On the heels of The Fall of Númenor: and Other Tales from the Second Age of Middle-earth, here is another great piece of Tolkien publication news!
Anna Smol and the gang at the “Tolkien and Alliterative Verse” blog tipped me off to a new book from HarperCollins in 2023: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Battle of Maldon, together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. The new volume will be edited by Peter Grybauskas, who has contributed to Tolkien essays in a couple of recent well-edited collections: Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I (2015) and A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger (2018).
This new volume is a real treat for those of us who have loved the poetic and literary critical Tolkien collections that are not always the most popular because they are not primarily Middle-earth materials–books like Kullervo, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, the Tree & Leaf and Tolkien Reader collections, the materials in studies like A Secret Vice and On Fairy-Stories, and all the Beowulf materials.
The “Tolkien Collector’s Guide” website includes this description of the forthcoming volume:
First ever standalone edition of one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most important poetic dramas, that explores timely themes such as the nature of heroism and chivalry during war, and which features unpublished and never-before-seen texts and drafts.
In 991 AD, vikings attacked an Anglo-Saxon defence-force led by their duke, Beorhtnoth, resulting in brutal fighting along the banks of the river Blackwater, near Maldon in Essex. The attack is widely considered one of the defining conflicts of tenth-century England, due to it being immortalised in the poem, The Battle of Maldon.
Written shortly after the battle, the poem now survives only as a 325-line fragment, but its value to today is incalculable, not just as an heroic tale but in vividly expressing the lost language of our ancestors and celebrating ideals of loyalty and friendship.
J.R.R. Tolkien considered The Battle of Maldon ‘the last surviving fragment of ancient English heroic minstrelsy’. It would inspire him to compose, during the 1930s, his own dramatic verse-dialogue, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, which imagines the aftermath of the great battle when two of Beorhtnoth’s retainers come to retrieve their duke’s body.
Leading Tolkien scholar, Peter Grybauskas, presents for the very first time J.R.R. Tolkien’s own prose translation of The Battle of Maldon together with the definitive treatment of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth and its accompanying essays; also included and never before published is Tolkien’s bravura lecture, ‘The Tradition of Versification in Old English’, a wide-ranging essay on the nature of poetic tradition. Illuminated with insightful notes and commentary, he has produced a definitive critical edition of these works, and argues compellingly that, Beowulf excepted, The Battle of Maldon may well have been ‘the Old English poem that most influenced Tolkien’s fiction’, most dramatically within the pages of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien and Alliterative Verse
Thanks to the Tolkien Guide, we have an announcement of a forthcoming book that will be important for the study of Tolkien’s alliterative verse: The Battle of Maldon together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, edited by Peter Grybauskas and to be published by HarperCollins in March 2023.
According to the pre-publication information, the book will include Tolkien’s lecture on “The Tradition of Versification in Old English,” a valuable resource for those who can’t go to Oxford to read Tolkien’s papers (and let’s face it — that’s most of us!)
Tolkien’s translation of “The Battle of Maldon” was done in prose, most likely as notes for his lectures on the poem. What it says — or doesn’t say — about his interpretation of the word “ofermod,” which is central to his short essay accompanying “The Homecoming,” should be of interest to Tolkien scholars.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think…
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What I’m starting to like about the resurgence of Tolkien’s poetry, as well as his scholarship on the subject, is that it starts to grant him a second sort of reputation. It’s not something that’s disconnected from his most famous work. It’s just that this other career as a scholar and writer of verse gives us a view of Tolkien that allows us to see him as something 0f an adjunct to an author and critic such as T.S. Eliot.
I think a comparison between the two is apt here,for it often seems to me the Eliot is the one other artist with whom Tolkien might be said to have the greatest possible deal in common, despite surface differences. Each of them took the materials 0f ancient myth and gave them the best possible modern mode of expression. In other words, what Eliot did for Arthurian imagery in “The Waste Land”, Tolkien was able to achieve for Norse mythology and the forgotten fragments 0f vanished English fairy tales in Middle Earth. This new excavation of his poetry now acts as an added bonus linking his writing to the modernist efforts of writers like Eliot and David Jones.
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In Eliotville and Lewisland, a lot of people talk about the TSE:CSL poetic and critical links–especially since, for a period, Lewis viewed Eliot as an arch-enemy (with raised eyebrow). There’s some good talkin’ there. However, I don’t know of any JRRT:TSE bromantic thoughts. It’s worth playing with, I think.
I think a good place to start would have to be “Tolkien’s Modern Reading”, by Holly Ordway. It qualifies as a potential paradigm shifter, in the sense that the critic is able to grant the reader what I believe can be considered a legitimate view of a different Tolkien to the one even his staunchest fans have grown used to. It’s also there that we’re allowed a glimpse of Tolkien’s quiet approval of Eliot’s poetic efforts.
