May 28, 2014

An Appreciation of Tolkien


We all know the tales J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings many times, over many years. There is even more detailed accounts of his creation in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and Children of Hurin. He created his own world - language, culture, history, myth...everything. Unknown to the common reader who may be more (or only) familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he was also a Professor at Oxford, and gave many lectures on subjects of Old English, Anglo Saxon, and others. He also translated and gave his own accounts on various poems over during his academic career.

Some of these were abandoned in favor of writing The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and is entirely possible that he may not have created those works in favour of more poems. For instance, The Fall of Arthur could have been fully completed if he had not been so busy at the time preparing The Hobbit for publication. Suppose Tolkien never wrote The Hobbit : instead, The Fall of Arthur may have been fully realized.

There are quite a few 'what if' scenarios in regards to Tolkien and various projects he was working on. What if The Lord of the Rings was published as one physical book instead of three? Or if instead of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers  and The Return of the King it as The Return of the Shadow, The Treason of Isengard and The War of the Ring? Or if The Lord of the Rings was published with The Silmarillion and titled "The Saga of the Jewels and the Rings"? Or if Instead of writing The Hobbit and The Lird of the Rings Tolkien worked on and completed The Silmarillion with "the Fall of Gondolin" and "the Children of Hurin" being fully realized? Those are some interesting scenarios to ponder.

Tolkien greatly adored Old English and Anglo Saxon literature, languages and poems. There are some similarities between some of the old stories and myths, and Tolkien's own Middle-earth realm. One would notice there are parallels between Beowulf and The Hobbit. Not to saying against Tolkien nor his work, but it is fitting to point out that some articles examine this. 

Tolkien greatly appreciated Beowulf, and held it in high regard. Aside from certain similar aspects here and there in his own writing, let's look at Beowulf and the Critics, and Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. The latter is a collection of academic papers (essays and lectures) in which Tolkien defends Beowulf 

As you may very well know, this year Tolkien's very own translation of Beowulf is being published.  

Here is a listing of some of the poems translated by Tolkien, as well as some info about them:



Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (can be publised with Sir Orfeo and Pearl)



Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl are two poems by an unknown author written in about 1400. Sir Gawain is a romance, a fairy-tale for adults, full of life and colour; but it is also much more than this, being at the same time a powerful moral tale which examines religious and social values.

Pearl is apparently an elegy on the death of a child, a poem pervaded with a sense of great personal loss: but, like Gawain it is also a sophisticated and moving debate on much less tangible matters.

Sir Orfeo is a slighter romance, belonging to an earlier and different tradition. It was a special favourite of Tolkien’s.

The three translations represent the complete rhyme and alliterative schemes of the originals.


Finn and Hengest



Professor J.R.R.Tolkien is most widely known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but he was also a distinguished scholar in the field of Mediaeval English language and literature. His most significant contribution to Anglo-Saxon studies is to be found in his lectures on Finn and Hengest (pronounced Hen-jist), two fifth-century heroes in northern Europe.
The story is told in two Old English poems, Beowulf and The Fights at Finnesburg, but told so obscurely and allusively that its interpretation had been a matter of controversy for over 100 years. Bringing his unique combination of philological erudition and poetic imagination to the task, however, Tolkien revealed a classic tragedy of divided loyalties, of vengeance, blood and death.

Tolkien’s original and persuasive solution of the many problems raised by the story ranged widely through the early history and legend of the Germanic peoples. The story has the added attraction that it describes the events immediately preceding the first Germanic invasion of Britain which was led by Hengest himself.

This book will be of interest not only to students of Old English and all those interested in the history of northern Europe and Anglo-Saxon England, but also admirers of The Lord of the Rings who will be fascinated to see how Tolkien handled a story which he did not invent.


Finn and Hengest are two Anglo-Saxon heroes appearing in the Old English epic poem Beowulf and in the fragment of "The Fight at Finnsburg". Hengest has sometimes been identified with the Jutish king of Kent. He and his brother Horsa (the names meaning "stallion" and "horse") were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon immigrants to Britain as mercenaries in the 5th century.

