Saturday, July 6, 2013

Was Tolkien "An Inveterate Meddler"?

So, for part of the research for my Kalamazoo piece on Tolkien and women's higher education, I had the library call up the 1984 volume of PROCEEDINGS OF THE BRITISH ACADEMY from offsite storage at the Baker Auxiliary Stacks so as to be able to read the obituary of Dorothy Whitelock contained therein. The obit turned out not to be particularly helpful, though I'm glad I did the due diligence of checking it, since I thereby found an interesting article in that same volume: "Unideal Editing of Old English Verse", the 1984 Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture by E. G. Stanley.

I had long been aware, Medieval being one of my three periods when studying for the doctorate at Marquette,* that around 1983 there'd been an uproar in Old English scholarship whereby many standard assumptions were challenged and re-thought (similar to the debate about 'Celtic' origins going on today). Many of the ideas Tolkien had held were being overturned, or at least called into question -- such as BEOWULF's being an early work preserved through some two centuries of manuscript transmission before the copy that's come down to us was made, or the near-universal assumption that the scribes who wrote down the OE verse that comes down to us were careless and ignorant, knowing less about Old English prosody than the nineteenth and twentieth century scholars who were editing them. But I'd thought those making such arguments, such as Kevin Kiernan (BEOWULF AND THE BEOWULF MANUSCRIPT, 1981) were lone voices crying in the wilderness, iconoclasts v. much out of the mainstream.

Perhaps not so much, I'm now coming to realize.  Stanley's piece looks at changing editorial practices on editing OE verse, w. particular attention to BEOWULF, and charts an early period where the general trend was reluctance to editorially change what was in the actual manuscript, to a middle period (of which Tolkien was very much a part) where editorial changes became more and more intrustive, sometimes leading to re-arrangement of verses, editorial creation of new passages, insertions of proper names into the text (e.g., Eomer) or re-spelling names found therein (e.g. Hunferth > 'Unferth'). Finally, the recent trend is back to greater respect for the manuscript evidence and less editorial reworking of what's found therein. The rise and fall of the Sievers system,** which constructed a prescriptive prosody for OE verse and then advocating re-writing the verse to match the theory, was particularly illuminating.

I'd like to say that, having surveyed the problem and various scholars' contributions and practices (both those he approves of and those he does not), Stanley reaches some sort of useful conclusion, but he basically ends by taking the position that editors shd edit just enough, and no more; that they shd make the right decisions; that the more important the passage, the less they shd edit it. All true, no doubt, and a tribute to Pope-ian moderation, but decidedly unhelpful as a practical guide. In the end, Stanley is so concerned to be even-handed that he fails to make his point, or indeed any point, strongly. Perhaps that was his goal, and he wanted merely to survey and not to judge.

The reason all this is of interest to me in the here and now is that Tolkien comes up several times in Stanley's piece; Stanley uses him as a convenient figure exemplifying the now-descredited Old Way of Doing Things. In this, JRRT is partnered with Sisam, whose essays are cited as having provided rationale for carrying editorial interference to an excessive degree. As for Tolkien himself, his OLD ENGLISH EXODUS (ed. Joan Turville-Petre, 1981) provides a good example of changing editorial practices, the work having been done in the 1930s and 40s (when editorial interference was at its height) but not published until the 1980s (when the pendulum was starting to swing the other way). Tolkien even moves around sections of the poem to produce a more effective arrangement, on the assumption that he understands the poem better than the person who wrote it down -- which may be true, but is obviously open to all kinds of abuse. His was a tradition of intuitive sympathy, of engaging with the text the way a modern-day editor might when editing the work of a contemporary (e.g. Ezra Pound's editing of T. S. Eliot's THE WASTELAND). Hence the phrase "inveterate meddler", which according to Stanley comes in a 1983 NOTES AND QUERIES review of Tolkien's EXODUS.*** Despite which, Stanley repeatedly praised Tolkien's translation of EXODUS found in the same volume, calling it "elegant" and "highly satisfying". In fact, in a way that's exactly the problem: an editor of genius with a real feel for Old English poetry, like Tolkien, can produce a "correction" that's better than what the Old English poet actually wrote.

