Tolkien and the Welsh language (and other news)

I had hoped to post more often on this blog, but this term has been unusually busy. There have been a lot of great opportunities and many exciting projects are in the pipeline, but time has flown and here we are, just before Christmas, with no blog post since the summer! I’ve been more active on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – the necessity for brevity required in social media has helped! Here’s a quick catch-up, then, and some thoughts and musings on my research and other activities this term.

Tolkien and WWI 1

Interviewed by John Rhys-Davies for the BBC iWonder Guide on Tolkien and World War I


First of all, I was delighted to work with the BBC last summer to film two iWonder online guides on J.R.R. Tolkien. The first one, released in September, was on Tolkien’s experience of World War I and how it may have influenced The Lord of the Rings. I was interviewed by John Rhys-Davies (who played Gimli in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy) about whether The Lord of the Rings can be considered as an allegory of WWI. This short video forms Part 5 of the iWonder guide, which was one of a series of similar online guides produced to commemorate the centenary of WWI.

How was The Lord of the Rings influenced by World War One?


Tolkien and Wales 2

Presenting the BBC iWonder guide on Tolkien and the Welsh language

The second guide, which I presented, was filmed last July in a number of locations in Wales. Fittingly it focuses on Tolkien and the Welsh language – his love of Welsh, his use of Welsh in the construction of Sindarin (one of the languages of the Elves), and the Welsh place-names in the Shire. This iWonder guide has just been released today and I am thrilled with how it’s has all come together! Readers who may want to know more about Tolkien’s ‘Celtic’ inspirations (Welsh and Irish) can access my articles under Publications.

Why do the Elves in The Hobbit sound Welsh?


During the last few months I also reviewed two of Tolkien’s recently published books (well, one and a third, to be precise!). The first is a review of Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur (2013) for Gramarye: The Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. My review is aimed at both Tolkien specialists as well as scholars in the more general fields of fantasy literature, folklore, etc. The second is part of a joint review by a number of Tolkien scholars of Tolkien’s Beowulf translation (2014). My bit is a review of “Sellic Spell”, Tolkien’s attempt to ‘reconstruct’ the Anglo-Saxon folktale that may have inspired motifs and the wondrous elements in Beowulf. This collective review will be published soon in Mallorn, the journal of the Tolkien Society.

Last but not least, I also contributed a piece to The Conversation, an independent source of news and views sourced from the academic and research community. My article was titled: “Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree to hit the screen in latest bid to aim fantasy at grown-ups” and offered views on the recent success of cinematic adaptations of classic children’s fantasy.


On Hobbits and Poetry: Musings on Newly Published Letters by Tolkien

Tolkien scholars and fans alike have been extremely lucky to have witnessed a flurry of recent publications of Tolkien’s works such as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), The Fall of Arthur (2013) and Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell (2014), all edited by Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien. When such new Tolkien material gets published I am usually in the midst of a hectic term, often teaching Tolkien or authoring articles and essays on Tolkien. I tend to read everything as soon as it comes out, but that read has to be quick and quite intense. Being on holiday means that I am able to devote new Tolkien material a much more leisurely and reflective (re)read, so yesterday I spent some time revisiting letters written by Tolkien that have appeared in print for the first time during the last couple of years. In particular, this post has been prompted by two separate publications: a chapter in an edited collection published in Finland last year; and an article in a creative writing magazine published in the UK only a month ago:

  • Coston, Paula (2014) ‘Tolkien on writing… and me’, Writing Magazine, August 2014, pp. 12-14.

