The Stories before the Hobbit: Tolkien Intertextuality, or the Sources behind his Diamond Waistcoat

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienIf  Tolkien lovers are nerds, it is only because they are walking in the pathway of the Master Nerd himself. The more I study Tolkien, the more I get the sense that no one was more amazed by the entire Middle Earth legendarium than Tolkien himself. Less of an author hammering out words on a keyboard, Tolkien was more like an archaeologist carefully brushing the sand away from the artifacts of another world buried in the sands of history. The swish, swish, swish of the Tolkien brush goes ever on and on as editors, scholars, and linguists continue–a century after it has begun–to reveal the strata of a community most Tolkiendils cannot bring themselves to call “fictional.”There were moments, though, that Tolkien addressed his “private hobby” for a listening world. One was in response to an anonymous letter to the editor in the UK Observer in 1938. Signed as “the Habit,” Humphrey Carpenter records some of the fan questions in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien:

… asking whether hobbits might have been suggested to Tolkien by Julian Huxley’s account of ‘the “little furry men” seen in Africa by natives and …. at least one scientist’. The letter-writer also mentioned that a friend had ‘said she remembered an old fairy tale called “The Hobbit” in a collection read about 1904’, in which the creature of that name ‘was definitely frightening’. The writer asked if Tolkien would ‘tell us some more about the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book. …. It would save so many research students so very much trouble in the generations to come. And, by the way, is the hobbit’s stealing of the dragon’s cup based on the cup-stealing episode in Beowulf? I hope so, since one of the book’s charms appears to be its Spenserian harmonising of the brilliant threads of so many branches of epic, mythology, and Victorian fairy literature.’

movie desolation of smaug poster tolkienTolkien wrote a response, and naturally he hoped it would not be printed. The letter in response gives us a real sense of the stories and fictional worlds that live behind The Hobbit. Tolkien begins with self-deprecating humour that draws Smaug (and his vanity) into the entire history of sentient dragons:

Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.

A nice dig on research students (like me)–and an idea that he shares with C.S. Lewis. In a much later video, Tolkien shares the first little burst of inspiration that became The Hobbit.

This is not the moment that Tolkien shares in his response to “the Habit.” Instead, he denies that hobbits, as such, have any particular predecessor, and he considers some of the fictional and historical worlds that came before his.

However, with regard to the Habit’s principal question there is no danger: I do not remember anything about the name and inception of the hero. I could guess, of course, but the guesses would have no more authority than those of future researchers, and I leave the game to them.

I was born in Africa, and have read several books on African exploration. I have, since about 1896, read even more books of fairy-tales of the genuine kind. Both the facts produced by the Habit would appear, therefore, to be significant.

But are they? I have no waking recollection of furry pigmies (in book or moonlight); nor of any Hobbit bogey in print by 1904. I suspect that the two hobbits are accidental homophones, and am content[1] that they are not (it would seem) synonyms. And I protest that my hobbit did not live in Africa, and was not furry, except about the feet. Nor indeed was he like a rabbit. He was a prosperous, well-fed young bachelor of independent means. Calling him a ‘nassty little rabbit’ was a piece of vulgar trollery, just as ‘descendant of rats’ was a piece of dwarfish malice — deliberate insults to his size and feet, which he deeply resented. His feet, if conveniently clad and shod by nature, were as elegant as his long, clever fingers.

Ah, the trollery that the average halfling has to put up with! Being misunderstood is a problematic part of life–and a key reason why the average hobbit would prefer to avoid big people and their world.

But The Hobbit and the Middle Earth legendarium of which it is a part are not without predecessors. Rather than a merely “original” piece of work, The Lord of the Rings and all the rest emerges out of a complex conversation with the literature and speculative worlds of the past.

As for the rest of the tale it is, as the Habit suggests, derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story – not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George Macdonald is the chief exception. Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.

tolkien beowulfBeowulf, in particular, is at the roots of Middle Earth, and Tolkien avoids most modern authors, except for George MacDonald. I would also add William Morris, and Diana Pavlac Glyer‘s work demonstrates that Tolkien was not uninfluenced by his friends, the Inklings. Still, when thinking about intertextuality, Tolkien engages is a marvelous new adventure of drawing stories into stories:

My tale is not consciously based on any other book — save one, and that is unpublished: the ‘Silmarillion’, a history of the Elves, to which frequent allusion is made. I had not thought of the future researchers; and as there is only one manuscript there seems at the moment small chance of this reference proving useful.

