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?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

C.S. Lewis and the Inklings: Faith, Imagination, and Modern Technology

With the ink almost dry, the time has come to share the news of a new collection on the Inklings that I co-edited with my colleagues Salwa Khoddam of the Oklahoma City University and Mark Hall of Oral Roberts University. The new volume, C.S. Lewis and the Inklings: Faith, Imagination, and Modern Technology, is the third in a series of collections to come out of the conferences of the C.S. Lewis and Inklings Society, which I have attended seven times now. The theme of the 16th annual conference in 2013, “Fairytales in the Age of iPads: Inklings, Imagination, and Technology”, provided a large part of the impetus for this collection, and the new book features six essays on this theme. Faith and imagination, of course, tend to be reliably perennial subjects at this conference.

The two previous collections in this series are Truths Breathed through Silver: The Inklings’ Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy, edited by Jonathan Himes, with Joe R. Christopher and Salwa Khoddam (2008); and C.S. Lewis and the Inklings: Discovering Hidden Truth, edited by Salwa Khoddam and Mark R. Hall, with Jason Fisher (2012). I contributed to both of these volumes, and I assisted with the editing of the second and also designed its cover. I took a seat at the table of editors this time around, also contributed a chapter, and again did all the formatting and designed the cover (which you can see above right).

For those who may be interested, I’m happy to share the table of contents here, omitting the usual front and back matter. Three of the chapters focus on J.R.R. Tolkien, nine on C.S. Lewis, three on George MacDonald, and one on Dorothy Sayers. These last two, as I’m sure most of you know, aren’t Inklings per se, but MacDonald has been called an imaginative forebear of the Inklings, and Sayers was on the fringe of the group. We’re hoping the book will be available for purchase by December, and I’ll post again when that happens.

In the meantime, here’s what you can look forward to:
Part I. Faith—C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis’s and Karl Barth’s Conversions: Reason and Imagination, a Realisation—fides quaerens intellectum
Paul H. Brazier

C.S. Lewis and Theosis: Why Christians Are Meant to Become Icons of God
Ralph C. Wood

“Triad within Triad”: The Tripartite Soul as a Structural Design in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy
Hayden Head

Part II. Imagination—C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien

Entering Faerie-Land: Reading the Narnian Chronicles for Magic and Meaning
Peter J. Schakel

To Risk Being Taken In: C.S. Lewis on Self-Transcendence
Aaron Cassidy

C.S. Lewis’s Problem with “The Franklin’s Tale”: An Essay Written in the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Year of The Allegory of Love
Joe R. Christopher

Redeeming the Narrator in George MacDonald’s Lilith
Jonathan B. Himes

Reflections in the Mirror—Anodos and His Shadow, Frodo and Gollum: The Doppelganger as a Literary Motif in George MacDonald’s Phantastes and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Mark R. Hall

The Erlking Rides in Middle-earth: Tradition, Crux, and Adaptation in Goethe and Tolkien
Jason Fisher

Part III. Modern Technology—C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, and J.R.R. Tolkien

Looking into the “Enchanted Glass”: C.S. Lewis and Francis Bacon on Methods of Perception and the Purpose of the “New Science”
Salwa Khoddam

The Abolition and the Preservation of Man: C.S. Lewis, Charles Dickens, and Wendell Berry on Education
David Rozema

Medieval Memento Mori and Modern Machine in Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors
Denise Galloway Crews

Ecology in the Works of George MacDonald: Nature as a Revelation of God and His Imagination
David L. Neuhouser and Mark R. Hall

Whiner or Warrior? Susan Pevensie’s Role in the Novel and Film Versions of The Chronicles of Narnia
Eleanor Hersey Nickel

The Palantíri Stones in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as Sauron’s Social Media: How to Avoid Getting Poked by the Dark Lord
Phillip Fitzsimmons

Monday, November 3, 2014

Jonah and the Colocynth

After more than five years of (recent) anticipation, which might easily have stretched on indefinitely, Tolkien’s translation of Jonah has arrived! You can read my previous posts on the subject, of which I found there were a surprising number, by following this link.

Tolkien’s translation appears in the new issue of the Journal of Inklings Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 2014). It is short — naturally, since Jonah itself is one of the shortest books in the Bible — spanning just four pages (5–9). But even so short a translation is valuable new primary material for Tolkien studies. The translation is followed by Brendan N. Wolfe’s essay, “Tolkien’s Jonah”, which is also full of interesting material, including liberal quotation from Fr Alexander Jones’s letters to Tolkien as well as Tolkien’s draft opening to the book of Isaiah! Just to give you a taste, but without stealing all the journal’s thunder: “Heavens hearken, earth give ear, for Jahveh speaks […]” [1] It reads almost like a piece of Beowulf.

