Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Qenya Alphabet, Tolkien Studies 9, etc.

Just published is The Qenya Alphabet by J.R. R. Tolkien, edited by Arden R. Smith, issue number 20 of the journal Parma Eldalamberon.  Here Smith presents some forty documents by Tolkien, examples of his Elvish lettering that is now known as tengwar and associated with Fëanor, though at the time of creation of these documents, beginning in 1931, there is no indication of these associations.  The documents are a motley bunch---some are clearly examples of Tolkien practicing the craft: there are excerpts copied from Lewis Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter" in Through the Looking-Glass, from the Pater Noster, from "God Save the King", and from various contemporary letters that Tolkien had written (to E.V. Gordon and C.S. Lewis, among others).  And there are also examples in various styles of handwriting, from versions with pointed letters, to more cursive ones, formal and less formal. Arden Smith has done an excellent job presenting these documents, transliterating them as well as presenting normalized versions, and providing a wealth of commentary. For, in addition to the information on the elvish writing system, there are a number of biographical and literary insights that can be gleaned from the examples Tolkien used. Highly recommended. For ordering details, click here.

Over at the blog Mythoi, Morgan Thomsen has a very interesting post about "Tolkien and the Illustrations of Robert J. Lee".  It describes eighteen illustrations to a reprint of chapter one of The Hobbit in an anthology The Children’s Treasury of Literature, edited by Bryna and Louis Untermeyer, published in England in 1966.  While Thomsen makes many interesting points, the context around this anthology is much more complex and deserves to be delineated further.  

The Children's Treasury of Literature is merely the British retitling of the American anthology The Golden Treasury of Children's Literature (1966), which itself is only a selection of material from a ten-volume series, published from 1961 through 1963 by the Golden Press, the New York office of the Western Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin, a publisher known in America for the "Golden Books" series of books for children (hence the "Golden" in the U.S. title, which doubtless meant little to a British audience so the word was removed). Tolkien's chapter from The Hobbit, with the illustrations by Robert J. Lee, originally appeared in volume 5, Wonder Lands (1962). This volume begins with extracts from The Little White Bird by J.M. Barrie (including the first appearance of the character Peter Pan, predating Barrie's play), a section from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, followed by the Tolkien chapter, then an excerpt from The Happy Moomins by Tove Jansson, and sections from T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, George Macdonald's The Princess and the Goblin, and Dinah Maria Mulock Craik's The Little Lame Prince. Interestingly, the other excerpt that Robert J. Lee illustrated in this volume is that by Tove Jansson, who was herself an illustrator, and coincidentally in the same year as this volume was published (1962) she illustrated the Swedish translation of The Hobbit.

Thus Robert J. Lee's illustrations date from 1962, not 1966, and in that context can be understood as coming from the time before the explosion of popularity of Tolkien's work which began in 1965, not after it, and perhaps in some small way this volume contributed to that great surge in public awareness. Robert J. Lee (1921-1994) was born in California, and educated at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.  He was an instructor at the Pratt Insitute in Brooklyn in 1955-56, and became an associate professor at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, in 1962. The first of many books he illustrated was This Is a Town (1957), by Polly Curran, and Lee did other work for the Golden Press, including Fifty Famous Fairy Tales (1965). 

Lee's illustrations to The Hobbit are printed slightly differently in the 1962 book from the 1966 one, though the page layouts are identical in the two volumes (i.e., pages 54 though 78 in the 1962 volume are laid out identically to pages 462 through 486 in the 1966 volume). Morgan Thomsen detailed Lee's eighteen illustrations in the 1966 volume in his blog: four in full color, five duotone, and nine monochrome. In the 1962 version, there are four in full color, six duotone, and eight monochrome, the difference being in the illustration of Belladonna Took (Thomsen's #3, duotone in brown and black on page 56 of the 1962 book; monochrome in black on page 464 of the 1966 volume). 

