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.