Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Attributed" to Tolkien

So, the next-to-last book I'm expecting from those I ordered at Kalamazoo has now arrived: Seth Lerer's award-winning CHILDREN'S LITERATURE: A READER'S HISTORY FROM AESOP TO HARRY POTTER [2008]. Not only does this look to be interested and informative, but it devotes part of its chapter on "Fairy Tale Philology" to a discussion of Tolkien's works. What particularly grabbed my attention as I was skimming through it in the bookroom, though, is the reproduction of a full-page piece of art on page 226. This is a very detailed drawing of the world of Norse mythology: at the top is the World Tree ("Yggdrasil, the world-ash") with "Ratatosk" and "The Eagle". Below this comes the middle world, with the dome of the sky held aloft by four figures; to one side is a lean wolf chasing the sun and to the other another pursuing the moon. Below is "Nidhogg, the dragon", perching in the tree's roots, and at the bottom amid swirls of mist "Niflheim, the realm of Hel".

According to Lerer, this piece (taken from E. V. Gordon's AN INTRODUCTION TO OLD NORSE [1927]) is "Attributed to J. R. R. Tolkien" (caption on p. [226]). In the accompanying discussion, he is even more emphatic. Speaking of the Juniper Tree in Grimms' story of the same name clapping its hands in joy, he asks "How can we not see the great ents embodied here? How can we not see, too, the great tree Yggdrasil of Old Norse mythology -- the tree that spans the range from hell to Middle Earth, the tree that Tolkien himself illustrated in a line drawing in a textbook by his colleague E. V. Gordon, AN INTRODUCTION TO OLD NORSE? How can we not recall the image of the Tree of Tales itseld, where history is "ramified," where life branches off?" (Lerer, p. 225)

The problem is that this picture doesn't really resemble Tolkien's work at all. At best you could say that the long lean wolves and the tree's graceful limbs are vaguely reminiscent of some of Pauline Baynes' work, but not Tolkien's own.

Nor does it bear Tolkien's initials anywhere that I can see.

Nor is it attributed to Tolkien in Gordon's original book (in my copy, a trade paperback of the 2nd edition as revised by A. R. Taylor, this piece appears on page 196). Gordon's book includes a half dozen or so illustrations -- most famously the drawing of Hrolf Kraki's Hall that helped inspired Tolkien's picture of Beorn's Hall in THE HOBBIT -- but none of them is credited to a specific artist. Indeed, in ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR [1995] Wayne & Christina even attribute the mead-hall drawing to Gordon himself (p 122 & 124), although so far as I can tell this is just an educated guess on their part (i.e., if any documentation exists to confirm their ascription, I'm not aware of it). Now Lerer has gone further and attributed another of the drawings to Tolkien himself, without offering any explanation of why he thinks this piece is by Tolkien -- not even a passing reference or footnote.

Without any evidence to support the claim, and the strikingly non-Tolkienian nature of the artwork itself (esp. when compared with the work JRRT was doing circa 1927, like THE BOOK OF ISHNESS and ROVERANDOM), this seems to be a false ascription. But I'd be interested in hearing if anyone has seen it before. Does it originate with Lerer -- i.e., is the "attributed" in the caption on page 226 no more than a reference back to his own assertion on page 225? -- or is he picking it up from another source? If he has a source, what is it? Is it reliable or otherwise? Given the nature of false information to linger on and on no matter how many times it's been refuted, I worry that once such a claim has been made it'll pop up from time to time no matter what the evidence or lack of it.

--John R.

current reading: ARDA RECONSTRUCTED by Douglas Kane, ALL WHAT JAZZ? by Philip Larkin.

UPDATE (Th. June 4th):
I've gone back and corrected one error and one typo; thanks to Jason for pointing them out in the comments.


Jason Fisher said...

I haven’t seen the illustration to which you refer (I have yet to buy a copy of Gordon’s book, though I really should). However, if what you wrote is really part of the picture, then the illustration is far too inaccurate to be Tolkien’s work. Ratatösk was not an eagle at all, but rather the squirrel who ran up and down the Tree. I don’t believe the Eagle is ever named in either the Grímnismál or Snorri’s Gylfaginning. Also, it’s not “Hidhogg, the dragon”, but Nidhögg. Are these errors actually in the illustraton, or did you get those from the text?

Terry L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terry L said...

You can find this picture in Google books via the limited preview. Do a search for _ Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter _ and look on page 226. Doesn't look like JRRT's work to me.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hm. The comment I thought I posted earlier today seems have vanished, so I'll try again.

Jason: the error conflating "Ratatosk" and "The Eagle" was mine, not the original's, as was the mispelling of "Nidhogg". Both the 'o' in Ratatosk and in Nidhogg has a subscript, and the letter I've represented as 'd' in Nidhogg is actually an edh (=th/d).

In any case, inaccuracies in this illustrations' labels isn't evidence one way or the other re. Tolkien's authorship, since (a) those labels are typeset, and errors cd have crept in after that piece of artwork left the artist's hands*, and (b) Gordon himself was a superb Norse scholar who would have fixed such errors.

*esp, in Tolkien's case, given his handwriting!

So, sorry for the errors; I've gone back and fixed them in the main post. I'm still curious to find out more about why Lerer attributes this to JRRT, and whether anyone else has done so before him.

Terry L: thanks for the link.


Jason Fisher said...

I forgot to check back on this comment thread for a while. Many thanks to Terry L for telling me how to see the illustration for myself. Having done so, I agree: it absolutely does not look like Tolkien's work to me (but even so, it's a nice illustration). Interesting ...