Christopher Tolkien Roundtable
It seems to me that there are two kinds of people who come to Tolkien events at Kalamazoo.
There are the Medievalists, who read Tolkien because they've heard he was influenced by Beowulf, and The Wanderer, and the Volsunga Saga.
And there are the Tolkienists, who read Beowulf, and The Wanderer, and the Volsunga Saga because they've heard Tolkien had been inspired by them.
I'm one of the latter group, one of those who first read Beowulf because Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar. The same holds true of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Voluspa and Vafthrufnismal, as well as more modern works I read because I had reason to think Tolkien had been influenced by them in some way, such as The Gods of Pegana, The Well at the World's End, The Worm Ouroboros, The Wind in the Willows, and many many more.
A case in point: The first saga I ever read was because of a Tolkien connection. I knew that Tolkien was said to have been influenced by the old Icelandic sagas, so I read all the sagas in the local college library. Both of them. But the one I started with had a clear Tolkien connection, having been edited by Christopher Tolkien himself: The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.
This was actually in the days before Christopher Tolkien had edited any of his father's work,[nt1] (just) before the release of his translations of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight•Pearl•Sir Orfeo (though it'd take me three years to track down a copy of that, in those pre-amazon days), and a good two years before The Silmarillion would see the light of day.
And despite it being happenstance that this formed my first exposure to sagas, it was a fortuitous choice. First, because it introduced me to the work of Christopher Tolkien, a superlative editor, whose work I suppose I have read and re-read more than that of any other editor over the years and decades that followed. And second because all through the years this has remained my favorite among all the sagas I have read, not least for its inclusion of the memorable episode known as The Waking of Angantyr, to which I'll return later on. And of course there are the Tolkienesque touches I found in this saga: the Battle of Mirkwood, Hervor the Eowyn-like sword maiden, the brief appearance of the dwarves Durin and Dvalin, the cursed sword they make (under duress), and one of Gollum's riddles.
So for the rest of this piece, I'd like to look at this saga by following one thread to trace out a specific way in which Christopher Tolkien's edition thereof enables us to identify a specific borrowing his father made from this saga.
The Riddle of the Fish:
Christopher Tolkien's Saga of King Heidrek the Wise
In his 1960 edition and translation of Heidreks Saga (a.k.a. Hervarar Saga), Christopher Tolkien uses his expertise in Old Norse literature to present a masterful dual-language edition of one of the most interesting of all sagas, with the original Old Norse text facing his modern English translation. In addition to presenting a smooth, readable text of the best (earliest) surviving version of the saga, supplemented at points from other versions where the key manuscript has suffered damage (in the form of missing pages, including the end), he also presents, in highly readable form, learned commentary on points as diverse as Gothic settlements just north of the Black Sea in the fourth or fifth century, or a description of the boardgame Hnefatafl.
This particular saga, while less well known today than, say, Njal's Saga (also known as 'The Story of Burnt Njal') or Egil's Saga [which was translated into English by fantasy author E. R. Eddison], had been at the forefront of the modern recovery of Old Norse literature in the 18th century, having been translated into English as early as 1705.[nt2] Among its admirers was Thomas Gray (he of the country churchyard and the unfortunate cat), who planned to adapt The Waking of Angantyr into English verse in the 1760s—though that in the event he seems never to have gotten around to it might be fortunate, given such versions as were produced by other hands during the period, such as Matthew 'Monk' Lewis (1801) and by Anna Seward, 'The Swan of Lichfield' (1796) in a somewhat overwrought pseudo-Gothic verse. Christopher describes the latter, in his characteristically understated way, as "a version that she herself described, inadequately, as a 'bold Paraphrase'." (CT.xxxiv) [nt3]
Argantyr wake! — to thee I call,
Hear from thy dark sepulchral hall!
'Mid the forest's inmost gloom,
Thy daughter, circling thrice thy tomb,
With mystic rites of thrilling power
Disturbs thee at this midnight hour!
Angantyr, awake! awake!
Hervor bids thy slumbers fly!