32567In their essay, Alaric Hall and Samuli Kaislaniemi present for the first time an edition of Tolkien’s 1937 letter to the celebrated Swallows and Amazons author, Arthur Ransome, in its entirety. Extracts from the letter have appeared before, most recently in John D. Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit, but the essay by Hall and Kaislaniemi gives the full text of Ransome’s letter and Tolkien’s reply and includes a detailed consideration of the background of their correspondence. The essay also offers extensive commentary on the significance of Tolkien’s letter in placing The Hobbit within the context of the extended legendarium. What stayed with me was Tolkien’s claim that it wasn’t appropriate for hobbits and Men to be referred to as ‘mortals’ in the book, because – among other things – the word was ‘too puckish’. Hall and Kaislaniemi speculate that Tolkien may have used ‘puckish’, and hence ‘mortal’, as a term of derision, linked with Puck’s famous exclamation ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I am wondering whether Tolkien refers to another Puck here, from an early 20th-century children’s fantasy, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). I have been working for a while on Kipling and Tolkien and the affinities of their fantasy writings, and have presented papers at ‘Tolkien at Kalamazoo’ and Oxonmoot on my research so far (see under Presentations) which I am hoping to write up for publication soon. What Tolkien’s remark brought to my mind is this interchange between Puck, the oldest of fairies, and Dan and Una, the two child protagonists of Puck of Pook’s Hill:

‘Ah, but you’re a fairy,’ said Dan.
‘Have you ever heard me say that word yet?’ said Puck quickly.
‘No. You talk about “the People of the Hills”, but you never say “fairies”,’ said Una. ‘I was wondering at that. Don’t you like it?’
‘How would you like to be called “mortal” or “human being” all the time?’ said Puck; ‘or “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve”?’
‘I shouldn’t like it at all,’ said Dan. ‘That’s how the Djinns and Afrits talk in the Arabian Nights.
‘And that’s how I feel about saying – that word that I don’t say. Besides, what you call them are made-up things the People of the Hills have never heard of – little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a schoolteacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones. I know ’em!’
‘We don’t mean that sort,’ said Dan. ‘We hate ’em too.’

In this respect, I think Hall and Kaislaniemi are completely right to link Tolkien’s terms ‘puckish’ and ‘mortals’ with ‘On Fairy-Stories’ and the distaste Tolkien expressed in this essay for ‘flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae’, though for me the link comes through Kipling’s, rather than Shakespeare’s, Puck. This much-quoted Tolkienian phrase strongly echoes Kipling’s words above especially as Tolkien continues: ‘that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested’.

New PictureIn ‘Tolkien on writing… and me’, Paula Coston talks of her correspondence with Tolkien. Coston’s grandparents lived next to the Tolkiens in Oxford and she exchanged letters with Tolkien when she was an 11-year-old aspiring poet. In this article, Coston prints extracts from Tolkien’s letters to her, in which he offers some insightful words of advice on verse, rhyming and the power of language (especially the significance of the adjective, a point Tolkien also makes in ‘On Fairy-Stories’). It is really moving to read the sincere and considerate words of a man who was already becoming something of a ‘legend’, addressed to a young girl in response to her budding poetic efforts. What struck me in this article were Tolkien’s words on the rules of (formal) verse, which, Coston says, were memorable due to Tolkien using ‘a humorous tennis analogy’:

Verse is… in many ways like games… The net is just a nuisance; the white lines are silly and unreasonable: all they do is to make some lovely hard hits count as ‘out’. But without them? I suppose you could just swipe the ball where you felt inclined… But actually the most beautiful, graceful and determined strokes are made by those who have learned to obey the rules and still hit the ball with force.

A lovely analogy indeed, but not Tolkien’s own: here, Tolkien actually plays on a well-known and very quotable line by Robert Frost: ‘Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down’. Frost, like Tolkien, was a great believer in formal poetry and its adherence to metre, rhythm, and other sound effects (including rhyming) and many of his poems are memorable because of the masterful way he combines form and content. Frosts’s quote dismisses ‘free verse’ as poetry without any rules (an overgeneralization, to make a point) and Tolkien builds on that to describe the sort of (formal) poetry he liked to write: alliterative verse, rhyming couplets, and numerous poems with complex rhyming schemes, unusual metres, etc.


Coston, Paula (2014) ‘Tolkien on writing… and me’, Writing Magazine, August 2014, pp. 12-14.

Frost, Robert (1935) Address to Milton Academy. [Public Lecture, Milton Academy, Massachusetts]. 17 May.