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Has anybody ‘done the work’ on David Jones and at least three major Inklings? I read somewhere that Jones attended Williams’s Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury at the Festival in 1936, and I’ve seen the evidence that Williams read In Parenthesis in proof. I think it’s there – but it might be in The Anathemata – that (I lazily say – not going to search the shelves) Jones acknowledges Tolkien – tantalizingly, without further details (e.g., is it on account of his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight edition with Gordon, or that ‘plus’ something(s) else?). Lewis mentions The Anathemata in his Cambeidge inaugural lecture, and (being lazy, again) Jones wrote about Williams’s Arthurian retelling and (I think) Lewis’s commentary in Arthurian Torso. I’m not up to speed on what’s ‘out there’ (e.g., I have searched Lewis’s collected letters, yet or Eliot’s). I wonder if there are lots more references, as yet unpublished, amongst Williams and, e.g., Raymond Hunt’s, Tolkien’s, and David Jones’s papers (or even Warren Lewis’s diaries)? Given Tolkien’s knowledge of and interest in Welsh (the extent of which I suspect his modesty in his O’Donnell Lecture, ‘English and Welsh’, disguises a bit), and his own enjoyment of painting , calligraphy, etc., it would be particularly interesting to know what he made of Jones.
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Well now that is interesting. I’d heard Jones’ name brought up in connection with both Tolkien and Eliot in the course of being an Inkling fan. A basic summary of a lot of Jones’ poetry sounds very much like the same themes in “LOTR”, except in a more Eliotic metere.
All I know about Jones comes from Paul Robichaud’s “Making the Past Present: David Jones, the Middle Ages, and Modernism”. The curious part is that while the poet Taliesin is mentioned several times, none of it is ever connected to Williams, and Tolkien is nowhere to be found at all. The final irony, however, is that C.S. Lewis does get a passing mention.
Still, if nothing else, Robichaud can be seen as making an effort that helps connect the concept of Mythopoeia to the same type of Modernist experiments that Eliot and Jones were conducting at the same time.
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Thank you! I don’t know Paul Robichaud’s “Making the Past Present: David Jones, the Middle Ages, and Modernism”, but it sounds like I ought to! Rereading Tolkien’s O’Donnell Lecture, ‘English and Welsh’, recently has left me thinking there are a lot of things about Tolkien and early Welsh literature that I have not thought enough about – such as, how familiar he must have been with the Taliesin material in Lady Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion. And catching up on a lot of what ‘we’ know – but I didn’t, yet – about Tolkien’s Old English scholarship has involved bumping into his attention to the poem ‘Widsith’ in various contexts, and making me realize I have never thought enough about similarities between it and the poetry attributed to Taliesin which Lady Charlotte included and both Jones and Williams – and for that matter, Vernon Watkins – played with.
In the latter context, you might be interested in my paper in the Winter 1982 issue of The Charles Williams Society Newsletter (later, Quarterly) in the Archive at their website.
How might they have discussed such things at Inklings sessions? Maybe there are unpublished sources which could tell us – and I hope will, if so!
I’m starting to wonder if this might not in some ways tie in with Tolkien’s two unfinished novel-drafts, The Lost Road and its (so to say) transformation into The Notion Club Papers. The ‘time travellers’ seem to be ‘in’ historical places as Taliesin and Widsith seem to boast of being. (We might also compare – and contrast – the lines attributed to the Irish Amergin – included in translation as the first item in Nicholson and Lee’s Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse.)
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I’ll admit I’m not qualified to provide even half an answer to all the topics you raise in connection with Tolkien, Williams, and Jones. At the same time, I’m just English Major enough to consider them all as avenues that perhaps ought to be kept open for exploration. There seems to be enough of a minor renaissance in Inklings studies going on that makes it possible to consider a lot of further up and in ways of regarding all of these writers going forward.
For me, what unites people like Jones, Tolkien, and Eliot is that a good part of their shared inspiration really does seem to have come out of the First World War. I suppose a good way to look at “LOTR” is that is does serve as perhaps a useful reflection (as opposed to flat, modern “allegory”) for the lessons Tolkien learned from his experiences in that conflict. The interesting twist is merely to discover that it is possible he turned out to be sharing similar, or perhaps even the same themes as those contained in the poetry of Eliot and Jones. Each work of the latter poets can help throw a useful spotlight on what manner of concerns and maybe even obsessions went into Middle Earth.
In fact, I’ve sort of found this working theory that perhaps the movements of Eliot’s major poems might serve as either a good commentary, or perhaps a more than serviceable mirror reflection of the basic ideas that undergird the journey from the Shire to Mt. Doom.
For instance, if I had to sum up the over-arching idea of the “Rings” books, then it would have to be the proposition that, in order to survive, Romanticism must come of age. In other words, Tolkien, Eliot, and Jones all faced the same choice as writers like Robert Graves, or Siegfried Sasoon. They could either dismiss the ideals they grew up on, and embrace a kind of nihilistic form of modernism. Or else they could see if the “Dry Salvages” of myth and romance really were, in fact, salvageable. All three of the authors just mentioned seem to have wound up choosing the latter option.