Magic thunders round thee break,
Angantyr, reply! reply!
Reach me, warrior, from thy grave
Schwafurlama's magic blade
Fatal weapon, dreaded glaive,
By the dwarfs at midnight made.
wakes you Hervor.
your only daughter;
the keen-edged blade
from the barrow give me,
the sword dwarf-smithied
While certainly the most interesting part of the saga for a modern reader, The Waking of Angantyr is only one of the three things this saga is best known for. The second concerns the climax of the story, The Battle of the Goth and Huns. Like The Waking of Angantyr, this centers on an ancient 'Eddic' poem centuries older than the saga itself, which has been embedded in the prose account—rather as if all that survived of some Shakespearean play had been a single soliloquy which a modern-day writer decides to incorporate verbatim into his or her historical novel. With The Battle of the Goths and Huns, the interest is not in intrinsic literary merit, as with The Waking of Angantyr, which is still a compelling story all these centuries later, but in what the Battle might reveal about ancient history, or at least the legends based upon that history. And indeed Christopher Tolkien's first scholarly publication, his essay "The Battle of the Goths and the Huns", which had appeared in Saga-Book: The Viking Society for Northern Research (Vol. XIV, 1955–56, p. –163) had focused precisely on the possibility that fragments of actual history might be preserved in this old poem.[nt4]
For Tolkienists, The Battle of the Goths and Huns is of interest for its portrayal of Mirkwood, depicted here as the great forest dividing the Goth-lands from the Hun-lands. But even more important is the character Hervor the swordswoman (Heidrek's daughter, granddaughter of the Hervor who retrieved the family sword from the barrow), who is quite clearly an inspiration for Tolkien's Eowyn (especially since this Hervor dies heroically in battle, the fate Tolkien had planned for Eowyn, before he changed his mind and gave her tale a happier ending; cf. HME.VII.448 and VIII.256). This heroic woman-warrior is more than just a swordswoman: she is the sister of the king and holds command over the Goths' armies in the field, dying while making a heroic stand against overwhelming odds to hold back the invading Huns long enough for her brother to muster the defense.[nt5]
The third feature which makes this saga stand out for scholars of saga literature is that it contains a riddle-game—in fact, the riddle game, for Christopher makes clear that the contest between King Heidrek and Odin is unique. Both in his commentary in his edition, and in his introduction to G. Turville-Petre's earlier edition (sans translation), Hervarar Saga ok Heidreks (Viking Society, 1956), p. xiv–xv, Christopher stresses that the riddle-game found therein is extraordinary. For one thing, the riddles themselves are, in CT's words,
unique, in more senses than one. They are unique in that there are no others in ancient Norse; and even more surprisingly, there is no record in the poetry or in the sagas of a riddle ever having been asked. They are unique also in that [with two exceptions] there are no parallels to them in the riddle-literature of any other country [CT.xix, emphasis mine]
There are certainly contests of wisdom, as when Odin questions the giant Vafthrufnir in Vafthrufnismal, or when Thor treacherously delays the dwarf Alviss through questioning in Alvismal—indeed, both the contests in Vafthrufnismal and Heidrek's Saga end with the same trick questions (CT accounts for its reuse by suggesting it had become the iconic unanswerable question in tradition; CT.xx). But only the contest in this saga involves actual riddles, posed by one (Gestumblindi, the disguised Odin) and answered by the other (King Heidrek).
If we needed more evidence that Tolkien drew upon this riddle-contest when writing The Hobbit, we find it in one of the riddles therein:
What lives on high fells?
What falls in deep dales?
What lives without breath?
What is never silent?
This riddle ponder,
O prince Heidrek!
'Your riddle is good, Gestumblindi,' said the king; 'I have guessed it. The raven lives ever on the high fells, the dew falls ever in the deep dales, the fish lives without breath, and the rushing waterfall is never silent.' [CT.80; italics mine]
In Gollum's recasting, a single line out of this is taken up and expanded:
Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever-drinking,
All in mail never clinking [DAA.123; emphasis mine]
This in turn is revisited and further expanded in The Lord of the Rings, where Gollum turns the riddle into a little song:
'Ha! ha! What does we wish?' he said, looking sidelong at the hobbits. 'We'll tell you,' he croaked. 'He guessed it long ago, Baggins/ guessed it.' . . .