Hall, Alaric and Kaislaniemi, Samuli (2013) ‘“You tempt me grievously to a mythological essay”: J. R. R. Tolkien’s correspondence with Arthur Ransome”, pp. 261-80 in Tyrkkö, J., Timofeeva, O., and Salenius, M. (eds) Ex Philologia Lux: Essays in Honour of Leena Kahlas-Tarkka. Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique XC. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.

Kipling, Rudyard (1906) Puck of Pook’s Hill. London: Macmillan & Co.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1983) The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin.


2001 A Space Odyssey in kid’s TV

QPootle5(1)Having a 17-month-old toddler means that I was well awake and CBeebies was on at 7:40 am this Sunday. I was pulled out of my half-awake, half-asleep state, when in this morning’s Q Pootle 5 episode a monolith suddenly appeared in the early morning light, discovered by the bewildered Q Pootle 5 as soon as he woke up. What made me jump, was the sun slowly rising behind the monolith, and Q Pootle’s initial reaction – hesitation over whether to touch and explore the mysterious object or leave it alone. Now, where had I seen all of that before?

QPootle5(2)Q Pootle 5 is an animated series, inspired by the books by Nick Butterworth. It follows a small friendly alien, Q Pootle 5, and his friends Oopsy, Eddi, Stella, Ray, Groobie, and Bud-D on the planet Okidoki (there’s one more major character, but he’s actually another planet, Planet Dave!) Nick Butterworth, who worked closely with his son to bring Q Pootle from page to screen, has pointed out in a recent Radio Times interview that the world of Q Pootle 5 is:

“A combination of low tech and high tech. I drew inspiration from the way children’s imagination trumps reality. A cardboard box becomes a boat or a spaceship. A hair dryer makes a great outboard motor – or a lateral stabilising jet! Cushions, chairs, a bit of old hi-fi equipment with knobs to twiddle, these are all you need to go exploring.”

This already sounds like convincing world building based on good old science fiction tropes and using science fiction as a symbolic way to reaching, exploring and engaging with a toddler’s imaginative play. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that this morning’s episode decided to “play” with one of the canonical cinematic texts of modern SF, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.

maxresdefaultSF is a subject I teach to my undergraduate students, and 2001 is a text I always include in my survey SF module: its iconic aesthetics, its philosophical underpinnings and its “big ideas” (not necessarily radical and new ones by the 1960s, but definitely memorably explored) make it a compelling text to examine in class. Q Pootle this morning grappled with the ontology of the monolith, the mysterious object in Kubrick’s film that seems to be some sort of catalyst for mankind’s evolutionary leaps: from hominid ape, to Homo sapiens, to the mystical and poetic “Star Child”. With my students I discuss Nietzsche’s ideas, SF tropes of alien intervention in human evolution, and what the heck is that Star Child. Q Pootle and his friends make different educated guesses as to the nature of the monolith, trying to use it as a blackboard, a slide and a see saw!

QPootle5(5)Groobie finally arrives to solve the riddle. He presses some invisible button on the monolith, which promptly causes it to lift up gracefully in the air (complete with Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra playing in the background and the sun appearing behind it as if it is just rising) to reveal a table tennis net sprouting on one side, and folding legs on the other! Groobie exclaims: “It’s my Galacto 2001 pop-up ping-pong table!” And if that’s not enough of a “homage”-cum-parody scene, one of the folding legs of the table quickly fails, and Bud-D fixes it with his spanner, which he then throws in the air in triumph: we see it rising up in slow motion and rotating, bringing to mind both the famous “transition” scene in 2001 from the first tool (the bone) to the most evolved one (the spaceship), and the spanner Bowman uses later on to “terminate” HAL (arguable, the longest murder scene in modern film).
QPootle5(7)Playful intertextuality is nothing new in children’s books, and has been used for ludic purposes by masters of the picturebook form such as Anthony Browne. But it was still lovely to have my brain exercised at 7:40 am on Cbeebies. And I am wondering – since intertextuality often works in anarchic ways – whether my toddler son will exclaim: “That’s Groobie’s ping pong table!” when, one day, he gets to see 2001 A Space Odyssey!