J R R Tolkien - Smoking Pipe OutdoorsNotice here how he draws together a source from our timeline, the Poetic Edda of the Norse, and the marvelous “world Bible” that only Tolkien had really seen up to this point:

… There is the question of nomenclature. The dwarf-names, and the wizard’s, are from the Elder Edda. The hobbit-names from Obvious Sources proper to their kind. The full list of their wealthier families is: Baggins, Boffin, Bolger, Bracegirdle, Brandybuck, Burrowes, Chubb, Grubb, Hornblower, Proudfoot, Sackville, and Took. The dragon bears as name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest. The rest of the names are of the Ancient and Elvish World, and have not been modernised.

The Hobbit Dwarfs FilmYou can be excused if you didn’t get the philological joke the first time through. But why did a philologist with such exacting attention to words and names spell it “dwarves” and not “dwarfs.” It is a classic and, perhaps, providential error:

And why dwarves? Grammar prescribes dwarfs; philology suggests that dwarrows would be the historical form. The real answer is that I knew no better. But dwarves goes well with elves; and, in any case, elf, gnome, goblin, dwarf are only approximate translations of the Old Elvish names for beings of not quite the same kinds and functions.

Perhaps Tolkien would have been concerned that “dwarrows” would confuse readers. Most of us who read today do not always realize to what degree Tolkien’s non-human creatures are a departure from the myths and legends he draws from. In digging into that distinction we get an early peak at the complex system of languages behind the few names and places and runic hints in the first editions of The Hobbit.

These dwarves are not quite the dwarfs of better known lore. They have been given Scandinavian names, it is true; but that is an editorial concession. Too many names in the tongues proper to the period might have been alarming. Dwarvish was both complicated and cacophonous. Even early elvish philologists avoided it, and the dwarves were obliged to use other languages, except for entirely private conversations. The language of hobbits was remarkably like English, as one would expect: they only lived on the borders of The Wild, and were mostly unaware of it. Their family names remain for the most part as well known and justly respected in this island as they were in Hobbiton and Bywater.

There is the matter of the Runes. Those used by Thorin and Co., for special purposes, were comprised in an alphabet of thirty-two letters (full list on application), similar to, but not identical, with the runes of Anglo-Saxon inscriptions. There is doubtless an historical connection between the two. The Feanorian alphabet, generally used at that time, was of Elvish origin. It appears in the curse inscribed on the pot of gold in the picture of Smaug’s lair, but had otherwise been transcribed (a facsimile of the original letter left on the mantelpiece can be supplied).

Tolkien_Signature_in_Runes“There is doubtless an historical connection between” Anglo-Saxon runes and Middle Earth’s runes? Can you imagine how that statement would have inflamed the most serious readers in that first generations? I love how Tolkien plays between the idea of Middle Earth as a created world and as referential to the real world. After all, where did he possibly find the original letter left above the fire?

Frodo, Sam and Gollum in IthilienThen Tolkien turns to a key problem in intertextuality: when the author is unaware of how much his or her work is an adaptation or echo of previous work. Continuing his ambivalence, he covers up the question by throwing it forward to the riddle battle between Bilbo and Gollum:

And what about the Riddles? There is work to be done here on the sources and analogues. I should not be at all surprised to learn that both the hobbit and Gollum will find their claim to have invented any of them disallowed.

Tolkien ends in making fun of himself and giving future textual critics a bit of a puzzle to work on for their MA and DPhil theses.

