Obituary for Henry Bradley - William Smith

Comments by N.E. Brigand, August 28, 2007

In 1923, Tolkien wrote a two-page obituary of Bradley, his boss at the Oxford English Dictionary following the first World War.  Smith’s short article is largely a good reduction of the obituary, including a translation of two lines from the Old English poem with which Tolkien concluded his appreciation.  There isn’t much analysis, but Smith had less than 300 words to work with.  I suppose it would have been stretching for Smith to try to connect Bradley’s “grey beard” and “wise and kindly hand” to anything in Tolkien’s fiction, but a note on Tolkien’s early complaint about “the motor vehicles invading Oxford with noise and evil odour” would have been nice.

If Smith couldn’t work in a reference to Bradley as one of the “Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford” mentioned in Farmer Giles of Ham, at least there should have been a cross-reference to that book and also to “Poems by Tolkien in Other Languages” in the 'See also' list, now home only to “Oxford”.  Likewise the 'Further Reading' list includes only the obituary, but could use Carpenter’s biography.  I think Ring of Words, about Tolkien and the OED, was published too late for inclusion here.

Comments by squire, August 28, 2007

I too thought of Shippey's article “Poems by Tolkien in Other Languages” when reading this. But that article does not mention the 13-line Old English poem Tolkien composed in honor of Bradley; was that an oversight, or did Shippey judge it to be too "non-literary", just as in "Poems by Tolkien, Uncollected" he seemingly ignores some of Tolkien's personal or satirical verses?

 

Old English - Alexandra Bolintineanu

Comments by squire, March 22, 2007

This covers all the bases in a wonderful way. Tolkien's lifelong interest in Old English language and literature, his scholarship on it, and his use of it in his fiction, are all treated in depth. Bolintineanu wields her bibliography with a graceful hand, citing critic after critic in her list of Old English themes and sources that inform our understanding of The Lord of the Rings.

And that would be my only quibble: the Silmarillion legends get pretty short shrift, yet Tolkien worked on them three times longer than he did in writing LotR. Bolintineanu does mention this in passing, but Tolkien's original frame structure for the Lost Tales (the Silmarillion's predecessor), and his original device for his time-travel novel that became the Numenor/Second Age myth, were both heavily dependent on Old English models and language. At one point (in The Shaping of Middle-earth, HoME IV) Tolkien translated parts of the erstwhile Elvish "Annals of Valinor" and "Annals of Beleriand" into Old English, as if they had been rendered into his native language by Ælfwine, the Old English sailor who is supposed to have discovered and preserved the Elves of Middle-earth and their legends.

The 'Further Reading' list and the 'See also' references are really impressive and I hope most useful for all future researchers on this topic.

 

Old English Apollonius of Tyre, edited by Tolkien - L.J. Swain

Comments by N.E. Brigand, August 28, 2007

Tolkien was for 19 years an editor for the series of monographs to which this 1958 work belonged. He did not assemble this edition as he did with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1925 or Ancrene Wisse in 1962.  Instead he advised the editor, Peter Goolden, and contributed a prefatory paragraph.  Swain describes the text and notes Tolkien’s involvement, and then his 220 words are up, leaving to future researchers the question of what importance, if any, this work has to Tolkien studies.

 

Old French Literature - Gerald Seaman

Comments by N.E. Brigand, August 28, 2007

As in Seaman’s article on “Lúthien”, here again he has some trouble with the names of Tolkien’s poems.  In his first paragraph, he writes that these include “The Lays of Beleriand, The Lay of Eärendil, and The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun” and adds that Tolkien “at least imagined The Lay of Leithian, whence the story of Beren and Lúthien, in The Silmarillion, is supposedly derived”.  But there are no works to which Tolkien gave the title The Lays of Beleriand: that is just the name under which Christopher Tolkien collected several unfinished poems in 1985.  One of those is a mere scrap titled The Lay of Eärendel.  The main contents of that book are two versions each of long unfinished poems titled The Lay of the Children of Húrin and The Lay of Leithian, which are very much more than “imagined”.

Looking past that confusion, the article is decent.  Seaman notes Tolkien’s scholarly familiarity with Old French language and romances, turns to Tolkien’s use of the interlace technique (as previously shown by West and Shippey, both of whom appear on Seaman’s solid 'Further Reading' list), and concludes with a lengthy comparison of The Song of Roland and The Lord of the Rings, some of which is convincing.

