Monday, November 26, 2007

Dating a Tolkien Tale (Mr. Bliss)

So, one of the benefits of living in this, the Golden Age of Tolkien Studies, is that we're getting very close to understanding the sequence between Tolkien's various works, thanks to tomes such as the Scull-Hammond Chronology (Vol. I of their COMPANION & GUIDE). There are still a few places where it's hazy just where a work fits in, such as FARMER GILES OF HAM (where an equally good case can be made out for its either immediately preceding or immediately following upon THE HOBBIT), but by and large the sequence is coming into focus.
Today in connection with something else I was working on I came across something that might lock down another piece of the chronological puzzle. There are two suggested dates for the little picture book Tolkien drew called MR. BLISS: 1932 or shortly thereafter, or the summer of 1928. The 1932 date was suggested by Humphrey Carpenter in TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY (page 163, [1977]), on the basis that Tolkien bought his first car in 1932 and had several misadventures of his own in driving it (being apparently entirely self-taught as a driver) which in turn Carpenter felt inspired the story.
This date was challenged in 1982, just after the story's first publication, by a letter Joan Tolkien (JRRT's daughter-in-law) wrote to THE SUNDAY TIMES on 10 Oct. 1982, in which she stated that her husband Michael, the Tolkiens' middle son, 'clearly recalled the tale being told to them and it appears in a diary he kept as a Dragon school summer holiday task in 1928'. On the basis of this, Scull & Hammond include it in their Chronology under the entry for '?Summer 1928' (Vol. I, page 146). However, there are two indicators that shows Carpenter was probably right after all.
First of all, in the catalogue that accompanied the display of Tolkien manuscripts in conjunction with the 1987 Marquette Tolkien Conference, Jared Lobdell cites a letter from Christopher Tolkien stating the latter's belief that the handwriting was 'from the 1930s rather than the slightly more florid manner he employed in the mid-1920s (CT to JL, 11 Feb. 1987). Since no one is more familiar with his father's handwriting and manuscripts that Christopher Tolkien, his opinions carry considerable weight in such matters.
Second, in a 1964 letter to Christopher Bretherton (LETTERS pages 347-348), Tolkien notes that he made up the name 'Gaffer Gamgee' during a vacation to Lamorna Cove in Cornwall, near Land's End, and that 'the name became part of family lore'. Scull and Hammond (Chronology page 164) date this vacation specifically to August/September 1932, based no doubt on the account in THE TOLKIEN FAMILY ALBUM, which actually reproduces a photograph from this trip of Tolkien digging in the sand with his children (page 62). This dating becomes significant, because Gaffer Gamgee makes a cameo appearance in MR. BLISS: his name appears on page 37 ('old Gaffer Gamgee is trying hard to hear') and the old man himself, with long beard, wearing a bowler hat, and hobbling along on two canes, is shown in the illo on page 36. Therefore, if it's true that Gaffer Gamgee entered the family lore during the trip to Cornwall in 1932, MR. BLISS as we have it must postdate that vacation.
Given that Tolkien did not finish THE HOBBIT until January of 1933 (if my reconstruction of that work's composition is correct), then MR. BLISS must date from no earlier than the summer of 1933. In any case, it was certainly complete by the fall of 1936, when it was submitted to Allen & Unwin as a possible follow-up to THE HOBBIT (along with FARMER GILES, THE LOST ROAD, the QUENTA SILMARILLION, THE LAY OF LEITHIAN, and other works).


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lovecraft plays

So, last night Janice and I and a bunch of friends from the reading group (Allan, Yvette & James, Lisa & Shaun) met up at Open Circle Theater and saw this year's cycle of Lovecraft plays. We'd been lucky enough to see these twice before, in 2004 ('Narlathotep', 'Dreams in the Witch House', and the puppet play 'The Doom That Came to Sarnath') and again last year ('The Colour Out of Space', 'The Thing at the Doorstep', and 'Strange Magics').* This time around they had a set of four plays: 'The Picture in the House' (one of HPL's weakest stories v. effectively used as a frame-story for the next two tales), 'Nyarlathotep', 'The Cats of Ulthar', and 'Dreams in the Witch House'. As usual it was great fun to see what they could do with the old Lovecraft stories, given the constraints of a small cast, small stage, and small budget. And once again they proved that enthusiastic acting, a good feel for the material, and a few creative special effects can go far. Seeing these makes me want to tackle an adaptation myself. Their new venue wasn't quite as good as their old one, but there's not much they could have done about that, since the little theatre they've used in years past was demolished over the course of the past year.
I'll definitely be going back again next year.

*Having unfortunately missed the 2005 triptych of 'The Shunned House', 'Cool Air' and "Shadow Over Innsmouth'

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I'm Back

Wow, November already. Where did October go? I suppose between the reading/book signing at the University Bookstore (and the preparation that went into that), the reading and signing in Milwaukee (ibid, since I prepared a different piece of text for that), the Blackwelder Lecture at Marquette, the visit to the Archives, the (too-brief) visit to the Wade Collection, some time with the in-laws, preparations for the trip to England, and then the two weeks in the Bodleian I let time get away from me; time now to get back to regular posting.
Many thanks to all who came to the two readings & book signings, and to those who co-ordinated the events and made them possible. I'm gratified the Blackwelder Lecture went as well as it did -- I'm told there were about ninety people in the audience, and I got to have some good discussions with people after the signings and lecture. Saw a lot of friends in Milwaukee whom I don't get to see nearly often enough. While at Marquette I spent my time in the Archives looking at the John Boorman movie script for his never-filmed LotR movie. It's full of fascinating ideas, but it's not Tolkien, not by a long shot. Those who whine about Peter Jackson's changes to the story, myself included, don't realize how lucky we were that Boorman didn't get to be the one who filmed his vision of Tolkien's world instead.
The long-planned, long-delayed trip to England was wonderful, and exhausting. The last time I was there was a very brief visit (arrive on a Friday, leave on Sunday) to be best man at two friends' wedding, and even that was almost fourteen years ago (Dec. 1994). The last time I was in the Bodleian was a single day during the Tolkien Centenary Conference in 1992, and then I was looking at C. S. Lewis's THE DARK TOWER (which some folks at the time were claiming wasn't genuine -- folks who never bothered to examine the Ms for themselves), not their JRRT materials. So this was really the first time since May 1987 -- twenty long years ago -- that I had time to delve into their Tolkien holdings. And what a collection it is! In addition to the many hours spent in the library, I also got to visit The Kilns (which I'd only seen once, from outside, twenty-six years ago), walked up to see Tolkien's house on Northmoor Road, got to meet my editor at HarperCollins, had lunch with one of the editors of the O.E.D., saw the bronzes of JRRT at Exeter College and the English Faculty Library (both times without knowing they were there until I glanced up and saw them), saw the First Emperor exhibit of terracotta warriors in the British Museum (amazing stuff), had tea with CSL's biographer, had tea with a member of the Tolkien family, toured a Welsh castle (the Temple of Nodens just down the road being closed), and got to see some old friends, some of them for the first time in years.
And now I'm back.
More later.