Thursday, April 2, 2015

An Improved Reading (Plot Notes D)

So, just before we left for our weekend of whalewatching, I got an interesting query via the comments on an earlier blog post, proposing an improved reading for a passage I'd only partially been able to make out in my transcription of Tolkien's HOBBIT manuscript. )

It's taken me a while to go back to dig out my file of Plot Notes and their transcriptions, but when I did it was certainly worthwhile.

Here's the reading as published in A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT p. 320 (corresponding to p. 570 of the full edition); Gandalf is speaking:

"Be not a greater fool than the fools who the dragon his wealth"

A.T.M.'s proposed reading of this is both ingenious and attractive:

"Be not a great fool than the fools who come between the dragon and his wealth" 

--pointing out that this has echoes both to KING LEAR (a point that was new to me) and to the Witch-King's threat to Eowyn.

Accordingly, I went back to the look at the original passage to see what I could make of it, and unfortunately had to rule out the proposed emendation:

(1) the word following 'dragon' clearly began with an 'f' or some similar letter (it had both an ascender and a descender), with the whole word being only three or four letters long; the final letter lacks the ascender that wd be required for the proposed 'd'. If I were just going letter-by-letter I'd guess at from, with fire and fine also being possibilities.

(2)  try as I might, I can't make the word or words between 'who' and 'the dragon' resemble 'come between'. It's clearly only one or two words, but if I had to transcribe them letter by letter it looks more like 'notwith' than anything else (i.e., with an ascender both in the middle and at the end).

However, before I admitted defeat I went back and checked an earlier transcription from the early stages of the project and found I'd suggested fire as the word following 'dragon', and plugging that in the whole passage suddenly clicked:

"Be not a greater fool than the fools who mistook the dragonfire for wealth"

--that is, the folk of Lake Town who saw the flame of the approaching dragon and thought it was the rivers running with gold as in the song.

So, those of you keeping track and write this in your copy as official errata.

For me, this is especially interesting because I'm currently working on a paper on Tolkien as an editor of medieval texts, scrutinizing his editorial principles and how he applied them in specific cases. Interrupting that process to do a little editing myself of a Tolkien text is a good reminder of the rewards and perils involved in trying to let the author's voice come through.

--John R.
current reading: LEWIS CARROLL: A BIOGRAPHY by Michael Bakewell [1996], which I confess is creeping me out.


ATMachine said...

So I guess what looked like the word "his" was actually "for" instead?

Curious that you didn't mark that word as being illegible (or even semi-legible) in your transcription in the History of the Hobbit book. I suppose it may just slipped your mind.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear ATM

Yes, it was my mistake in misreading the word following the doubtful word as HIS when it shd have been FOR that threw me off and prevented me from deciphering the passage correctly. All I can say is that Tolkien's handwriting is very difficult, and even after long scrutiny can be impenetrable or, worse, misleading.

Plus, I'm grateful for your query and suggestion, which put me on the right track at last after so many failed earlier attempts.

--John R.