Monday, February 2, 2015

A New Idea About Madlener

So, the story's well known from Carpenter's biography how Tolkien bought a picture postcard of a mountain-spirit known as a Berggeist, an old man with a beard and hat, during his 1911 trip to Switzerland and years later wrote on the envelope he kept it in 'Origin of Gandalf'.

Except it's not true, as various Tolkien scholars (most notably Manfred Zimmerman) discovered: the Madlener painting actually dates from the mid to late 1920s and could not have been purchased during that 1911 trip.* The dating is important because there's still some debate about whether Tolkien started THE HOBBIT in the summer of 1930 (as I believe) or sometime in the 1920s (as a minority opinion holds). If we cd date this image and also date when Tolkien first came across it, it might narrow down the field a little.

Now comes a new suggestion breathtaking in its simplicity, in the essay "Merlin, Odin, and Mountain Spirits: The Story of Gandalf's Origins" by Leila K. Norako, in the otherwise somewhat disappointing collection THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY.**  Norako suggests

by saying that Der Berggeist was the origin of Gandalf,
Tolkien could easily have been pointing to the broader 
Rubezahl tradition as source of inspiration rather than
to Medlener's specific rendering of the figure (p. 168)

That is, what if it's not the Madlener image that Tolkien meant by 'Origin of Gandalf' but the thing represented: Der Berggeist itself?  If that were the case then Tolkien's annotation could be entirely accurate and yet be of no help dating THE HOBBIT whatsoever.

Of course we can always assume Tolkien came across this picture at some point after beginning THE HOBBIT and simply though it a good likeness, but I'm reluctant to accept that explanation because it directly contradicts Tolkien's simple and straightforward statement that in some way the Berggeist was the 'origin' of Gandalf.

In any case, an interesting suggestion, I thought; one I've not seen before, and one I'll have to mull over.

--John R.

*For a good account of the Madlener painting, see Doug Anderson's THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT pages 36-39; this book also reproduces Madlener's original in color  on the lower half of Plate 5 (between pages 178 and 179).

**not because the essays aren't well done but because of a kind of diminishing returns: I've read so many essay already on the topics included herein (e.g., Beorn and Bothvar Bjarki) that I already knew most of what they had to tell me.


Gabriele Marconi said...

But those postcards were printed actually later than the beginning of the composition of The Hobbit. The serie is dated 1935, as I say here:

A source:

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Gabriele

I had not been aware of your November post; thanks for sharing.

In any case, if confirmed this would rule out any possibility that the Madlener painting could have helped inspire the wizard in THE HOBBIT. It does not detract from Norako's theory.

Definitely worth more research.

--John R.

Gabriele Marconi said...

That post is more or less a collection of other's theses and discoveries, not a must-read article in scholarship, but thanks for the consideration, it means very much from you.

I believe Norako's hypothesis is very interesting too. My "but" is about your reluctance. ;)

David Bratman said...

If the image on the card really was never printed before 1935, then that leaves at least three possibilities:

1) Norako's hypothesis.

2) Tolkien had seen the image elsewhere and only later got the card as a remembrance.

3) By the time he wrote the note, Tolkien had forgotten that it was not the origin of Gandalf.

My guess is that I'm listing them in order of increasing likelihood.

Troels said...

It is probably also worth noting that the dating on the Memmingen town site contradicts that by Madlener's daughter, Julie, who has said that the postcards were produced in the late twenties (paraphrased e.g. in the German Wiki article on Josef Madlener).

Perhaps it would be a task for Marcel or someone else from the DTG to look into the archives and history of Ackermann Verlag to discover, if possible, when they started printing these Madlener postcards.

But even if the postcard was printed before 1930, it still leaves the question of how Tolkien could have either got his hands on the post card or seen the picture elsewhere.

Overall I think David Bratman's no. 3 seems the more likely, regardless of whether the postcard was printed in 1928 (say) or 1935.