Alive without breath,
as cold as death;
never thirsting, ever-drinking;
clad in mail, never clinking.
Drowns on dry land,
thinks an island
is a mountain;
thinks a fountain
is a puff of air.
So sleek, so fair!
What a joy to meet!
We only wish
to catch a fish,
so juicy-sweet! [LotR.645–646]
What's remarkable about this borrowing is that it comes from what Christopher Tolkien has called 'Riddles peculiar to the H-text' [CT.80]. That is, this riddle does not occur in the main manuscript of the saga (the R-text, so-called from the manuscript's being held in the Royal Library in Copenhagen), the version which Christopher has chosen as his base text, but from an alternate and slightly different version, the Hauksbók or H-text. But if this were not complicated enough, the Hauksbók , like the R-manuscript, has suffered damage over the centuries and breaks off shortly after the start of the riddle-game, in the middle of the answer to the second riddle [CT.xxix]. Luckily, sometime in the seventeenth century, two copies were made of extracts from the Hauksbók, which fortunately included the riddles. Thus the fish-riddle survives in late copies of an alternate version of the saga —just the kind of chance survival of an old bit of legendary lore that most attracted Tolkien (for Tolkien's propensity to 'write into the gaps', cf. T. A. Shippey).
And so we see that while most of the things in Tolkien's work that appear as borrowings from this saga could come from some other source as well (e.g. the dwarf-names Dvalin and Durin, which also appear in the Dvergatal), one seems unique to Heidrek's Saga—and not only this saga, but latter-day copies of a particular text of a particular version of that saga: Gollum's 'alive without breath' riddle.
In closing, I'd just like to observe that, in hindsight, it can be argued that Christopher's edition of The Saga of King Heidreks the Wise provides a template for his later exemplary work editing his father's literary manuscripts. Much editorial labor has obviously gone into it, but we are presented with clean, readable texts in final editorial form. Christopher tells us his editorial procedure and then proceeds to get on with it, moving commentary and editorial notes to precede or follow the saga itself. And, in a very Tolkienesque touch, many of the editorial notations concern the sometimes-shifting names of characters and places in the story.
—John D. Rateliff
Thursday, May 14th, 2015.
[nt1]. Or, to be more strictly accurate, he had not yet published any such edition as yet.
[nt2] by George Hickes in his Thesaurus [CT.xxxiv]. Gray, by the way, seems to have known the poem only in Latin translation, not himself being a scholar of Old Norse.
[nt3] similarly, M. Lewis noted, quite truthfully, that he had 'taken great liberties with it, and the catastrophe is my own invention'; Tales of Wonder , poem VII, "The Sword of Angantyr", pp. 34–44.
For another example of Christopher's elegant criticism, cf. his comment in his "Battle of the Goths and Huns" essay about "Heinzel's theory . . . which compel[s] admiration but not belief" [Saga Book.146].
[nt4] he concludes that there may well be an actual historic event behind the poem, but that it is one of which we have no other record (that is, it cannot be correlated with any known battle in history, although many have tried). This essay is distinct from the lecture "Barbarians and Citizens", on how 'the heroes of northern legend [were] seen in different fashion by Germanic poets and Roman writers'. [JRRT to CT, Feb. 21st 1958; Letters.264], which seems to remain unpublished. His father attended the latter event, finding it 'a very excellent performance. It filled me with great delight' but confessed that his favorite part was the philological observation that Attila the Hun's name was in fact an affectionate diminutive: atta, 'father' (or rather Daddy).
[nt5] It's worth noting that William Morris wrote his own version of the Battle of Mirkwood, between the goths and huns, in The Roots of the Mountain , which is known to have been a favorite of Tolkien (cf. Letters.303), who of course would also have known the older, saga, version of the tale.