The book is based on an edited series of lectures Tolkien made before and after World War II. In his lectures, Tolkien argued that the Hengest of "The Fight at Finnsburg" and Beowulf was an historical rather than a legendary figure and that these works record episodes from an orally composed and transmitted history of the Hengest named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.[1] This view has gained acceptance from a number of medieval historians and Anglo-Saxon scholars both since Tolkien's initial lectures and since the publication of this posthumous collection.

Tolkien's lectures describe what he called the "Jutes-on-both-sides theory", which was his explanation for the puzzling occurrence of the word ēotenas in the episode in Beowulf. Tolkien read the word as Jutes, and theorised that the fight was a purely Jutish feud, and Finn and Hnæf were simply caught up by circumstance. Tolkien explained both their presence and their ambiguous loyalty with his interpretation of the story.


The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun



Written by Tolkien during the 1920s and the 1930s, inspired by the legend of Sigurd and the fall of the Niflungs from Norse mythology. It is composed in a form of alliterative verse inspired by the traditional poetry of the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century.

“Many years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien composed his own version, now published for the first time, of the great legend of Northern antiquity, in two closely related poems to which he gave the titles The New Lay of the Völsungs and The New Lay of Gudrún.

“In the Lay of the Völsungs is told the ancestry of the great hero Sigurd, the slayer of Fáfnir most celebrated of dragons, whose treasure he took for his own; of his awakening of the Valkyrie Brynhild who slept surrounded by a wall of fire, and of their betrothal; and of his coming to the court of the great princes who were named the Niflungs (or Nibelungs), with whom he entered into blood-brotherhood. In that court there sprang great love but also great hate, brought about by the power of the enchantress, mother of the Niflungs, skilled in the arts of magic, of shape-changing and potions of forgetfulness.

“In scenes of dramatic intensity, of confusion of identity, thwarted passion, jealousy and bitter strife, the tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild, of Gunnar the Niflung and Gudrún his sister, mounts to its end in the murder of Sigurd at the hands of his blood-brothers, the suicide of Brynhild, and the despair of Gudrún. In the Lay of Gudrún her fate after the death of Sigurd is told, her marriage against her will to the mighty Atli, ruler of the Huns (the Attila of history), his murder of her brothers the Niflung lords, and her hideous revenge.

“Deriving his version primarily from his close study of the ancient poetry of Norway and Iceland known as the Poetic Edda (and where no old poetry exists, from the later prose work the Völsunga Saga), J.R.R. Tolkien employed a verse-form of short stanzas whose lines embody in English the exacting alliterative rhythms and the concentrated energy of the poems of the Edda.”

— Christopher Tolkien


The Fall of Arthur




The Fall of Arthur, the only venture by J.R.R. Tolkien into the legends of Arthur King of Britain, may well be regarded as his finest and most skilful achievement in the use of the Old English alliterative metre, in which he brought to his transforming perceptions of the old narratives a pervasive sense of the grave and fateful nature of all that is told: of Arthur’s expedition overseas into distant heathen lands, of Guinevere’s flight from Camelot, of the great sea-battle on Arthur’s return to Britain, in the portrait of the traitor Mordred, in the tormented doubts of Lancelot in his French castle.
Unhappily, The Fall of Arthur was one of several long narrative poems that he abandoned in that period. In this case he evidently began it in the earlier nineteen-thirties, and it was sufficiently advanced for him to send it to a very perceptive friend who read it with great enthusiasm at the end of 1934 and urgently pressed him ‘You simply must finish it!’ But in vain: he abandoned it, at some date unknown, though there is some evidence that it may have been in 1937, the year of the publication of The Hobbit and the first stirrings of The Lord of the Rings. Years later, in a letter of 1955, he said that ‘he hoped to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur’; but that day never came.

Associated with the text of the poem, however, are many manuscript pages: a great quantity of drafting and experimentation in verse, in which the strange evolution of the poem’s structure is revealed, together with narrative synopses and very significant if tantalising notes. In these latter can be discerned clear if mysterious associations of the Arthurian conclusion with The Silmarillion, and the bitter ending of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, which was never written.

The poem is alliterative, extending to close to 1,000 verses imitating the Old English Beowulf metre in Modern English. Though inspired by high medieval Arthurian fiction, the historical setting of the poem is early medieval, both in form (using Germanic verse) and in content, showing Arthur as a Migration period British military leader fighting the Saxon invasion, while it avoids the high medieval aspects Arthurian cycle (such as the Grail, and the courtly setting); the poem begins with a British "counter-invasion" to the Saxon lands (Arthur eastward in arms purposed).