On one point, however, Seaman should have been clearer.  He observes that Boromir and Théodred are described as their fathers’ “right arm” and “right hand”, respectively, thus connecting them to Roland, similarly described.  Unfortunately, he passes up the chance to note how this strengthens Tolkien's other parallels between Denethor and Théoden, but more importantly, he provides no citation for the appearance of these phrases in LotR.  I found “right hand” for Théodred in “The King of the Golden Hall”, but cannot find “right arm” (or “right” anything) for Boromir.

Comments by squire, August 28, 2007

I was impressed by Seaman's connection of LotR with some elements from The Song of Roland, though he should have acknowledged from the very start, with his passage on Boromir, that "the parallels are not perfect"! The article on "Gríma (Wormtongue)" does not range as far as French literature in its short commentary on that character's sources, and one wishes that someone had thought to connect these two articles.

Seaman unaccountably does not give us a cross-reference to his article "Romances: Middle English and French", which interestingly overlaps (interlaces?) with this one. There, despite further errors of attribution, he does show some awareness that the Lay of Leithian was in fact written at length though never finished.

Along with the two articles mentioned above, the 'See also' should certainly have guided us to "Arthurian Romance", "Boromir", "Denethor", "Epic Poetry", "France and French Culture", "French Language", "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, edited by Christopher Tolkien" and "Théoden".

 

Old High German - Michael D. C. Drout

Comments by squire, March 5, 2007

As I've said before, one of the virtues of the Encyclopedia is that it exposes Tolkien fans to aspects of the man and his works that they are unfamiliar with. So with me and Old High German: now I know more than I did about this very obscure (to me) subject.

Its relation to Tolkien seems slight, but in philology any port in a storm will do. Although Drout informs us from the beginning that OHG represents an early divergence from the "Low" Germanic language tradition that led to English, he shows that Tolkien learned enough of the language to use it and its surviving literature to elucidate tricky issues in Old English studies. There seems to be a high percentage of doubt in all of it, though: "certainly likely" and "may have" is the best Drout can do in making several of his points.

By itself the article seems adequate; but once one encounters the succeeding article on "OHG Literature", one wonders if Drout should not have focused more on the pure philological issues and implications of the differences between High and Low German, and left Tolkien's literary uses of OHG to Arden Smith -- or why in a field of language study so small and so intertwined with its literature and so tangentially connected to Tolkien, there are two articles at all.

The concluding paragraph, about Tolkien's knowledge of Old Low German and a cryptic OLG epigram about John the Baptist involving the OE Beowulfian word metod, seems out of place. Perhaps Drout is sparing us thereby a very short separate article on "Old Low German".

 

Old High German Literature - Arden R. Smith

Comments by squire, March 5, 2007

Having just run through the separated-at-birth articles on Latin Lang. and Lit., it is eerie to come immediately upon the same phenomenon with Old High German. Even more than with Latin, the case for two distinct articles is hard to make, since the language and its relation to Tolkien is so much more marginal (no offense to the medievalists). In fact, by reading these two articles back to back one gets a perfect object lesson in why Tolkien was so set on teaching both Lang. and Lit.: The body of surviving OHG is so small that one cannot really learn the language without reading everything that is written in it, so that no distinction between the two studies can be made.

Thus there is a lot of overlap between Drout and Smith's articles but both contributors are equally expert in rendering the topic accessible to novices like me. Like Drout, once Smith begins dutifully cataloging the extant OHG literature, he must warn us at the end that Tolkien's awareness (much less knowledge) of them is only "likely". The differences in their emphasis and details is interesting: is Heliand written in "Old Low German" (Drout), or "Old Saxon, a Low German dialect" (Smith)?  One peruses the two almost completely dissimilar lists of Further Reading and See Also with an amateur's appalled fascination.

Smith goes even further than Drout in extending his topic past Old Low German into the later Middle High German poetry, which Tolkien seems to have doted upon, in sharp contrast to his passing use of OHG texts. It is only this section that, ironically, justifies this article's inclusion in the Thematic category "Literary Sources". Again, the wisdom of commissioning one omnibus article on all the Germanic Languages and Literature seems obvious, at least in retrospect.