Tolkien’s Jonah is a very interesting piece of work and will take time to explore thoroughly. But one small thing in particular really caught my attention while reading it.

Here is the King James Version of Jonah 4:6: “And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.” The English Standard version also uses “gourd”. The Common English Bible calls it a “shrub”, the Complete Jewish Bible “a castor-bean plant”, the Contemporary English Version “a vine”, the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition “an ivy”, the International Standard Version “a vine plant”, the New American Standard Bible “a plant”, the New International Version “a leafy plant”, the New Revised Standard Version “a bush”, and so on. That pretty much covers all the variations I’ve seen in English language Bibles. So what does Tolkien say?

If you’ve read Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible, you’ve seen “castor oil plant”, but that’s not what Tolkien originally wrote; that was the work of the reviser. And that proves the importance of seeing Tolkien’s original translation. He did consider the castor plant. According to Wolfe, Tolkien even “cop[ied] out the entry for ‘castor’ in the OED, exchang[ed] notes with Jones on the subject, and ultimately opt[ed] for ‘colocynth’.” Colocynth? I can’t recollect ever having seen this word before. Here is Tolkien’s translation of the verse in question: “Then Yahweh God appointed a colocynth to grow up over Jonah, so that it might cast a shade upon his head and relieve his discomfort; and Jonah had great delight in the colocynth.” Now that’s interesting!

The original Hebrew here is קִיקָי֞וֹן [qî·qā·yō·wn], and apparently no one is quite sure what kind of plant this is. It’s a hapax legomenon in Scripture [2], and no further explanation of it is ever given. It’s quite singular in my experience that Tolkien chose this word. Colocynth (I have learned) derives from Ancient Greek κολοκυνθίς “wild gourd”, and it is known more commonly as the bitter apple, bitter cucumber, desert gourd, vine of Sodom, etc. It’s native to the regions of the Biblical world, and it looks like a tiny watermelon (see the photo above).

The reviser evidently didn’t like Tolkien’s theory. This may have been Alan Neame, who was engaged to edit and harmonize the translations of the books of the Old Testament for the Jerusalem Bible, or it may have been someone else involved. This person changed “colocynth” to “castor oil plant”, but how interesting is Tolkien’s translation! And so typical of Tolkien to expend so much thought on a single word!


[1] Quoted in Wolfe, Brendan N. “Tolkien’s Jonah.” Journal of Inklings Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 2014): 11–26, p. 19. Wolfe is quoting with permission from Tolkien’s unpublished draft of the first chapter of Isaiah, Bodleian Library, Oxford (Tolkien A37/1). Wolfe quotes a little less than fifty words, meaning a sizeable chunk of primary work remains unpublished.


[2] See this blog post for some further commentary on the Hebrew word.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Forgotten habits

In a recent post about puns on “hobbit”, I wrote:
The first usage to come close to this is the exchange of letters to the editor of The Observer in 1938. On 16 January 1938, The Observer published a letter, signed “Habit”, in which the reader inquired about Tolkien’s sources in The Hobbit. Tolkien’s “jesting reply” (cf. Letters #26, 4 March 1938) was published four days later. I haven’t read the original letter. It’s available from The Observer’s digital archives, but not for free — does anyone have a copy they might share? Without the original at hand, I don’t know whether the original inquirer went beyond merely signing as “Habit”; if not, the tiresome old pun we know today is barely inchoate.
Er, actually, I have read the original letter! It was about seven years ago, and I had simply forgotten. The mountain of new primary material that has come to light in the last decade is staggering enough that this happens from time to time. Normally, my memory of what I’ve seen is very good — at least good enough to remember there was something and where I probably saw it, if not some of the particulars. That’s enough to get me back to the source where I can refresh my memory on the primary materials I don’t often cite. But in this case, I clean forgot.

So where is it? Why, in the most logical place for it: John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit, of course! Specifically, it’s in Appendix II, “Tolkien’s Letter to The Observer (The Hobyahs)”. The original letter from “Habit” is reproduced on p. 855 (in both my two-volume Houghton Mifflin first edition and in my one-volume Harper Collins revised edition).

