Wednesday 27 March 2024

Review of Tolkien's Faith: a spiritual biography by Holly Ordway (2023)

Word on Fire publishers deserve congratulation for producing such a handsome and well-made volume

Holly Ordway. Tolkien's Faith: a spiritual biography. Words on Fire: Washington, DC, USA. 2023. pp 480 total: 365 pages of text, plus appendices and index; plus 72 photographic plates. 

The publication of Tolkien's Faith is a significant event, because it provides substantially more information on JRR Tolkien's biography than has existed before about an aspect of his life - and work - that he himself often stated to be of prime importance. 

It also provides a properly contemporary Roman Catholic context for his religion - which may be almost as valuable for modern Catholics as it is for non-Catholics; since the Church of Tolkien's childhood, youth and mature adult life, was a very different environment than it began to become during the last decade of Tolkien's life. 

This divergence of practices from the Catholicism of Tolkien's prime has continued over the past half-century - so that a good deal of information and explanation is now needed to help modern people understand what being a devout Roman Catholic actually meant for Tolkien and his generation.

Where this book really makes a difference is in understanding Tolkien's later childhood and youth, in that vital period between the death of his mother - when he and his brother were orphaned - and going up to Oxford. 

This period has been well covered (especially by John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War) in terms of his experiences at King Edward's school in Birmingham. But Holly Ordway brings a new dimension to the non-school aspects of the Tolkien' brothers'life, who were in the very unusual situation of being orphans raised by a guardian, Father Francis, who was a priest at the Birmingham Oratory. 

Ordway describes the history and nature of the Oratory - about which I had previously been very hazy. It was founded by the famous Church of England ("Tractarian") to Roman Catholic convert John Henry Newman - who later became a Cardinal, the founder of University College, Dublin; and later still has been canonized. Father Francis had been a colleague of Newman - so Tolkien had a personal link to the great man. 

The Oratory itself was not a monastic institution, but encouraged each of the Fathers to develop his individual talents and vocation, while aiming at an atmosphere of friendship and mutual support among the 15-20 priests in residence. Therefore the Tolkien brothers had the tremendous benefit not only of Father Francis's personal love and (generous) support; but they also had a surrogate family among the Fathers - with whose devotional life the boys were intimately involved. 

That this upbringing was meaningful and important to JRR "Ronald" Tolkien, and regarded with affectionate gratitude, is evidenced by the fact that he maintained lifelong and close personal contact with Father Francis (who often visited the Tolkien family, and went on holidays with them); and also the Oratory itself - which ran a boarding school where all three of JRRT's sons were later educated.  


The focus on Tolkien's faith brings-out a very important aspect of his character which I had missed: forgiveness. 

While it has long been known that Tolkien blamed his relatives for ostracizing his widowed and impoverished Mother (and therefore the two boys) after her conversion to Roman Catholicism. For instance, during the months when Tolkien's mother Mabel lay dying, only one relative visited her: even Mabel's parents apparently refused to see their dying daughter!

Ordway points-out that this trauma did not prevent the later development of warm and lasting relationships between Ronald and these same relatives in later years. In other words; despite that he (very reasonably) regarded them as at-fault; Tolkien forgave his relatives, and showed no sign of harboring continued resentment against them.   

This insight is typical of Holly Ordway's strengths as a biographer and scholar - her eye for the significant detail that reveals character, or sheds light on a question. 

An example is the section on Lembas, or waybread. She describes how, before Lord of the Rings, the English word "waybread" was only used to refer to the English meadow and garden plant called Plantago major or plantain. 

(We used to play with a type of plantain as children, in a competition we termed "spuds", and that is similar to "conkers" - whereby each child would try to use one plantain to swipe-off the black flower-seed-head from another.)

Waybread makes sense in the context of LotR as "food for a journey", but "waybread"  is also the semantic equivalent of the Latin word viaticum (provision for a journey - i.e. the metaphorical journey of death); which is a term for the Blessed Sacrament (i.e. the Bread of Holy Communion) when given to a dying person. 

Ordway then describes how the wheel has now turned full circle! The Oxford English Dictionary currently records not just Tolkien's use of "waybread"/ lembas in Lord of the Rings; but also notes that waybread is today being used as a term for The Eucharist - with the first illustrative quotation being from a letter by Tolkien!

