Saturday 1 July 2023

Review of The Battle of Maldon by JRR Tolkien (2023), edited by Peter Grybauskas

JRR Tolkien. The Battle of Maldon, together with The homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's son, and The Tradition of Versification in Old English. Edited by Peter Grybauskas. HarperCollins: London, 2023, pp xx, 188.

This book constitutes mostly unpublished and new material, but is centred on The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son ("HBBS") a poem-play for voices/ radio-play by JRR Tolkien. This has been generally available since c.1965; when it was it was included in a version of Tree and Leaf. That is where I first read it nearly fifty years ago; and I've re-read several times since. 

However, I found that this new edition - with its better layout, and ancillary material - made a much greater impact on me; and the play itself was therefore experienced as far more enjoyable. This alone would have made the new collection worthwhile.  

The poetic play (which has been broadcast on BBC radio) has a strange origin; since it was first published in the prestigious professional academic journal Essays and Studies - where it was bracketed by a scholarly, and somewhat more conventional,  introduction and epilogue from Tolkien that discussed the Old English poetry-fragment called The Battle of Maldon.  

Yet despite the very peculiar nature of the original academic publication (which runs to 35 pages in this edition, with a further 15 pages of scholarly notes by Grybauskas); Professor Tom Shippey (in Roots and Branches, 2007) rates HBBS as among the top-three philological publications of JRRT's career. This; in terms of its professional influence and citations (although Shippey personally regards some of Tolkien's main points as mistaken). 

Grybauskas, in the present volume, also suggests that HBBS should be regarded as a third major essay to make-up a trio with the much-more-often-discussed essays On Fairy Stories and Beowulf: the monsters and the critics. Taken together; these three provide a special and deep insight into Tolkien's creative processes, relevant to The Lord of the Rings in particular. And Grybauskas cites some comments by Tolkien himself to support this claim of a trio of JRRT's most important Middle Earth-relevant pieces. 

This large claim for HBBS is vindicated by The Battle of Maldon (2023) - especially as it is now supported by the first-time publication of some hundred pages of lecture-preparations (or projected essays), probably from the 1930s, by Tolkien; in the section of this book entitled The Tradition of Versification in Old English

Despite some parts of highly technical philology, which I could not understand; this series of Tolkien's notes contains much really fascinating discussion that has autobiographical relevance to several of Tolkien's core, long-term concerns and fascinations.  

These special interests of Tolkien include the nature of poetry and its different functions; the working-out of language changes on poetry - both in oral transmission and scribal transmission - and how these two aspects interact in terms of the various aspects of poetry such as vocabulary, pronunciation, and metre. 

All this is, in turn, directly relevant to JRRT's almost obsessive concern with the fictional provenance of his Legendarium: i.e. the question of how texts, of various sources, were preserved and transmitted down to the present day and the editorial hand of Tolkien himself. 

This concern with (imaginary) provenance derives from his professional studies in philology; but is  what lies behind the supposed origins of The Lord of the Rings mentioned in the Prologue and Appendices... The fiction's feigned historical nature; and the basis of the Romance in (for example) Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish, The Red Book of Westmarch (from Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, mostly), and other texts by Merrie Brandybuck. 

There are further references to provenance in the 'editorial' introduction to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and - even more so - the unpublished Notion Club Papers

The other main section of the book is relatively short, but clearly of importance: this is Tolkien's (previously unpublished) 12 page prose translation of The Battle of Maldon fragment - with a further 14 pages of scholarly notes from Grybauskas. The Battle of Maldon serves both as a new publication from Tolkien, and also - in context of this volume, as an essential reference from-which to understand HBBS and the Tradition of Versification lecture notes. 

In conclusion: Congratulations are due to Peter Grybauskas, and to the Tolkien Estate. This is a very worthwhile and interesting book, continuing the excellent start made to HarperCollins recent "post-Christopher Tolkien era" series; continuing CRT's epic work in producing scholarly and enjoyably-readable editions of Tolkien's unpublished or relatively "minor", hence neglected, works. 


ToTheRightRon said...

Hillsdale College has a free video series about the Inklings. I received this link in my email. It's not offered on their free lectures page as far as I know. One of the lectures is by Michael Ward with whom you may be familiar. Haven't watched them as of yet myself. I did enjoy Wards lectures on CS Lewis that I have watched.
On the other hand you might be able to be one of the lecturers with your knowledge and interest.

Anonymous said...

One time, at the Oxford Lewis Society, we had an enjoyable dramatic reading of a translation of The Battle of Maldon (I think R.K. Gordon's, first published in 1926 and long reprinted in the Everyman's Library series) followed by HBBS. It is delightful to think that solitary readers and circles of friends can privately now do the same with Tolkien's own translation!

