The light of Day

I’ve now seen the 10% free sample for David Day’s new A Dictionary of Sources of Tolkien. All was going well until I got half way through the ‘A’s and hit “Alcuin of York”. Alcuin as “comparable” to Gandalf? After that I began to spot many “is comparable to” and similar broad statements. While I found some entries informative, a few seemed to be grasping at straws. “Bard the Bowman” for instance, is deemed to be modelled on the Greek Apollo. Really? I also sensed a slight pro-Christian and pro-King Arthur tilt on some of the entries, more so than might naturally to be expected to come from dealing with Tolkien material.

The book’s introduction states it was written for the “general” reader, and as such it appears (at least in the ebook) to feel free to dispense entirely with footnotes and references. We are left to wonder, for instance, about “Alfirin” (Simbelmynë) when it is stated that… “As a flower, Tolkien himself compared it to the anemone” [as understood by the ancient Greeks], in terms of where to find the reference for that. The Tolkien Letters offer only…

“I have not seen anything [i.e.: in either life or botanical reference books] that immediately recalls niphredil or elanor or alfirin: but that I think is because those imagined flowers are lit by a light that would not be seen ever in a growing plant and cannot be recaptured by paint. Lit by that light, niphredil would be simply a delicate kin of a snowdrop; and elanor a pimpernel (perhaps a little enlarged) growing sun-golden flowers and star-silver ones on the same plant, and sometimes the two combined. Alfirin (‘immortal’) would [in name-translation] be an immortelle [i.e. flower that does not loose its colour when picked and dried], but not dry and papery [as a dried immortelle is]: [in its growing form] simply a beautiful bell-like flower, running through many colours, but soft and gentle.”

The Flora of Middle-earth has it that… “Tolkien considered it to be an imagined kind of anemone” but the reference there is to “Nomenclature of the Lord of the Rings” section in the 2005 Reader’s Companion. The Tolkien Gateway entry on “Simbelmynë” (Alfirin) also has this claim and reference. One then needs to be savvy enough to know that the Reader’s Companion and the Reader’s Guide are quite different reference books by the same authors, published just one year apart, and that their shorthand titles are easily confused. On consulting the correct book, we find Tolkien’s guide to his overseas translators offering…

“an imagined variety of anemone, growing in turf like Anemone Pulsatilla, the pasque-flower, but smaller and white like the wood anemone. … the plant bloomed at all seasons [yet] its flowers were not ‘immortelles’ [for the nature of ‘immortelles’, see the Letters quotation above].

Thus Day’s conflation of Tolkien’s advice to his translators and the outlining of a Greek myth…

“As a flower, Tolkien himself compared it to the anemone, which the Ancient Greeks associated with mourning: when the goddess of love Aphrodite wept over the grave of her lover Adonis, her tears turned into anemones.”

… does not support the run-on implication that it was Tolkien explicitly making the link with the myth. Also, the myth as given seems a little ‘off’. Since Ovid (Metamorphoses X) has it that the mythic flower in question is purple, not white, and made from the mingled “nectar” of Aphrodite and the turf-splashed blood of Adonis. Nor is there a “grave” in Ovid, as Adonis is a shepherd-boy and has been gored in the leg by a boar, hence his blood on the close-cropped turf. Later Bion of Smyrna was more coy, and in his telling of the tale he turned the implied-sexual “nectar” into “tears”.

Anyway, the free 10% for Day’s A Dictionary of Sources takes you to the ‘Be..’ entries, and you can make your own judgements. But on the basis of their being enough of interest in the sample, I’ll be looking for a paper copy when the price gets low enough — as it surely will due to the likely sales levels. But then I’ll be marking it up with a scoring system for each entry. Which means that I need the paper edition. Another reason to prefer paper here is because the ebook appears to lack any linked table-of-contents for the main entries. Paging through its entries on a Kindle 3 is thus a pain. Possibly this is remedied by a hyper-linked index at the back, but I wouldn’t like to spend £17 on finding out that there isn’t one.

A local ghost story for Halloween: “Crewe”

Who knew? One of Walter de la Mare’s best short ghost-stories is “Crewe”, set in Crewe railway station.

When murky winter dusk begins to settle over the railway station at Crewe its first-class waiting room grows steadily more stagnant. Particularly if one is alone in it. The long grimed windows do little more than sift the failing light that slopes in on them from the glass roof outside and is too feeble to penetrate into the recesses beyond. And the grained massive furniture becomes less and less inviting. It appears to have made for a scene of extreme and diabolical violence that one may hope will never occur.