Despite the rich detail throughout, there were a few omissions that might be addressed by future biographers. 

One is the matter of Tolkien's apparently intense interest in "paranormal" or supernatural phenomena, which is mentioned in some accounts of Inklings meetings, and evident in The Notion Club papers. Phenomena such as ghosts, psychometry, lucid dreams, previsions of the future and visions of history, and auditory hallucinations of unknown languages. Some of these were confirmed by Christopher to be based on personal experience.  

There is much discussion of marriage in Tolkien's Faith; but I suspect, there is more to be said on this matter. Tolkien's own marital difficulties during middle age have been known in general terms since Carpenter's biography of 1977; but the specific nature of these difficulties and the consequences remains unreported (so far as I know).

Furthermore, given Tolkien's strict and orthodox Catholic beliefs on the subject; I presume that Christopher Tolkien's divorce and re-marriage must have been a very difficult matter for JRRT to cope with - but nothing at all is mentioned of this matter.   

So - there is (of course!) significant work still to be done on the faith and spiritual life of JRR Tolkien. 

One pregnant suggestion made by Ordway is that Tolkien's physical, and secondarily psychological, health seems permanently to have been damaged by the prolonged and severe "trench fever" that affected him during the Battle of the Somme and throughout the rest of the war. I am sure she is correct about this - there seem to be many references in letters and the Chronology (made by Hammond and Scull) to weeks long spells of debilitation and prostration. Here is a subject for further and detailed study!

In the meanwhile; this biography by Holly Ordway is a major, indeed definitive, contribution to understanding the Christianity of a man who has turned-out to be perhaps the most widely-influential English Catholic of the twentieth century. 

Friday 1 March 2024

Notice of the expanded - but underwhelming - "new" edition of selected Letters by JRR Tolkien (2023)

The main benefit of this new, expanded, version of the original 1981 selection of The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien; is that it induced me to "read the whole thing" again, from beginning to end, without skipping (except for a few paragraphs of technical linguistics). 

And the main benefit of this thorough re-reading (probably the third) was to realize how much I had forgotten of this indispensable gem of Tolkien's secondary literature. I really ought to have gone through the volume again, long before now; and for making me do it, I am very grateful to the 2023 edition!

If you are going to read any "Tolkien scholarship", then the Letters should be one of your first choices. 

But it has to be said that - following a gap of more than forty years between the first and second edition - this new collection is distinctly underwhelming. This because the new edition is in its essentials qualitatively the same as the old edition: qualitatively the same, although quantitatively larger. 

The reason behind this sameness is given in Chris Smith's Foreword to the revised edition; which is that the 2023 Letters are, in effect, the Zeroth  (i.e. 0th) Edition of the 1981 Letters - that is, the 2023 Letters are the 1981 letters before cuts were made by Carpenter and Tolkien, to bring the volume down to a publishable size.   

What we can now say is that the process of cutting the Zeroth edition down to the published 1981 Letters was very well done, because so little of substance was lost. Which (unfortunately) also means that there is not much that has been gained by making available this 40-plus-year-old selection of Letters. 

Indeed, I found it hard to locate many of the expansions, short of continually comparing the two editions (which would have destroyed the pleasure of re-reading). There are quite a few new letters, mostly to family members, labelled with a, b, c, etc appended to the numbers, in the correct Chronological position (and without, therefore, disrupting the established Letter numbering scheme).  

But many of the 2023 expansions were extra paragraphs added to the 1981-published letters - and the decision was made Not to indicate these expansions in the text (or anywhere) - so that they can only be discovered by a comparison of editions.

Such a lack of editorial explicitness adds to the impression of laziness in preparation of this not-really-new edition of Letters. 

My points is that - although the 2023 edition is certainly better than the 1981 edition; the new selection does Not address the core deficiencies of the 1981 selection. I am thinking, in particular, of the lack of any specific reference to Tolkien's psychological and marital difficulties. It was understandable and proper that such references were excluded when Tolkien's children were still alive, but now they have all died it is overdue that these were articulated explicitly in print.

In particular I was disappointed to discover no new letters to cover the 1945-6 period of Tolkien's "nervous breakdown" after he took up the Merton professorship, and during which he was writing The Notion Club Papers. 