It is wonderful that more of Tolkien's scholarly work on Old English poetry is being published. I wonder how much this may help us think about what Tolkien is doing with Old English poetry in The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers?

I heartily concur about the excellent HarperCollins recent editions, and would add how fine it is that they reprinted Alan Bliss's edition, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, in paperback. I wish OUP would similarly reprint Joan Turville-Petrie's edition, The Old English Exodus - or perhaps collaborate with HarperCollins to do so jointly? (Its Tolkien Gateway article notes only "3,000 copies were printed and it has not been reprinted": fortunately, a lot of those seem to be in good libraries - I've been able to see it thanks to a Dutch University Library, and it is starting to get some more attention, such as Emma Both-Bosselaar's essay, "The Exodus of the Noldor: The Israelites and their Elven Counterparts" in the March 2023 issue (Number 201) of Lembas, the Dutch Tolkien Society magazine.)

I look forward to reading Peter Grybauskas's edition and all the details of his "trio" suggestion. I would be inclined, given Tolkien's speaking in terms of chivalry in his Essays and Studies contribution, to add his 1953 W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to make a quartet.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

Well, I am enjoying it a lot: now, just a page or so into Part Three - which, in its references to the Chronicle poems, reminds me to mention how much I've been generally enjoying working with The Beginnings Of English Literature To Skelton (1509) by William Lindsay Renwick and Harold Orton, which helps me to find editions (and translations) of poems and other works Tolkien knew, or might have known, which are scanned in the Internet Archive - as are three editions of Renwick and Orton, though the 1966 Third Edition seems to be only among "Books to Borrow". Interestingly, Williams reviewed the 1939 First Edition for the Sunday Times on 7 May 1939 - sadly, I never looked that review up, when I could easily have. I've been working with the 1952 Second Edition, though they say in their Preface "we have not found it necessary to add much in our endeavour to bring the book up to date."

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - Thanks for the recommendation of Renwick and Orton - I shall certainly look into that.

Interesting that they chose Skelton as the terminus of their survey. I came across him via Robert Graves's "Crowning Privilege" Lectures (I think it was) - but couldn't get much from Skelton myself, despite a fair bit of effort! He is of that pre-Elizabethan 'drab age' as CSL called it - but stopping c1500 means, I suppose, that the survey does Not get overwhelmed by the usual dominant 3 Ss (Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare).

Anonymous said...

I have not read much of William Lindsay Renwick's book-length Introduction, beyond using the detailed index to look things up in it. Now, I've gone looking to see what he says about Skelton, and found him an entertaining writer, reminding me of Lewis in his OHEL volume. He says (pp. 113-16), "There is nothing new in Skelton [...] In poetry as in scholarship he looks back rather than forward. [...] Yet we feel that Skelton is an original, and that he is indispensable. [...] There is refreshment and enjoyment enough, in this academic priest, the last of the mediaeval English poets." Renwick, a Scot, has similar things to say about Scottish writers, saying, for instance (p. 117), of a number of romances "claimed for Scotland" that "these are of the same school as Gawain and the Green Knight - which without them would appear an isolated phenomenon" and that "they gave to the Scottish poets certain habits of verse and style that continued in vogue for generations" and further "that we can trace a continuous history of verse forms from the Old English poets on one hand and the troubadours on the other, down to Burns himself". The book includes not only Henryson (d. "? 1506"), but Dunbar (d. "1530?"), Douglas (d. "1522"), Sir David Lindsay (d. "?1555") and a little section on "Sixteenth-century Scottish Poetry". I see that Renwick wrote a B.Litt. at Merton in 1919 and had his own 1963 OHEL contribution: English Literature 1789-1815, retitled in a 1990 reprint The Rise of the Romantics 1789-1815: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Jane Austen. And I find scanned in the Internet Archive a copy of his Edmund Spenser: An Essay on Renaissance Poetry (1925) owned by Lewis and donated to Marygrove College by George Sayer! I wonder if Renwick had direct Inklings contacts?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

Having read Tolkien's Maldon book, and thinking a fair bit about NCP, I've also been reading around in The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism (Cambridge: Brewer, 1975) by Eric Stanley - one of Tolkien's successors as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon (and author of "C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as I knew them (Never Well)" in the Journal of Inklings Studies in 2014) - and thinking what an interesting context it makes for both Tolkien's Beowulf scholarship and The Tradition of Versification in Old English on the one hand, and Tolkien's 'Old English fiction' in both The Homecoming and in the Court of King Edward (etc.) parts of The Lost Road and NCP.

David Llewellyn Dodds