which is inside a duck, inside a hare, locked in an iron chest, which is buried under an oak tree. That is six levels of external protection, just like Voldemort’s six (intentional) horcruxes.

And there are plenty more analogues we might examine! Sir James Frazer surveys the sources rather exhaustively in his mammoth study of magic and religion, The Golden Bough. See Chapter X “The External Soul in Folk-tales” (pp. 95–152) in Volume 11 of the third edition, called Balder the Beautiful: The Fire-Festivals of Europe and the Doctrine of the Eternal Soul, Volume II (published 1913). Frazer finds this motif in the traditional tales of Hindu, Kashmiri, Greek, Italian, Slavic, Lithuanian, German, Scandinavian, Celtic, Egyptian, Arabic, and many other peoples. The basis for their many stories, Frazer argues, was a genuine belief in this principle by primitive peoples.

So Alexander and Rowling are clearly dipping into the same well here, and a very deep one. There is no reason at all to suppose Rowling borrowed from Alexander, and yet the striking similarities between their tales — both dark wizards likened repeatedly to a serpent, both with names meaning “death”, both of whose attempts to curse the protagonist fail — certainly do catch the eye! That these are logical enough characteristics for such a character and could easily occur to authors independently needn’t spoil the fun of dwelling on them. What do you think?

[1] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books [an imprint of Scholastic], 2005, p. 497.

[2] Alexander, Lloyd. Taran Wanderer. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967, p. 91.

[3] Ibid., p. 101–2. Subsequent quotations from Taran Wanderer follow along through this chapter and the next, passim.

[4] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books [an imprint of Scholastic], 2000, p. 690–1.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tolkien and L.W. Forster

It is well known and now often repeated that for Tolkien, language came first, story second. In answer to an inquiry from The New York Times Book Review, Tolkien set down some notes about himself, including comments about the “fundamentally linguistic” genesis of his work. These notes were first used (abused, Tolkien would say) by Harvey Breit as the basis for a very short interview in the NYTBR on 5 June 1955. Breit omitted mention of philological origins in his piece, but the same notes were handed out to many inquirers by Houghton Mifflin over the years. In these notes (printed with Tolkien’s further annotations and corrections as Letter #165 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), Tolkien says that “the invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” To give an example of how far these notes went, this passage (and more) was reprinted verbatim a dozen years later in “The Prevalence of Hobbits” by Philip Norman in The New York Times Magazine, 15 January 1967.

About three years after that, the same point was reiterated in a surprising place. At least, I was surprised to encounter it, and sharing the discovery is the reason for this post.

Leonard Wilson Forster (1913–1997) was a distinguished German scholar, Fellow of Cambridge University and Lecturer at University College London, and about a generation younger than Tolkien. In 1970, he published The Poet’s Tongues: Multilingualism in Literature with the Cambridge University Press. This was a series of lectures turned fuller historical sketch of “the different ways poets have used languages other than their own for poetry from the Middle Ages down to our own time” (1). A fascinating subject, and one with obvious relevance to Tolkien, though not one where we would necessarily expect to find him discussed as early as 1970. And yet, we read:
[The German poet] Stefan George used an invented language for workshop practice. Many people have invented private languages, usually as a secret means of communication or as a kind of personal cypher. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien uses a number of invented languages and has included some fine poetry written in them. His is quite a different case; the languages came first and everything else followed. Tolkien tells me that he long ago invented some languages out of pure philological enthusiasm; as they seemed to work, he thought it would be interesting to invent people who spoke them. The result was the whole thrilling world of dwarves, elves and hobbits which is already being exploited for Ph.D. theses by the academic machine, mainly in the United States. (88)
This is as nice a summary on the subject as you could look for, with snarky commentary on American academia as well. But the most interesting thing here, to me at least, is how Forster makes it clear that he and Tolkien discussed this personally. We know of one letter from Tolkien to Forster, predating Forster’s book by a decade (dated 31 December 1960), of which only one paragraph is printed in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (as #226). The subject under discussion in this excerpt is whether the two World Wars influenced Tolkien in the writing of The Lord of the Rings. One can only imagine that Forster was among those Tolkien was answering directly in the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings when he wrote that “its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

What else was in Tolkien’s letter? Were there others exchanged between them? Did they ever meet in person? I don’t know. I’ve done some very cursory searching to see whether I could learn anything of Forster’s letter to Tolkien (or any others). No luck so far, though I did learn that the Forster papers held at Cambridge contain a number of clerihews, so that’s another fun connection between them (not to imply Forster and Tolkien were the only dons writing clerihews in the 20th century). I did find a few letters from Forster to others, and I was interested to see that his signature reminds one a little of Tolkien’s, though not so calligraphic as his (and again, not to imply anything more than happenstance similarity). You can judge for yourself below.