Finally, I present the future researcher with a little problem. The tale halted in the telling for about a year at two separate points: where are they? But probably that would have been discovered anyway. And suddenly I remember that the hobbit thought ‘Old fool’, when the dragon succumbed to blandishment. I fear that the Habit’s comment (and yours) will already be the same. But you must admit that the temptation was strong. –

Yours, etc.
J. R. R. Tolkien

And in closing this letter–even if he never meant it to meet its public–Tolkien has both teased and revealed in the way that other stories sit behind The Hobbit


[1] Not quite. I should like, if possible, to learn more about the fairy-tale collection, c. 1904.

tolkien middle earth collection

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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48 Responses to The Stories before the Hobbit: Tolkien Intertextuality, or the Sources behind his Diamond Waistcoat

  1. Alan says:

    Thanks for the article ! The possible precedents for hobbits remain very interesting, though, I think; whether there were any subconscious influences or even something of the nature of a collective imagination at play; such as is occassionally hypothesised to account for global recurrences of motifs in folktales, myths, etc.
    An interesting brief piece I saw last year -http://www.academia.edu/12173643/_There_was_an_old_woman_lived_under_a_hill_…._a_Proto-Hobbit_Uncovered_

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for such a grateful commentary on such an interesting letter and matter!

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The Tolkien Gateway article on Hobbits under the section “Inspiration” notes only what Tolkien said about Edward Wyke Smith’s 1927 children’s book The Marvellous Land of Snergs – that Tolkien told Auden – “was probably an unconscious source-book for the Hobbits”, and that “The name hobbit had previously appeared in an obscure ‘list of spirits’ by Michael Denham, which includes several repetitions”, adding “There is no evidence to suggest Tolkien used this as a source — indeed he spent many years trying to find out whether he really did coin the word”, and providing a link to the Wikipedia article on “Denham Tracts”, which in turn links to a scan of an 1895 these mid-Victorian folklore ‘tracts’ in the Internet Archive.

    The Tolkien Gateway article further interestingly observes (about Tolkien’s own sudden coinage of the word) “it would have been natural for him to see in it the German prefix hob meaning small (e.g. hobgoblin, hobbledehoy and hobyah). However this prefix dates back ‘only’ to the 13th century, too late by Tolkien’s standards”. The Denham list quoted in Wikipedia has several of ‘hob-‘ names. Perhaps The Habit is imperfectly remembering a fairy-tale collection with some other ‘hob-‘ name than the (now) most familiar formations.

    I have no idea if it is correct in speaking of a German prefix which dates back ‘only’ to the 13th century, and have no OED access to start checking the easy way!

    Tangentially, with ‘hob-‘ forms and tales in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Katharine Briggs’s Hobberdy Dick (1955).

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    • I love this: “too late by Tolkien’s standards”! I don’t know Briggs, and I’m not sure that we can always pin down original sources very precisely. And even if we have something tempting–and I do this with Lewis a bit–it doesn’t mean the author would recognize it. I wrote a book once where, going back to it, I saw an entire theme emerge as clear as pen on paper. Yet it was unknown to me.
      The way Humphrey Carpenter talks about “originality” and “influence,” he makes Lewis a “pastiche” and Tolkien “original.” I think both draw richly from must deeper wells than it is easy to suppose from surface text.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Well said! (And that “too late” is lovely, isn’t it?) I had encountered Briggs as an enjoyable writer about fairy tales and folklore before ever having any idea she wrote (children’s) novels – until I ran into a second-hand copy of the Puffin ed of Hobberdy Dick (interestingly contemporary with Lord of the Rings in its first appearance).

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  4. Hannah says:

    Your post reminds me of the great info in Diana Pavlac Glyer’s book “The Company They Keep”, e.g. tracing the dwarf names to the medieval Icelandic Edda mythology. I can’t find the passage there right now, but also refers to it: “Almost all of the names of the Dwarves of Middle-earth, as well as Gandalf’s, are taken from a section of the Völuspá called the Dvergatal (the “Catalogue of Dwarves”)”.
    I did come across the fun source for one of my favourite LoR characters though – Tom Bombadil – based on a Dutch doll that belonged to Tolkien’s son Christoper (p.170). And Tolkien referred to himself as being most like a hobbit “I like gardens, trees … smoke a pipe, like good plain food … even dare to wear … ornamental waistcoats … fond of mushrooms … do not travel much” (p.169)

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    • Hannah says:

      The source of the quote on the dwarves got lost in cyberspace. I found the poem on Tolkiengateway.net / wiki / Völuspá with English translation and all the dwarf names with hyperlinks to further info on their Middle-earth history, etymology, genealogy, portrayal in adaptations ….