So, now having rediscovered this and reread it, I can say that the original correspondent indeed went no further than merely hinting at the pun through his assumed cognomen. So that’s settled. :)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tolkien Studies delayed

The world of academic publishing sometimes moves at about the same speed as the earth’s tectonic plates. At the risk of stating the obvious, Volume 11 of Tolkien Studies has been significantly delayed. David Bratman announced the contents at the end of July (here), and I know we have all been looking forward to it eagerly since then. I got word from West Virginia University Press today that the issue is now expected to be available the second week of November. Yikes, that is some delay! But better late than never, and I hope having some idea when to expect it helps.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The surprising longevity of one Tolkien essay — and a new Tolkien collection

Almost a year ago, out of the blue, I got a request to reprint one of my essays on Tolkien in a Gale reference collection I was told was being edited by Michael Drout. Naturally, I was happy to see the essay go even further that it already had (on which, see below for more), and Gale tends to pay to reprint, which was also nice. I’m not used to earning actual dollars and cents for the work that I do, though when I do get a small payday, it is certainly welcome! And the Gale Literary Criticism series is well respected and widely used in many libraries.

I got in touch with Mike to inquire about this, and he demystified the project. He wasn’t really editing anything, per se. Rather, the publisher had sent him a long list of essays, of which he’d chosen what he thought were the top twenty of so. He also suggested some that weren’t on their long list. And in the end, the publisher made the decisions about what to include and what not to.

So anyway, I took care of the paperwork and then promptly moved on to other things. I had forgotten all about it when a check showed up a couple of weeks ago. Apparently, the book had appeared, or was about to, and I had never heard another word about it. I came up with nothing searching the web, so I wrote to the publisher. They sent me a link to the book: Volume 299 in the Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism series. No wonder I couldn’t find it: at a glance, you’d never know it had anything to do with Tolkien! In fact, the collection actually covers three writers: Jane Addams, Mao Dun, and J.R.R. Tolkien. A strange assortment! The part about Tolkien is specifically limited to essays on The Hobbit, which may be stranger still (or perhaps not: they covered The Lord of the Rings in a previous volume). And finally, the book lists for $360, so I asked the publisher whether they might send me a copy. They did, and it arrived in yesterday’s mail.

Before I describe the new book, I thought I might summarize the remarkable journey of my essay. It began here on this blog, in a series of posts late in 2009. I developed these into a conference paper, which I delivered at the 13th C.S. Lewis and Inklings Society conference in Oklahoma City in the spring of 2010, and for which I won the Best Scholar Paper award that year (the first of five consecutive wins at this conference). The essay was published in Mythlore later that year. Then it was reprinted as a chapter in 2012 in the CSLIS volume, C.S. Lewis and the Inklings: Discovering Hidden Truths, a volume for which I was also an assistant editor (though this had nothing to do with the selection of my essay for publication there). And now it has appeared one more time, in the esteemed TCLC series. Wow, have I gotten a lot of mileage out of that piece of work!

Since this is not likely to come to the attention of the casual Tolkien watcher, and since some of the essays may not be that easy to come by otherwise, I thought I would enumerate the contents as a public service. The Tolkien portion of the book runs from pp. 241–342, a cool hundred pages of valuable essays on The Hobbit collected together for use in libraries. The layout is “encyclopedia style” — large, double-columned pages. It opens with a short introductory essay on The Hobbit, outlining its plot and major characters, themes, and critical reception. This piece is written by Cynthia Giles, a freelance encyclopedist from my old stomping grounds in Dallas. Apart from that, I know nothing about her. At a glance it looks solid, but I haven’t read it closely yet.

This introductory piece is followed by a bibliography of Tolkien’s principal works, which I’ve only skimmed (but I spotted one small error). After this, the “Criticism” section comprises the reprint essays, each of which is given a bracketed paragraph intro. After the essays (enumerated below), there is a short and selective bibliography of “Further Reading”, annotated and categorized (bibliographies, biographies, criticism).

The fourteen reprinted essays and their original publication details are:

Constance B. Hieatt. “The Text of The Hobbit: Putting Tolkien’s Notes in Order.” English Studies in Canada 7.2 (1981): 212–24.

Christina Scull. “The Hobbit Considered in Relation to Children’s Literature Contemporary with Its Writing and Publication.” Mythlore 14.2 (1987): 49–56.

Lisa Hopkins. “Bilbo Baggins as a Burglar.” Inklings 10 (1992): 93–9.

Christina Scull. “The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Other Pre-War Writings: Part Two.” Mallorn 30 (1993): 14–20.

Janet Brennan Croft. “The Great War and Tolkien’s Memory: An Examination of World War I Themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 90 (2002): 4–21.

Olga V. Trokhimenko. “‘If You Sit on the Door-Step Long Enough, You Will Think of Something’: The Function of Proverbs in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit.” Proverbium 20 (2003): 367–77.

Brian Rosebury. “Tolkien and the Twentieth Century.” Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 134–57.

Stuart D. Lee and Elizabeth Solopova. “The Hobbit.” The Keys of Middle-earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 59–122.