Tolkien, who was at the time Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, wrote the poem during the earlier part of the 1930s. He abandoned it at some point after 1934, most likely in 1937 when he was occupied with preparing The Hobbit for publication.


When the poem had been abandoned for nearly 20 years, in 1955 (after the publication of The Lord of the Rings was complete), Tolkien expressed his wish to return to his "long poem" and complete it in a letter to Houghton Mifflin, but in spite of this the poem remained unfinished.

After Tolkien's death, his Arthurian poem would come to be one of the longest-awaited unedited work of his. According to John D. Rateliff, Rayner Unwin had announced plans to edit the poem as early as 1985, but the edition was postponed in favour of "more pressing projects" (such as The History of Middle-earth edited 1983–1996), answering the demand for background on Tolkien's legendarium more than his literary production in other areas.

Beowulf

       

This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book.

From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel’s terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot.

But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf ‘snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup’; but he rebuts the notion that this is ‘a mere treasure story’, ‘just another dragon tale’. He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is ‘the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history’ that raises it to another level. ‘The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The “treasure” is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.’

Sellic Spell, a ‘marvellous tale’, is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the ‘historical legends’ of the Northern kingdoms.

As one can see, Tolkien had a great interest in poems, lectures and essays for publication purposes. He is most well known for his stories of Middle-earth, but reading more about him, as a professor and lover of poetry, it is astounding to discover how, as detailed and thought iut the Middle-earth material is, remains small by contrast to the rest of his studies and interest. It is a shame that many of his works had to go unfinished or unpublished due to his death.
 
His son Christopher is the literary executor, and has edited, assembled, compiled and made many of Tolkien's legacy available for publication. Christpher himself has knowledge of translating poems, as in 1960 he translated The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise:

Heidrek’s Saga is a medieval entertainment - a ‘romance’, but a romance that derives little of its matter from the literature of France or Germany. It is an example of a kind of story-telling that was flourishing in Iceland by the beginning of the twelfth century, and which (in contrast to the more celebrated ‘Sagas of the Icelanders’) told of legendary figures whose origins lie far back in time beyond the settlement of the country. The elements of the story, diverse in age and atmosphere, are unified in the theme of a possession bearing an ancestral curse, as it passes down the generations; but the saga’s peculiar value lies in the older poems which the unknown author set into the framework of his narrative, including The Battle of the Goths and the Huns, perhaps the oldest of all the Northern heroic lays, The Waking of Angantyr, source of many eighteenth-century ‘Gothic Odes’, and the unique riddle-contest between King Heidrek and the god Odin in disguise.

Translated from the Icelandic with Introduction, Notes and Appendices by Christopher Tolkien, then Lecturer in Old English at New College, Oxford, The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise was first published in 1960 in Nelson’s Icelandic Texts series. This translation is of interest to J. R. R. Tolkien readers as it contains references to the Sword "Tyrfing", a parallel to Túrin Turambar's sword "Anglachel", which is cursed and will not be sheathed until it sheds blood. "Brego" is the name of the Second King of the Rohan. "Durin" is used by Tolkien as "Durin the Deathless" one of the Fathers of the Dwarves. "Dwalin" is a variation of "Dvalin" and "Mirkwood" is a variation of "Myrkvior". The inclusion of lines of genealogy and the pattern of riddles and songs is well known to Tolkien readers. J. R. R. Tolkien and his son Christopher spoke Icelandic. J. R. R. Tolkien also spoke Welsh, Gothic, Anglo-Saxon (Old English), Finnish and Elvish.

The title was re-published exclusively by tolkien.co.uk to mark it's 50th anniversary, as a print-on-demand book. The poems mentioned in this post are available at that web site also (under "Middle-earth & Beyond" or by search) or through book retailers.

At this time, it is unknown to me how much more material by Tolkien can be published, or what Christopher Tolkien's plans are for 'new' material are in the future. This is not addressing anniverary editions of already published works, but unreleased texts. For instance, Ihighly believe that Children of Hurin may very well be the last 'new' material from Middle-earth we'll ever see. I hope I'm wrong. 
Many thanks to Wikipedia and Tolkien.co.uk for reference purposes

No comments: