Tolkien

“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.

tinfang_warble_by_mirachravaia-d1ypg87

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.

new-picture

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.

 

Tolkien Sessions at IMC Leeds, July 2017

imc_postcard_2017_front_1I am very pleased to announce that all four sessions on J.R.R. Tolkien I proposed for the International Medieval Congress at Leeds 2017 have been accepted! This will be the third consecutive year of papers on J.R.R. Tolkien at IMC Leeds, after a successful series of sessions in 2015 and 2016. Leeds is, indeed, a Tolkien-related location, and it is very fitting that his work will be explored in this prestigious conference. I am looking forward to a series of brilliant sessions and papers from well-established Tolkien scholars, alongside new voices and perspectives!

Here are the sessions titles, abstracts, papers, speakers and times:

 

Session 242: J. R. R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches

Session Time: Mon. 03 July – 14.15-15.45

Organiser: Dimitra Fimi
Moderator: Andrew Higgins

Session Abstract:

This session will address aspects of Tolkien’s medievalism. Yvette Kisor examines the frequent use    of the word ‘knight’ in Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, especially to translate a range of Old English terms. Anahit Behrooz addresses the complexities of orality and frame narratives in the earliest version of Tolkien’s mythology, The Book of Lost Tales. Aurélie Brémont discusses the transformations of the Corrigan, from Breton folklore to Tolkien’s The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. Victoria Holtz-Wodzak considers the ways in which medieval Franciscan theology shaped Tolkien’s portrayal of the natural world.

Paper Titles and Speakers:

Tolkien’s Beowulf: Translating Knights (Yvette Kisor, Ramapo College, New Jersey)

Elvish Ears: Medieval Orality in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales (Anahit Behrooz, University of Edinburgh)

Tales of the Corrigan: From Folklore to Nationalist Reinvention (Aurélie Brémont, Université Paris IV – Sorbonne)

Treebeard’s Priesthood and the Franciscan Sanctity of Tolkien’s Natural World (Victoria Holtz-Wodzak, Viterbo University)


Session 342: ‘New’ Tolkien: Expanding the Canon

Session Time: Mon. 03 July – 16.30-18.00

Organiser: Dimitra Fimi
Moderator: Dimitra Fimi

Session Abstract:

This session will focus on ‘new’ works by J. R. R. Tolkien: creative works published posthumously during the last few years. Participants will examine all or a selection of the following works: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), The Fall of Arthur (2013), The Story of Kullervo (2015), A Secret Vice (2016) and The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun (2016). Verlyn Flieger will examine the complex ways in which Tolkien’s creative adaptation of medieval literature shaped some of his best-known fictional characters. Brad Eden will focus on Tolkien’s use of the liminal forest in terms of setting, language and characterization. Kristine Larsen will concentrate on medieval lunar symbolism in the representation of female characters, and Andrew Higgins will explore the use of the Indo-European model and Tolkien’s expertise in philology in the development of Tolkien’s invented languages.

Paper Titles and Speakers:

Tolkien, Tradition, and the Individual Talent (Verlyn Flieger, University of Maryland)

Mirkwood as Otherness: ‘New’ Tolkien and the Liminal Forest (Brad Eden, Valparaiso University)

Magic, Matrimony, and the Moon: Medieval Lunar Symbolism in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun and The Fall of Arthur (Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University)

A Secret Vice, the 1930’s and the Growth of Tolkien’s ‘Tree of Tongues’ (Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar)


Session 442: The Road Goes Ever On: The Future of Tolkien Scholarship – A Round Table Discussion

Session Time: Mon. 03 July – 19.00-20.00

Organiser: Dimitra Fimi
Chair: Carl Phelpstead

Round Table Abstract:

Tolkien’s legendarium has often been approached by scholarship via the lens of medievalism. Scholars have been long interested in Tolkien’s medieval intertexts (e.g. Old and Middle English works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and such studies have established a clear view of Middle-earth as a world that engages with the heroic code, material culture, philosophical, and theological concepts, as well as fantastical beings, from the literature of the European Middle Ages. However, a more recent trend is to examine Tolkien’s work in terms of its engagement with the cultural moment(s) it was created, spanning six decades of literary and cultural history. Where is Tolkien scholarship heading? Should we move away from ‘Tolkien the medievalist’ and focus more on Tolkien as 20th-century author? And what about recent developments in literary theory? This round table discussion will debate the complexities of such questions and will interrogate scholarly practices and expectations in Tolkien Studies.

Participants:

Brad Eden (Valparaiso University)

Dimitra Fimi (Cardiff Metropolitan University)

Verlyn Flieger (University of Maryland)

Michael Wodzak (Viterbo University)


Session 1019: Otherness in Tolkien’s Medievalism

Session Time: Wed. 05 July – 09.00-10.30

Organiser: Dimitra Fimi
Moderator:  Kristine Larsen

Session Abstract:

This session explores various aspects of the construction and role of the ‘other’ in J.R.R. Tolkien’s medievalism. Irina Metzler surveys the representation of disability in Tolkien’s mythology and its medieval analogies and constructions. Thomas Honegger focuses on Tolkien’s critique of chivalry in his medieval scholarship but also in his construction of the ‘other’ Middle Ages in his creative work. Sara Brown addresses an important figure of medieval literature and legend, the Dwarf, focusing on the ‘othering’ of female Dwarves by their very absence. Gaëlle Abaléa interrogates the world of the Dead as ‘other’ in Tolkien’s legendarium, examining its boundaries, and its relation to Faerie.