This was when (apparently) Tolkien and his wife Edith seem to have (informally-) separated for some weeks, and JRRT went off to live with Christopher in an hotel. 

I regard this as important in the history of Lord of the Rings, since it was only afterwards that writing of LotR was resumed after a long break.

This crucial period is covered by a distinct gap in the published Letters - whether because none were available, or because they have been excluded, I don't know. 

I suppose (eventually....) time will tell. Perhaps this information is being held back for a desperately needed new authorized biography to replace/supplement Carpenter's unsympathetic, indeed semi-hostile, biography of 1977. In the meanwhile, new letter 38a to son Michael from 1940 provides confirmation of the significant and sustained marital problems of Ronald and Edith's middle years - and that these were explicitly known to at least the older boy children. 

In sum; the 2023 Letters are in every way better than the 1981 Letters; yet... without really adding anything-much substantive to what was already known. 

So that, overall, the 2023 Letters of JRR Tolkien represent a pretty enormous lost-opportunity to publish a genuinely new edition, rather than what is, in effect, an older-than-old edition!

Tuesday 27 February 2024

The elvish strain in Mankind, and the motivation of Men and elves

For JRR Tolkien, "elvishness" is a quality that first entered Mankind by heredity from the rare "interbreeding" of Men with Elves; especially Beren and Luthien, Tuor and Idril and Aragorn and Arwen - but perhaps also from one or more unions of Men with Silvan (i.e. "lower") elves such as happened in Dol Amroth. 

After which, the "half-elven" strain was transmitted in part by a kind of heredity (which is not strictly genetic); and also by close-association-with and even the love of elves - via the phenomenon of "Elf Friends". 

Indeed, this second "associational" rather then hereditary elvishness seems likely to have been the most important; since it seems very unlikely that all the Numenoreans (for instance) were actual descendants of Beren, Luthien, Tuor or Idril - most seem to have been members of three particular Elf Friend tribes or clans. 

I find it fascinating to consider what spiritual realities lie behind Tolkien's elves, and their relationship with Men; and my speculations have recently been fuelled by reading-though a fascinating and wide-ranging book called Red Tree, White Tree by Wendy Berg - who was a disciple of Gareth Knight; later (with her husband) becoming leader of the Gareth Knight Christian magical group, after GK retired. 

Berg puts forward many and various speculations on the subject of "faeries" including a detailed consideration of Tolkien's elves; also folklore, and the whole range of Arthurian literature - which she interprets as being, ultimately, "about" faery/ Men relationships.

In particular, she regards faeries and Men as two distinguished-sides of an original-whole; and of the two sub-species of "human" as having been sundered in the remote past - and with, therefore, the long-term implicit goal of becoming re-unified - despite the many problems such a destiny will entail. 

(Problems such as are, for Berg, the principal subject of Arthurian romance.)  

My thought was that elves and Men can be distinguished in terms of motivation. 

Elves/ faeries value and are more immersed in creation, and therefore live in harmony with the natural world; but, on the other hand, elves tend to become passive, contemplative; and instead of contributing to the world, they tend to try and preserve the past, and to stay the workings of time. 

Men are more self-conscious of their distinction from nature, and selfishly tend to impose their will on creation and respond to temporary impulses; yet this heightened self-consciousness and distinction from nature is also the basis of freedom, and can motivate Men to contribute personally to divine creation.  

In Owen Barfield's terms - Elves/ faeries are prone to yearn for the immersive unconsciousness of "Original Participation"; while Men are prone to the alienation and despair of the "Consciousness Soul".

And the hope for a re-uniting of faery and Men; is the hope of combining the best of both: combining the free creativity of Men with the harmony-with-divine-creation characteristic of elves. 

Tolkien regarded elves and Men as both "human"; yet as separate creations, and therefore eternally distinct. Berg takes the different stance of understanding elves and Men to have been two directions in which humanity grew after an original unity in the Garden of Eden.

However we may model or literalize the explanation; there does seem to be a true insight and wisdom in this business. 

It seems probable to me that this ideal harmony and union cannot be achieved - except temporarily and in a limited fashion - in this mortal life and on this earth. 

Yet the distinction of motivations has validity as a way of conceptualizing the ideal state of both elves and Men towards which we may aspire. 

And also a warning - on both sides - of the hazards of a divided and partial consciousness.   

