Sunday, February 16, 2014


So, Thursday I got interviewed for a podcast (more on this later, in another post), after which I took advantage of being downtown to make a side-trip, heading up Capitol Hill for a rare visit to Elliott Bay Books (which I've only visited a handful of times since they moved away from their more accessible but higher-rent spot near Elliott Bay). After looking around a bit, pledging yet again to pick up those interesting-looking new books on Neanderthals and on Stonehenge next time I was here, I headed over to work on the laptop in their cafe, where I got in a good session on my latest project, A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT (more on that one soon too) before it was time to head south if I was to avoid the traffic.

The most interesting new discovery from this visit, on a display table about mid-way between the Stonehenge/Neanderthal et al. shelf and the cafe, was a new edition of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT from Penguin. I already have several copies of SGGK, various editions and translations, but stopped to have a look-see about whether this particular edition had any Tolkien relevance, as some of them do. To my surprise, there was a sticker on the front cover, a little orange rondel about an inch wide that reads

Classics that
J. R. R. Tolkien's
The Hobbit

After a little more investigation, I found that there are five books in the series, all of which Elliott Bay had on the shelves (is this a great bookstore or what?):

  • SIR GAWAIN & THE GREEN KNIGHT , tr Bernard O'Donoghue
  • BEOWULF, tr Michael Alexander
  • THE ELDER EDDA , Andrew Orchard
    • THE WANDERER: ELEGIES, EPICS, RIDDLES , tr Michael Alexander
    • THE VOLSUNGA SAGA , tr Jesse Byock.

    Nor was this little sticker something that the bookstore had come up with;* the back cover copy of each of these five books stressed the Tolkien connection:

    "Our Legends of the Ancient North are five classics of Norse literature that inspired J. R. R. Tolkien's epic vision in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Reading them brings us as close as we will ever get to the magical worlds of the Vikings and the origins of their twentieth-century counterpart: Tolkien's Middle Earth."

    Note: this cover copy may vary some from volume to volume -- I took the above from the Penguin website, but what I'd written down in my pocket notebook is the phrase "bring us as near as we will ever get to the origins of Tolkien's Middle Earth".

    Here's the link.

    I don't know who at Penguin came up with this idea or was responsible for the selection, but I'd say they made a pretty good collection (it wd have been nice if they'd been able to add Heidrek's Saga or Hrolf Kraki, but I can see the argument for keeping things focused).

    What's really jaw-dropping about this is to see its validation of what we all knew already: for decades now, Tolkien has been the entry point of choice for most medievalists. Most people who read BEOWULF or SIR GAWAIN do so because of the Tolkien connection, and a significant number of them get hooked on the weird and wonderful world that is medieval literature. To see that bluntly stated, and adopted as a selling point by a major publisher in the field, shows yet again how far we've come from the early days, when academia still gave Tolkien a cold shoulder and 'serious' medievalists kept their copies of LotR and H off their office shelves. My, how times change.

    --John R.

    current audiobook: DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS by Ray Bradbury [1985]
    current reading: THE KING'S GRAVE: THE DISCOVERY OF RICHARD III'S LOST BURIAL PLACE AND THE CLUES IT HOLDS, by Philippa Landgley and Michael Jones [2013]
    also: THE LAST UNICORN, by Peter S. Beagle [1968] (re-reading)

    *I now see it appears on each copy in the top row under the following link, though not in the images of the individual volumes beneath

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