Sunday, May 28, 2017

Little-known Lewis letters

I happened upon a copy of Richard Purtill’s C.S. Lewis’s Case for the Christian Faith on Friday. A first edition, 1981. Fairly early in Inklings criticism. It’s not a book I was familiar with, but I know Purtill from a couple of his other books, Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (1974) and J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (1984). Even though Lewis’s Christian apologetics are not my primary interest, what sold me on taking this book home was the dust-jacket promise of quotation from unpublished letters. Even better, the notes at the end of the book clearly identify each unpublished letter by date and recipient, and best of all, there were 15 of them.

Now I fully expected that some of these letters had probably been published since 1981, but the chance of finding some interesting material not otherwise available was worth a few dollars. I wasn’t disappointed. 10 of the 15 cited letters were printed in collections published after Purtill’s book, but 5 were not, and as far as I know, have never been and therefore might only be available to the public in this one book. There are all sorts of valuable nuts squirreled away in old, out-of-print books, aren’t there? [Actually, it looks like you can still by this book for Kindle and in a softcover Ignatius Press reprint edition. But so many others have actually gone out of print.]

I’ve gone through them one by one, and as a public service, I’d like to share my findings with you. I checked Walter Hooper’s revised and enlarged edition of Letters of C.S. Lewis and the three-volume The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. I didn’t exhaustively search other Lewis references such as Hooper’s Companion and Guide or any of the biographies; it’s possible one or more of these letters is quoted in one of those works. If anyone is aware of one, please do let me know. Likewise, if I have somehow missed one in the works I did check.

Here is each reference in order:

Chapter 1

To Miss Rhona Bodle, 11 March 1945
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, but it is there dated 11 April 1950 — a significant disagreement.

To Sister Madelva, 19 March 1963
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, but dated 3 October 1963 — a smaller disagreement than the previous letter but placing it much closer to the end of Lewis’s life. One would have to check the dates in the original letters to be sure, but I expect Purtill is the one who is wrong.

To Ruth Pittinger, 17 July 1951
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, but the recipient is Ruth Pitter, not Pittinger. Another strike against Mr. Purtill’s attention to detail.

Chapter 2

To Miss Jacob, 3 July 1941
So far as I know, this letter has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
There might be good superhuman beings of limited power (I suspect there are millions). What is this power limited by? I suppose by the general nature of things. Alright. Now is that general nature of things itself a conscious being or the work of chance? If the latter, then how did it produce the superhuman good being? Just by a lucky fluke? If the former, then a conscious being further back, the ultimate one, is what we call God and the whole problem is about Him. (qtd in Purtill, p. 16)
To Dom Bede Griffiths, 7 January 1936
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2, but dated one day later, 8 January 1936.

Chapter 3

To Sister Penelope, 30 December 1950
This letter was subsequently printed in Letters of C.S. Lewis, rev. and enlarged ed., and in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3.

To Miss Jacob, 15 August 1941
So far as I know, this second letter to Miss Jacob has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
I do feel very strongly the difficulty you raise, “If man fell, then man must be made of poor stuff, and why did God make him so?” But then I am always pulled up by realizing that when I am arguing this way I am actually denying freedom. We are saying, “If he fell he was made of poor stuff.” Does that imply “If he had been made of good stuff he could not have fallen?” If not the whole argument collapses: for if a creature made of good stuff could fall the fact of man’s falling does not prove he was made of bad stuff. If so (i.e. if it does imply this) then we are saying that a really good creature would be incapable of moral choice — which is almost saying, “A good creature means a creature incapable of real goodness.” For surely power to be good and to be bad go together, and when you remove one you remove the other? E.g. take away a creature’s sexuality and you have made not only chastity but unchastity impossible for it. Every new faculty opens up new possibilities both of good and of evil. I don’t think that we show any particular personal stupidity in forgetting this: the truth is that freedom and choice, though we all believe in them are strictly incomprehensible to the human mind. You start by admitting them: but when one tries to think of them one always lets them slip through one’s fingers. (qtd in Purtill, p. 38)
Chapter 5

To Mr. Canfield, 28 February 1955
So far as I know, this letter has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
I’m not a fundamentalist in the direct sense: one who starts out by saying, “Everything we read is literal fact.” The presence of an allegorical or mystical element in Genesis was recognized by St. Jerome. Origen held Job to be a moral fable not a history. There is nothing new about such interpretation. But I often agree with the Fundamentalists about particular passages whose literal truth is rejected by many moderns. I reject nothing on the grounds of its being miraculous. I accept the story of the Fall, and I don’t see what the findings of the scientists can say either for or against it. You can’t see for looking at skulls and flint implements whether Man fell or not. But the question of the Fall seems to me quite independent of the question of evolution. I don’t mind whether God made Man out of earth or whether “earth” merely means “previous material of some sort.” If the deposits make it probable that man’s physical ancestors “evolved,” no matter. It leaves the essence of the Fall itself intact. Don’t let us confuse physical development with spiritual. (qtd in Purtill, p. 57–8)
Chapter 7

To Dom Bede Griffiths, undated [1930]
So far as I know, this letter to a frequent correspondent of Lewis’s has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
I sometimes have the feeling that the big mass-conversions of the Dark Ages, often carried out by force, were all a false dawn and the whole work has to be done over again. As for the virtuous heathen, we are told that Our Lord is the savior “of all men” though “specifically of those who believe.” As there is vicarious suffering, is there not also vicarious faith? (qtd in Purtill, p. 81)
To Dom Bede Griffiths, 27 June 1949
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2.

