Tolkien's household and poetic places

Knight_of_the_woeful_countenance_05424uFAMILY MATTERS: Andrew O'Hehir gives a nice overview of Tolkien's "The Fall of Arthur" in the pages of the New York Times that only stumbles at the very end. A couple of reasons why Tolkien abandoned that poem, which his son Christopher notes in the new book, involved the pressures of work and his family. Tolkien the Elder's interest also seemed to flag as his conception of Middle-earth started to grow.  All sounds pretty reasonable to me. If you've ever tried to compose a long work of fiction or nonfiction, and you have a young family, that line about Tolkien's situation might resonant as strongly for you as it did for me. I can relate to the bard. I can easily see us, side by side in the pub down the road from Merton College, throwing back what's left in our pint glasses.

"I'm stuck!" he says. "I can't get a bleedin' moment to meself  for Arthur!"

Tears pop from my eyes. I pound my fist on the bar.

"Aye John, you dinna hae to tell me!  Barkeep, two more glasses!"

Near the end of his review, O'Hehir thinks Tolkien more likely broke off his work because the alliterative, Anglo-Saxon style of the poem doesn't fit the Arthur of history: "If there was ever any historical cognate to Arthur, he was a Celtic Briton who spoke a language ancestral to modern Welsh and Cornish. To write about him in the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon verse style of later centuries ...  can only have struck this eminent philologist as an uncomfortable linguistic and historical pastiche."

Holy smokes that's fancy. Maybe it's true, but more compelling for me is the fact that in the years when he composed his Arthur fragment, Tolkien and his wife had four kidlings -- two early teens, two pre-teens. I'm sure any attempt to write about Arthur's clash with  Saxon invaders paled beside the battles taking place in the Tolkien house!

OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO: A post last week on worthwhile poetry websites drew some nice responses from my friends, Jilanne Hoffmann and Michael Odom. Along with my recommendations:

Red Hen Press

Sarabande Books

Copper Canyon

they suggest a couple more that you should start patronizing:

SPD (Small Press Distribution)

Marick Press

Bookmark them and make a point of dropping in on a weekly (or more frequent) basis. You don't have to do too much, but the small gestures count for so much. They encourage the small publishers to continue on with their sacred work and, who knows? You might find yourself discovering some exciting new voices. Hope you're having an excellent week, friends.

The Last Tolkien?

Trampled underfoot: The Saxons are overcome by Arthur and his forces. No, the above title doesn't refer to the bloodline of J.R.R. Tolkien's family -- it has to do with the most recent addition to the collection of Tolkien's writings, "The Fall of Arthur" edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

It's probably not a good idea to say "last" when it comes to a writer like Tolkien. There are too many fragmentary pieces lying around, and his son Christopher is far too skillful as a weaver and interpreter to deprive his father's hungry audience of more.

But "The Fall of Arthur" is hardly a minor fragment even if it's far from complete. Tolkien the Son provides us with not only the thrilling manuscript of Arthur's final wars against Mordred and Germanic invaders, rendered in alliterative half-lines

As wary as wolves     through the wood stalking to the marches rode there      Mordred's hunters, huge and hungry      hounds beside them the fewte followed      fiercely baying...

but also with several context-setting essays about the poem's relationship to Tolkien's evolving ideas about The Lord of the Rings. This is the kind of rich, fascinating material that will send you to eBay in search of a broadsword and shield (if Game of Thrones hasn't made you already).

225px-The_Fall_of_ArthurChristopher Tolkien is an ideal guide, poring over his father's notes and scribbles  -- Tolkien abandoned the poem in the 1930s -- and showing us his father's earliest ideas for The Silmarillion and how, for instance, that epic's "Lonely Isle" of the elves was first associated with Arthur's Avalon, or "Fortunate Isle."

Several times, in my reading, something odd happened to me. I forgot that Tolkien belonged to the 20th century. His alliterative style, meter, and word choice are thoroughly convincing. And I forgot that his son was an editor and I started treating him like a translator -- like the poet Simon Armitage, who recently gave us a version of the 15th century poem, The Death of King Arthur.

This isn't dry, academic reading, my friends. Not only is the poem convincing, it's frequently moving. There's an especially powerful moment near the fragment's end, as Arthur contemplates the wars ahead of him before he can restore his beloved country:

With woe and weariness    and war sated, kingship owning     crowned and righteous he would pass in peace     pardon granting, the hurt healing    and the whole guiding, to Britain the blessed     bliss recalling. Death lay between     dark before him ere the way were won     or the world conquered.

Such a sentiment could be Tolkien's own yearning for peace in his time. Or ours for that matter.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has done readers an immense service--with the Tolkien Estate and son Christopher--to bring this work to the public. Here you'll find one of those rare chances to closely examine the creative process -- all the selections, all the choices and changes, all the omissions -- of a great storyteller.

The once and future mystery: recent in bookstores

'Twill never be forgot: Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews in "Camelot." A few years ago, Adam Ardrey published a couple of books about the history behind the King Arthur legend, and he titled them "Finding Merlin" and "Finding Arthur." Both are speculative histories that peel away the myths and try to identify the flesh-and-blood figures of early Britain who inspired the Arthurian legend. When "Finding Camlann" (W.W. Norton & Company) appeared, I thought it was another installment by the Scot, aiming for a trilogy gift-set just in time for the holidays. It isn't.