Saturday 17 February 2024

A joke quoted by JRRT

From letter 97b, of the 2023, expanded, edition of Letters by JRR Tolkien*: 

Mother discovered her small daughter drawing.

"What are you drawing, darling" said she.

"I am drawing God." 

"Oh, but you can't draw God, dear. Nobody knows what he's like." 

"Well they will now."

*I got this for my birthday recently, and am avidly reading it; but - because it is so dense and interesting - only at a rate of 30-40 pages per day. With a total of more than 600 pages (not including index), it'll be a couple of weeks before I can write a review of the whole thing...  

Sunday 11 February 2024

Free, high quality e-books of Charles Williams and CS Lewis - downloadable from

I have recently discovered the excellent Fadedpage web site; which is done by volunteers, and provides free, high quality, downloadable e-books from a variety of authors in the public domain of Canada (which, sensibly, has 50 year copyright laws). 

I stumbled across it in search of Biggles books; but have since discovered a remarkably rich seam of Charles Williams's works (some them very difficult, or expensive, to get in hard copy); plus a large number of CS Lewis texts - also including some rarities! 

Even if you already have these books on paper, Fadedpage could provide handy portable versions to take on holiday or journeys.   

Sunday 4 February 2024

Valedictory Address: The only published piece by Tolkien that I dislike

Of course I do not enjoy everything by JRR Tolkien that has been published; but - with one exception - I do find all his works (finished and incomplete) to be worthwhile and respect-worthy... 

Except for one thing. 

That is the lecture entitled "Valedictory address to the University of Oxford" and included as final piece in the collection The Monsters and the Critics, and other Essays (Paperback, 1987; Edited by Christopher Tolkien).  

This was a public lecture delivered on the occasion of Tolkien's retirement in June 1959, after reaching the age of sixty-seven. Tolkien had been associated with the University first as an undergraduate (forty-eight years earlier); and had then served in two different Professorships (Anglo-Saxon, then English Language and Literature) for the exceptionally long span of thirty-four years.

To my mind; this final lecture should have been - overall - a warm and genial event; a celebration of Tolkien's relationship with a university he (mostly) loved and respected. 

But instead Tolkien adopted what comes-across as a petty, narrow, carping, and mean-spirited attitude; displaying an unattractive defensiveness towards his critics and intellectual enemies; and a persisting resentment concerning the academic decisions and trends he regarded as mistaken. 

Especially given that, by this time, the Lord of the Rings had been published and Tolkien had become somewhat famous outside of the academy - I would have hoped for a public demonstration of the man's greatness of soul and largeness of spirit. 

But I suspect that I would have found the actual lecture to be an embarrassing event to attend; altogether unworthy of Tolkien. 

I would have hoped for his themes to be broad and of general interest (as befits a public lecture); rather than this indulgence in nit-picking over the minutiae of past disputes relating mainly to the departmental syllabus and examinations! 

Valedictory means a goodbye; and when saying goodbye for the last time, one surely ought to attempt a heartening farewell? 

One ought not to leave a "nasty taste" lingering after departure. 

Altogether; the Valedictory Address strikes me as a disappointing and saddening leave-taking of Tolkien's life as Professor - the only of all his productions that I would prefer had not happened. 

Thursday 1 February 2024

"Broad Relic" in the Notion Club Papers is the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel

JRR Tolkien. The Notion Club Papers - in "Sauron Defeated" The History of Middle Earth Volume 9, HarperCollins: London, 1993.  

[p277]. The Danes attack Porlock that night. They are driven off and take refuge by swimming out to the ships and so to 'Broad Relic'.[Note 106]* A small 'cnearr' [ship] is captured. It is not well guarded. AElfwine tells Treowine that he has stores laid up. They move the boat and stock it the following night and set sail West.

[p288]. Danes attack that night but are driven off. AElfwine and Treowine are among those who capture a small ship that had ventured close inshore and stuck. The rest escape to 'Broad Relic'.

*Note 106 [by Christopher Tolkien]. I cannot explain the reference of 'Broad Relic'. 


I have long been somewhat curious about the meaning of "Broad Relic", especially because Christopher Tolkien could not identify it. 

However, as a sometime resident of Somerset who dwelt near the Bristol Channel, I guessed that Danes driven off Porlock to their ships, might well take refuge on one of the islands between Somerset and Wales - of which there are three well known: Lundy, Steep Holm, and Flat Holm. 