Anyway, this chance discovery of Tolkien in one of the works of Forster doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know, but it’s always enjoyable to discover connections, especially when they are relatively early, even during Tolkien’s lifetime.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

News and updates

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I hope some of you are still checking back here for new posts and haven’t given up on me! The purpose of today’s post is just to catch you all up on a few recent news items, mainly to do with me and my Tolkien work.

8th anniversary of Lingwë

I neglected to post anything last month, but a couple of weeks ago, Lingwë turned eight years old. My goodness, that’s a pretty long time in the world of blogging. A few of the Tolkien-related blogs I read have been around longer — e.g., John Rateliff just edges me out at March 2007 and Michael Drout has been blogging since 2002 — but there’s no doubt Lingwë is getting rather long in the tooth. :) Speaking of anniversaries, the day after tomorrow marks three years since I came to work at Microsoft and moved to the Pacific Northwest.

New book coming soon! Really!

I first shared news of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings: Faith, Imagination, and Modern Technology, which I edited with Salwa Khoddam and Mark Hall, back in November. At that time, we thought publication was right around the corner. “Need brooks no delay, yet late is better than never,” as Tolkien said, and we have finally now finished the proofing and indexing. The publisher lists the book as already published (1 June 2015), so we obviously missed that, but it should be available very soon now. The list price is a bit steep at £52.99, but I’m hoping the book will at least end up in some libraries if not on the shelves of too many private enthusiasts and collectors! It’s actually a very good collection, if I do say so myself, so you really should consider it. Here’s an Amazon link in case you want to preorder it or share it around.

The 2015 Mythopoeic Awards — and a couple of streaks!

The Mythopoeic Society recently announced the finalists for the 2015 Mythopoeic Awards. Among the nominees for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies is John Wm. Houghton, Janet Brennan Croft, Nancy Martsch, John D. Rateliff, and Robin Anne Reid, eds., Tolkien in the New Century: Essays in Honor of Tom Shippey (McFarland, 2014), to which I contributed the essay, “Tolkien’s Wraiths, Rings and Dragons: An Exercise in Literary Linguistics.” Tom himself sent me a note when he read the book in page-proofs thanking me for my contribution, which he said was “right along the lines I like to see myself.” You can imagine how gratifying that was! Congratulations to the five editors and to all the contributors of this fine volume.

And I mentioned streaks. With this book, McFarland has now had an MSA finalist in the running every year since their first appearance in 2008 (seven books, eight years in a row), so congratulations to them as well! They're cultivating a really solid portfolio in Tolkien studies and in myth, fantasy, and pop-culture studies more generally. And considering the almost foregone conclusion (my opinion, at least) that Tolkien’s Beowulf will win the award this year, I fully expect the Shippey Festschrift to be a finalist again next year, continuing the streak, and maybe the year after that as well.

Another streak I will dare to mention at the risk of immodesty. This also now makes five years in a row in which an MSA finalist has had a chapter in it by yours truly. In 2011, it was Brad Eden’s Middle-earth Minstrel: Essays on Music in Tolkien; in 2012–2014, it was my book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays; and now in 2015, the Shippey Festschrift.

A special conference next spring

As those who follow my antics will know, I’ve attended the C.S. Lewis and Inklings Society’s annual conference seven times; I’ve had chapters in three of their books, two of which I also co-edited, laid out, and cover-designed; and I’ve won their Best Scholar Paper award five times in a row, every year it had been awarded, 2010–2014, until I took myself out of the running from this year on. So I think it’s safe to say I’ve given back as much (or more) as I’ve gotten out of the CSLIS. Giving back in that way pays many kinds of dividends, and the newest is that I’ve been invited to come to the next CSLIS conference (31 March–2 April 2016 in Siloam Springs, Arkansas) as a Special Guest, along with Keynote Speakers Devin Brown and Charlie Starr. I’ll be doing a special presentation and a panel in addition to my conference paper. There’s a real symmetry to this for me, because my first ever conference presentation was also at the CSLIS conference, also hosted that year in Siloam Springs, and it will have been ten years ago next spring. So, if you are in the region, think about coming to the CSLIS conference next year. I’ll share more details (e.g., the conference website) one they are available, but in the meantime, here is a first look at the flyer the conference chair, Jonathan Himes, has been circulating.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Three Gudgeons

I’ve just finished The Prisoner of Azkaban, and in addition to a few small points that have caught my eye on this latest reading, I’ve got a somewhat larger and (I hope) more interesting one for today. The subject line is your tip-off. Strike a chord of memory?

When Harry visits Professor Lupin after the disastrous Quidditch match against Hufflepuff, Lupin tells him
“They planted the Whomping Willow the same year that I arrived at Hogwarts. People used to play a game, trying to get near enough to touch the trunk. In the end, a boy called Davey Gudgeon nearly lost an eye, and we were forbidden to go near it. No broomstick would have a chance.” [Azkaban, p. 186]
So, that’s one Gudgeon. But the name should sound familiar, because there’s another in just the previous book. In The Chamber of Secrets, Gilderoy Lockhart — like Lupin, the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher — assigns Harry the detention punishment of helping him with his fan mail:
“You can address the envelopes!” Lockhart told Harry, as though was a huge treat. “This first one’s to Gladys Gudgeon, bless her — huge fan of mine.” [Chamber, p. 120]
So that’s two Gudgeons. And Gladys — bless her — comes up again in The Order of the Phoenix. Our intrepid band of juvenile witches and wizards runs into Lockhart at St. Mungo’s hospital, recovering (sort of) from the injury he sustained to his memory some three years earlier. Madame Gudgeon is still writing him fan mail.
“You can put them in envelopes,” he said to Ginny, throwing the signed pictures into her lap one by one as he finished them. “I am not forgotten, you know, no, I still receive a very great deal of fan mail … Gladys Gudgeon writes weekly … I just wish I knew why …” He paused, looking faintly puzzled, then beamed again and returned to his signing with renewed vigour. “I suspect it is simply my good looks …” [Phoenix, p. 511]
These two are known well enough, and I’m sure I must have put them together before now, but they really jumped off the page this time, because I learned recently there’s a third Gudgeon in the world of Harry Potter!

In 1998–99, J.K. Rowling wrote four short issues of The Daily Prophet exclusively for the U.K. Harry Potter fan club. I haven’t seen these issues in full, though they are discussed in Philip W. Errington’s J.K. Rowling: A Bibliography 1997–2013, coming from Bloomsbury Academic later this month. They’ve also been summarized on the Harry Potter Lexicon website. In the first issue, dated 31 July 1998 — incidentally Harry Potter’s 18th birthday — we learn about Galvin Gudgeon, seeker for Ron Weasley’s favorite Quidditch team, the Chudley Cannons. Quite a dreadful seeker he was too, being known to fall off his broom and to mistake passing bumblebees for the Golden Snitch. Pathetic!

Gudgeon is a genuine surname, especially concentrated in the North of England, where Rowling may actually have encountered it. There are still some Gudgeons in the United States as well, though it’s hardly common. For more information on the name, you might consult Henry Harrison’s Surnames of the United Kingdom: A Concise Etymological Dictionary (London: The Morland Press, 1918), or William Anderson’s Genealogy and Surnames: With Some Heraldic and Biographical Notices (Edinburgh: William Ritchie, 1865). There’s also Thomas Moule’s Heraldry of Fish: Notices of the Principal Families Bearing Fish in Their Arms (London: John Van Voorst, 1842), from which I’ve taken the coat of arms shown above right, with its distinctive three fish.