Nils Ivar Agøy. “Things to Remember When Translating Tolkien.” Lembas Extra (2008): 42–50.

Thomas Kullmann. “Intertextual Patterns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.” Nordic Journal of English Studies 8.2 (2009): 37–56.

Dimitra Fimi. “Epilogue: From Fairies to Hobbits.” Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 189–99.

Jason Fisher. “Dwarves, Spiders, and Murky Woods: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Wonderful Web of Words.” Mythlore 29.1-2 (2010): 5–15.

Aaron Isaac Jackson. “Authoring the Century: J.R.R. Tolkien, the Great War and Modernism.” English 59.224 (2010): 44–69.

David Day. “The Genesis of the Hobbit.” Queen’s Quarterly 118.1 (2011): 115–29.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Bad puns can be hobbit-forming

In a recent post to the Mythopoeic Society’s email listserv, John Rateliff shared an early reference to Tolkien in Robert Heinlein. John wrote (very slightly edited):
Recently I’ve been re-reading what I suppose is Robert Heinlein’s only fantasy novel, Glory Road. While it’s packed full of allusions to fantasy characters and titles and settings — e.g. John Carter and Dejah Thoris, Ettarre, Storisende and Poictesme, Barsoom, The Red Fairy Book, The Twilight Zone — I was surprised to find a passing Tolkien reference:

She: “. . . we come to a brick road, very nice.”
He: “A yellow brick road?”
She: “Yes. That’s the clay they have. Does it matter?”
He: “I guess not. Just don’t make a hobbit of it …” [1]

This passing pun does not of course mean Heinlein actually read the book […] but it does show his awareness of Tolkien, and his assumption that his audience would share than awareness, a full year before Tolkien went mainstream with the Ace Book controversy in 1965.
This pun — based on the idea of a hobbit = a habit, good or bad — has become so hackneyed in the fifty years since that I now cringe every time I see it, which is still very often. There’s another worn-out pun I see a lot. This one is based on the idea of Tolkien = talking — e.g., “that’s what I’m Tolkien ’bout!” I’m not sure which one has been the more abused of the two, and neither is particularly good. But I got to wondering about the earliest uses of the hobbit = habit.

The first usage to come close to this is the exchange of letters to the editor of The Observer in 1938. On 16 January 1938, The Observer published a letter, signed “Habit”, in which the reader inquired about Tolkien’s sources in The Hobbit [2]. Tolkien’s “jesting reply” (cf. Letters #26, 4 March 1938) was published four days later. I haven’t read the original letter. It’s available from The Observer’s digital archives, but not for free — does anyone have a copy they might share? Without the original at hand, I don’t know whether the original inquirer went beyond merely signing as “Habit”; if not, the tiresome old pun we know today is barely inchoate. The similarity of the words is played on, but the writer may never have gone so far as a pun. Even in his reply, Tolkien is not particularly explicit about it. He calls “the Habit […] more inquisitive than the Hobbit” (Letters #25), but he doesn’t actually go in for the pun either.

Tolkien never seems to stoop to such a low jest himself, in all the writings I can recall. He did connect the two words in another letter I know, but more coincidentally, I think, and not in jest — “The Hobbit was not intended to have anything to do with [‘the matter of the Elder Days’]. I had the habit while my children were still young of inventing and telling orally, sometimes of writing down, ‘children’s stories’ for their private amusement” (#257, 16 July 1964). And he acknowledged the pun again many, many years later: “A review appeared in The Observer 16 Jan 1938, signed ‘Habit’ (incidentally thus long anticipating Coghill’s perception of the similarity of the words in his humorous adj. ‘hobbit-forming’ applied to my books)” (#319, 8 January 1971). It seem likely that Nevill Coghill shared this pun with Tolkien directly at one of the many dinners they attended together, or during meetings of the Inklings; I’m not aware that he ever put in into writing. But Coghill was certainly among the earliest to make this joke; it may even predate publication of The Lord of the Rings. But we can’t be sure. Tolkien refers to Coghill’s pun in 1971, and we have no idea how far back he is looking. It could be five years or ten or more.

In writing, the pun became very common after 1965, with the Ace episode and the revised edition of The Lord of the Rings leading to an enormous growth in Tolkien’s popularity, especially in America. Perhaps the best-known of these early pieces is Henry Resnik’s “The Hobbit-Forming World of J.R.R. Tolkien”, published in The Saturday Evening Post (2 July 1966). Not long after, Joseph Mathewson got into the game with “The Hobbit Habit”, published the September 1966 issue of Esquire. The following winter, Charles Elliott published a peculiarly sour piece in Time called “Can America Kick the Hobbit? The Tolkien Caper” (24 February 1967). A few months after that, Matthew Hodgart reviewed The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Tolkien Reader in The New York Review of Books, captioning his review, “Kicking the Hobbit” (4 May 1967). And then there is Mary Lou Loper’s “Fun is Hobbit-Forming at Tolkien Party”, Los Angeles Times (19 September 1967). And Dainis Bisenieks’s “The Hobbit Habit in the Critic’s Eye”, in Tolkien Journal 3:4 (November 1969). And this is just a selection.

