Sunday, 18 September 2011

Wotan Has Returned!!!! Autumn Postings Shall Commence

After many nights at the opera and trips to the east and west, Wotan has returned to Valhalla (well if you can call Clapham Valhalla) with a back log of blog postings. First up is a book review Wotan did recently for the Mythprint the Journal of the Mythopoeic Society of a fantastic new book about Tolkien by a man who actually worked with here it is.....

Arne Zettersten. J.R.R. Tolkien's Double Worlds and Creative Process - Language and Life. Palgrave MacMillan 2011. 243pp. £47.00 ISBN 978-0-230-62314-9.

Like many, if not all, of you I am always on the lookout for new books about J.R.R Tolkien. I probably hit the Amazon search button two or three times a week to see what is both out there and on the horizon (you'd think they have a twelve step programme for this!). So it gave me great delight several months ago to see that Professor Arne Zettersten's new book on Tolkien was available for pre-order. At the same time as this rush of excitement I also had that usual tedious inner dialogue with myself regarding rationalising the price for this book (close to £50 in the UK) against other projected expenditure (like rent, food, the dog etc.). As I remember the internal dialogue for this book went on a bit (not as long as the continuing one for purchasing an original copy of The Songs for the Philologists) - but finally my mind rang with "YOU SHALL BUY" and I ordered it.

Arne Zettersten is currently a Swedish professor emeritus. Before retirement, Zettersten was a Professor in English at the University of Copenhagen.
What probably tipped my purchasing decision over the edge was my reading in the notes for the book that Zettersten is one of those fast fading people who actually knew and actively worked with Professor J,R.R. Tolkien. Zettersten gave the keynote lecture at the 2004 Marquette Blackwelder conference on his work with Tolkien in the 1960-70's while Zettersten was working on his doctrinal thesis on the AB language - a term coined by Tolkien himself when he noted that the dialect of a series of works in Early Middle English (the works of the Katherine Group and the Ancrene Wisse (also known as the Ancrene Riwle or the Guide for Anchoresses)
each had a standard language based on one in use in the West Midlands an area of England Tolkien was very interested in linguistically and historically.

What Zettersten includes in this roughly 200 page book is an incredibly focused blending of a personal reminiscence with a biographical sketch that includes the greatest emphasis and discussion I have seen to date on Tolkien's philological development. He also gives an in-depth analysis of Tolkien's professional and academic work and his parallel work on his legendarium, It is from this analysis and personal experience draws one of the key conclusions of the book that I felt is worth the price of purchase - but more on that later.

The very cover of the book sets the tone for this exploration. A hand sketched map Thror's Map from The Hobbit with an inset picture of Tolkien's from the 1960's in his garden.

The book starts with Zettersten's reminiscence of his first meeting with Tolkien in June 1961 with a scene that I am sure every Tolkien lover has fantasised about - the walk up to the front of 76 Sandfield Road, the first glimpse of Tolkien standing by the garage (that garage with all its documents, maps and some yet still to be revealed secrets!) and Tolkien offering him a cup of tea and saying "Mr. Zettersten, do come in." This was the first of Zettersten's meetings with Tolkien which would continue up to Tolkien's death in 1973. As Zettersten points out their shared love of languages, the primary and Tolkien's secondary world and their depth of friendship resulted in Tolkien in the last year of his life asking Zettersten to call him "Ronald" (which Tolkien in a letter to Amy Ronald indicated "was for my next kin only (Letters 309)." In addition in March 1973 Tolkien wrote a letter to Zettersten addressing it as "Dear Arne."

While the biographical sketch (which covers close to ten chapters) does have strong echoes of the key Tolkien biographies we already have (Carpenter, White and John Garth's excellent work on Tolkien and the Great War), Zettersten gives us a much more focused analysis of Tolkien's academic and philological development and especially the key role his mother Mabel Tolkien nee Suffield played in this. According to Zettersten, Mabel Tolkien was a lover of language, calligraphy and drawing - all loves and talents passed on to her son Ronald. Zettersten gives an example of this with a Christmas card Mabel wrote in 1893 on behalf of the then two-year old Ronald to his father in South Africa (a precursor to her sons later Father Christmas letters perhaps?). The card includes a rendering of "baby speech" including "Toekins" for "Tolkien (babies have a hard time saying the letter l).". As Zettersten says "She taught him to read, write, draw and paint. She instructed him in both classical and modern languages. She placed the right books in his hands at a very early age and practised the precise and ornamental handwriting that was characteristic of him.". While is certainly not new knowledge, what I found interesting is the emphasis on Mabel's love and experience with languages herself before passing it on to Ronald. Zettersten brings Mabel Tolkien the person out of the shadows a bit more and emphasises that very early bond between Mabel and her son had - cut had tragically short by Mabel's death in that postman's cottage at Rednal in 1904.

