Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Lord Howard de Walden Spotting

So, there are far more people interested in an incidental or passing reference to Tolkien (or Lewis, or Rowling, or Pullman) than to Lord Howard de Walden, an interesting but largely forgotten figure who  was one of the first to write works inspired by the MABINOGION. Lord Howard de Walden was a friend of Dunsany's (the two collaborated on an early lost story), gets mentioned in a biography of EDWARD VII as an Olympic fencer, had connections with Sime (who did the stage designs for some of his plays). But I didn't expect to see him referenced in a work on Old English literature.

The reference comes in STUDIES IN THE HISTORY OF OLD ENGLISH LITERATURE, a collection of essays and articles by Kenneth Sisam, Tolkien's old tutor, in the third piece, entitled 'Seasons of Fasting'. Here's the passage referencing Lord Howard de Walden in full:

When he was examining the transcripts of Laurence Nowell 
which Lord Howard de Walden gave to the British Museum, 
the late Robin Fowler found in MS. Addit. 43703, transcribed 
by Nowell in 1562, a copy of a poem on the observance of fasts 
which, except for the incipit recorded by Wanley, had been lost 
when MS. Otho B XI was burnt in the Cotton fire of 1731. 
Flower's death prevented him from making the edition he planned, 
and it fell to Professor Dobbie to publish the editio princepts 
in his Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, 1942 . . . 

So, to the sequence of playwright-fencer-collaborator we need to add: generous donor who helped preserve what wd otherwise have been lost Old English material.

This notice is also interesting because it brings together, briefly, two underappreciated figures: Lord Howard de Walden and Laurence Nowell. Nowell is one of the unsung heroes of Old English studies, whose greatest claim to fame is that he preserved BEOWULF: the first page of the manuscript that includes the only surviving copy of BEOWULF bears the inscription "Laurence Nowell 1563". We have no idea where this manuscript (now called THE NOWELL CODEX) was before Nowell found and preserved it, a full century and a half before it fell into Sir Rbt Cotton's hands.*

Nor is this all: Nowell also compiled the first OLD ENGLISH dictionary, which I have a copy of: VOCABULARIUM SAXONICUM, probably compiled in the 1560s but not published until 1952.
And furthermore David Salo believes, rightly I think, that Nowell's dictionary had a direct influence on Tolkien. For example, the word 'orc' is usually translated 'monster' and associated with the demon Orcus (a derivation Tolkien is on record as doubting**): Nowell's entry is far more evocative of Tolkien's own usage:

Orc.  Orcus; a goblin, a Robin Goodfelowe. Entas & eotenas & orcas. [Nowell, p. 134]

So, there it is, dating all the way back to Tudor times: an association by a great Old English scholar of orcs not with Latin terms for Hell but with native faerie lore: goblins. Very Tolkienesque, is it not?

--John R.

*here's a query for the well-informed: is there a complete catalogue listing all the books in Cotton's library, a brief description of their contents, and a notice accompanying each entry on whether or not that particular book survives?

**cf. H.o.H.217


Paul W said...

His works are dang hard to find! Wikipedia has a list with now publishers info... nothing else! Doesn't seem to be on Gutenberg, either. Have you read his stuff? Is it any good?

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Paul

Yes, when I referred to him as

"interesting but largely forgotten"

this is what I had in mind.

As for the value of his work, unlike Dunsany, who is simply the best fantasy short story writer in English, or Kenneth Morris, who turned the MABINOGI tales into something weird and wonderful all his own,* I think Lord Howard de Walden is mainly of historical importance. But then I haven't read all his works so I may be doing him an injustice; I'll post on him again sometime down the line when I've read more.

--John R.

*I'm thinking of his masterpiece THE BOOK OF THREE DRAGONS here

Paul W said...

Ever since I read LLoyd Alexander's Pyrdain series I've been fascinated by the Mabinogion. I hope I can find some of his work, I'll also look for Kenneth Morris' The Book of Three Dragons, never read it. Excellent, and thank you!

Brer said...

Just a couple of days after you posted this I ran across a reference to Lord Howard de Walden in Joseph Pearce's "Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton." He is mentioned as one of the participants in a film by J. M. Barrie, where he played (along with GKC and George Bernard Shaw) a cowboy. The episode is also mentioned in GKC's autobiography. Apparently the film was never released, and possibly never completed.