The pun continued to resurface in the years after Tolkien’s initial splash. For example, in connection with the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit — e.g., “Will the Video Version of Tolkien be Hobbit Forming?”, by John Culhane, in The New York Times (27 November 1972). Then with the publication of The Silmarillion — e.g., “Kicking the Hobbit” by Richard Brookhiser, in The National Review (9 December 1977); “Hobbit Forming”, by Anthony Burgess, in The Observer (18 September 1977); and “The Hobbit Habit”, by Robert M. Adams, in The New York Review of Books (24 November 1977). Carpenter’s biography attracted the same kinds of headlines — e.g., “Hobbit-forming”, by John Carey, in The Listener, Vol. 97 (12 May 1977); and again, “Hobbit Forming”, by Nick Totton, in The Spectator (14 May 1977). And now of course, with the advent of the Peter Jackson film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the pun has become ubiquitous and endless.

But that’s what was so interesting about the source in Robert Heinlein that John Rateliff discovered: it predates the earliest of these by a couple of years. In poking around the virtual stacks, I’ve actually found another reference in fiction that predates Heinlein. It’s in the June 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in a short story called “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: LXIII”, written by Reginald Bretnor, under the anagrammatic pseudonym Grendel Briarton. A feghoot is a short story ending in, and whose whole point is, a dreadful, groan-inducing pun; learn more about feghoots and their history here. So, this particular feghoot builds up to the pun we’ve been talking about here, though the pun was much younger at the time:
Scarcely ten minutes later, he was summoned back by a cry of great agitation.

“Mr. Feghoot!” the alarmed writer exclaimed. “Look — there’s a being! He — he’s only four feet tall, with red cheeks, and a brass-buttoned coat, and — and short breeches. And his feet are all furry! He’s telling me the most wonderful story. But — but he’s a hallucination. He simply took shape there! And you told me the drug would do me no harm!”

“My dear Tolkien,” said Ferdinand Feghoot. “I said it was harmless. I never said it was non-Hobbit-forming.” [3]
But even this isn’t the earliest printed use of this pun that I have found.

For that, you have to go back almost a decade further. On 24 April 1955, The Providence Journal published a very short review of The Two Towers, tersely entitled “Hobbit-Forming”, by Maurice Dolbier [4]. The review is just two paragraphs — the first alarmingly full of plot spoilers for a contemporary review! The review is accompanied by a drawing of Frodo by designer and artist Walter Lorraine, the art director at Houghton Mifflin at the time, and the illustrator of the first US edition dust jackets of The Lord of the Rings. You can sort of make out his illustration in the photo above — apologies for the poor quality, but it’s a sixty-year-old newspaper reproduced from microfiche. Lorraine himself would be an interesting subject for a future post!

A bit off the subject, but still à propos of word-play, isn’t the name Dolbier an interesting coincidence, considering Tolkien’s invention of Dolbear in The Notion Club Papers. I haven’t looked very deeply into the frequency and etymology of these surnames, though I do know there’s an attested variation, Dolbeer, which may be from Welsh Dolbyr “the short vale” or from Dalbyr, a town on the Jutland peninsula, where the family may have originated.

Anyway, to sum up. While it’s possible that Nevill Coghill used the pun earlier than this, I’ve seen no evidence of it in print. And there is the letter to The Observer in 1938, but its author not have gone all the way. I’d like to see that letter if I could. Can anyone antedate the pun to earlier than Dolbier’s use, published 24 April 1955? The pun would still have been pretty fresh and fairly clever in 1955. Unfortunately, it’s been used about a million times since (no exaggeration).



[1] Heinlein, Robert A. Glory Road. 1964, pp. 82–3.

[2] Letters to the Editor, The Observer (16 January, 1938), p. 8.

[3] Bretnor, Reginald [as Grendel Briarton]. “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: LXIII.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 24:6 #145 (June 1963), p. 102.

[4] Dolbier, Maurice. “Hobbit-Forming (Review of The Two Towers).” The Providence Sunday Journal 24 April 1954, Section 6, p. 10. My enormous gratitude to Kate Wells and the Providence Public Library for this scan.