 

Old Man Willow - Matthew Dickerson

Comments by N.E. Brigand, December 23, 2006

This decent article is well-conceived but stumbles a little in execution.  Dickerson begins with a good history of Willowman in Tolkien’s fiction, an explanation for Old Man Willow’s inclusion in The Lord of the Rings – here Dickerson might have evaluated Tolkien’s success in introducing a previously existing character into an unrelated story – and a summary of the Willow’s actions in LotR.  The summary could use a little trimming and correction:  for instance, Dickerson overlooks LotR’s Bombadil-badger reference (he should have said nothing on this point), and he tautologically writes that Bombadil “rescues the hobbits, forcing Old Man Willow to release them.”

 In his concluding paragraph, Dickerson sensibly examines the purpose of Old Man Willow’s evil, whether independent of Sauron or not, and he nicely includes a symbolic reading by Randel Helms.  But why quote Tom Shippey on Old Man Willow if

  • Shippey’s comments (from p. 67 of Author of the Century) merely describe a passage from Unfinished Tales (p. 348, also cited by Dickerson);

  • Shippey nods a little in his description, saying that the UT passage hints that the Witch-king is behind the power of Caradhras, when UT says the Witch-king’s malice stirred up trouble only in the Barrow-downs and Old Forest; and

  • Shippey offers a better examination, in The Road to Middle-earth (p. 232), of what Tolkien’s changing views on this point mean to his overall literary conception?

 Dickerson’s overall theme of the corruptibility of trees is fine, but he should have cited Verlyn Flieger’s 2000 essay, “Taking the Part of Trees”, from the Clark-Timmons collection.

 

Old Mercian - L. J. Swain

Comments by Jason Fisher, February 5, 2007

Another entry that seems to have been severely curtailed by word count, Swain’s treatment of Old Mercian is nevertheless capable and informative – so far as it goes. What’s missing is depth. I would have expected some discussion, even if perforce superficial, of the fact that the Mercian dialect of Old English developed into the West Midland dialect of Middle English – which is important because the majority of the Middle English works with which Tolkien cemented his academic reputation were written or recorded in that dialect (the Ancrene Wisse, inter alia). More detailed discussion of the West Midland dialect of Middle English, of course, would logically have been found in the longer entry, “Middle English”, had such an entry ever made it into the Encyclopedia. But the transformation of Old Mercian into West Midland Middle English is significant because it represents two bridges in Tolkien studies – in the first case, a bridge between the two dialects of key academic importance to Tolkien, the scholar; and in the second, a bridge between Tolkien’s fictive Riddermark (proxied by the West Midlands of a much earlier age) and his deep attachment to the West Midlands of his own day.

 

Also missed was an opportunity to bring in Tolkien’s germane comments in the essay, “English and Welsh”:

For myself, as a West-Midlander, the constant reflection, in the Welsh borrowings of older date, of the forms of West-Midland English is an added attraction.

This comment provides a subtle but compelling link between Tolkien’s adopted language for the Mark and his phonolinguistic model for Sindarin Elvish – an important point which is lost here.

 

I also think that Swain’s examples in the final paragraph could have been expanded. The relationship between the words / forms mearc, mierce, *mark, and Mn.E. march finds a telling echo in Tolkien’s letters, where we wrote: “I am indeed in English terms a West-midlander at home only in the counties upon the Welsh Marches” (#165). “Welsh Marches” > “Westmarch”; Red Book of Hergest > Red Book of Westmarch, etc. These may sound like tangents, but if so, they still link as directly to Old Mercian as to Welsh and may have deserved mention here.

 

Also missing is the important point that it was the Old Mercian dialect (and not the literarily predominant West Saxon) that developed into the dominant dialect of Modern English spoken today. And the Further Reading and See Also sections are extremely skimpy.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, May 31, 2007

When Swain writes that “Tolkien expressed himself as desiring to speak Mercian all the time if he could”, he omits some important context.  Swain gives no source for that remark, and even readers who guess that it appears in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien will struggle a little to track it down, because that book doesn’t contain a separate entry for “Old Mercian”.  However, the “Old English” listing leads to Letter #53, where Tolkien, bemoaning that homogenization was turning the world into “one blasted little provincial suburb”, said of the growing dominance of English, “May the curse of Babel strike all their tongues till they can only say ‘baa baa’.  It would mean much the same.  I think I shall have to refuse to speak anything but Old Mercian.  //  But seriously: I do find this Americo-cosmopolitanism very terrifying.”

 

Old Norse Language - Tom Shippey

Comments by N.E. Brigand, March 22, 2007

Another good article from Shippey.  The first entry in the encyclopedia’s “Old Norse” triptych maintains a focus on the linguistic importance of Norse to both Tolkien’s scholarship and his fiction.  Am I right in understanding that Tolkien published no academic work on Old Norse, though he referred to it in his Old English and Middle English studies?

