The value of English literature at GCSE (really? do we even need to argue this?)

Last week, Owen Sheers rightly drew attention to the perilous consequences of removing English Literature as a core subject from GSCE requirements in Wales: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-41043551

I was asked to share my two penneth in a BBC Radio interview for Good Evening Wales. You can listen to the entire story below (my contribution starts at 01:40).

For those of you who asked, here’s the exact wording and full reference for the Irish Murdoch quotation I used:

Prose literature can reveal an aspect of the world which no other art can reveal, and the discipline required for this revelation is par excellence the discipline of this art. And in the case of the novel, the most important thing to be thus revealed, not necessarily the only thing, but incomparably the most important thing, is that other people exist. (Murdoch, 1959, p. 267)

Murdoch, Iris (1959) ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’, Yale Review, 49, 247-71. (Full text available here: https://msu.edu/course/eng/487/johnsen/murdoch.htm)


A Medieval Greek Arthurian Poem: The Old Knight

I’m in Greece right now, enjoying the sea, and pistachios (my parents have pistachio trees in their orchard), and watermelon, and figs, and all the lovely summer things. And I thought this would be a good moment to share a little recording in Greek!

A project that came to fruition recently (after MANY years of working on it, on and off!) is a new edition and translation of a little-known medieval Arthurian poem (mid-15th century) – the only known example in Greek! I worked on the translation of this 307-line poem in collaboration with Thomas Crofts of East Tennessee State University, so I’m credited as co-translator (Thomas did all the hard work of editing, introduction, commentary, notes, etc.) The conventional title of the poem is “Ιππότης ο Πρεσβύτης” (The Old Knight) and the venue is the (very well-respected) journal Arthurian Literature. The story is a loose translation into Greek of the first part of the first episode of Rustichello da Pisa’s 13th-century French prose Compilazione (Rustichello is best known for “The Travels of Marco Polo.”)

In his introduction, Thomas notes

All other western-style, political-verse romances… are in ‘vulgar’ Greek (also called ‘impure Greek’ by the grammatikoi), reflecting the language as spoken in everyday life. But The Old Knight is composed in the high-literary ‘Atticizing’ register of the intellectual, professor or grammarian. Within this rarefied idiom, furthermore, the poem contains a rhetorical performance only the trained ear could have appreciated: that is, a chivalric romance – with a good deal of comedy – narrated with an epic fullness of expression, complete with Homeric syntax and diction. (p. 167)

To give a flavour of the language of the poem, I’ve recorded the first 16 lines (well, strictly speaking lines 2-16 as the first one is incomplete and I omitted it). Try to listen for the metre (the decapentasyllabic line still used today in Modern Greek folk poetry), and for the “Homeric” extended simile (lines 12-14).


Here’s a link to the press release about this publication by East Tenessee State University: http://www.etsu.edu/news/2017/04-apr/nr_crofts_thomas_old_knight.aspx

You can read a preview of this edition and translation here: https://www.academia.edu/31492424/The_Old_Knight_An_edition_of_the_Greek_Arthurian_poem_of_Vat._gr._1822_preview_



Crofts, Thomas H. (2016) ‘Ιππότης ο Πρεσβύτης: The Old Knight: An Edition of the Greek Arthurian Poem of Vat. Gr. 1822, by Thomas H. Crofts, with a translation by Thomas H. Crofts and Dimitra Fimi’, Arthurian Literature XXXIII, pp. 158-218.

The History of Middle-earth: Exploring Tolkien’s entire ‘legendarium’

Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, of course, his best-known works, much loved and read (and often re-read regularly!) but countless people all over the world over the years. But these two works are only the tip of the iceberg of an extended mythology, which most readers know today from the posthumously published Simlarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion traces the history of Tolkien’s imaginary world over millennia, including a cosmogonic myth (the “Ainulindalë”) and a great number of interrelated legends and tales from the First, Second and Third Ages of Middle-earth.

But this isn’t all. The Silmarillion represents only a ‘late’ conception of the Middle-earth mythology, and it was still a work in flux when Tolkien died. To address this problem, Christopher Tolkien undertook the enormous task of editing and publishing thirteen volumes of Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings over sixty years, showing the evolution of his mythology: the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth, together with Unfinished Tales. I am often asked about these books, by students and visitors on this blog, so I thought I’d give a quick overview of their content and – perhaps – inspire more readers to consider them. As for budding Tolkien scholars, they will need to read all of these volumes (we are well past the time when one could ignore them!) so this outline may make the task a little less daunting.

First Phase: The Mythology before The Hobbit

The first five volumes of The History of Middle-earth largely represent the evolution of Tolkien’s mythology before the writing and publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The first and second volumes (1983–4) present The Book of Lost Tales, written in the 1910s and 1920s. They also include many of Tolkien’s early poems, written before and during the Lost Tales. One of the main differences between the Lost Tales and the published Silmarillion is in the presentation of the mythology through a ‘framework’ and a ‘mediator’: the character of Eriol (later called Ælfwine) is a traveller to the isle of the Elves, where he hears their stories and records them for mankind.