But hang on, how did we get to fish? And why name these characters Gudgeon in the first place? Though we know little of them, all three have something very specific in common, enough to justify the bestowing of such a name. But to know why it’s apt, we have to talk about its origins. And the first thing you want to know about gudgeons is that a gudgeon is a fish, hence the heraldic device shown above, which in fact represents three gudgeons, the same as in the title of this post! Also, having a fishy name myself, I can’t help but feel a certain remote kinship to these three. :)

A gudgeon is a small European fresh-water bait fish. The words comes through Middle English gojon (and variant spellings) from French goujon, in turn from Latin gōbio, a by-form of gōbius, which coincidentally gave us the name of another fish, the goby. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us the word acquired a figurative meaning starting in the late sixteenth-century, “one that will bite at any bait or swallow anything: a credulous, gullible person”. The English Dialect Dictionary says much the same: “A fool, simpleton; one who is easily gulled”. Samuel Johnson, closer in time to the word’s original figurative currency, has it thus: “a small fish found in brooks and rivers, easily caught, and therefore made a proverbial name for a man easily cheated”. From here, it’s easy to see how Rowling, a self-confessed dictionary diver, might have come across the name and found it apt. Davey Gudgeon is foolish enough to tilt at the Whomping Willow; Gladys Gudgeon is taken in by Gilderoy Lockhart’s vacuous good looks; and Galvin Gudgeon is, well, just a clumsy dolt.

And so we have another great name rescued from history and put to excellent use! What do you think the chances are that these three Gudgeons might be related too? In Rowling’s intricately interwoven wizarding world, just about anything is possible.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

More on Tolkien and the Nobel Prize

It’s old news now that Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature by C.S. Lewis in 1961. But I was doing a little poking around related to the news stories of 2012, when I came across something I didn’t expect. A couple of things, actually.

First, C.S. Lewis made another nomination a year later. In 1962, he nominated Robert Frost. Little did he know that Frost had been nominated in 1961, the same year as Tolkien, and that the Nobel committee had ruled him out because of his advanced age. He was 86 at the time. According to the Nobel nomination database, these are the only two nominations Lewis made. He died, of course, a year after nominating Frost.

And there’s something even more interesting. Among the other nominees competing with Tolkien in 1961 was E.M. Forster, who, like Frost, was ruled out because of his age. Well, Forster had been nominated many times before. Although he never won the Prize, he’d been nominated in thirteen different years over a twenty-year period — 1945–46, 1950, 1952–57, 1960–61, 1963–64. Here’s the interesting thing. In one of those years, 1954, Forster was nominated by two nominators, two Oxford dons, and in fact, two Inklings — Lord David Cecil and J.R.R. Tolkien! These were the sole nominations made by either man, again according to the Nobel nomination archive. In the event, the nomination went to another E.M. — Ernest Miller Hemingway. And it’s hardly a side note that this was the same year The Lord of the Rings finally arrived!

I can’t recall ever seeing this talked about before. Has anyone else? It’s news to me that Tolkien ever nominated anyone for the Nobel Prize.

Also, in case you’re interested in more than highlights, in Tolkien’s own year of nomination, 1961, 93 nominations were made for 55 authors. These included Frost and Forester and few others mentioned in the press a couple years ago, but the complete list of nominated authors follows. Several are connected to Tolkien in smalls ways — e.g., W.H. Auden, Edmund Wilson, Robert Graves — and a number of these authors went on to win the Prize eventually. Tolkien was competing with some excellent authors here, along with a fair few who have disappeared into the nooks and crannies of history.

Ivo Andrić
Jean Anouilh
W.H. Auden
Gaston Bachelard
Simone de Beauvoir
Karen Blixen
Heinrich Böll
Maurice Bowra
Georges Duhamel
Lawrence Durrell
Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Johan Falkberget
E.M. Forster
Gertrud von le Fort
Robert Frost
Romulo Gallegos
Armand Godoy
Julien Gracq
Robert Graves
Graham Greene
Gunnar Gunnarsson
L. Hartley
Adrianus Roland Holst
Taha Hussein
Aldous Huxley
Pierre-Jean Jouve
Ernst Jünger
Yasunari Kawabata
Miroslav Krleza
André Malraux
William Somerset Maugham
Eugenio Montale
Alberto Moravia
Giulia Scappino Mureno
Pablo Neruda
Junzaburo Nishiwaki
Sean O’Casey
Ramón Menéndez Pidal
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
Cora Sandel
Aksel Sandemose
Jean-Paul Sartre
Giorgos Seferis
Ignazio Silone
Georges Simenon
Charles Percy Snow
Michail Solochov
John Steinbeck
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Junichiro Tanizaki
Miguel Torga
Tarjei Vesaas
Simon Vestdijk
Arthur David Waley
Edmund Wilson

Friday, January 16, 2015

A quick observation about The Chamber of the Secrets

Hello, friends! I’m onto The Chamber of Secrets in my latest reading of the Harry Potter series, and I’ve noticed something interesting in the first couple of chapters. Can’t remember whether this has occurred to me on previous readings, but I’d like to share it with you now.

When Dobby visits Harry in his room (Chapter Two “Dobby’s Warning”), it comes out that he’s been stopping Harry’s letters from his friends from Hogwarts over the summer. This occurs right around the time of Harry’s birthday. “Give me my friends’ letters!” he shouts at Dobby. This reminded me at once that in The Sorcerer’s Stone, letters to Harry are also being stopped, also right around his birthday, but in that case, by Uncle Vernon (Chapter Three “The Letters from No One”). “I WANT MY LETTER!” he shouts at him. I thought this was a nice parallel in the early episodes of the first two novels in the series.

And there’s another one. In the same chapter of The Chamber of Secrets, after Uncle Vernon has locked Harry up in his room with bars on the window, “[Harry] dreamed that he was on show in a zoo, with a card reading UNDERAGE WIZARD attached to his cage. People goggled through the bars as he lay, starving and weak, on a bed of straw” (p. 23). This reminded me of the episode with the boa constrictor in the zoo in The Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter Two “The Vanishing Glass”, another nice parallel in the opening chapters of the two books. Even better, if we consider the parallel more carefully, Harry imagines himself more or less in the same place as a snake in his dream — something that will happen again, much more obviously and to much greater dramatic effect, later on in the series in The Order of the Phoenix. I think the parallel may be read as a very early and subtle reinforcement of the close connection between Harry and Voldemort, a connection that will be made clearer by the end of the second book and come into sharper and sharper relief as the series progresses.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

First mainstream appearance of tengwar outside Tolkien?

A few months ago, I wrote about the history of the hobbit/habit pun (read the post). During the course of that discussion, I referred to an early piece on Tolkien appearing in Life magazine, “Can America Kick the Hobbit? The Tolkien Caper”, which was published in the 24 February 1967 issue. Because these earlier weeklies often printed letters to the editor, I thought it would interesting to see whether this particular opinion piece had generated any mail. It had, and I discovered something very interesting: what may well be the first appearance of tengwar in a mainstream publication other than Tolkien’s own work. If anyone knows of an earlier example, I’d love to hear about it. Otherwise, I think we can take this as the earliest so far known.

A selection of the letters Charles Elliott’s piece elicited were printed three weeks later, in the issued of 17 March 1967, under the heading, “Tolkien Caper” on p. 26. There are four short letters. In the interests of research value, I will copy these letters below.

The first, from Diana L. Yost or Orefield, PA, reads:
Sirs: Mr. Elliott’s review, “Can America Kick the Hobbit?” (Feb. 24), was disappointing. If the reader goes no deeper than the level of Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout, The Lord of the Rings is of course an innocent child-sized story — but only because the reader himself has set that level. Fortunately, the campus Tolkien followers have probed deeper to find a work rich in symbolism. This is why the trilogy is popular, not because it is the undemanding and comfortable tale your reviewer has settled for.
The second, from Sherry Lee Snider of New York, NY:
Sirs: Bravo! Those are my sentiments exactly. I was raised on C.S. Lewis as a child and drifted naturally into Middle Earth from Narnia where my love of heroic deeds and that “other world apart” had been carefully nurtured. In those days (actually up to about four years ago) if a veiled reference to Middle Earth crept into the conversation you knew you had encountered someone like yourself. Nothing was said but a bond was formed. Alas — that thrill of silent understanding is gone now — a true Tolkien lover would never discuss it — and all of us who are secret romantics are forced to wander without hope of a chance encounter. Why couldn’t these faddists have remained with Henry Miller and left us Tolkien? You can’t trust anybody these days.
The third has the great distinction of having been written in tengwar from the point of view of Frodo Baggins himself. You can see the letter in reproduction above right, and the editors of Life added the following note:
The above is a communication in Tengwar, one of the scripts Tolkien invented for his mythical creatures. It translates, “Dear Sirs, I am writing on behalf of all Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Men and Hobbits and all other things dwelling upon Middle Earth. The article in your Feb. 24 issue is very disrupting to our Hobbit children. Frodo Baggins.” — ED.
And finally, the fourth and tersest, from G. Sachs of New York, NY:
Sirs: Mr. Elliott is an Orc.
I haven’t studied these tengwar closely yet or transliterated the letter myself to check the editors’ own transcription for accuracy, but of course, they surely got the intent. Any errors would be those of the letter’s author. We know that Tolkien received letters from his admirers written in runes and asking him to respond with them too (which he sometimes did), but this is the one of the only mainstream appearances of Tolkien’s runes that I can recall seeing, and certainly the earliest — by many years. By mainstream, I mean outside a Tolkien or fantasy related publication. I have no doubt that other magazines have received such letters, but Life took the additional step of actually printing one in facsimile — which is still immense fun for us, almost fifty years later!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Return to Hogwarts … again

I’m opening 2015 by reading the Harry Potter series again. For about the tenth time (I can’t be certain, as I didn’t start scrupulously tracking my reading until 2004). And as I sometimes do when I read a book or series again, I’m going to share a few questions and observations that come up. On re-reading, I often notice things I haven’t noticed before, or that I may have noticed several readings before but have since forgotten. Or that I’ve noticed before but have never shared. I welcome any thoughts you might have on any of this.

So, without further ado, a few scattered comments on the first five chapters of The Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes, by the way, I do use the American title, because that’s the edition I’m reading. Note that page numbers are from the US first edition hardcover.

For some reason, Dudley Dursley’s best friend, Piers Polkiss, jumped out at me this time. Talk about minor characters! But there’s something interesting here. Have any of you ever noticed this? He’s introduced in Chapter Two “The Vanishing Glass”: “Dudley’s best friend, […] Piers Polkiss was a scrawny boy with a face like a rat” (p. 23).

Now I haven’t gotten to the later books again yet, and I’m not going to look ahead for more ammunition here. But the alliterative name Piers Polkiss reminded me of Peter Pettigrew. Even better, Piers is a variant form of Peter. Both are compared to rats, and both are the sidekicks to friends with more forceful personalities. Intentional? Hard to say, but as purposeful as Rowling has shown herself to be, it strikes me as possible. Of course, many of Rowling’s names are alliterative, but two characters whose first and last names both start with P, and who share these other common characteristics? Interesting, eh?

As a side note, I looked at the surnames without turning up much to connect them. Polkiss — I’m not sure that’s actually a genuinely attested name — is probably connected to Polk, and the earlier form Pollock, Bollack, etc. This name is believed to derive from the parish of Pollock in Renfrewshire, Scotland, and that in turn is from Gaelic pollag “a little pool or pond”, diminutive of pol “pool”. That doesn’t seem to have much to do with Piers Polkiss as a character, though who can say? We know so little about him.

Pettigrew on the other hand, derives from French petit cru, typically meaning “a little person” or “little grown” — which seems perfectly appropriate for him. Alternatively, you could read petit cru as “little believed”, with cru as the past participle of croire. That also has potential. Peter Pettigrew was actually much believed at first, to the detriment of Sirius Black, but he was a pathological liar and never taken seriously. Perhaps a better reading would be “little (to be) believed”. This could have been intentional by Rowling as well. We know the name Voldemort was informed by a French meaning. Pettigrew was a French Huguenot name that later migrated to Scotland (among other parts of the British Isles) — so, swimming in the same onomastic waters as Pollock (therefore, perhaps Polkiss), and where Rowling herself wrote the books. But this geographical connection doesn’t tell us much about the characters.

So that’s that. Everything else I’ve got today — just a few orts — comes from Chapter Five “Diagon Alley”.