Comments by squire, March 22, 2007

Shippey's command of the short entry form remains unsurpassed. I thought it was interesting that Shippey's examples of Tolkien's use of Old Norse in his fiction all predate The Lord of the Rings -- as if Old Norse lost its interest to him, or only really made sense when the point of the fiction was to make a connection with English myth.

Also, it is odd that Shippey refers to Tolkien's contribution to Haigh's New Glossary, etc. but does not put it in his 'See Also' list, even though he himself is the contributor for the article on that work.

 

Old Norse Literature - Marjorie Burns

Comments by N.E. Brigand, March 23, 2007

Burns’ entry opens well with explanations of Tolkien’s early encounters with Old Norse, his use of the language and legends in his scholarship, and the influence of Norse literature on The Hobbit.  Then it runs off the rails with an unrelenting agglomeration of every tiniest seeming similarity between Tolkien’s stories and their supposed forebears in Norse legend.  Individual points of possible influence that might be convincing in separate, carefully constructed articles are presented here en masse, as if sheer numbers will overcome all objections.

It's almost as if a rough draft of this article was submitted rather than a finished version.  The text runs to six pages with no internal division, even though the contributor guidelines called for sub-headings in articles of more than 1,000 words.  The entry is almost completely unshaped, an overflowing grab bag of connections between Old Norse texts and Tolkien’s fiction, presented with minimal organization, like a running list of notes intended for later reworking.  Variations on the phrase “still another” (poem, version, theme, etc.) occur repeatedly in Burns’ thirty-four paragraphs, and two late, weak opening sentences in particular look like placeholders (This is not yet the full picture and a few paragraphs later, More should be said about wolves).  None of the works in her nineteen-item Further Reading list is directly cited in her text.  And there are no See also references.

Such structure as the entry has shows further evidence of underdevelopment:  Burns proceeds from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion to the History of Middle-earth.  Already some of her remarks on the HoMe volumes repeat, in greater detail, what she had written about the other works.  Then, a little more than halfway through her essay, she announces that “The sagas influenced Tolkien nearly as much as the Eddas” –though she had not previously restricted her comments to the Eddas– and passes through Tolkien’s works again with an eye to the sagas.  She follows this with a half-dozen paragraphs on thematic elements, like prophecy, giants, and named weapons, that she had not previously addressed (except that some of them had been discussed, like the aforementioned wolves) and closes with a paragraph on references to Old Norse literature in Tolkien’s letters.  (At least one notable comment in Letters, Tolkien’s acknowledgement in Letter #131 of the similarity between Túrin’s tale and Sigurd’s story, goes unmentioned both here and where it would be most useful, in Burns’ discussions of the “Silmarillion” material.)

The breadth of Burns’ Tolkien references is astonishing, and the wide range of Norse material she draws on is likewise impressive.  In a more finished form, this could have been very good indeed.  As it stands, too much information is offered too briefly, and much of the essay reads as a vast collection of disjointed, tenuous and sometimes contradictory supposition, with the dubious and the certain presented as more-or-less equally likely.  Here are six examples among Burns’ hundreds of notes:

  • The “short, telling” introduction of Aldarion in The Mariner’s Wife is in “typical saga fashion” -- Burns gives the reader Tolkien’s description of Aldarion but nothing comparable from the sagas.

  • The Balrog’s fall from the broken bridge in Moria recalls the fire-demon Surt’s destruction of Asgard’s bridge --  Gandalf not the Balrog breaks the bridge, but Burns offers no comment concerning Tolkien’s decision to upend the myths (a reference to the drafts for LotR, where a troll breaks the bridge, also would have been nice). 

  • The prophetic abilities of Melian, Galadriel, and Elrond are “another Old Norse touch”  -- no reason is given to distinguish Tolkien’s debt to Norse prophecy from, say, his debt to Biblical prophecy. 

  • The nightly murder by a wolf of Finrod’s captured troop, one by one, derives from the Völsungasaga  -- as noted by Shippey and others, this is entirely convincing and wants only a chapter reference.

  • Gandalf is like Odin in his appearance, his swift unearthly mount, and his association with eagles --  as Burns notes, Tolkien himself described Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer”; some of the similarities she describes between those figures are fascinating, if given in a compressed and somewhat confusing fashion: would it have been appropriate to reference her own “Gandalf and Odin” article here? (It is listed in her bibliography.) 