I thought that "Broad Relic" might well be one of these islands. 

On researching the etymology of these islands it emerged that Flat Holm was named "Bradan Relice" in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles (which, of course JRR Tolkien knew) - and so the puzzle of Broad Relic appears to have been solved! 

...Although, perhaps typically, Tolkien seems to have quibbled with the mainstream translation of Relice (given below by Coates) as coming from Old Irish reilic meaning "cemetery"; by instead translating Relice as meaning "relic" as if derived from the Welsh rhelyw.  


Richard Coates. The name of the Island of Annet, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall. . Ainm: Journal of the Ulster Place-Name Society. 2008; 9: 73-84 - page 81. 

 A further Irish-derived name-pair evidently belonging in this category is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (Swanton 2000). Flat Holm (Glamorgan), an island in the Bristol Channel, is referred to as (æt) bradan relice, (into) bradan reolice (annals 918 [914] (A) and 1067 (D) respectively). Version D calls the adjacent Steep Holm (Somerset) (æt) steapan relice (annal 915 [914]). 

These names, though English in form, evidently contain a word, perhaps in use as a name, borrowed from Old Irish reilic ‘cemetery’ (Vulgar Latin reliquie), and not from the Welsh borrowing of the same item, which is rhelyw and means ‘relic’ (see Jackson 1953: 403 for the phonology).  


Note added from comments: I think it is pretty definite that the basic history of this "dream" episode of the NCPs is based on the Anglo Saxon Chronicles [] e.g (note the second paragraph): 

 A.D. 918. This year came a great naval armament over hither south from the Lidwiccians; (40) and two earls with it, Ohter and Rhoald. They went then west about, till they entered the mouth of the Severn; and plundered in North-Wales everywhere by the sea, where it then suited them; and took Camlac the bishop in Archenfield, and led him with them to their ships; whom King Edward afterwards released for forty pounds. After this went the army all up; and would proceed yet on plunder against Archenfield; but the men of Hertford met them, and of Glocester, and of the nighest towns; and fought with them, and put them to flight; and they slew the Earl Rhoald, and the brother of Ohter the other earl, and many of the army. And they drove them into a park; and beset them there without, until they gave them hostages, that they would depart from the realm of King Edward. And the king had contrived that a guard should be set against them on the south side of Severnmouth; west from Wales, eastward to the mouth of the Avon; so that they durst nowhere seek that land on that side. 

Nevertheless, they eluded them at night, by stealing up twice; at one time to the east of Watchet, and at another time at Porlock. There was a great slaughter each time; so that few of them came away, except those only who swam out to the ships. Then sat they outward on an island, called the Flat-holms; till they were very short of meat, and many men died of hunger, because they could not reach any meat. Thence went they to Dimmet, and then out to Ireland...

Friday 26 January 2024

Ramer contra Lowdham - comparing Tolkien's alter ego characters in The Notion Club Papers

Christopher Tolkien published the surviving material of The Notion Club Papers (in The History of Middle Earth - Volume Nine) in two parts, each of which has a particular character who serves as the main mouthpiece for Tolkien's own ideas; an alter ego. These characters are Ramer in Part One, and Lowdham in Part Two. 

Ramer and Lowdham divide between them several of Tolkien's major personal characteristics, motivations and interests - so that put-together they would represent something quite close to Tolkien himself. 

Furthermore, there is a progression between Ramer and Lowdham in the story which represents an imaginative possibility for Tolkien himself - albeit one that never happened "in real life".

Like Tolkien; Ramer is, apparently, a philologist (however Ramer's specialty is the Finnish and Hungarian language group); but "better known" as a writer of what would nowadays be termed fantasy fiction, including "science fiction". I think we are perhaps meant to infer that Ramer's heart is not in philology (that is what comes across in the reported conversations) - his interest in it is professional rather than personal - his heart is in his fiction writing. 

He is reported as having read a story to the club; then, after some preliminary "skirmishing", the NCP narrative takes-off when Ramer begins to describe his experiments in exploring the remote past and outer space with "parapsychological" methods such as telepathy, lucid dreaming and psychometry. 

The similarity of Ramer with JRRT is that internal evidence and some of Christopher Tolkien's notes suggests that his father had some experience of these paranormal-type experiences, and used the results in his writing.

Ramer could be described as having something like a travelers interest in other times and places - albeit this goes very deep; because he describes an extreme kind of sympathy with other places and "things" (such as a meteor) that amounts to near-complete identification of "what it is like" actually to be them. 

Yet, Ramer does not seem to want to do anything with these experiences more, or other, than to enjoy them; to remember and write about them.  

In sum, we could describe Ramer's "paranormal" experiences as being essentially contemplative - he desires to visit and mentally-explore remote space and time - partly from curiosity, but also implicitly to "use" such information in his fictional writing. This was also Tolkien's practice - to some extent; but it leaves-out some of Tolkien's other distinctive characteristics - in particular his lifelong passion-for, and profound expertise-in, philology. 

While Ramer is a somewhat lukewarm philologist; Lowdham is - like JRRT - a vocational philologist; and with similar specific interests in Germanic, Scandinavian and ancient English languages. Furthermore, Lowdham (and Lowdham's father, by report) articulates Tolkien's own special affinity for Anglo-Saxon. 

In Part One, Lowdham comes across as a rather facetious character, who protects his real nature and deepest enthusiasms by a "tortoise-shell" of bumptious behaviour, vulgar singing, and a stream of witticisms and jokes. Tolkien, likewise, was often defensive, and deliberately misleading, about the depth and passion of his unusual interests and strange beliefs. 

Yet, Lowdham's friends realize that this protective carapace is beginning to crack under the influence of Ramer's revelations and the themes that are emerging. As the story progresses and especially in Part Two, Lowdham comes to the fore as an intensely emotional man; almost volcanic in his energies and will. 

Indeed (like Tolkien as a keen rugby playing youth) Lowdham is a very physical man - loud of voice (his name was originally spelled Loudham) - albeit Lowdham is described, quite unlike Tolkien (fair haired, nimble), as physically large and dark-complexioned.   

Lowdham's core interest is (like Tolkien's) primarily in remote times; in ancient history rather than the further reaches of outer space. 

And indeed he seems most attracted to the uttermost West, beyond the British Isles - the mythic land of Faery and of "Atlantis"/ Numenor - which, he suspects, may have been the intended destination of his father - lost at sea. 

If Ramer's aims are those of a visitor, an historian - with intent to use the material in writing fiction; Lowdham's interest is more philological than historical. And more "therapeutic" than literary; in the sense of Lowdham desiring to follow his father Westward, or at least discover what happened to him and perhaps re-open a channel of communication between here-and-now and then-and-there. 

While some of this is - no doubt - a scholarly drive; the fact that Lowdham goes off on an actual quest with Jeremy, sailing along the Western coasts of Britain and Ireland, and exploring the countryside - a magical quest, indeed, where Lowdham's mediumistic ability to hear ancient language in states of lucid dreaming, is combined with Jeremy's complementary talent for experiencing visions of that which Lowdham hears.

Jeremy's developing partnership and alliance with Lowdham brings a focus on myth, about which Jeremy has much to say; and as the story proceeds mythic considerations tend to transcend Ramer's more mundane interests in the geography and history of strange places and remote times. 

Jeremy therefore brings-in yet another aspect of Tolkien. And Jeremy is another fantasy fiction writer - indeed that is his special interest as a literary scholar and critic. 

So; why do Lowdham and Jeremy desire so much to re-open communications with Numenor, and via Numenor with the ancient world of the elves (as understood by Tolkien), that they risk their lives in its pursuit? Risk death in that the two men are nearly killed by first walking into the teeth of a hurricane, then later sailing a small boat into the residue of terrible storms that have come-through into the times of the Notion Club from the downfall of Numenor?

What I perceive, overall, in the Notion Club Paper fragments and (by inference) from behind them; is a transformation from the somewhat detached, contemplative, non-interventional perspective of Ramer; through to a more active, participating and (potentially) world-transforming engagement with the reality of myth

This would represent a movement of intent from the mundane and aesthetic, into the spiritual and indeed divine purposes: It is (implicitly) Tolkien's acknowledgement of the need for the modern world of the Notion Club (and of the Inklings) to be rescued, or redeemed, by the realities of Tolkien's mythic world - as represented by first Ramer, then Lowdham - complemented by Jeremy. 

