Folklore

“Twas the Night Before Christmas” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Tinfang Warble

the-night-before-christmas-illustrated-by-douglas-gorslineFollowing family tradition, the bedtime book I read to my near-four-year-old son on Christmas Eve was “The Night Before Christmas”, aka “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, by Clement Clarke Moore*. I used my mum’s old copy of the poem, a picturebook lavishly illustrated by Douglas Gorsline.

As I read it aloud, another poem kept coming into mind: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Over Old Hills and Far Away” (1915). This is one of only two poems about Tolkien’s elusive early character, Tinfang Warble, variously described as a “leprawn” (Tolkien’s idiosyncratic spelling for “leprechaun”), a “fay”, an “elf”, or a “quaint spirit” of mixed origin. Tinfang Warble also appears in The Book of Lost Tales, the earliest draft of what we know today as The Silmarillion.

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Tinfang Warble, by Mirach Ravaia via DeviantArt

In “Over Old Hills and Far Away”, Tinfang Warble is clearly a “fairy” creature, akin to other such (often small or even diminutive) beings in Tolkien’s early poems**. Tinfang is described as a white-haired “old elf”, who is, nevertheless, a merry piper, lithe and nimble, running fervently and dancing, and eventually luring the speaker of the poem to follow his piping.

“Twas the Night Before Christmas” – probably one of the best-known Christmas poems ever – is, of course, about the nightly visit of St Nicholas to leave presents for some children on Christmas eve, as spied by their father, who wakes up to witness his arrival. So what is the connection? I have tried to show a number of parallels and similarities in these colour-coded versions of the two poems, which I will explain further below.

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To begin with, the metre of the two poems connects them at once. They are both written in anapestic tetrameter, a rather unusual metre for the English language, the morphology of which fits iambic compositions much better. This fact alone makes anapestic metres both rhythmical and memorable – perhaps one of the reasons behind the success of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. To illustrate this, compare the stressed syllables of the opening lines of each poem:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house (Moore)

“It was early and still in the night of June, (Tolkien)

The two openings seem to chime in other ways too: in both first lines we have an indication of time (the night before Christmas vs. a night of June) and Tolkien’s first draft was even closer to Moore’s, shortening ‘It was’ to ‘Twas’: “‘Twas a very quiet evening once in June”.

Though Tolkien’s poem takes place in the summer, while Moore’s poem is emphatically set in the snowy winter, Tolkien describes Tinfang Warble’s white hair as sparkling “like frost in a winter moon” (l. 23). Moore’s moon, on the other hand, is also associated with bright light: as it falls “of the new-fallen snow” (l. 13) it gives “a lustre of midday to objects below” (l. 14). Sun/moon, summer/winter – we have a number of mixed metaphors and images here.

Our two protagonists, St Nicholas and Tinfang Warble, also show a number of similarities, not only on a lexical level, but in terms of imagery too. They are both small, little, even diminutive: St Nicholas is “little” and drives a “miniature” sleigh driven by “tiny” reindeer (ll. 16-17); while Tinfang Warble has “little feet” and a “slim little body” (ll. 29, 35). They both have the ability to leap high (up the chimney, l. 52, or up in the air, l. 31, respectively) and they both laugh happily. Most importantly, they are both old, with white hair – indeed, St. Nicholas is memorably described as a “jolly old elf” (l. 45) while Tinfang Warble is “the old elf” (l. 52). It was this last parallel, alongside the sing-song metre of both poems, that initially spurred my interest to look closer and compare these two compositions.

The narrators of the two poems also show remarkable similarities: they are both awoken at night, hearing something in their sleep, and they both approach their respective windows to find out what is going on (ll. 10-11 and 5-6 respectively). They both then spy on their otherworldly visitors – though Tolkien’s speaker goes one step further by following Tinfang, almost compulsively.

In the colour-coded picture above, I have noted a few other – less pronounced – connections in terms of structure, lexis, and imagery.

Now there is, of course, nothing Christmassy about Tolkien’s poem, but there is most definitely something elvish about Moore’s poem. Moore’s poem was certainly as popular in Britain from the second half of the 19th century on as it was on the other side of the Atlantic, and there were numerous illustrated editions that became ubiquitous and very influential in the shaping of the modern, now universal, Santa Claus. Moore’s poem is whimsical and jolly and not taking itself too seriously – a marked difference from the nostalgic, wistful tone of Tolkien’s poem. For me, however, the image of the tiny, white-haired “old elf” that moves nimbly and draws the attention of the speaker, rousing him from his bed, is a tantalizing link between the two poems, underlined musically by their anapestic rhythms.

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Tolkien did go on to create a Christmas mythology (parallel to his Middle-earth legendarium) in his Letters from Father Christmas, and his central character – the British equivalent of St Nicholas/Santa Claus – is indeed whimsical and dressed in red and white (a tradition that originated with early illustrations of the American figure – as opposed to the usually green garments of early depictions of Father Christmas). But I like to think that Tinfang Warble has something Christmassy about him too – if only some vague echo of Moore’s “jolly old elf”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes and Sources

* Though the authorship of the poem is contested – some scholars have argued it was written by Henry Livingston, Jr.; see here for an overview of the controversy.

** For Tolkien’s “fairy” creatures in his early mythology, shaped by folklore, Victorian fairylore and fairy paintings, see Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of my book, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History, as well as my article here.

“Over Old Hills and Far Away” can be found in The Book of Lost Tales I, pp. 108-10.

“A Visit from St Nicholas” is out of copyright and can be accessed freely online – here is a good version.

 

Exciting new one-day courses at UWIC: Folklore, Literature and Tradition Through the Seasons

I am thrilled to announce an exciting new series of four thematically linked Day Schools at UWIC, which will explore Folklore, Literature and Tradition Through the Seasons.

The Day Schools will focus on some of the most influential festivals, customs and traditions that have been important for centuries and are very much part of our year cycle today: Halloween, the Twelve Days of Christmas, and Spring and Summer Festivals.

I will be teaching these courses alongside internationally-acclaimed folklorist Dr Juliette Wood.

Here are the titles and dates for all four Day Schools:

  • Things that go Bump in the Night: Halloween in Literature and Folklore, Saturday, 15th October 2011, 10am-3pm
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas: Customs, Traditions and Literature from Christmas to Epiphany, Saturday, 10th December 2011, 10am-3pm
  • Valentine Hearts, Easter Eggs and Beltane Fires: Spring Festivals in Folklore and Literature, Saturday, 25th February 2012, 10am-3pm
  • Midsummer Nights: Summer Traditions and Literature, Saturday, 12th May 2012, 10am-3pm

You can book now for our first Day School on Halloween! Each Day School costs £70 which includes:

  • 4 hours of taught sessions
  • handouts and suggested further material
  • refreshments
  • lunch
  • a certificate for attendance
To book, please contact the Enterprise Team at Cardiff School of Education on 029 2041 7078/6577 or cseenterprise@uwic.ac.uk.


This is a great opportunity for teachers looking for staff development and inspiration, as well as people who work in cultural or creative industries. And, of course, just the perfect educational environment for people interested in folklore, tradition, literature and popular culture!

Special offer!!! Book onto all Day Schools before 15th October at the discounted price of £240! Speciall offer!!!

 

(Long Overdue) Update!

The last few months have been very busy, including traditional and online teaching (both undergraduate and postgraduate), a public lecture, work on future publications, and some media work. Here is a list of some of the things I have been involved in:

On 12th November 2010 I appeared on the Jamie and Louise show on BBC Radio Wales, commenting on the 7th Harry Potter film (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1). We were joined on the phone by popular Welsh actor Steffan Rhodri (many of you will know him as Dave Coaches from the hit TV series Gavin & Stacey). Steffan played an important role in the film: he was Reg Cattermole, a Ministry of Magic employee, into whom Ron Weasley transforms by drinking polyjuice potion when breaking into the Ministry of Magic with Harry and Hermione. You can listen to this interview here (see also under ‘Media’).

On Wednesday 15th December 2010, I gave a public lecture at UWIC on Christmas in Literature and Tradition. I explored literary texts and traditions from the early Church, to the Middle Ages, to Elizabethan times, all the way to the ‘invention’ of modern Christmas in the Victorian period. Among others, I discussed the Middle English Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and a number of texts by William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Langston Hughes. I also included contemporary poetry by writers such as Connie Bensley and Helen Dunmore, and could not resist closing by a brief discussion of A Charlie Brown Christmas from Charles M. Schulz’s much loved Peanuts series. Those who attended the lecture were also offered mince pies and fruit punch to complete the festive cheer atmosphere.

Last term (autumn 2010) I ran two online courses via UWIC: an undergraduate course on Fantasy Literature, and a more demanding MA-level course on J.R.R. Tolkien. The courses were a great success, and included two very lively Discussion Boards. Following this success, some of my Tolkien online students expressed their wish to continue discussing and debating Tolkien online, so it was decided that they could take over the Discussion Board of the Tolkien and Fantasy Online Courses at UWIC facebook group! They are the Tolk-lings and have started the mamoth task of discussing online The History of Middle-earth chapter by chapter, reading and commenting on one chapter per week! The discussion has now reached chapter 10 of The Book of Lost Tales! The Discussion Board is open to anyone interested (make sure you join the group first, so that you can post), so feel free to follow it or participate here.