  • Frodo’s name and later characterization were inspired by a legendary Danish king named Fróthi -- Tolkien’s own comment on Frodo’s name and its “mythological connexions with legends of the Golden Age of the North” (Letter #168) should have been cited, along with Tom Shippey’s explanation of the significance of those legends. Shippey appears in Burns’ bibliography, but the reader who wants to know more about this point has no idea where to look.

Generally, Burns needed to select the most interesting examples from her largely undifferentiated list, expand them for readability, acknowledge their relative likelihood as sources, and interpret their significance – what might Tolkien have intended in adapting these works, and what effect do they have?– with references to earlier studies, then shape it all into the compelling source study it might have been.

 

Old Norse Translations - Verlyn Flieger

Comments by N.E. Brigand, March 22, 2007

To judge from Flieger’s short article, she like most people has never seen Tolkien’s unpublished Norse poem (or poems), known only by reputation, and so she is reduced to summarizing the section of the Völsungasaga that Tolkien’s work is believed to retell (or correct), and to noting connections it might have with Tolkien’s fiction and scholarship published works.  Still, it is interesting speculation and is well presented.

Comments by squire, March 22, 2007

In passing, I find it odd that this entry and two others on similar topics, "Arthurian Romance" and "Beowulf Translations" (non-existent, evidently it was replaced by "Beowulf: Tolkien's Translations"), are assigned in the Thematic List of Entries to "Literature", under the sub-theme "Unpublished by Tolkien". The rest of the "Literature" articles are, more or less sensibly, on a range of "theoretical" literary approaches to analyzing Tolkien. These three (two, really) orphan articles on Tolkien's unpublished translations should surely have been filed thematically under either "Scholarship by Tolkien: Medieval Literature" or "Works of Literature" (i.e., by Tolkien).

 

"On Fairy-Stories" - Paul Edmund Thomas

Comments by squire, April 15, 2007

It's hard to complain that Thomas does not know his subject: he spends two whole pages explaining it in detail. The comparative weight of his long summary, compared to the excellent half-column of "Commentary" at the end, just feels terribly unbalanced. I would have preferred half a column of summary (the reader can read the lecture/essay itself, after all) and two pages of close comparative analysis and "critical evaluation". Barring that, the article could just have been a bit shorter.

One thing I have always wanted to know, that Thomas never quite gets around to, is just what impact 'On Fairy-Stories' has had on the Folklore and Mythology departments of our world, or whoever studies "Fairy-Stories" for a living these days. Thomas seems to cite Flieger, or perhaps it is his own perception, that the essay is meaningful only as an insight into Tolkien's literary theory of fantasy, rather than being a real study of fairy-tales that can be applied to other writers as well. Do any non-Tolkien scholars ever refer to this piece?

Comments by N.E. Brigand, January 3, 2008

 “The essay’s value does not depend on whether it is convincing to us.  The essay is valuable because it was convincing to Tolkien.”  That is Thomas’s conclusion, but his article, a very impressive summary of “On Fairy-Stories” itself, hasn’t really demonstrated how Tolkien’s essay relates to his fiction.  In fact, of Tolkien’s stories only The Lord of the Rings is mentioned, and only in passing.

And even if “On Fairy-Stories” convinced Tolkien, the unconvinced might likewise be disappointed by Tolkien’s stories.  John Wain seemed to think so, to judge from David Bratman’s article.  And Burton Raffel, in “The Lord of the Rings as Literature”, criticizes both Tolkien’s fiction and this essay.  The only two negative criticisms that Thomas cites are by Humphrey Carpenter, who finds “On Fairy-Stories” too diffuse, and Tom Shippey, who feels it misses a “philological core” – an odd criticism that could be applied to many good essays.

An expanded version of “On Fairy-Stories”, annotated by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson, is soon to be published.

 

"On Translating Beowulf" - Carl Phelpstead

Comments by squire, March 13, 2007

Phelpstead gives us what seems like a fine summary of Tolkien's preface to the 1940 revised edition of Clark Hall's Beowulf translation. The preface, it turns out, is where Tolkien promoted his own view of how to read and translate Old English alliterative verse, a view that remains at least as relevant to a consideration of his own fiction and poetry as it does to the Clark Hall book. The detailed review of Tolkien's thoughts on the problems of cribs, vocabulary, style, modernity and meter is all extremely clear and interesting.

