Monday, July 13, 2009


So, a few years back I decided that it'd be a good thing to have a copy of Caroline Hillier's WINTER'S TALES FOR CHILDREN* [1965]. And now, at length, I've been successful, via various indirect means -- i.e., I found it as a used book listed through Unfortunately, it seems that third-party sellers there are reluctant to send books overseas, so I asked a friend in England with whom I do a book trade if he could get it for me. He wasn't able to, but put me in touch with someone else who could make the trade. He did, and the book itself arrived today.

The reason for wanting this book, of course, is for the two Tolkien poems contained therein: "Once Upon a Time" and "The Dragon's Visit". Both were reprinted a few years later in Lin Carter's THE YOUNG MAGICIANS [1969], but that book's hard to find itself (not unnaturally for a forty-year-old paperback). Since then "The Dragon's Visit" -- which had originally appeared in THE OXFORD MAGAZINE back in 1937, and was thus available to folks with a university connection through indirect means like InterLibrary Loan -- has been reprinted twice: in Doug Anderson's THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT [in the revised & expanded edition of 2002] and in his recent collection TALES BEFORE NARNIA [2008]. In both cases, Doug reprints the original (superior) version of the poem, rather than the revised version with a different ending that appears here.

So, "The Dragon's Visit", one of my favorite Tolkien poems, while not as well known as I would like is more available than it used to be, largely thanks to Doug's efforts.

The same is not true of "Once Upon A Time", unfortunately, which is little-known for a late Tolkien work -- particularly one this good. The revised version of "The Dragon's Visit" probably dates from 1961-62, when he was putting together THE ADVENTURES OF TOM BOMBADIL, collecting and revising old poems from the twenties and thirties and writing a (very) few new poems to accompany them. By contrast, I think "Once Upon A Time" is slightly later, because otherwise I don't know why it wouldn't have been included in the book. For one thing, it's a Bombadil poem in the literal sense that it's about Tom and Goldberry, making it the third in the sequence, after the original "Adventures of Bombadil", which is rather fun, and "Bombadil Goes Boating", which I've always thought rather an effort at forced jollity. For another, it's considerably better than some poems which did make the cut, both of which points make me think that if it'd existed by the time Tolkien was finished putting the book together he would have included it.

We know relatively little about how Tolkien's poems came to be in Hillier's book, but a brief physical description of the book appears in Wayne Hammond's DESCRIPTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY (page 311) and some brief entries in Wayne & Christina's COMPANION & GUIDE [2007], the main one of which (READER'S GUIDE page 689) quotes eight and a half lines from this forty-two line poem but cannot really convey the utter charm of the original. Here Tolkien finally manages to write a "Goblin Feet"/"Princess Mee" type of poem which is neither precious nor cloying.

He's also in fairly good company here -- while I haven't read the collection yet, Hillier seems to have had an eye for assembling some unusual talent. In addition to JRRT, the contributors include Elizabeth Jennings (who as a child had received one of his original author's copies of THE HOBBIT) with two poems, Ted Hughes (at that time not yet the Poet Laureate), who contributes a poem on The Loch Ness Monster, Rosemary Sutcliff with one of her Roman Britain stories, Philippa Pearce, and some others. I suspect the entries that would have interested Tolkien most (aside from his own) are the contributions by Kevin Crossley-Holland: a retelling of the story of Caedmon (based on the account in The Venerable Bede) and a translation of three Old English Riddles (I assume from The Exeter Book, though I have not yet checked).

So, a nice enough collection, which did well enough that it established a series that followed with a new volume every year for a number of years to come. But its main interest remains the Tolkien, and it is indeed really good to have these two poems readily accessible on my shelves rather than filed photocopies.

Perhaps someday we'll get an expanded edition of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM BOMBADIL which will include "Once Upon a Time" plus those poems Tolkien considered including in the book which did not make the final cut.

--John R.

current reading: THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER by Philip MacDonald [1959]
current audiobook: THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann [2009]

*I assume the title is a homage to the famous line in Shakespeare's A WINTER'S TALE [1611], one of his last plays:

QUEEN HERMIONE: Come, sir, now . . . Pray you, sit by us
And tell us a tale.
LITTLE PRINCE MAMILLIUS: Merry or sad shall't be?
HERMIONE: As merry as you will.
MAMILLIUS: A sad tale's best for winter. I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
HERMIONE: Let's have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down. Come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites, you're powerful at it.
MAMILLIUS: There was a man . . . Dwelt by a churchyard . . .

(Act II, Scene 1, lines 22-30)

--M. R. James, a little more than three centuries later, re-created the tale young Mamillius started and never had a chance to finish: "There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" [circa 1924, first published in COLLECTED GHOST STORIES [1931].

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