So, an interesting piece, and one that discusses an aspect of Tolkien that's badly neglected (JRRT as an editor and translator of medieval works), and a rare discussion of one of his lesser-known works (the edition and translation of THE OLD ENGLISH EXODUS). And a piece that places Tolkien within the context of his time, and casts light on his work as an enthusiastic transmitter of medieval works. For those not interested in reading Stanley's entire (forty-two page) lecture, with its overextensive footnotes (sometimes the 'footnotes' take up over half the page; in one extreme case, they cover four-fifths, leaving only a bare seven lines of text atop the page), the references to Tolkien come on pages 239-240,  252-254, 267, and 269.  Enjoy!

--John R.
current reading: THE WEB OF EASTER ISLAND by Donald Wandrei (Arkham House, 1948) -- not worth reading. does contain the 'green sun' story written twenty years earlier, embedded as Chapter XIII ['A Dream'] of this rambling short novel)

current audiobook: McGrath's new C. S. Lewis biography

*the other two being Modern (twentieth-century British), so I cd study Tolkien's contemporaries and also Woolf, and Nineteenth Century British, wh. included Austen. That third one wd have been Nineteenth Century American, including Twain and Poe, but Marquette's rules required two of yr periods be contiguous, so 19th British it had to be.

**summarized with great skill by JRRT in his Introduction to the Clark-Hall BEOWULF.

***I have not yet had time to search out this review (by P. J. Lucas) myself, but plan to do so this next week




Anna said...

Hi John,

First of all, thanks for your work on the History of the Hobbit, it is an invaluable resource for those of us who strive to learn more about Tolkien and his work. I have not found a way to contact you other than through this blog - I would be very grateful if you told me an e-mail address or contacted me at - I have read your analysis of Elrond (pages 121-123 in the single-volume edition) and I wonder why you make no mention of Tolkien's letter #257, where he wrote that at the time of composition of The Hobbit Elrond was not THE Elrond but rather a case of a recycled name that turned out to be quite fortuitous. "Elrond. The passage in Ch. iii relating him to the Half-elven of the mythology was a fortunate accident, due to the difficulty of constantly inventing good names for new characters. I gave him the name Elrond casually, but as this came from the mythology (Elros and Elrond the two sons of Eärendel) I made him half-elven. Only in The Lord was he identified with the son of Eärendel, and so the greatgrandson of Lúthien and Beren, a great power and a Ringholder."

Thank you for your answer.



John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Anna

Glad you're finding the book useful.

I drafted a comment in response, but it seems to have vanished into the ether. So I'll keep this replacement one brief.

As long as it is, there still wasn't room to discuss everything I'd have liked within the H.o.H. I talk more about the Bretherton letter in my article "A Fragment, Detached", which can be found online at the Tolkiendil site.

Hope this helps.


Aelfwine said...

I'd have to check (which I can't do at the moment), but I doubt that in editing the Old English "Exodus" Tolkien gives any indication that he was producing "a 'correction' that's better than what the Old English poet actually wrote", since I doubt that he thought the sole MS we have of the poem preserves in every detail the authorial text. It would be more accurate, I think, to say that Tolkien thought he was producing a correction of the copy (of a copy of a ...) of the text that better reflects what the Old English poet actually wrote.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Carl

Yes, that is Stanley's exact point. That disrespect for the manuscripts they were working with inadvertently led OE scholars into replacing what may well have been genuine readings with "corrections" that fit their preconceptions of what the passage SHOULD have said. The more creative and imaginative the scholar, the higher in quality the proposed changes would be, and at some point they can cross over where a brilliant scholar overcorrects a mediocre poet.

--John R.