 

Some quibbles. Phelpstead refers to Tolkien's verse translation of Beowulf as "then-unpublished"; Drout in "Beowulf: Translations by Tolkien" and Shippey in "Alliterative Verse by Tolkien" say it is still unpublished. Who is right? And Shippey's article contains such a lucid exposition on the problems of rendering alliterative verse in Modern English, that Phelpstead should at least have put it in his See Also list. On the other side of cross-referential justice, it's too bad that Chism, in her article on the "Alliterative Revival", should have called Tolkien's alliterative poetry a "one man" 20th-century revival when Phelpstead has written (and cites here) an article entitled "Auden and the Inklings: An Alliterative Revival".

Comments by N.E. Brigand, January 3, 2008

Tolkien’s translations of Beowulf remain unpublished, apart from excerpts (mostly in “On Translating Beowulf”, Beowulf and the Critics, and The Lost Road).

Phelpstead observes that C.S. Lewis preceded Tolkien in demonstrating Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter using modern English.  What he doesn’t note is that one of Lewis’s sample verses, from his 1939 book, Rehabilitations, mentions Tolkien: “We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I / In a Berkshire bar…” (see also Letters, p. 389).

 

One Ring, The - William Senior

Comments by squire, March 17, 2007

When one has been allocated 600 words to write about the One Ring, the central symbol of The Lord of the Rings, it seems advisable to cut to the symbolism as soon as possible. Senior wastes far too much space on a plot summary that is, like most of these plot summaries, incoherent to someone who does not already know the story. For instance, he never tells the reader that the character Sméagol who finds the Ring is the same as Gollum who destroys the Ring.

 

He does get to the Ring's power and meaning eventually. And here he gets very vague. He does not really define what "power" is, though he assigns "power" variously to the Ring, any wearer of it, and the Wise specifically. He uses the words "corruption" or "maleficent" where I might have used the straightforward "evil" - so that Senior's analysis of the Ring avoids any consideration of, for instance, how Tolkien equates evil with the concept of power over others.

 

Aside from a brief rejection of the "atomic bomb" idea, Senior does not give any account of the various critical interpretations that the Ring has received. I should think there would be a few out there by now. Nor is there any Further Reading list.

 

The ending is particularly weak, with a run-on sentence that drags the Nazgûl into the picture, and a concluding sentence that introduces Barad-dûr and the link between the Three Rings and the One. None of these have been mentioned before, and they appear here with no context and to no particular effect.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, May 27, 2007

Senior’s summary is not only confusing but also wrong a couple times: he says that Sméagol found the Ring in the Anduin River (though he also says that Sméagol killed Déagol for it, which is correct), and he says that the Third Age ended with the Ring’s destruction, but it actually ended with the departure of the Three.

And phrases like “it is a tool of absolute control able to give power to its wearer according to the power of the wearer” do not help this article’s clarity.

 

Oral Tradition – David D. Oberhelman

Comments by Jason Fisher, December 20, 2007

Right away, one expects that this topic could have been folded together with the one that follows, “Orality” (Gergely Nagy). And though Oberhelman’s is the longer of the two, it is the weaker one as well.

The opening paragraph is a bit dense and strays rather far from Tolkien. The second returns to him with some good foundation material on Tolkien’s attitudes, expressed in various essays, toward (mainly Germanic) oral tradition. But then the third paragraph is, again, long, dense, and tangled. The same might be said for the fourth, in which there’s one spectacularly long sentence.

Also, I think it may be going too far to say that “oral poetics functions as a vehicle for time travel in Tolkien’s work.” Similarly, do the “conventions of oral poetry” (emphasis mine), in fact, exhibit a “relationship to the themes of time and nostalgia for past?” Wouldn’t such a relationship be more correctly based on the content of the oral poetry in question? I do like Oberhelman’s closing, with its charming image of Tolkien himself chanting the legend of Maldon.

In general, I find that the entry could have used some editing and tightening if it’s essential points were to be brought forward out of a snarl of details. The entry would also have benefited by further examples from Tolkien’s body of writing, replacing some of the more abstruse discussion of “theory.” The 'Further Reading' is quite good, as is the See also — though the latter points to the nonexistent “Rhyme Schemes and Meter” and highlights once again the morass that is the Encyclopedia’s handling of Beowulf.

 

Orality - Gergely Nagy

Comments by squire, March 17, 2007

"Mnemotechnical".