Another new area of insight that comes out of Zettersten's work is through his focus on Tolkien's ability to live in different worlds at the same time (the "double worlds" of the book's title). Zettersten observes that in his meetings with him, Tolkien could suddenly move from the primary and his secondary world without the slightest difficulty or doubt and he did this with same rapidity that one would switch from one language to another Zettersten uses the linguistic term "code switching" to describe this ability. He traces the development of this ability back to Tolkien's early development (for example his use of the Gothic language to construct new Gothic inspired words for his very early languages) up to his research work in the 1920's on the Oxford English Dictionary (for example parts of the re-write of The Fall of Gondolin were written on slips he used for researching the word wariangle "shrike" for the dictionary).

Zettersten's main point here, and this is what I thought was revelatory in the entire book, is the effect Tolkien's remarkable ability to switch between the "real" world and his secondary world had on the quality and depth of his work in both worlds. This "code switching" allowed him to put as much focus and emphasis on the history, language and culture of Middle Earth as he did on Anglo-Saxon and Germanic literature and culture he taught and researched in the primary world. He had the remarkable ability to hold both these worlds in his grasp and be able to discuss, debate and explore each of them almost simultaneously (an early form of multi-tasking?) The primary world complimented and enriched his secondary world. Tolkien's work as an academic and scholar gave him the process and methodology for the development of his secondary world and his work on his secondary world informed his love and passion for the primary world and his "Northern Spirit.". While others may have frowned on Tolkien's waste of time working on his fantasy world, it seems clear from Zettersten that to Tolkien there was no division, they were in the same and each were as important as the other. An area of Tolkien studies that perhaps can do with more focus and investigation?

I always judge the value of a scholarly work on the amount of highlighting I have done in it and I must say at the first pass of this book (and there will be others) I would give it high marks all around, The appendices offer a good summary of the key points from each chapter and Zettersten's gives some interesting insights into the screen versions of The Lord of the Rings (in the preface Zettersten states that Sir Ian McKellen - Gandalf gave him some insights!).

One final item that I thought was interesting In 1972-73 Zettersten was working on a fragment of the Old English Poem Waldere and Zettersten states that Tolkien was interested in Zettersten's aim to be the first person to use ultraviolet light on the manuscript to decipher the illegible parts of the manuscript. One wonders what he would have made of Professor Michael Drout's excellent current work on genomics, DNA and Anglo-Saxon texts.

This book includes some interesting illustrations and pictures of documents including a photo of a handwritten page of a section of the Return of the King time scheme from Lord of the Rings currently in the Marquette University Tolkien Collection. There are also some very interesting and useful charts including a list of the books in Tolkien's private collection when he was a student at Oxford (donated by the Tolkien family to the Bodliean library in 1982).

There is much more to dig into in this book and as an amateur Tolkien academic and philologist (who certainly lives in the primary world while taking long extensive visits to Tolkien's secondary world) I would highly recommend Arne Zettersten's book to lovers, students and aficionado's of Tolkien's works in both primary and secondary worlds. i do hope other reminiscences from Professor Zettersen are on the horizon!!!

NB: after posting this Johan Olin reminded me that Zettersten's book isn't actually that new, it's a translation of the Swedish original that was published in 2008. so really it is the English translation that is new!!!


Wotan's other exciting activity this autumn has been taking part in the first course of the new Mythgard Institute entitled Tolkien and the Epic. The Mythgard Institute Has been formed by the
The Tolkien Professor himself, Corey Olsen, who has created an online university for the study of Tolkien amd related subjects using interactive meeting resources (which we have dubbed Webmoot) Professor Olsen has lined up a stellar group of Tolkien academics for this first course on Tolkien and the Epic including Dr. Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger and Michael Drout as well as Professor Olsen himself to talk on such works as Beowulf, The Kalevala, Volsungasga and seversl of the key works of Tolkien. More classes are planned for the spring and beyond.

At one of the recent sessions with Tom Shippey, Wotan asked him about Dr. Zettensten's book and if he thought the idea of Tolkien as code switcher from the primary world to secondary world was a useful way to analyze Tolkienian literature and scholarship and he agreed it was.

Looking forward to more regular blogging on Wotan's work in the Mythgard Institute and other Tolkien matters and my new autumn language project learning Old Irish!!!

Lebe Wohl for now!!!!

Posted from Andrew Higgins IPAD

No comments:

Blog Archive