Myth and 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.

 

A little Elvish love story in The Lord of the Rings

Stuck in trains for hours yesterday, I was revisiting favourite passages from The Lord of the Rings. It’s almost a cliche to say that every re-reading rewards you with new details of Tolkien’s invented world that you hadn’t quite noticed or paid much attention to before, but I think it reflects the experience of most Tolkien fans I’ve ever met. Apart from cultures, languages and histories, Middle-earth is rich with allusions to stories untold, or half-told, or just about glimpsed, like tiny shiny threads in an enormous canvas. And – perhaps because it’s Valentine’s day today – I was suddenly struck by the word “lover” in Book II, Chapter 6 in The Fellowship of the Ring. Not a word Tolkien uses a lot. So I paid special attention to the story it comes in, the story of Nimrodel and Amroth, as told and sang by Legolas. In the 1960s Tolkien developed this story, which was posthumously published in Unfinished Tales, but in The Lord of the Rings, we only get glimpses of a legend of two lovers who became inadvertently separated and united only in spirit. Or perhaps in sound and in water?

The occasion on which Legolas comes to partly-tell, partly-sing the story of Nimrodel is when the members of the fellowship reach and cross the stream that bears the same name. By a waterfall, “Frodo fancied that he could hear  a  voice  singing,  mingled  with  the  sound  of  the  water”.

‘Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?’ asked  Legolas. ‘I will sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel, who bore the same name as the stream beside which she lived long ago.’

Legolas then sings of a Elven-maid fair and free, who gets lost on her way to the west shores of Middle-earth. Her lover, Amroth, waits for her in an elven-ship in “havens grey” but a storm sets the ship loose and on its way to Valinor. Of Nimrodel we only hear that she was never seen before, though there is a stream that bears her name. As for Amroth, he dived into the sea in a attempt to swim back to his beloved, and his fate is also unknown. But Legolas concludes:

But in the spring when the wind is in the  new leaves the echo of her voice may still be heard by the falls that bear her name. And  when  the wind is in the  South the voice of Amroth comes up from the  sea;  for Nimrodel flows into Silverlode, that Elves call Celebrant, and Celebrant into Anduin the Great, and Anduin flows into the Bay of Belfalas whence  the  Elves of  Lórien  set  sail. But neither  Nimrodel nor Amroth came ever back.

Arethusa and Alpheus, Ortygia, Sicily

Now this part of the story echoes a number of other mythical tales, mostly from the classical world. I must have read this story in The Lord of the Rings more than twenty times in the past, but I was only now suddenly struck by its similarity to the story of the nymph Arethusa and the river-God Alpheus. The story is alluded to or told more fully many times in Greek and Latin texts by Pindar, Strabo, Pausanias, Virgil and Ovid. It is one of numerous stories of an amorous God pursuing an unwilling nymph in classical literature (e.g. Apollo and Daphne). Arethusa was a Naiad (a river nymph) who was pursued by Alpheus, the God of the eponymous river (which still flows in the Peloponnese in Greece). She fled to Sicily were she was turned into a steam to escape him, but he directed his water across the sea towards the west to reach her and mingle his waters with hers. Now clearly this isn’t quite the romantic love story – indeed, most art that depicts this story shows clearly Arethusa’s distress as she tries to flee Alpheus, but the story was often told in more romantic terms in numerous retellings of Greek myths in the Victorian period. The part I think Tolkien may be (consciously or unconsciously) echoing is how the lovers are united after having gone through a sort of transformation (metamorphosis). We are never told that Nimrodel was transformed into a stream, but she is identified with one, while it’s unclear whether Amroth was drowned in the sea, or somehow found his way back to his lover in a transformed state. Their voices, though, united in those rare times in the spring “when the wind is in the new leaves”, are carried by the waters, as Nimrodel’s waters head towards the Bay of Belfalas and to the sea in which Amroth dived to get back to her.

I wonder how many other little love stories and allusions to mythological tales I am still to find in Tolkien’s legendarium?

Mythgard classes, Tolkien’s Beowulf, JTR, Tolkien Companion and Kalamazoo

It’s  been a while since my last update: I am back to lecturing full-time now, and I really hit the ground running this term! Among other modules, I taught Literary Transformations (Year 2), Gothic and Science Fiction (Year 3) and Representing ‘the Past’ (Masters) at Cardiff Metropolitan University. I was also Visiting Professor at the Mythgard Institute (Signum University), where I taught for the first time in a synchronous online learning environment (my previous online courses are asynchronous, based on written lectures and occasional podcasts, video lectures, etc). My course was on Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy, in which I explored with my students the Irish and Welsh medieval mythological texts, and the ways they have been reshaped and re-imagined by fantasy authors addressing a child or young adult readership. It was great fun and I really enjoyed the real-time online interaction with my students (what a great bunch they were!). A sample lecture is available to watch for free and the entire course (all recorded lectures in video and audio format) is now available to buy here.

I also ended up appearing for a guest lecture/session just a couple of weeks ago in another Mythgard course: The Lord of the Rings: A Cultural Studies and Audience Reception Approach, taught by Dr. Robin Anne Reid. Dr Reid used my book (Tolkien, Race and Cultural History) as a main textbook during the first 5 weeks of the course, and it was lovely to be invited for an extra Q&A session as part of her class to discuss my research, and new directions in Tolkien scholarship.

packshotTolkien scholarship has indeed been enriched during the last few months by the appearance of new, significant, publications. First of all, Tolkien’s long-awaited prose translation of Beowulf has been published, edited by Christopher Tolkien, together with other bonus material (commentaries, Beowulf-related creative pieces, etc.). Needless to say, the book created huge excitement in Tolkien fan and scholarly circles, culminating with the Online Beowulf Launch Party on 24t May, co-organised by the Middle-earth Network and the Tolkien Society. I contributed a brief talk on “Sellic Spell”, Tolkien’s attempt to ‘reconstruct’ the Anglo-Saxon folktale that may have inspired motifs and the wondrous elements in Beowulf. The video of my talk is available to watch online here.

In addition to an original publication by Tolkien, the last few months brought into fruition two projects that have been in the works for a while:

JTR

The Journal of Tolkien Research (JRT) has now been launched. This is an open access electronic journal published by ValpoScholar, the publishing and institutional repository of Valparaiso University (supported by Bepress). The editor is Brad Eden and the book reviews section will be edited by Douglas A. Anderson. I am delighted to be sitting on the editorial board. See here for guidelines on how to submit, how to “follow” the journal, etc.

Lee_A Companion to JRR Tolkien_v1.inddA Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Stuart D. Lee (Wiley-Blackwell) has also just been published. This book is aspiring to be the new, complete resource for scholars and students of Tolkien, as well as fans. It covers Tolkien’s life, work, dominant themes, influences, and the critical reaction to his writing. Themes explored include mythmaking, medieval languages, nature, war, religion, and the defeat of evil. The Companion also discusses the impact of Tolkien’s work on art, film, music, gaming, and subsequent generations of fantasy writers. I contributed Chapter 23 on “Later Fantasy Fiction: Tolkien’s Legacy”, in which I explore Tolkien’s influence on later fantasists such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling.

Other activities of the last few months included:

A paper at the “Tolkien at Kalamazoo” sponsored sessions during the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Kalamazoo, Michigan (8-11 May 2014). My paper was titled: “Where Is Avalon? Tolkien’s Otherworld in the West and The Fall of Arthur”. It examined possible sources for the mysterious death of Arthur (or survival in Avalon?) in the Arthurian legend and Tolkien’s retelling. I was also very proud to listen to my PhD student, Andrew Higgins whose paper was titled: “Approaching ‘Se Uncuthaholm’: Tolkien’s Early Study of Anglo-Saxon Poetry and Prose as a Source for the Invention of Ottor Waefre”. His paper was very well-received and sparked a lot of discussion.

A lecture on Tolkien and Kipling for the “Exploring the Past” free lecture series at the Cardiff University Centre for Lifelong Learning, on Wednesday 22 January. The lecture was titled: “Tolkien, Kipling and Romantic Anglo-Saxonism: two ‘mythologies for England’”. It was great to be back at Cardiff University (where I taught for a long time before my current post) and see former colleagues and students.

Also, I reviewed the newspapers for BBC Radio Wales’ Good Morning Wales Programme on Saturday 1 February and Saturday 15th June. These reviews are always great fun to do!

Last but not least: have you seen the new, revamped website of the Tolkien Society? It’s really worth a visit! (or two, or three!) It looks really great, it’s very user-friendly and it now includes blog posts from notable bloggers in Tolkien scholarship and fandom.