Monday, May 25, 2015

I'm Cited by Sotheby's

So, thanks to Janice for pointing out to me the news that the copy of the first printing of THE HOBBIT J. R. R. Tolkien had sent to his friend and former pupil K. M. (Katharine Mary) Kilbride is currently being auctioned off by Sotheby's, with an estimated selling price of 50k to 70k pounds (roughly $75k to $100k in US dollars). Here's the link with the full auction catalogue write-up:

As the item description indicates, this is one of the presentation copies Tolkien himself had sent out when the book was first published; Kilbride's thank-you letter upon receiving it is now in the Tolkien collection in the Bodleian, so this is about as well-documented an associational item as we can get.

What's v. odd from my point of view is that I discussed these presentation copies in a section I added to the expanded one-volume edition of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, where it appeared as Appendix V: Author's Copies List. The Sotheby's description contains some biographical information about Kilbride I hadn't known before, and which is welcome. But it's odd, for me,
to see my own works quoted as an authority, right alongside Wayne's DESCRIPTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY identifier. I'm used to presenting information and arguing my case, but not to being cited in a case where real money is on the line. It's an odd experience.

And of course having just recently spent a little time in the Marquette Archives, I have to marvel that this single book could go for twenty times what Marquette paid for their entire seven thousand page collection. Just another example of how high Tolkien's stock has risen within our culture as a whole.

Finally, The Wife Says, in sharing the news to our friends and acquaintances: Feel free to bid. I already told John he can't have it.

--John R
current reading: CHILDREN OF THE SUN

P.S.: Tolkien Society's re-posting of this announcement ( points out that the lines Tolkien quotes are in fact in Old English, not Elvish.


Gabriele Marconi said...

So, at the end, Sotheby really didn't ask you directly for more information. The following are excerpts from a conversation between the 20th and the 23rd of May in the Tolkien Society FB Group, which brought to the note in the TS article and started a discussion on a probable mispelling in the inscription last line. Thanks to Harm Schelhaas, there are also some attempts of a correct translation.

Me: The poem is not in Elvish and I strongly doubt J.D. Rateliff said that to Sotheby. It is Anglo-Saxon, the poem of Aelfwine with the orthography of The Lost Road, except for the last line and the last word of the third line. I can't decipher the final word, seems to be "scninað", but this one doesn't exist as far as I know. Does someone have any idea?

Harm Schelhaas: Of course John Rateliff didn’t say that to Sotheby’s. They just looked up what he wrote in The History of the Hobbit; one-volume editionThe Lost Road p. 44, but on that page the poem is found in a different spelling, the spelling used here by Tolkien is found on p. 103 and p. 203.

Rateliff didn’t mention that from midway in the third line the text diverges from the
Lost Road version, so Sotheby’s don’t either. I read "scninað" as well. Possibly a mistake for "scrinað"?

Me: That was my thought: "scrin-"+"-að", this way the sentece make sense, even if I'm not sure about the construction.

The description persist so much about the Elvish that I thought Sotheby asked Rateliff for a consultation but they didn't pay the necessary care, or, more probable, at least to make readers believe that. You're right about the spelling as well: even the last time in HoME we see those verses
(The Notion Club Papers) they're written otherwise.

Harm Schelhaas: Gabriele, my guess would be something like "Arkenstone(s) [or ¿Silmarils?] secretly enshrined in mountain-caves’.
Further development: a Leiden University lecturer of Old and Middle English reads "scnínað" as a possible misspelling of "scinað" and translates "precious jewels seem hidden in hill-caves"[in the Tolkien Society Unquendor group].

Original comments:

ATMachine said...

Somehow I suspect that Tolkien was having a bit of subtle philological fun, rather in the vein of how CS Lewis disguised his suggestions for revising the Lay of Leithian as a fictional account of the history of the "medieval manuscript."

That is to say, I think Tolkien may have deliberately misspelled the last word of his Old English poem... thus creating his own "scribal error" of sorts, just as in real Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

The text of the poem could thus be corrected in one of two ways.

Assuming that the "scribe" meant to write scrinað ("enshrined") instead of scninað, the poem could be translated something like this:

Much lies in the West-lands / to men unknown
wonders and wights, / a well-shapen land,
the home of the Alfar, / of Arkenstones,
secretly enshrined / in the mountains' caves.

But if the last word of the poem is instead reconstructed as scinað ("shine"), then the word digle should probably be read not as the adverb "secretly," but rather as the plural nominative noun "secrets."

In that case, the poem's last two lines would likely read as follows:

the home of the Alfar, / of Arkenstones.
Secrets shine / in dark mountain caves.

This reading also contains a meta-linguistic pun, which reads the dun of dunscrafum ("mountain-cave") as both mountain (as in Old English) and dark-colored (as in Modern English dun, from OE dunn).

I've diverged from Tolkien in using "Alfar" in my translation, instead of "Elves," so as to match his atypical use of ylfa in the poem, versus the spelling elfa seen in The Lost Road (rendered in-story as "Elves" by Audoin).

ATMachine said...

One could, of course, take a third option, and translate the last two lines thus:

the home of the Elves. / Hallowed stones
secretly shine / in dark mountain caves.