After Hagrid collects Harry from the Hut-on-the-Rock, Harry, seeing only one boat, asks Hagrid how he got there. Hagrid says he flew (pp. 63–4). What I’m wondering is how. He needed something — a broom, a thestral, a hippogriff, Sirius’s flying motorbike — because it’s only Voldemort who can fly unaided, a point that is made quite clear in The Deathly Hallows (note that the Death Eaters and The Order of the Phoenix can all apparently fly in the film adaptations). Obviously, Hagrid didn’t have a thestral or a hippogriff. Harry would have seen either, and Hagrid wouldn’t have left either behind. The same for Sirius’s motorbike. So, are we to assume he had a broomstick? What broomstick would hold him? And where did he put it? We’re told his coat is full of all kinds of odds and ends, even a fire poker, but a broom that could hold him would have to be hard to conceal in a coat. And why didn’t he use Sirius’s motorbike? In The Deathly Hallows, they use it precisely because it’s one of the means of flight that can escape magical detection (having been previously, and presumably permanently enchanted), so Hagrid could have used it to fly them to London without using magic (as he was forbade to do on the return trip). Of course, they would have been visible, and that would been a problem. Anyoo, how did Hagrid fly to meet Harry? Anyone?

Later, in Diagon Alley, a plump shopper laments that dragon liver is going for seventeen Sickles an ounce (pp. 71–2). Since seventeen Sickles equals one Galleon (p. 75), why wouldn’t she say dragon liver is going for a Galleon an ounce? This would be a bit like saying something cost a hundred cents an ounce, instead of a dollar an ounce. It’s a bit odd, isn’t it?

In Madam Malkin’s robe shop, Draco tells Harry his mother is “up the street looking at wands”, but why? The wand chooses the wizard, but Narcissa is shopping for one without Draco? Now, I’m just assuming she’s shopping for Draco’s wand, and not for a new (replacement) one for herself. I think it’s safe to assume she is shopping at Ollivander’s, because Ollivander recognizes Draco’s wand seven years later when Harry shows it to him at Shell Cottage. He remembers every wand he’s ever sold, and so he has no problem identifying Draco’s. Would he sell a wand for Draco without Draco being present to try it out? It seems out of his character. Maybe the Malfoys bullied him into doing it that way, but it seems unlikely. Maybe Narcissa is just looking at wands while she waits for Draco to join her, but then why? What would be the point of that? So what’s going on here? Just a slip on Rowling’s part?

In the Apothecary, “Harry examined silver unicorn horns at twenty-one Galleons each” (p. 81). Are we to assume these unicorns died of natural causes? But in most mythologies, unicorns are meant to be immortal, aren’t they? I can’t remember what (if anything) Rowling ever says about their lifespans in her world. We learn later in The Sorcerer’s Stone that it’s a terrible crime to kill a unicorn, so the horns for sale in Diagon Alley can’t be like rhino horns on the black market today. And surely they aren’t horns taken from still living unicorns! We also know they’re the horns of adult unicorns (the youngsters are gold, not silver). We know that unicorn tail hairs are one of the few powerful magical cores used in wands, but giving a hair is a lot different from giving the horn. This seemed a bit unusual to me too, just a little bit inconsistent, maybe, with the rest of what we know about the place of unicorns in Rowling’s wizarding world. An awfully rare and special thing to find in Diagon Alley! And for only the cost of three wands? Seems like something you might find in Knockturn Alley, rather.

And finally, when Hagrid leaves Harry after their shopping trip, “Harry wanted to watch Hagrid until he was out of sight; he rose in his seat and pressed his nose against the window, but he blinked and Hagrid had gone” (p. 87). That sounds an awful lot like apparition, doesn’t it? Do we think Hagrid can apparate? There’s never been any hint that he could, and there’s a lot of him to make disappear! I guess it’s possible Hagrid simply hustled out of sight very quickly, but that also seems out of his character. If Hagrid could apparate, wouldn’t he have done so to come collect Harry in the first place (solving the flying problem at the same time)? I just thought this was interesting too.

What do you think? Please don’t think I’m not enjoying these books because I’m picking a few nits. My enjoyment of them is as immense as Hagrid himself! Just a few small things I’ve noticed. Any thoughts?