The Notion Club Papers can be seen as a sketch of how this epic task might be begun - if not accomplished altogether. 


Monday 22 January 2024

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from The Red Book by JRR Tolkien, 1962 - a review of 50 years re-reading

When I first read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings some half century ago, I didn't much enjoy the poetry - mostly because I did not enjoy any poetry at all at that time in my life. 

Or, more exactly, I didn't enjoy poetry qua poetry, but for other reasons. For instance, I enjoyed Middle English poetry such as Chaucer or Sir Gawain, but because I enjoyed the language rather than from any reason specifically poetic. 

But as the decades have rolled-by; I have come to appreciate and enjoy Tolkien's poems and verses more and more - indeed, more each year; until now I would have to say he is one of my very favourite poets! 

Most of Tolkien's best poetry is in The Lord of the Rings; but in 1962 he published a collection called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (ATB) which was beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 

In 2014 was published a new edition of ATB, with extensive notes by those superhumanly-thorough scholars Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond (authors of the indispensable JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide). 

These fascinating notes by S&H explain Tolkien's wide-ranging vocabulary, references, and acknowledged influences; and also often include earlier versions of the 1962 poems; which are always interesting and sometimes extremely good in their own right. 

(Unfortunately the page size in the 2014 edition of ATB is approximately halved from the 1962 version - including my 1972 reprint; so the illustrations have been somewhat miniaturized -- which is why I like to own and use both editions.) 

There are sixteen poems - long, medium and short, three of which are also in Lord of the Rings

The longest poem, and my favourite of all, is Bombadil Goes Boating: a tour de force of rhyme and allusion, which is touched by the genius of true lyric poetry. Scull and Hammond's notes really enhanced my already high appreciation. 

This poem was written just before 1962, and especially for this collection. Its original title demonstrates that it was envisaged as a series of "flitings" - a fliting being a public contest of ritual (i.e. non-serious), but exaggerated, satire and insult between master poets - as with the enjoyable Middle Scots Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie by William Dunbar from about 1500.  

The title poem opens the volume and makes a pair with Bombadil goes Boating. Bombadil admirers will relish it as a "prequel" (attributed to Hobbits of the Buckland area and nearby) to the Hobbits' encounter with Tom in the Old Forest. 

Another favourite is the remarkable and haunting The Sea-Bell; which works at several levels. These include in-universe references to Frodo's sadness and isolation during his final years after the One Ring was destroyed and before leaving Middle Earth; also un-missable autobiographical echoes, concerning Tolkien's own relationship with Faery. Its 1934-published precursor was titled "Looney" - i.e. lunatic, mad-man; which is telling. 

Overall; Sea-Bell makes a more pessimistic partner-piece to Tolkien's "valedictory" story published some five years later: Smith of Wootton Major

The final poem in the volume, The Last Ship, is also beautiful and sad. And it also has a precursor published version from 1934, called Firiel. Firiel is excellent; and interestingly different from Last Ship in both setting and mood. 

There are several pieces of Comic Verse that demonstrate Tolkien's excellent technique and capacity for complex verbal trickery - Errantry is the best known of these; but I prefer Fastitocalon; and its 1927 precursor is even better. 

Sam's Oliphaunt rhyme from LotR is is also featured in ATB; and Scull and Hammond provide a truly brilliant 1927-published version in the notes: which is the equal of Hilaire Belloc at his best.  

There are also pieces in a folk song or "ballad" narrative style - such as Perry-the-Winkle, and a couple provide fanciful "back stories" for nursery rhymes (one of these is the song Frodo sings standing on the table at the Prancing Pony). 


The illustrations are Pauline Baynes at her incomparable best; and they are very important to the effect of the book as a whole. Since there is such a wide range of quality and quantity among the sixteen pieces (e.g. I find Princess Mee pretty feeble*) - it is the illustrations running-through that bind the heterogeneous parts into a coherent and effective whole. 

Illustration for The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon - an imagined and elaborate precursor to the modern nursery rhyme about cold porridge in Norwich. 

*But only a fool judges a poet by his worst works! (Or are we to regard Shakespeare as the author of Titus Andronicus?) And even the best poets will produce mostly-mediocrity, and only relatively few (or even just one!) really good poems.