Thursday, December 27, 2012

Trivia, but Possibly not Trivial

So, one of the books I took along on my recent trip to Arkansas was TOLKIEN TRIVIA by Wm MacKay, a recent arrival I thought wd make a good addition to my on-the-plane books for when turn-off-electronic-devices took my Kindle temporarily out of commission. Reading it was an interesting experience, but not in a good way. It turns out that knowing Tolkien well doesn't necessarily mean you'll score the right answers. And that's because quite a few of the answers given in the answer keys are just plain wrong.

Now, for some genres there are rules. You can't misspell words in a dictionary. You can't publish a crossword puzzle in which the Acrosses don't mesh with the Downs. And you're asking for trouble when you have a trivia contest in which the person asking the questions knows less about the subject than the average person taking the quiz -- especially when the subject is one known to attract those obsessively devoted, as w. Tolkien.  In an unforgiving medium, MacCay simply gets too many things wrong. Not interpretively wrong, but factually wrong: names, titles, dates.

For example, here's a question from page 71: "What are the names of Bilbo Baggin's parents?" If you answered "Belladonna Took and Bungo Baggins", you're wrong, according to MacKay, who thinks Bilbo's father's name was GUNGO (page 72). Where he got this from is a mystery.

What are the "Three Elder Races" (page 33)? Turns out if you included Ents in your answer you're wrong, according to MacCay (his answer is Dwarves, Elves, Humans). So much for "Eldest", as even Celeborn respectfully addresses Treebeard in LotR.

What's the correct singular and plural for referring to the Dwarven race (page 35 and elsewhere)? Tolkien used "Dwarf"and "Dwarves", but MacCay claims Dwarve is the singular (page 36), and proceeds to use it throughout the rest of his book (cf. pages 43, 58, 59, 94. 97). He even at one point screws up a direct quote, changing Tolkien's spelling to his own (page 67-68).  Where he got this I can't imagine, but it's certainly not Tolkien's usage, and hence doesn't belong in this book, especially in a passage purporting to tell us Tolkien's usage.

"Are the Ents powerful?" (page 81). Well, given the way they tear into Isengard and flatten the vast orc army after Helm's Deep, you'd think yes, but MacCay says "No" (page 82), explaining there aren't many of them left (a non-sequitur if ever there was one. There weren't many dragons left in Middle-earth either, but everyone was glad Sauron didn't have one to call on, not to mention a spare balrog).

Other bits are simply inexplicable -- why does MacCay refer to Bombadil as a "grey and bearded creature"? (page 74). Tolkien describes Bombadil's bright colors in some detail, and I don't recall "grey" being among them, much less the dominant one ("bright blue his jacket was, and his boots were yellow", goes the poem).  Why does he think the name of Luthien's father is Thingol Greyhold (page 88)? Why refer to Morgoth as "Melchar" instead of "Melkor"? (page 86), or Middle-earth as "Ennor" rather than, well, Middle-earth? And why does he claim that "Oxymore", which he says Tolkien "sometimes" used as a pen name (fact check: "sometimes" = "once"), "plays on the etymology of [Tolkien's] family name" (pages 3-4), while at the same time saying it's simply French for oxymoron? Does he just make this stuff up?

Examples of carelessness and downright error extend to the queries and answers regarding Tolkien's real life and non-Middle-earth works. Thus we're told Tolkien left behind "a 2,000 page translation and commentary on Beowulf" (page ix), which is a grotesque exaggeration ((for the record, he translated BEOWULF twice, once in prose and once in alliterative verse, leaving the latter unfinished. But given that BEOWULF's only some three thousand lines long, publication of both translations together wd still make a slim book)). The 1925 Tolkien-Gordon edition of the Middle English text of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is here called a "translation" of a "long neglected" work (pages 15-16), both of which are entirely untrue. The biblical project to which Tolkien contributed late in life is here called "the New Jerusalem Bible" (page 16), whereas "New" was added to the edition that replaced the version Tolkien worked on.

But my favorite example of MacCay's getting it wrong comes in his bit on the origins of THE HOBBIT.  Here's the set-up question, which sounds innocuous enough:

Q: To what nighttime activity does The Hobbit owe its origin? (page 21)

--you'd think the answer wd be 'the Winter Reads', or 'read-aloud bedtime stories' or something of that sort. Not good enough for MacCay, who proceeds to give us much more information , virtually all of it wrong:

A: Years before his book was written, Tolkien dispensed snippets of Hobbit history as bedtime stories for his children. Eventually, at the urging of his good friend C. S. Lewis, he gathered the episodes into a book. The Hobbit was first published in 1937.  (page 22)

--leaving aside the 'oral origins of THE HOBBIT', about which there's genuine debate, where he got the C. S. Lewis bit, for which there's no evidence whatsoever, is a mystery to me. Sheer fantasy? An extrapolation too far? Confusion between the origins of THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT? Who knows.

What makes this all the more astonishing is that this turns out to be the second edition of MacCay's book. The neat little green hardcover I picked up at Barnes and Noble's HOBBIT table was preceded by a slim little mini-book more than a decade ago, though there's no trace of that anywhere on the copyright page of this newer edition. Digging into my overflow shelves down in the Box Room, I discovered that I have not one but two copies of this earlier edition, having abandoned it in exasperation on page 16 back in 2001.* I'd debated writing a review at the time, but decided the little book, though bad, was too ephemeral to do any harm. In retrospect I'm not so sure: given an additional decade or so, you'd think MacCay wd have improved it.