      Liked by 1 person

    • Reading the Poetic Edda for the first time and seeing all those Dwarfish names is a lot of fun. I reviewed it here: https://issuu.com/scrivenercreativereview/docs/pdfjoiner.
      I didn’t know about the Dutch doll. Dolls from that period seem to me singularly unimpressive in design, and yet not without life. I can see how one could sit there at a bedside waiting for new life.
      A ‘hobbit’ is an anti-modern, right? Tolkien captures a silly beautifulness, a homely wish in us to leave traffic and timesheets and ticking clocks behind.

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      • Hannah says:

        Thanks for the link to your review and to that Edda translation by a Jeramy Dodds (might he be related to David?).
        It is still amazing how Tolkien turned a doll into such a vibrant personality as Tom Bombadil, the only one that the ring had no hold on.
        And yes, I don’t see a hobbit fitting into our modern way of life, but maybe that is a reason for the popularity of the films, that yearning for homeliness? (e.g. people growing their own vegetables in allotments …).

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        • Is there a nursery image that is powerful here? Toys seem to me ruggedly indifferent to the fleshworld. I watched my son’s teddy bears during the death of his grandmother. They were unmoved, and yet still available to him. The pictures within the books didn’t even change a little! That sounds like Tom Bombadil.
          Is there anyone else, like me, yearning for dirt in his fingers? No phones or screens of any kind. Not even the straight edges of Taiwanese assembly line furniture or hermetically sealed food. Perhaps the winter is too long.
          I gave the Jeramy Dodds translation a strong response, so now I hope there is a relationship!

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          • Hannah says:

            What about Winnie the Pooh as nursery image?

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            • Hannah says:

              This really leads away from this blogs subject, but I keep on thinking about the fascination with toys & dolls coming alive, eg. Pinochio, with Data’s longing to become human in Next Generation Star Trek series & the Tinman in the Wizard of Oz – there are so many other examples ….
              Lewis has written so much about this, e.g. his explanations of the Trinity: comparing our world as two-dimensional to the supernatural as three-dimensional. Compared to our future resurrected beings we are all still Dutch dolls, Pinocios or Tinmans?

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              • I think Winnie is the view of the world through Christopher. He just comes alive.
                The longing to be human–a real boy–what do you thing is happening culturally there? I think that literature is a search for humanity, for the most part. Sometimes that’s more like a hinted metaphor, and sometimes it is close to the surface. I don’t think anyone misses the moral in The Wizard of Oz. It is harder to see what is happening in James Joyce.
                Becoming human: I think that is what we are called to do.

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              • Hannah says:

                Yes, becoming human as our calling! This longing and search for real humanity seems to tie in with the other discussion, about hobbits and the popularity of the LoR films.
                I was thinking of how Lewis saw everything becoming more concrete, not less (his 4th dimension), e.g. how in “the Great Divorce” the visitor from the grey city could not pick up the golden apple he wanted to take back with him. There is so much there, can’t put it in a few words.

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              • GD is a rich book.

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Becoming human… I’ve just been thinking of Keats’s ‘vale of soul-making’ letter (which I ought to reread!).

                I’d never made the connection before, but Aulë and the Dwarves in The Silmarillion on the one hand, and the release of the creatures made stone in LWW (and the comparison and contrast of Digory’s release of Jadis on Charn in MN… and Pygmalion, and Lewis’s attention to Shakspeare’s Hermione in The Winter’s Tale – or am I muddled on that one, re. Lewis?)

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              • I don’t know of every link, but “being human” or “becoming human” is a key theme in Lewis. The amazing thing about Silent Planet is that Ransom does not conquer the natives, but goes and sees humanoids who are more human than humans. The idea of “Hnau” is under everything in his fantastic work: the sentient-sapient embodied being. It is the beasts that teach humanity to the humans in both OSP and Narnia.

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              • I mean, notice how often the Narnia children say that someone (often themselves) has behaved “beastly,” or like an ass, or dragonishly. It is a beautiful inversion of expectation.

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                A splendid pair of comments – thanks!

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                The “sentient-sapient embodied being” – I was thinking the other day one way and another about this ‘matter’ (e.g., of Tolkien’s Elves, but also his Maiar (Thingol marries one) and Valar, and Lewis’s discussion of the ‘Longaevi’ in The Discarded Image, and Jewish demonology, and djinns (about which I know too little), and the apparently largely Ojibway-based beings in Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha’) and St. Augustine came to mind, The City of God, XVI, 8. The Wikipedia article, “Cynocephaly”, quote the Latin text: “homo, id est animal rationale mortale” (glossing, being human “as being a mortal and rational animal”). A big difference between Augustine here and Lewis’s ‘supposals’ and scholarly ponderings is that Augustine is also, strongly, concerned with human monogenesis: “whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast” and “to conclude this question cautiously and guardedly, either these things which have been told of some races have no existence at all; or if they do exist, they are not human races; or if they are human, they are descended from Adam” (Marcus Dods translation!). His contemporary, St. Jerome does not seem to be attending to this, in the extraordinary passage in his Life of St. Paul (or ‘Paulus’) the Hermit about St. Antony’s encounter with a creature who tells him, “I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth’ ” (ch. 8, “Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley”).

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              • That’s a great quote by St. A–if he was followed, the whole history of Christian racism in the West would have been only on the fringes. When secular government took control, they carried the question of who was “human” to an insane extent.
                I just read Discarded Image recently. The Longaevi just seem to have their own special place outside of the body-soul-spirit = animal/rational conversation. I had not known that the fey were ever equated with the gods of old.

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Of all my ancestral families, the Doddses are the ones I know least about (alas!). There is – or was, when I was last there – some estate agent (U.S.: real estate co.) in the neighbo(u)rhood of Chester on the Welsh marches and we keep going past all these houses with “Dodds” signs out front… But it’s also a name found in Scotland (variously spelled: there’s a famous Scottish cook:

          https://archive.org/details/cookandhousewif01johngoog

          and the Scottish divines and theological/Biblical scholars,the Doctors Marcus Dods Sr. and Jr.). But it’s supposed to be of English origin… Are any of these folks related? I have no idea. So, who knows: cousin Jeramy? I’ve got De Vries’s Dutch translation, but still have not read it… I love the Prose Edda, though.

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          • Hannah says:

            This info on the Doddses makes me curious about your other ancestral families ….
            Great discussion! Could the release of the creatures turned into stone in LWW by Aslan’s breath be compared to the dolls coming alive through the imagination of the authors?
            And through Lewis’s “Discarded Image” the rich Medieval worldview came alive for me. We have grown so far away from that!

            Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Quite a mix, English, Welsh, Irish, supposedly Powhatan, Alsatian (not the dog!: no Cynocephali, either, alas!).

              Yes, though I think Aulë’s Dwarves are more simply like the dolls coming alive (though then further brought to real life by Iluvatar), while the creatures were alive, then magically petrified, then – Divinely* – restored to life/given new life.

              By interesting contrast, Jadis on Charn has set up her magical passage into being statue-like and coming out of it again: not without its uncertainties, but as certain a magical technology as she can devise, which leaves her quite unchanged spiritually. This, in turn, makes me think of Considine and his ‘disciples’ and their aspiration and attempts in Williams’s Shadows of Ecstasy.

              *Michael Ward might say, ‘Jovially’, too!

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I love Shippey on the richness and complexity of the hobbits in The Road to Middle Earth (1982). I’m afraid I even like the way Bored of the Rings picks up on, and runs with, the pieces of “vulgar trollery”and “dwarfish malice”.

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        • Hannah says:

          Hi David, Are your related to Jeramy Dodds – translator of the Edda – who Brenton mentions above?
          And ‘Bored of the Rings’ is new to me. So they are not bored with hobbits?

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Hi! I submitted a ‘Dodds’ comment but it may have got paused in moderation because it had a link to a cookbook… (I hope so: I didn’t save a copy, and will have to reconstruct it, or skip it, otherwise!)

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            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Bored of the Rings is a (now old) Harvard student parody, where the hobbit-analogous creatures are (if I recall correctly) described as ‘somewhere on the evolutionary line between weasels and Italians’ – about which my Italian friend, who got me finally to read The Hobbit (despite the emus on the cover of the U.S. paperback), and The Lord of the Rings, had something to say!

              It has a parody warning on the back cover, too – about how offensive Tolkien fans may well find it!

              Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            There it is now – up above, at 1:19 p.m.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I wonder if there is an easy way of seeing the whole letter by ‘The Habit’ for those of us neither near a library with the relevant back issues, nor in the way of using “The Guardian and Observer digital archive”?

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    • I’ve looked and cannot find it. But that was a few minutes search. They say they have the entire archive online, but I haven’t found this letter (the date, of course, could be wrong in Carpenter’s editorial note).

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    There is a fascinating transition in the sentence referring to “the Ancient and Elvish World”, elaborated upon in the next paragraph in the one saying “elf, gnome, goblin, dwarf are only approximate translations of the Old Elvish names”. Tolkien seems to slip from maker-up of the story to scholar and translator of an ancient work, in a not-merely-human language drawing upon other not-merely-human languages. And on it goes from there. He has made “an editorial concession” in substituting “Scandinavian names” for real “Dwarvish” ones. The English hobbit family names seem translations or equivalents of those in the “language of hobbits”. “There is doubtless an historical connection between the two”: the Runes “used by Thorin and Co.” and “the runes of Anglo-Saxon inscriptions.” With Tolkien-as-author this would point to his borrowing and adapting Anglo-Saxon runes. With Tolkien as scholar of “the Ancient and Elvish World” it could mean that the Anglo-Saxons borrowed and adapted older Dwarvish ones. (Does it put Dwarves behind the development of the Phoenician alphabet, too?) Only in the last paragraph does he return as author, knowing about how “The tale halted in the telling”. But, even as author, is he a kind of free adapter of historical materials of “the Ancient and Elvish World”?

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    • Well spotted. This torques what I only thumb-tightened. Tolkien goes between pretending his work is just a little hobby of his, and pretending that he is merely bringing it to light from the archive as translator, modernizer, publicist, and historical curator. Lewis did this in Ransom-Screwtape (though not Narnia, though the character voice in Narnia makes this pretense). I love the device. Perhaps Tolkien is just a bad secret-keeper, and he is revealing rather than writing.

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      • Hannah says:

        “This torques what I only thumb-tightened” is a beautiful sentence!
        Could your “The swish, swish, swish of the Tolkien brush” be like the chisel of Michelangelo, who answered that he was freeing an angel from a marble block, when questioned what he was doing? So he was revealing & creating at the same time?

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        • I like all three of these metaphors, actually. Now that you point it out, the torque-thumb one is kind of nice.
          One of the reasons I don’t use a lot of art metaphors–the angel in the stone, the landscape in the canvas–is that I am incredibly naive when it comes to art. Archaeology is a metaphor I can understand, though I can see how chiseling would work (I mean, isn’t the word “chisel” so very evocative when it comes to world-building or even spirituality?). The strength of the chisel and stone is the dual image of revelator and (sub)creator. The strength of the archaeology metaphor is that there are entire worlds–literary and nonliterary–in the sands and caves of our planet.
          Both are rich, but I am converting to your metaphor.

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          • Hannah says:

            It is great thinking about this! They say creating art is 90% transpiration and 10% inspiration (that was so in my case when designing jewelry, but it has happened that I saw a design coming together without any effort on my part). With Tolkien the percentages were probably the other way round, just like with geniuses like Mozart who would hear the music (but unlike the movie Amadeus where he was rather portrayed as an inspired imbecile instead of a genius). I really do like your archaeology metaphor for Tolkien though as his work has so much to do with history and now with all the scholars delving into it.
            I actually heard the dual chisel image in a sermon as a picture of how God works in us, together with the new name on a white stone in Rev 2/17.

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            • I had to look up the word “transpiration.” That’s a good word. For Tolkien, 90% of the battle (I think) was overcoming fear–fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of not finishing.
              Yes, that white stone.

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              • Hannah says:

                I was also thinking about that while digging in my garden and that he just couldn’t get much done anymore at the end of his life … that Christopher finished a lot for him, ordering his material. I just checked and got it confirmed about “the Silmarillion being edited and published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien …” .
                As to what is ‘art’ I think wordsmithing is also an art, and that coming up with new and interesting blogs every other day takes a lot of creativity …

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              • I love this discussion. I do happen to think of blogging as an art form, a communal writing experience. My own blogging this last 6 months has been weak–propped up by book reviews and “lists.” I am in a fog, and hope it will lift this spring.

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Tangentially, George MacDonald has a great ‘white stone’ sermon!

                Liked by 1 person

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