Of the other duotone illustrations,  sometimes the brown and black of 1962 becomes blue and black in 1966 (Thomsen's #1,#8, #9, #18) or the green and black of 1962 becomes yellow and black in 1966 (#11), while the colors of the monotones shift too: the brown of #6 in 1962 becomes blue in 1966; the brown of #12,  #15, and #16 in 1962 becomes black in 1966; the blue of #13 in 1962 becomes black in 1966; and the green of #14 and #17 in 1962 becomes black in 1966. The full color illustrations (Thomsen #2, #5, #7, and #10) are almost the same, though the colors are slightly different.


Of course the success (or lack thereof) of Lee in capturing the essence of Tolkien's story remains in the eyes of the beholder. 

Finished copies of Tolkien Studies volume 9 (2012) have recently shipped, and the text of this volume has been available via the subscription database Project Muse for some weeks now.  When I left Tolkien Studies back in March, I had already drafted some of what would have become the "Book Notes" section for this volume.  Since the content of what I wrote is not covered in the new volume, I figure I might as well share it below.


Books Notes

Perhaps the most curious Tolkien publication of 2011 was a new edition of Oliphaunt, a twenty-four page picture book illustrated by Dan McGeehan, published by The Child's World, Mankato, Minnesota, part of their series of "Poetry for Children". Oddly there is no mention of copyright for the Tolkien poem, and this edition was apparently withdrawn soon after publication.  ISBN 9781609731557.

Another curious publication that appears to be a new book is J.R.R. Tolkien's Double Words and Creative Process: Language and Life, by Arne Zettersten, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Though the book itself gives no hint, it is merely a translation into English (presumably by the author himself) from the Swedish original, Tolkien--min vän Ronald och hand världar [Tolkien: My Friend Ronald and His Worlds] (Stockholm, 2008).  Though much of it is based on previous Tolkien scholarship, Zettersten adds interesting recollections of conversations with Tolkien. His style is, unfortunately, discursive and repetitive. Price $85.00. ISBN 9780230623149.  

From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (Oxford University Press), edited by Michael Adams, has, as one of its eight chapters, "Tolkien's Invented Languages"by E.S.C. Weiner and Jeremy Marshall, two of the three co-authors of The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (2006). Tolkien-scholar Arden R. Smith also contributes a chapter on "Confounding Babel: International Auxiliary Languages". Price $19.95. ISBN 9780192807090.

The Journal of Inklings Studies debuted in 2011, with two issues, no. 1 (March 2011) and no. 2 (October 2011).  These issues are predominately concerned with C.S. Lewis, and the only Tolkien-related content is a book review of Dinah Hazell's The Plants of Middle-earth, a book published five years earlier in 2006. One hopes for more (and timelier) Tolkien coverage in future volumes. For more information, see ISSN 2045-8797 (print); 2045-8800 (online). 


Here's the cover of the 2011 version of Oliphaunt. I note that the publisher's website gives more details, showing a few sample pages, but says that "This product is not available for purchase (Withdrawn from sale)". See here


  1. As a child the “Children’s Treasury of Literature” represented my first exposure to not only fantasy literature, but also to Tolkien’s masterpiece. It’s sad to hear that Tolkien didn’t approve of these illustrations, because they really sparked my imagination as a toddler. When I became a teenager I picked up a non-illustrated version of the hobbit at my school library (not realizing that it was the same story I loved as a toddler), and when I began to read it, all of the Lee illustrations flooded my memory almost immediately, and it was as if a long-lost and forgotten friend had returned.

    1. It's a funny thing how we react to art (written or pictorial) as a child versus as an adult. I had read The Hobbit before the Rankin-Bass cartoon was done, and the latter appalled me. Yet I have met many fans (younger than me) whose first exposure to Tolkien's world was through that cartoon, and though they came to know that it didn't represent Tolkien's writings, it nevertheless remained something fond to them.