Paper Titles and Speakers:

Disability in Tolkien’s Texts: Medieval ‘Otherness’? (Irina Metzler, Swansea University)

Tolkien’s Other Middle Ages (Thomas Honegger, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität)

The Invisible Other: Tolkien’s Dwarf-Women and the ‘Feminine Lack’ (Sara Brown, Rydal Penrhos School)

Our World, the Other World, and Those In-Between: Community with and Separation from the Dead in Tolkien’s Work (Gaëlle Abaléa, Université Paris IV – Sorbonne)

Tolkien’s A Secret Vice: first reviews

As promised in yesterday’s blog post, I have tried to put together some extracts from the first reviews of A Secret Vice: Tolkien and Invented Languages, mainly so that I don’t forget the thrill of reading them and so that I keep on remembering that the book is now done, out there, and read by Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts all over the world. Since its publication, I have seen the book in the hands of friends and strangers and I have had the pleasure of signing copies, including at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in May. The reviews below are from the press and online reviewing platforms. I am awaiting eagerly the first reviews in academic journals and periodicals.

Signing SV

With Andrew Higgins, signing copies of _A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages_ at Kalamazoo

New Statesman SV review
From Teach yourself Dwarvish: behind Tolkien’s invented languages, by John Garth, The New Statesman, 15 April 2016

[Tolkien’s] talk is a vigorous defence of the [language invention] “hobby” and, with the support of the background commentaries provided by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, it becomes clear that the invention of languages has been a surprisingly widespread activity. A Secret Vice is a thoroughly engaging introduction for the outsider. […] This edition includes not only the 1931 paper but also the various notes that Tolkien made in preparing it. It’s a mishmash, with something for the Elvish buff and something for those who enjoy unlikely cultural collisions. A good example of the latter is a note by Tolkien on the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Read the entire review here.

 

SV in BlackwellsFrom A Model of Scholarship, by Arthur Morgan (a former student of Christopher Tolkien), Amazon.com, 16 April 2016

This is a fascinating and very well written account of the history and development of Tolkien’s invented languages. It has the virtues of the old scholars: clarity, sharp focus, detail, careful examination and analysis of the evidence, and an absence of the clogging jargon that has become a disfigurement of academic writing and often a substitute for thought and insight. […] The range of knowledge revealed here is extraordinary, yet it is lightly worn and is subordinated to underpinning the conclusions which the two authors reach. […] The text proper of ‘A Secret Vice’ is given in a form that is a model of its kind, a very clear text that preserves cancellations and changes found in the original typescripts and manuscripts held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The editors have appended succinct and most helpful notes that explain or expand complexities in Tolkien’s argument. […] This is an unfailingly fascinating, thorough and comprehensive account of a largely technical subject that is central to an understanding of Tolkien and his work. It would be very surprising if it did not remain the standard text on this subject.

Read the entire review here.

 

From Tolkien As Professor, by John D. Cofield, Amazon.com, 20 May 2016

This book contains a lecture on invented languages [Tolkien] delivered to the Samuel Johnson Society of Pembroke College at Oxford University in 1931 as well as related material and essays, all ably edited and annotated by the notable scholars Dr. Dimitra Fimi and Dr. Andrew Higgins. […] After the introduction we have the essay itself, with Tolkien’s own crossings out and emendations, accompanied by Fimi and Higgins’ wonderfully detailed Notes. Next is Tolkien’s related essay on “Phonetic Symbolism,” which contains many of the same themes, though with some differences in emphasis and detail. This is also meticulously annotated by Fimi and Higgins. The third segment discusses manuscripts and notes pertaining to the essays which are held in the Bodleian, and a Coda details the ongoing interest in invented languages which Tolkien helped inspire. […] This is a marvelous work which adds much to Tolkien scholarship.

Read the entire review here.

SV in Forbidden PlanetFrom Review of A Secret Vice, by Thomas, Goodreads.com, 21 May 2016

As a huge Tolkien fan and as a linguist I highly appreciate the efforts the editors made, in order to show us the creative process of the two essays that are annotated in this book. […] The editors Fimi and Higgins are to be commended for their highly interesting attempts at tracing the origins of certain phrases and terms. […] It is worth a philological and careful read by those who have an interest in Tolkienian languages, sound symbolism and those who wish to read an interesting book.

Read the entire review here.

From Review of A Secret Vice, by Bookworm Sean, Goodreads.com, 27 May 2016

Let’s just face the facts people, Tolkien was a genius. He was the inventor of languages and mythology; he was the designer of races and cultures: he was the creator of worlds. He created modern fantasy. So here’s a book that gets right down to the nitty-gritty of Tolkien’s wonderful world; it explains the logic, and the success, behind his imagination: the language itself. Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice” is replicated in here. Certainly, the essay is available, along with many others, in editions that collect his writings. You may even be able to find it for free online. That’s great, but this edition goes into a great deal of detail. The scholarship of the editors is of the highest quality. The introduction, notes and explanatory sections are extensive and illuminating. In all honesty, I don’t think I would have appreciated the full importance of Tolkien’s arguments without the extensive efforts the editors have gone to. This really is good stuff.

Read the entire review here.

Last but not least, for a Storify story about how the book has fared in blogs and social media see here.