 

Need I say more? Any article that uses a word like that gets a free pass.

 

Just kidding. What I liked the most about this excellent but highly theoretical article was Nagy's unrelenting reminders that Tolkien's entire legendarium is a fictional construct, and that the evidences of orality that characterize the underlying early mock tales and proto-poems are all highly literary constructs by Tolkien. Nagy's analysis shows just how thoroughly Tolkien worked to make it plausible, but he insists we must still remember that this is in most senses still a 'vast game.'

 

Nagy also makes the valuable point that orality is "special" in the case of Tolkien's immortal Elf cultures: For Elves, orality serves only to facilitate education and instruction, not to preserve stories whose original composers are still alive! But Nagy does not comment on whether this peculiar twist is reflected in Tolkien's actual treatments of Elvish, as opposed to Mortal, texts. (I suspect it is not, since Tolkien's bark was sharper than his bite, but who has done any actual work on this question?)

 

I would have liked to see a more workable definition of "orality" itself, especially since this article follows, and refers to, the preceding one on "Oral Tradition". I also worry that the Further Reading list of two works, one of them Nagy's, may not be comprehensive; again looking hopefully back at the long list in "Oral Tradition".

 

Orfeo, Sir - Carl Hostetter

Comments by N.E. Brigand, December 23, 2006:

This entry is oddly alphabetized under “O”, yet articles about the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appear with the “S” entries; there is really nothing else wrong with Hostetter’s strong article.  

He gives the poem’s manuscript history; he provides a long but helpful summary of the poem’s narrative; and he notes many interesting connections between the poem and Tolkien’s fiction, including comments by Shippey on how the poem affected Tolkien’s conception of elves, as well as some caveats about shared themes which also appear in many other works, including the original Orpheus myth.  Finally, Hostetter outlines Tolkien’s professional work with the poem: his 1944 Middle English version, his posthumously-published modern English translation, and his influence on Alan Bliss’s definitive edition. 

By referring the reader to Bliss’s “fuller description of the textual history, sources and linguistic features” of Sir Orfeo, Hostetter probably answers any need to note how Tolkien’s interpretation of the poem holds up against other scholarship, the only possible omission from a fine essay.

  

Owl and the Nightingale, The – Tom Shippey

Comments by N.E. Brigand, December 23, 2006:

Two-thirds of this 500-word article is given over to the history and narrative of the titular 13th C. poem; this is very interesting to someone like me, who’s never read The Owl and the Nightingale, but given that this article exists only because Tolkien alludes briefly to the poem in “The Notion Club Papers” – Shippey says nothing of Tolkien having done scholarly work on the piece (unlike the Ancrene Wisse, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, etc.) – mightn’t it have been better in a general reference work to subsume this article in a longer entry on Middle English?  Unfortunately, although Tolkien specialized in both Old English and Middle English, only the former gets a separate article. 

As usual, Shippey writes well and insightfully.  One curiosity: Shippey refers to the Ancrene Riwle, but in the encyclopedia’s article on the Ancrene Wisse, Arne Zettersten says that the title “Ancrene Riwle” is unattested.

 

Oxford - Michele Fry

Comments by squire, January 3, 2007

Stunning. Superb. Sublime.

This massive rambling novelette of an article covers most of Tolkien's life, since he spent most of it at Oxford. There are as well many extensive discursions into related topics that are, in fact, covered elsewhere in the Encyclopedia. But as a biographical essay it is generally wonderful.

In place of the diverting but unnecessary reviews of Tolkien's writings (as I said, covered elsewhere in the Encyclopedia) I would have enjoyed a bit more of the Oxford faculty politics; some broader consideration of Tolkien's reputation and influence there, including his relationship with his students and fellow faculty; and perhaps a review of the well-known difficulties Edith had with the life of an academic wife (as I remember from Carpenter's biography).

As with several other articles, some indication that this is part of the "Tolkien Biography" thematic subset might help those expecting a simple piece on the structure and influence of Oxford on Tolkien. A few factual errors have crept in -- the Ainulindalë was not first written in 1937, but is an integral part of the post-WWI Book of Lost Tales. The poetry collection The Adventures of Tom Bombadil does not have a humorous, pseudo-scholarly tone throughout; perhaps its foreword is what is meant.

These are quibbles, of course. Most of the article is written so strongly as to bring tears to my eyes when compared to some other articles that I have suffered through.

Comments by squire, January 11, 2007

Tears to my eyes, indeed. I feel like a fool.

N. E. Brigand has documented that almost all of this article is, essentially, lifted from Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien: A Biography and Colin Duriez's Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

(Which, among other things, explains the errors regarding the Ainulindalë and the tone of The Adventures, as will be seen in the following comments and documentation).

Comments by N.E. Brigand, January 18, 2007

Fry’s fifty-paragraph article includes hundreds of passages, given with no indication of source, that appear identically phrased in similar contexts in three other works:

  • Thirty of Fry’s paragraphs (¶3-26, 32, 35-38, 49) include passages that also appear in J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter;

  • Fifteen of Fry’s paragraphs (¶27-31, 39-48) include passages that also appear in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (aka J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The story of their friendship) by Colin Duriez;

  • Two of Fry’s paragraphs (¶1-2) include passages that also appear in “University of Oxford”, a Wikipedia entry. That leaves three paragraphs: one (¶34) has some similarities to a Duriez passage, while the others (¶33, 50) bear no likeness to any other work that I am aware of. The former is probably based on Fry’s research at the archives of the Oxford Dante Society, and the latter is the article’s short conclusion. Fry’s article can be compared with her apparent sources here, paragraph by paragraph.

If I only consider phrases of three or more words that appear identically and in a similar context in both Fry’s article and one of the three other works, I find more than 250 examples in those forty-seven paragraphs. If the comparison is expanded to include similar but not identical phrases as well as matters of structure and organization, many more similarities can be identified. I should note that Fry lists Carpenter and Duriez’s books in her bibliography; however, she almost never uses quotation marks in her text to indicate when shared phrases are original to Carpenter or Duriez.

To take one example, consider Fry’s paragraph (¶3) on Tolkien’s first term at Oxford, which is similar to the first and fourth of Carpenter’s paragraphs on the same period. Both Carpenter and Fry mention:

  • the “frontage” of Exeter College, the architect George Gilbert Scott, and the “tasteless” chapel;

  • that Tolkien would “love” (“hold dear”) and “revere” (“honour”) Oxford;

  • the Fellows’ Garden and its trees;

  • Oxford’s status as “the first real home he had known since” the death of Tolkien’s mother;

  • how Tolkien soon “threw himself” or had “thrown himself” into extracurricular activities;

  • how Tolkien joined the rugby team, and the debating, dialectical and essay societies;

  • Tolkien’s Apostaulick club and its debates, dinners, letters and papers;

  • the sophistication of the Apostaulicks in comparison with that of the TCBS; and

  • how the Apostaulicks fulfilled Tolkien’s desire for male company with whom he could smoke and talk.

Naturally Carpenter would have to be a key source for an paragraph on Tolkien’s early life in Oxford, but a glance at Duriez’s treatment of the same period (p. 12 of The Gift of Friendship) shows that there is room for a more original presentation of familiar material. Likewise my reading to date of the rest of the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia indicates that the inconsistent handling of source-documentation by other contributors, which is in part the result of poor instructions from, and insufficient editing by, the encyclopedia staff, does not elsewhere include the non-attributed use of material original to other works.

I am unable to state that Fry’s actions represents intentional plagiarism, and I understand that the standards for plagiarism are not always clear. Nonetheless, I feel that readers would be better served by reading Fry’s sources rather than her article. I would add that there are a few spots in Fry’s article where the use she makes of her sources has led to interesting errors:

David Bratman identifies one such passage (though not the cause) when he queries a sentence that turns out to be inspired by Carpenter’s sentence, “Now that the time was approaching for her reception into the Catholic Church they had decided to be formally betrothed, and he would have to tell his friends”. Fry’s reduction of this reads, “Tolkien’s secret engagement to Edith would end soon with Edith’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church”, suggesting, as Bratman notes, that Edith’s conversion would cause the end of her engagement. 

Another example derives from Fry’s opening explanation of the structure of Oxford University, where she has apparently adapted Wikipedia’s list of the various titles held by the leaders of Oxford colleges to omit “rector”, so that later, when she writes that “the rector of Exeter college suggested that Tolkien switch to the English school”, readers unfamiliar with the university will not know the position or authority of this “rector”, Dr. Farnell. 

Finally, in her fortieth paragraph, which shares some material with Duriez’s work, Fry curiously repeats herself when a passage from her fifteenth paragraph, “[A]s far as Tolkien was concerned, it was impossible to have a language without a people to speak it” reappears as “He felt that a language needed a people to speak it”.