That’s why lumping them all together seems like such a good avenue of exploration. They each came away from a momentary lapse of civilizational reason, and it left them with a series of shared problems and questions that they each worked out on separate courses, which nonetheless wound up traveling in mostly the shared streams, and terminating all at more or less the same point. What each of them appears to have discovered is that it is possible for Romanticism to come of age without having to sacrifice anything essential about the dreams and ideals contained in the genre of Myth.
The good news about all that is how it remains one of the most interesting literary developments in history. The bad news is its the sort of thing that only matters to those in the audience with what might be called a genuine “bookish” bent. Still no reason not to bring the subject up.
In terms of Tolkien’s “Maldon” and “Beorthnoth”, they are examples of the type of shared, poetic convergence between him, Eliot, and Jones. I’ve read “Beorthnoth”, and would have to describe it as the closest he ever got to the “Eliotic Voice” in his fiction. It also offers a very useful lens through which to view the action of “LOTR”. I owe Tom Shippey for this insight, in particular.
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Thanks for this – and not least for making me aware of “Anna Smol and the gang at the ‘Tolkien and Alliterative Verse’ blog”: wow and hurray!
I’ve just been getting acquainted with Stuart Lee’s 4-volume 2017 selection of essays on Tolkien published but Routledge, including one by Thomas Honegger which discusses with tantalizing brevity 10 or 11 drafts of The Homecoming in manuscript in the Bodleian: I wonder how much they will feature in this intriguing new volume? Meanwhile, I’m delighted that HarperCollins already reprinted the late Alan Bliss’s 1982 edition of Tolkien’s Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode to complement Christopher Tolkien’s edition of his Beowulf translation and selected lecture notes (etc.). How I wish OUP would do the same – or perhaps make a deal with HarperCollins to do so jointly – with the late Joan Turville-Petre’s 1981 edition of Tolkien’s Old English Exodus. And I get the impression there are more unpublished Old English texts, translations, and lecture notes among Tolkien’s papers… maybe this is the first ‘step’ in preparing them for a wide audience (I hope so!).
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Oops! Published ‘by’ Routledge (in their Critical Assessments of Major Writers series). Honegger’s essay was first published in Tolkien Studies 4 (2007).
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I’ve dropped into a pit of student marking! It’s great stuff, just all-consuming. So cool here your thoughts David and the discussion with Chris. On your comment here … without criticizing anyone, as much as I love the 25+ posthumous JRRT volumes, I am still always a little disappointed by what isn’t there: the text textures, holographs, minutiae, etc. I am perhaps unsatisfiable.
Thanks! I am of much the same mind: very grateful for what we’ve got so far (with Christopher’s wrestling with his father’s handwriting whenever necessary and bringing his unique knowledge to bear and to light), but I champ at the bit for more (if that’s not too weird a Horse and His Boy image). More editions, and, indeed, more photos of the originals, as current technology so richly allows.
I’m busy (in part) with Tolkien’s play in The Notion Club Papers with poems known from the Exeter Book, and so via its Wikipedia article External link met with the new digitalisation of the manuscript “© 2021 Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives & University of Exeter Digital Humanities Lab”. Talk about “textures” – amazing! And details of a sort seldom if ever mentioned in even careful descriptions… It’d be great if we could add Tolkien stuff treated like that to the (mediaeval) stuff he studied… (!)
Wow and … hmm! Reading Stuart Lee’s article on Tolkien and the Exeter Book poem usually called ‘The Wanderer’ as reprinted in his 2017 4-volume selection of articles about Tolkien, makes me think there can be – and ought to be – more to publish of Tolkien’s Old English poetry scholarship on the basis of his surviving notes! How much more, I don’t have a clear sense of. How easily to get in shape for publication…? Sounds like a weighty matter – which sharpens my interest in this forthcoming Maldon edition even further – how has Peter Grybauskas tackled it, in the case of the ‘Maldon manuscripts’ in comparison with Turville-Petre (Exodus), Bliss (Finn and Hengest), Christopher Tolkien (Beowulf) – or for that matter, with Michael Drout where Tolkien’s Gollancz lecture and its background and context are concerned? (A mass-market paperback of the latest revised edition of his Tolkien and the Critics would be a great thing to have – I have not managed to find a library copy anywhere here in the Netherlands!… though that may involve my primitive ‘search’ skills.)
Hmm… I spoke too soon – the new-format WorldCat suggests there are two library copies of Michael Drout’s Beowulf and the Critics (2011 revised ed. 2) in the country (should have checked the title, and not assumed I knew it by heart, before my previous comment – but I had searched by author, before!), so I may manage to get a look at it – but, imagine it were as freely available as the paperback of Finn and Hengest.