And checking the original (whose title was THE J. R. R. TOLKIEN TRIVIA QUIZ BOOK, apparently part of the "TRIVIAL TRUTHS" series) , turns out MacCay did fix some errors -- such as having thought that Mrs. JRRT's maiden name was BATES rather than BRATT. Interestingly enough, MacCay got the Dwarf/Dwarves thing wrong here too, having used the un-Tolkienian Dwarfs throughout. So someone must have pointed out to him that this was in error, and he corrected it wrongly, introducing an neologism that made even more of a mess (the Dwarfs usage shows you don't know much about Tolkien, whereas the Dwarve one shows you have problems with English). Don't know why he didn't fix "Gungo"; did no one point out the error to him in the intervening eleven years?

So, why all these errors? I have no idea. Bad sources may be part of the problem, given that among the eleven items in his brief bibliography (five of them by Tolkien) are found Grotta-Kurska's biography (bizarrely crediting the Hildebrandts as co-authors), David Day's TOLKIEN'S RING, and Tyler's TOLKIEN COMPANION, all dodgy in their different ways. But he also lists major works like Carpenter's biography, LETTERS, and Shippey's ROAD TO MIDDLE-EARTH. The new introduction has an interesting bit about how he was mentored in Tolkien studies by Guy Davenport, who famously claimed Tolkien got all his hobbit-names from Kentucky.

In the end, you might be able to have an entertaining evening passing this book around a roomful of Tolkien fans and seeing who gets the highest error-spotting score. But as a trivia book, not recommended.

--John R.

P.S.: Anybody want a like-new copy of the original edition? I've got one free to the first person to claim it. --JDR

*the second copy came when I ordered it online two years later, not recognizing the title and didn't know it was something I already had until the duplicate copy arrived.


Ronald Kyrmse said...

I surely would like the book you so generously offer, but ONLY if dedicated to me by you in writing ;-) But that would surely be asking too much, since I live in Brasil. My chief claim to Tolkienian fame is having either translated or acted as a consultant for all of JRRT's works on the Brasilian market... and I am currently working on the translation (alliterative, no less) of "The Fall of Arthur", all the while reading - belatedly! - your Hobbit history. No, not my main occupation, but one that understandably gives me much pleasure. Keep up the good work, which I follow via your exceedingly interesting blog.
Ronald Kyrmse

Troels said...

Thank you for the warning — MacKay will join the expanding list of people whose writings about Tolkien I will stay away from.

I think one of the points raised might be debatable:

A good argument can certainly be made that Dwarves as a race is older than the Ents, if we follow the story of Aulë constructing the Dwarves prior to the awakening of the Children of Ilúvatar.

As a concept, the Ents are older if we accept the story that Yavanna had included them in the Music.

As for who awoke first, the Fathers of the Dwarves or the Ents, that is impossible to say — both awoke after the Elves, but I know of no text that gives any hint of the order.

Celeborn calling Treebeard "Eldest" doesn't tell us anything of whether Treebeard awoke before Durin as Durin is no longer alive.

All of this doesn't justify the inclusion of the question since that would require complete certainty rather than legitimate interpretation: the question could be corrected to four races (without capitalisation) and all of them can be included.

As for "Ennor" I suppose it may be a misspelling of Endor (which I am not entirely sure whether is Quenya or Sindarin?) — not that it helps much.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Ronald: I've set aside the book for you and sent an email to confirm.

Dear Troels: yes, certainly it can be argued that Dwarves precede Elves. But it can hardly be maintained that Men predate Ents. So if we were going to go with MacKay's logic, the correct answer shd have been Dwarves, Ents, Elves. The reason I place Ents before Elves is Treebeard's comment that the Ents existed in the dawn of the world, but only learned speech when the elves arrived. I believe this suggests the Elves' awakening, not just their migration into ent-lands

Of course, we cd include Eagles in that (cf. SILM.45-46), but then the sequence wd be Dwarves, Elves, Ents, Eagles, Men, Hobbits. So once again 'Men" wd not be among the 'elder' races, as MacKay believed.

I must say I'm currently working my way thr another Tolkien trivia book, this time by Nick Hurwitch. Which, if not without its problems, is nonetheless much to be preferred to MacKay's effort.


alanajoli said...

A suspicion on the dwarves/dwarve thing -- if he used dwarfs/dwarf in the original edition, and someone used a spell check to "fix" all instances of dwarfs to dwarves, but instead changed all dwarf to dwarve, that would do it. Having been on the receiving end of some awful find and replace errors during the typesetting process, I have a sneaky suspicion. :)

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Alanajoli

That's certainly possible -- I've seen search-and-replace errors that were amusing and dismaying all at the same time. Indeed, a co-worker of mine once committed the egregious blunder of typing in Search/Replace for "mage" to "wizard". Unfortunately, this was for a TSR D&D project, a compilation book of magic items or spells, in which every occurrence of the word "damage" suddenly became "dawizard".

That sounds like a made-up story, but alas it really happened.

I suppose in perspective, "dwarve" is relatively mild, since it's so obviously an error.

--John R.