Available free at Archive.org in text. Not free in audio, except in abridged form.

It was published 1930 in his collection On the Edge: Short Stories, and thus we might plausibly assume it to have been written in the last years of the 1920s.

Two new books on Tolkien

Two new Tolkien books seem of possible interest to me, in the Amazon forward listings.

A Dictionary of Sources of Tolkien is from David Day, the prolific and unofficial encyclopaedist of Middle-earth. It looks interesting enough to sample the free 10% on Kindle, when it sees publication in a few days. After the abundant illustrations are subtracted it looks to have perhaps 350-pages of commentary on sources. At 544 pages in total, the 10% sample of the book should be enough to make a judgement on its usefulness and depth or not.

Also of note is a new French book La Terre du Milieu: Tolkien et la mythologie Germano-Scandinave (trans. Middle-earth: Tolkien and German-Scandinavian mythology). A translator is listed, which led me to discover that it’s a French edition of Rudolf Simek’s 2005 200-page German book Mittelerde: Tolkien und die germanische Mythologie. That led me to a preview of the Contents page in German on Google Books, which could then be run through Translate thus…


1. J.R.R. Tolkien: The medieval researcher as a novelist

Tolkien’s life and scientific career
The novelist
Tolkien and the Old Norse literature
The songs of the Edda and the prose Edda
Old Icelandic sagas
The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus

2. Geography and geographic names of Middle-earth

Cosmography and Cartography
Tolkien’s World: Middle-earth
Otherworldly realms
Waste lands, wastes
Mountains and forests
Water and sweetbreads
Landscapes and parts of the country

3. Persons of Scandinavian origin

Dwarfs in the Edda and Tolkien
The Kings of the Rohirrim and their ancestors
The Hobbit families
Other influences from Old Norse

4. Odin’s appearance

Gandalf and Odin
Saruman and Odin
Sauron and Odin
Manwë and Odin

5. Natural mythological elements

Who is Tom Bombadil?
Ents and Entfrauen
Beorn, the Gesrairwandler

6. The friendly members of the lower mythology

Hobbits
Dwarfs (dwarves)
Elves
Wasa (Woses)

7. The menacing powers of lower mythology

Orcs
Goblins, Bilwig (goblins)
Uruk-hai
Trolls
Giants
Balrogs

8. Mythical animals, mythical animals and animal monsters

Dragon and Dragonhunt
Eagle
Wolves and wargs
Werewolves
Oliphants

9. Runic writings

The variants of Futhark
Tolkien’s creative approach to runes
Dwarf runes and moon runes
Cirth und Angerthas
Symbol-rind Zauberrunen
The runic inscriptions in Hobbit and Lord of the Rings

10. Motifs from the German mythology and heroes of legend

The One ring
The King in the Mountain
The Shadow Army
The Broken Sword
The worship of the gods without a temple
Zahi Nine
Revenants, “Funeral Items” (barrow-wights)
The Earendil myth
High Heights, Thrones (High Seats)


So, to pack that lot into just 200 pages makes it look like a broad survey. A quick search leads me to just one review online, in German. Turns out the author of the book is… “a professor of medieval German and Scandinavian literature at the University of Bonn”. The reviewer notes that… “Very commendable in this context is Simek’s effort to find out which Nordic literature was published and available in the United Kingdom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Tolkien was a student and [lecturer?].” Our knowledge here is still somewhat limited (even now, with Tolkien’s Library in print), but the reviewer notes that Simek is not afraid to “speculate” on what Tolkien read and/or knew. The book looks like an interesting overview, but… it’s not in English.

The Staffordshire Hoard: the book

The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon Treasure, being the 640-page official Research Report of the Society of Antiquaries. The book was supposed to ship at the end of September 2019, but it hasn’t been getting reviews or a “Look Inside” tab on Amazon. An article in The Sentinel (10th October) suggests why — the shipping date has slipped by over a month…

“This book will be available to buy from 1st November”

Given the dates, it seems to me most likely that the Hoard originated in a turbulent time (655-658) in Mercia. The years between the death of King Penda and early years of the rule of King Wulfhere and his restoration of Mercia. My own working theory would be that it was a purging of ‘tainted’ gold and similar items, by the new King Wulfhere early in his reign. Mostly a purging of items made for Peada and given from Northumbria by Oswiu, items which there had been petty disputes over, or which now was deemed too pagan or which had failed to bring good fortune in battle. By burying it in secret, at more or less the centre of the kingdom as it then was, the items would be deemed ‘cleansed’ and returned to the earth.