The third volume, The Lays of Beleriand (1985), includes two long poems: one on the story of Túrin, and the other on the tale of Béren and Lúthien, all written during 1921–32. These poems represent a period in Tolkien’s creative expression of his mythology when he turned from prose to verse. But writing in verse proved to be temporary: both poems were left unfinished.

The fourth volume, The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986), contains the Sketch of the Mythology, which is a prose synopsis of Tolkien’s mythology written in 1926. In this short piece, Tolkien tries to ‘explain’ how his vision of the long poem on the story of Túrin fitted within the whole legendarium. Tolkien wrote this summary of his mythology for the benefit of his former schoolmaster, R.W. Reynolds, to whom he had sent the poetic version of the Túrin tale, asking for his comments.

After the Sketch, Tolkien returned to prose for good in Qenta Noldorinwa, which also represents his next attempt to record his mythology. The Sketch of the Mythology and the Qenta Noldorinwa are the only complete accounts of the legendarium covering the whole of the First Age of Middle-earth from the arrival of the Valar in Arda to the overthrow of Morgoth. At that stage of the mythology’s evolution, no Second or Third Ages had yet been conceived. The matter of Númenor along with the setting of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had yet to be invented.

The fifth volume, The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987), introduces the story of Númenor into the mythology. Written around 1936–7, it contains the first version of the legend of Númenor, The Fall of Númenor, and Tolkien’s first abortive time-travel story, entitled The Lost Road. Closely associated with the Númenórean material, The Lost Road involved a series of fathers and sons reliving northern European myths and legends through dreams, concluding with the fall of Númenor from Tolkien’s own mythology. Finally, the volume contains Tolkien’s fourth attempt to record the entire narrative of his mythology: the unfinished Quenta Silmarillion, written between the mid-1930s and 1938.




Second Phase: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

By 1937, Tolkien’s story The Hobbit, originally created to amuse his children and initially conceived as independent from Middle-earth, was published. After its success his publishers asked for a ‘sequel’. Instead, Tolkien offered them his private mythology: the incomplete Quenta Silmarillion and a few other texts. The work was rejected, but Tolkien was still very much encouraged to write another story about hobbits. He started writing it reluctantly in the beginning, but soon realized that the story was growing into something different than a mere children’s story.


The next four volumes (VI-IX) of The History of Middle-earth record step-by-step how Tolkien created The Lord of the Rings, following his creative path from manuscript to manuscript during the period 1937-50, including rejected versions and revisions.

  • The Return of the Shadow (1988)
  • The Treason of Isengard (1989)
  • The War of the Ring (1990)
  • Sauron Defeated (1992)

During this time Tolkien stopped working on his mythology and devoted all his time to the ‘new Hobbit’ his publishers had requested. The Notion Club Papers, written between December 1945 and August 1946, represents the only period during which he deviated from his task. Tolkien wrote The Notion Club Papers as a time-travel story; it is included as the second part of the ninth volume of The History of Middle-earth entitled Sauron Defeated. Similar in theme to The Lost Road, this story was also left unfinished. In The Notion Club Papers the dreamers travelling to the past are Oxford dons belonging to a literary group called the ‘Notion Club’, similar to the Inklings group that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien belonged to. In this work the dreamers travel back in time, mainly to places from Tolkien’s own mythology like Númenor and Valinor. The Notion Club Papers was not just another attempt to write a time-travel story, but also a narrative experiment to find a ‘framework’ for presenting his whole mythology. Instead of using a ‘mediator’, like Eriol/Ælfwine in The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien seems to have considered time travelling as a way of ‘introducing’ his legendarium to readers.

Third Phase: Revisiting the Mythology after The Lord of the Rings

After the great success of The Lord of the Rings, the publication of The Silmarillion was finally a possibility. The Appendices of the former had whetted the appetites of readers for the myths and legends of Middle-earth. The last three volumes of the History of Middle-earth represent Tolkien’s efforts to fulfil this demand by attempting to compile a mythology fit for publication.

The tenth and eleventh volumes of the series, Morgoth’s Ring (1993) and The War of the Jewels (1994), include the Later Quenta Silmarillion. From 1950 to the mid-1960s Tolkien returned to the earlier Quenta Silmarillion to rewrite large parts and make changes, but the work remained unfinished. At the same time he wrote a plethora of other texts related to the Quenta Silmarillion.


These texts included essays on specific characters, moral and theological issues raised by his mythology, as well as parts of stories from the mythology rewritten in a different prose form. Many of these texts are included in the twelfth volume of the series, The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996), which also records the compilation of Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Some of these late texts are also found in Unfinished Tales (1980).

Further resources online on The History of Middle-earth: