So, I thought I'd post my contribution to the Christopher Tolkien Roundtable. I thought the event went well, and particularly enjoyed Doug Anderson's presentation.
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]
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.
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!
Hervor bids thy
Magic thunders round thee break,
Reach me, warrior,
from thy grave
Schwafurlama's magic blade
Fatal weapon, dreaded
By the dwarfs at midnight made.
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?
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
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever-drinking,
All in mail never clinking [DAA.123;
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;
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
But if this were not complicated enough, the
, 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.
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
[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.