To Dom Bede Griffiths, 27 September 1948
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2.

To Dom Bede Griffiths, June 1937
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2, dated more precisely to 27 June of that year.

Chapter 8

To Mr. Masson, 6 March 1956
This letter to Keith Masson — in part about masturbation! — is in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, but dated June 3. Purtill slipped on Lewis’s date of “3/6/56”, forgetting that the British put the day before the month.

To Miss Rhona Bodle, 28 April 1955
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3.

To Dom Bede Griffiths, 24 December 1946
So far as I know, this Christmas Eve letter is another that has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
But one mustn’t assume burdens that God does not lay on us. It is one of the evils of the rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think that each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from works of charity we really can do to those we know.) A great many people (not you) now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our own lives for others; but even while we’re doing it I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord, and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds and the frosty sunrise. As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so. Pray for me always. (Purtill, p. 103)
So we have a total of five quotations that may have only ever appeared in print in Purtill’s book, more than 35 years ago. Hopefully someone out there will find this post a helpful pointer to them. I should add one more time a caveat lector, since Purtill has shown himself prone to mistakes, but such as they are, these quotations are still quite interesting.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Decennial conference

I wrote last June about a conference to which I’d been invited as a Special Guest. As that conference is only a week away now, I’m late sharing more details, but here they are anyway. If you’re anywhere within striking distance of northwestern Arkansas and have an interest in the Inklings, I’d encourage you to register to attend. The conference website is It runs from next Thursday afternoon through the middle of Saturday at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, right in the heart of the Ozarks.

Although I am not a keynote speaker — for that, we have Devin Brown and Charlie Starr — I will be doing a number of different things as a specially invited guest.

On Thursday around lunch time, I’m going to meet with undergraduate English majors at JBU (and anyone else interested) to talk about my day-job as a Senior Writer at Microsoft, my side-hustle as an independent scholar, and the various writing and editorial jobs I have or have had (technical publications, Mythprint, CSLIS books, the board of the Mythopoeic Press, etc.). The hope is to expand their view of the profession and to inspire them about job prospects for English majors. JBU wants more of them to realize they can do things other than teach, that there are many kinds of interesting jobs for people who analyze texts. The Creative Writing majors at JBU outnumber the Lit majors, and so they’re hoping both camps of English majors will get ideas from me about how to “professionalize” their passions for writing/editing.

A little later on Thursday, I’ll be joining Jonathan Himes, the Chair of this year’s conference, to conduct a Mythopoeic Workshop. With a couple of others, including Charlie Starr, we’ll be doing a dramatic reading, giving listeners an idea of what a typical meeting of the Inklings was like (I’m Tolkien, of course!), then discussing the Inklings’ mythopoeic methods of inspirations. We’ll talk about how Tolkien was inspired by language, Lewis by pictorial imagery, and Williams by poetry (among other things). We’ll ask the audience to participate directly by discussing today’s fantasy writers, how they are inspired, how their mythopoeic methods differ (if and when they do) from the Inklings’, and so on.

Friday afternoon, I’ll act as moderator for an informal session to meet the keynote speakers and writers/editors in the CSLIS. We’ll do book signings, meet-and-greet, etc. I think I still have a few copies of my book to take with me. It is still selling a few copies here and there, nearly five years on, and gosh, that is gratifying!

On Saturday, I’ll be giving my own paper on Tolkien, Foucault, and premodern and poststructuralist conceptions of authorship. This is a paper I intended for a collection years ago, but at the time I had too many irons in the fire and couldn’t get to it. I didn’t want to hold up the collection, so I withdrew from it. Funnily enough, that collection ended up taking five years more to prepare, so I probably could have stayed involved, but c’est la vie. Anyway, the theme of this year’s conference (“Is Man a Myth?”) offered a convenient nudge to return to the topic at last. And so I have.

And finally, I’ll moderate a closing panel with the keynote speakers in which we’ll try to rummage through everything we’ve collectively heard during the conference, discuss points of interest, directions for new work, and so on. We’ll take additional questions from the conferees and then wrap for the year.

It should be a wonderful event! I’ve been to this conference seven times before, and I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed it. As I wrote in my previous post, this year marks special significance for me, because it was ten years before almost to the day, also at this conference, also at JBU, where I delivered my first-ever conference paper — with Tom Shippey in my audience, no less! Since then, I’ve presented papers or talks of one sort or another more than 20 times in 9 different US states. I haven’t been to a conference outside the US yet (I was invited to come to one in England as a Special Guest a few years ago, but alas, too expensive!), but I do have my eye on one this September in Canada, a mere three-hour drive from home.

I’ll write up a conference report on CSLIS 19 as soon as I can, so that even if you can’t make it to the event yourselves, you’ll get some idea of what it was like. And maybe feel inspired to come next year. In the meantime, here is the conference report I wrote for CSLIS 13 for anyone interested.

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.