Instead, "Finding Camlann" is an enjoyable literary detective novel by Sean Pidgeon that had me thinking of Byatt's "Possession" and Kostova's "The Historian." Both of those books are partly about trails of clues left in ancient manuscripts, and Pidgeon's first novel clearly belongs with them in your library.  For his novel's two researchers, Donald and Julia, the hunt for the real Arthur's kingdom is facilitated by "The Song of Lailoken"--a Welsh poem that tells the story of the king's final, fatal battle.

There's nothing better than a mystery connected with literary tradition. Dan Brown might grab the headlines for his new Dante-themed thriller,  but Pidgeon's book deserves a look this summer. Not only do books like his help us to appreciate stories thoroughly embalmed by our high school English classes, they remind us that the past contains so much that's worth our time.

SPEAKING OF ARTHUR: by the way, the mailman delivered the best kind of mail yesterday: a copy of "The Fall of Arthur" by J.R.R. Tolkien and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This will probably be the last (is it really?) "new" Tolkien item to appear in the years since the ringmaster's death in 1973. Edited and curated by Tolkien's son, Christopher, the book was delivered into my hot little hands just in time for the three-day holiday: Nothing better than some alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse poolside!

I'll have a full report next week. Until then, my friends, a happy Memorial Day to you and yours.

Etc.: Tolkien's names, Pullman's grimly good

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark WHAT'S IN A NAME: Just some trivia for the end of the weekend about J.R.R. Tolkien's interest in the late, great storyteller Snorri Sturluson.

Nancy Marie Brown's new book on the Viking chronicler (featured in a previous post at Call of the Siren) who gave us stories of Odin, Thor & Company also recalled her shock as she flipped through the pages of Snorri's Prose Edda.

Brown couldn't believe her eyes: There, on the page, was a listing of the names of Gandalf as well as that courageous, merry band of dwarves that traveled far and wide in order to battle the dragon Smaug. The list was written more than seven centuries before Tolkien penned "The Hobbit."

Here's that passage from Snorri:

Then all the powerful gods went

to their thrones of fate,

the most sacred gods, and

decided among themselves

that a troop of dwarves

should be created...

Nyi, Nidi,

Nordri, Sudri,

Austri, Vestri,

Althjolf, Dvalin,

Nar, Nain,

Niping, Dain,

Bifur, Bafur,

Bombor, Nori,

Ori, Onar,

Oin, Modvitnir,

Vig and Gandalf,

Vindalf, Thorin,

Fili, Kili....

(taken from Penguin Classics' edition of the Prose Edda, translated by Jesse Byock)

So, the great Tolkien wasn't smart enough to invent names on his own?

If you've read any of the great Tolkien scholars, like Tom Shippey, you know the answer: The great inventor of Middle Earth (Midgard, in Snorri's epic) wanted to root his saga in older Western traditions. It increased his cycle's mythic reality. Instead of being an isolated, separate invention, his tales would belong to the great web of historical legend ... and live forever. He wasn't unoriginal -- he was aiming for immortality.

GRIMLY GOOD: Philip Pullman, the epic storyteller behind "The Golden Compass" and the rest of the "His Dark Materials" stories, has retold the stories of the Brothers Grimm in a new edition. A friend, Mindy Farabee, has written a review of the book for the Los Angeles Times that's definitely worth checking out.

Take it from Frodo

The arrival of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" series of movies translates into two ... no, make it three ... kinds of related books this season:

1) Reissues of Tolkien's best books, including "The Hobbit" (no surprise there)

2) Scholarly works for the deeply obsessed fan of Tolkien's work (like Verlyn Flieger's "Green Suns and Faerie," which I wrote about not long ago)

3) A mixed bag of books, ranging from interesting movie tie-ins to silly, slight works hoping to sell a few units while the movie is in theaters

When I received my advance galley of Noble Smith's "The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to A Long And Happy Life" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's), I groaned. "Here's one of the silly, superficial examples of category 3!" I thought. "Ugh. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins on leadership!"

The closer I looked, the more I realized I was wrong. The conceit of this book does seem a bit silly, a bit shameless in its packaging -- to see our lives in terms of the values of Tolkien's little fellows -- but is it?  Hobbits love the simple things in life: food and beer, friends, a good night's sleep. Isn't that like most of us?

If you've read Tom Shippey on the matter, you know Tolkien intended them to reflect us in his mythic cycle of tales -- so Noble Smith's book makes sense. And it's worth a look.

I especially appreciate his chapter on "bearing the burden of your ring." Sauron's awful ring can only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, and Frodo nearly dies in the effort. It slowly taints and corrupts him but he never surrenders it even though he has so many chances.  Plenty of people will gladly take it from his finger. Not just Gollum. Give it to Aragorn. Let Gondor take it. Give it to Gandalf. Let the elves deal with it, Frodo. Head for the Shire. Drink a beer and have a warm, long night's sleep.

Frodo refuses, knowing that the ring is poisoning him.

Noble Smith praises Frodo for his focus and dedication. I'd add that Frodo displays a quality most of us lack today. He acts on behalf of a larger community of living beings who are counting on him -- not simply in terms of what is best only for him. Frodo knows there will be terrible consequences for Middle-earth if he surrenders the ring just to save his own skin. So he doesn't. He makes the hard choice that most people wouldn't make today.

I wonder what he'd think of us if the Supreme Ring had somehow teleported him into our world.

(More Hobbity posts to come as Peter Jackson's movie get nearer.)