23 September 2017

Impossible Dates, in Greece, Rome and the Shire.





Today (23 September) is the birthday of Augustus Caesar, and yesterday was the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. So it is entirely meet, fitting, and proper to write about a little known parallel between the Rome and the Shire. 

cum aliquos numquam soluturos significare uult, 'ad K(a)l(endas) Graecas soluturos' ait. 

When [Augustus] wished to indicate that some people would never pay their debts, he said that they would pay them 'on the Greek Kalends.' 
Suetonius, Augustus, 87.1

The first day of every Roman month was known as 'the Kalends' of that month (hence our 'calendar'). Since Greeks did not use the Roman calendar, there could be no 'Greek Kalends'. 

Meanwhile in the Shire the first day of a non-existent month also gave rise to a joke:

It will be noted if one glances at a Shire Calendar, that the only weekday on which no month began was Friday. It thus became a jesting idiom in the Shire to speak of 'on Friday the first' when referring to a day that did not exist. or to a day on which very unlikely events such as the flying of pigs or (in the Shire) the walking of trees might occur. In full the expression was 'on Friday the first of Summerfilth'.
(RK App. D 1109 n. 2)

The month 'Summerfilth' does not exist. It is a play on 'Winterfilth', which is roughly equivalent with October, a name Tolkien derived, Winterfylleþ, the first month of Winter among the Anglo-Saxons.


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A Low Place in the Hedge -- FR 1.i.36

'The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water' -- © The Tolkien Estate

He paused, silent for a moment. Then without another word he turned away from the lights and voices in the fields and tents, and followed by his three companions went round into his garden, and trotted down the long sloping path. He jumped over a low place in the hedge at the bottom, and took to the meadows, passing into the night like a rustle of wind in the grass.

Frodo and Pippin jump over the same low spot seventeen years later (FR 1.iii.70).  Now I had never really thought about this until now, but we're talking hobbits here. That must have been a very low spot indeed for Bilbo and the others to jump over it. 

Think about it.

Like a foot tall.

More of a shrubbery, really.

With Tolkien's eye for detail it is no surprise to find just such a low spot () in the hedge in his painting of the Hill.  I would like to thank Kate Neville and her eagle eye for pointing me to the correct "low spot" when I had initially believed it was another. (see Kate's comments below.)

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21 September 2017

ἄειδε δ’ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν, or not



By the time the Iliad reaches Book 9 the war is going so badly for the Achaeans without Achilles that even Agamemnon is willing to beg him to come back. Since great kings do not generally do their own begging -- see Book 24, however -- Agamemnon sends Aias, Odysseus, and Phoenix, Achilles' old tutor, with promises of vast amends, to win Achilles over. When the three emissaries reach the tent of Achilles, they find him preoccupied with the very sort of heroics they hope for from him:
Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ᾽ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν Ἠετίωνος ὀλέσσας:
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ᾽ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν
They came to the huts and ships of the Myrmidons,
And found him taking pleasure in a clear toned lyre,
both fair and ingenious, and upon it was a silver bridge.
He chose it from the spoils when he took the city of Eëtion;
With this he delighted his heart, and sang the glorious deeds of men.
(Iliad ix.185-89)
Over a thousand years later another poet far from Troy was singing of men's glory, but not only that. In The Battle of Maldon the anonymous poet takes a moment to make sure that others remembered the names and lineage of three brothers who ran away:
Hi bugon þa fram beaduwe þe þær beon noldon.
þær wearð Oddan bearn ærest on fleame,
Godric fram guþe, and þone godan forlet
þe him mænigne oft mear gesealde;
he gehleop þone eoh þe ahte his hlaford,
on þam gerædum þe hit riht ne wæs,
and his broðru mid him begen ærndon,
Godwine and Godwig, guþe ne gymdon,
ac wendon fram þam wige and þone wudu sohton,
flugon on þæt fæsten and hyra feore burgon,
and manna ma þonne hit ænig mæð wære,
gyf hi þa geearnunga ealle gemundon
þe he him to duguþe gedon hæfde.
Swa him Offa on dæg ær asæde
on þam meþelstede, þa he gemot hæfde,
þæt þær modiglice manega spræcon
þe eft æt þearfe þolian noldon. 
Then those who had no wish to be there turned from the battle.
There, Godric, the son of Odda, proved first in flight
From battle, and forsook the good man
Who had often given him many a horse;
Godric leaped on the horse which his lord owned,
Onto the saddle which it was not his right to mount,
And both his brothers galloped off with him:
Godwin and Godwig, of battle they took no heed,
And went from the conflict and headed for the woods;
They fled to its fastness and saved their lives,
And more men than was at all right followed,
Had they kept in mind all gracious acts
Which their lord had done for them and their benefit.
So Offa had told Byrthnoth one day
At the meeting place, when he held an assembly,
That many would speak boldly there
Words they would not live up to at need.
(185-201)

Nor was this the poet's last word on the feckless sons of Odda. He returned to them twice more in the extant text. At lines 237-42 he points out that Godric's flight on his lord's horse had misled his men into thinking that it was Byrtnoth himself who was deserting them. This caused the shield-wall to break. And he later mentioned another man named Godric, son of Æþelgar, whom he hastens to identify as 'not the Godric who avoided the battle' (325).

My first reaction as I read about the feckless sons of Odda was amusement. I thought of 'Brave Sir Robin' in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and of the scene in the Star Trek (TOS) episode, 'Bread and Circuses', where the master of ceremonies threatens a gladiator who will not fight with 'You bring this networks ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you.' But as I read on, one warrior after another, old and young, stepped forward and was named with his lineage. Each vowed to avenge his lord, then plunged into the battle and died. The more I read of these men, the more hostile and personal the lines directed at Godric, Godwin, and Godwig seemed. The author of Maldon is unknown, and the poem's date disputed, but anger at treachery can linger for generations. And it can linger even longer in the memory of a people that feels disinherited and oppressed. Whenever the poet wrote it, his wrath at Odda's sons seems keen. He tried to make sure that the evil these men did lived after them, as surely as he sang the glorious deeds of the other men who died that day. For today at least he has done both. 

15 September 2017

The Silmarillion, published 15 September 1977



That is my Silmarillion pictured above, the one I bought forty years ago today. I took an hour and a half bus trip that day after school to go get it. The anticipation on that endless, meandering local bus trip, in which the bus stopped every two blocks whether it needed to or not, would likely have been a lot worse had not my best friend of those days, Tricia, been along for the ride (the bookstore was right down the way from her house). I talked to her all the way there about books and school and school friends, as one does at seventeen. As the bus pulled up on the corner where the bookstore was, it was like seeing a far green country under a swift sunrise. The trip back -- if there was one -- I didn't notice, because I had a new book by Tolkien, the last anyone (except perhaps Christopher Tolkien and Rayner Unwin) thought there would ever be. 

I stayed up all night reading it because here at last were those tales alluded to in The Lord of the Rings, most importantly Beren and Lúthien, but which till now I could only hunger for, and try to puzzle out from the text I had. I think I started reading it again the moment I finished it, scrawling notes in the margins and inside the covers, thrilled to see the names Olórin and Galadriel, trying to figure out the metaphysics and theology of The Ainulindalë, and weeping more times than I ever would have admitted then at the beauties and sorrows of Arda Marred. Nothing I had gleaned from Carpenter's biography or Clyde Kilby's Tolkien and the Silmarillion had prepared me for the full impact. And I was lucky. I only had to wait six years from the time I first read The Lord of the Rings. Others had to wait over twenty. And it exceeded all my hopes. I was fortunate not to be put off as some were by its very different style and almost total want of hobbits.

So that is my Silmarillion. We have gotten older and shabbier together, and equally unappealing to collectors. Do I wish I'd been more careful with the wrapper? No doubt. Not because that would increase its value today -- nothing could increase its value to me -- but because it deserved a better fate than tatters. And yet:
From a locked drawer, smelling of moth-balls, he took out an old cloak and hood. They had been locked up as if they were very precious, but they were so patched and weatherstained that their original colour could hardly be guessed: it might have been dark green. 
(FR 1.i.31)

11 September 2017

The evolution of a commonplace

I discovered Tolkien when I was eleven and, as you've probably gathered, I rather liked his work. From then until I went to college seven years later, I read The Lord of the Rings probably three times a year. When I got to college I meant to study English as well as Classics, but to go to graduate school and write a dissertation on Tolkien. I must have mentioned this to someone on the English Faculty because somebody, I no longer remember whom, made it clear to me how very little chance there was that I would be allowed to write such a dissertation, and how doing so would be academic suicide. As I said, I don't recall who told me this or whether it was meant kindly or contemptuously, but it was enough to decide not to be an English Major.

Fifteen or so years later, with a doctorate in Classics firmly stitched into the lining of my then spiffy ego, I was sitting in a paper session at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (then called The American Philological Association) listening to another young scholar answer questions about his paper. He was doing fine. His paper had been good, and he had handled the questions deftly. Then he chose to illustrate a point he was making by reference to an episode of Star Trek. Again, I don't recall the particulars, but I remember recognizing (as a lifelong Trekker) that the allusion he was making was absolutely appropriate to his subject, but utterly wrong for this audience. As I was thinking "No, no, no, don't pick that", I felt the room slip away from him.

Another twenty-five years down the line, popular culture has a much wider acceptance within the academic world. Indeed the flowering of disciplines unheard of as little as three decades ago astonishes me. Some of them speak to me, and some don't. Some I don't understand at all, but understanding is not necessary. Not everyone that speaks, speaks to me. Not every message is meant for me. That's okay. I try not to be so arrogant as to think that something has no value if I don't understand it or like it. 

But recently I was chatting with someone about a forthcoming article on Tolkien I had written, the main title of which is 'These Are Not the Elves You're Looking For', a rather obvious allusion to the famous line in Star Wars: Episode IV: 'These are not the droids you're looking for.' The person I was speaking to suggested that I would be wise to change it, since an allusion to Star Wars might put some people off. 









09 September 2017

Saturday 9 AM, too little coffee, too many languages, but friends.




So I was thinking of the old hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,"* as one does, but without enough coffee (clearly) and too many languages in my head, all my mind kept supplying for a title to the hymn was "Ein zauber Berg is unser Gott."** 

I mentioned to my friend, +Richard Rohlin, that I was okay with this, although Elijah would probably point out that God is no more in the mountain than he is in the earthquake or the whirlwind. 

Richard replied, “no more and no less.”

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* “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,”
** “A Magic Mountain Is Our God.”


08 September 2017

Thomas of Erceldoune IV -- The Prologue (lines 1-24)



The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Ercledoune is divided into three 'fitts', a word used in Middle-English to describe a canto or large section of a poem. Of the five MSS containing all or part of this poem, the oldest, the Thornton Manuscript, stands alone in beginning with a 24 line prologue in which a minstrel addresses his audience. Fitt I then tells of Thomas' experience with the elf queen, and Fitts II and III record his prophecies. As I mentioned in outlining Murray's Introduction to his edition, Thomas was famous as a prophet in Scotland and Northern England well into the 19th Century.

The prologue provides a good example of the poetic form used throughout.  What we have is basically an iambic meter with some variations. So four beats per line.  Murray calls this 'long measure'. This might lead us to expect eight syllables per line, but that is not what our eyes or ears find. There are extra unstressed syllables. Now some of these syllables get lost 'as you articulate the line out loud', as Jenni Nuttall tells us at her marvelous blog on Middle English verse:
A vowel at the end of one word can run together with the vowel at the beginning of the next word (this is called elision).   An unstressed syllable can be slurred over within a word (i.e. deliv’ren rather than deliveren).
If we take the first four lines and mark out the elisions and slurred syllables, and compare the text with and without these marks, we can see that the rhythm tightens up considerably. Yet there are still 'extra' syllables, which, as Jenni Nuttall has pointed out to me, suggest that this is more of a 'dolnik verse', in which the four beats are the main thing, but which is rather footloose when it comes to the number of unstressed syllables.  Another variation is also visible in the first half of the first line, which is trochaic rather than iambic. I have also added marks to the second sample to show the beat.
Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
04 Als ever was herde by nyghte or daye:


Lýstyns, lórdyngs, bothe grét' & smál',
And tákis gude tént what í will sáy':
I sáll ȝow téll' als tréw' a tál',
04 Als é'er was hérde by nýght' or dáy':
  letter key: þ = a voiced th, as in this; ȝ = y as in you; j alone = I, the pronoun.

In considering the rhyme scheme -- ABAB -- we need to bear in mind that the pronunciation of English 600 years ago was rather different than now, even leaving aside any distinctions between northern and southern dialects. Thus smale in line 1 and tale in line 3, done in line 10 and schone in line 12, rhymed as much in the ear as the eye.  Even though Murray printed the text without any kind of breaks, the rhyme scheme allows us to see that it falls naturally into quatrains. Murray, however, did number the verses just so -- the line numbers in red are his -- and I will take the liberty of setting it down this way. Doing so will, I hope, aid those (like me) whose understanding of Middle English isn't perfect or immediate.

Lystyns, lordyngs, bothe grete & smale,
And takis gude tent what j will saye:
I sall ȝow telle als trewe a tale,
04 Als ever was herde by nyghte or daye: 
And þe maste meruelle ffor owttyne naye,
That euer was herde by-fore or syene,
And þer-fore pristly j ȝow praye,
08 That ȝe will of ȝoure talkyng blyne
It es an harde thyng for to saye,
Of doghty dedis þat hase bene done;
Of felle feghtyngs & battells sere;
12 And how þat þir knyghtis has wonne þair schone
Bot jhesu crist þat syttis in trone,
Safe ynglische mene bothe ferre & nere;
And j sall telle ȝow tyte and sone,
16 Of Battels donne sythene many a ȝere
And of Batells þat don sall bee;
In what place, and howe, and whare;
And wha sall hafe þe heghere gree,
20 And whethir partye sall hafe þe werre;
Wha sall takk þe flyghte and flee,
And wha sall dye and by-leve thare;
Bot jhesu crist, þat dyed on tre,
24 Saue jnglische men whare-so þay fare.

tent -- heed, attention
meruelle -- a marvel, a wonder
ffor owttyne naye -- forouten naye = without a no, undeniably
syene -- since
pristly -- eagerly
blyne -- cease
wonne þair schone -- won their shoes, i.e., proved themselves
tyte -- quickly, soon
sythene many a ȝere -- many a year ago/since
gree -- victory

There is probably no way of telling whether the prologue was added to the poem by Robert Thornton, the English scribe responsible for the oldest manuscript, or whether it was a part of the poem he received and copied, but which later scribes omitted. (The scribe of Sloane MS 2578, for example, left out the first fitt entirely, and copied only the prophecies.) To be sure, the two prayers to Christ to save Englishmen (13-14, 23-24) suggest an English rather than a Scottish audience, but Murray rightly points out in his notes that Thornton could have easily substituted 'ynglische' for an original 'Scottismen' (lxix).*

The two prayers are also carefully placed at the beginning (13-14) and end (23-24) of the second half of the prologue. We may thus see it as a separate unit, which expands upon the briefer battle references in lines 9-12 of the first half and shifts the focus of the prologue more to the prophecies of fitts two and three.  So no matter how true and wondrous the fairy story of the first fitt may be, it appears to have less of the attention of the prologue's author, whoever that may be.

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* I am also reminded, however, of the irony in Peadar Kearney's 'Whack Fol the Diddle' (recorded by The Clancy Brothers and many others), but that seems unlikely to be in play here.

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Thomas of Erceldoune III -- 'An' that's likker-like than the Fairy Story'




One disadvantage of condensing Murray's extensive introduction as I have just done, is that worthy comments, which give us a sense of the author's personality as well as his scholarship, get lost. To try to combat this I have included below several remarks from Murray's text and footnotes that made me laugh. Comments such as those below may allow us to make out his voice from far off.
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I am inclined to suppose, then, that this part [fitt 2] with perhaps fitt 1, the conclusion, and an indefinite portion of Fitt iii, which is in all probability a melange of early traditional prophecies, may have been written on the eve of Halidon Hill, with a view to encouraging the Scots in that battle; in which the oldest text [Thornton], it will be observed, makes the Scots win, with the slaughter of six thousand Englishmen, while the other texts, wise after the fact, make the Scots lose, as they actually did. 
xxv-vi
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Is it too much to suppose that Thomas of Ercildoune may, from his literary tastes, been a repository of such traditional rhymes, and himself have countenanced the application of their mysterious indications to the circumstances of country, and thus to some extent at least have given currency to the idea of his own prophetic powers 
xxix-xxx
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My friend, Mr Andrew Currie of Darnick, has sent me the following tradition of the disappearance of Thomas, which he took down 35 years ago from the mouth of "Rob Messer, a very intelligent matter-of-fact man, well versed in all tradtionary lorse about Earlston, and possessing a wonderful memory for a man of 85": -- "Ye want to ken if ever aw heard how Tammas the Rymer disappeared? -- Well, aw can tell ye something about that, as aw had it frae ma graanfaither, an' nae doot he had it frae his fore-bears, for we're als auld a family in Yerlsten, -- or raither Ercildoun, as it was caa'd i' thae day -- we're als auld as the Learmonts. D'ye see thae auld waa's i' the front o' yeir ain shop? Weel man, aw mind o' that bein' a gay an' substantial hoose i' maa young days, an' Tammas the Rymer was last seen gaan' oot o' that hoose eae nicht afore the derknin', an' he set off up Leader for Lauder Cas'le; but he ne'er gat there -- he never was sene againe. Aw've heard 'at he geade in there to get some deed signed or wutness 't, an' that he was carryan' money wi' him to some Lord or great man up there, 'at he was intimate wi'. But ma granfaither uist to say -- an' nae doot he had it handit doon -- that Leader was i' great fluid at that time, an' that Tammas the Rymer had been robbit an' murdert an' his body thrawn into the water, whulk micht take it to Berwick. An' that's likker-like than the Fairy story! Sae ye hae'd, as aw had it, frae thaim 'at was afore us.
l note 1
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' "The Cambridge [MS] has suffered by rain-water nearly as much as the Cotton has by fire, a great part of each page having become illegible by the total disappearance of the ink. By wetting it, however, with a composition which he procured from a bookseller and a stationer in Cambridge, the writing was so far restored in most places, that, with much poring and the assistance of a magnifying glass, he was able to make it out pretty clearly. The greatest difficulty he met with was from the unlucky zeal and industry of some person who long ago, and in a hand nearly resembling the original, had endeavoured to fill up the chasms, and, as appeared upon the revival of the old writing, had generally mistaken the sense, and done much more harm than good." Jamieson little thought that his own "unlucky zeal and industry" would in the process of time entitle him to equal or even greater reprobation, for the "composition," which he so naively confesses to have applied to the MS., has dried black, and both disastrously disfigured the pages and seriously increased their illegibility'. 
lvii
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'Jamieson's edition presents many misreadings and not a few wanton alterations of the text.' 
lxi



←Murray's Introduction    The Prologue (lines 1-24)→

07 September 2017

Two Quick Observations on Goldberry


Claude Monet -- Water Lilies, 1920-26

In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.
(FR 1.vii.123)
Thus for the first time see Goldberry, who introduces herself to them as 'daughter of the River' (1.vii.122). As with her spouse, Tom Bombadil, it is hard to say what and who she is. In both cases, an answer is likely impossible to attain, and, if there is one, it almost certainly has no specific bearing on the plot of The Lord of the Rings. Is she one of the Maiar, or something else entirely? We don't know. We should likely view the question of the nature and identity of Goldberry in the context of the other evidence for the natural world of Middle-earth being far more alive and aware than we often recognize. In addition to the Ents and trees, we find, for example, the thinking fox* (FR 1.iii.72), the birds and beasts whose languages Gandalf and Radagast know (FR 2.ii.257; vii.359), Caradhras (2.iii.289-294), and the stones of Hollin (FR 2.iii.283-84). We should also not forget Treebeard's statement to Merry and Pippin:
But some of my trees are limb-lithe, and many can talk to me. Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did. 
(TT 3.iv.468, italics mine)
Into all this evidence for a world filled with consciousness, let us introduce two observations that seem to fit Goldberry. First, we meet her enthroned, as it were, among the water-lilies Tom has brought home for her this day, the last he will be able to fetch before Winter closes in (FR 1.vii.127). Water-lilies belong to the family Nympheaceae, an adjective formed from the Ancient Greek noun νυμφαία, which refers to both the yellow and the white water-lily, plus the Latin taxonomic suffix -aceus, 'resembling'. It should be equally obvious, moreover, that this word is also related to νύμφη, which means 'young bride' as well as 'nymph', the minor female divinities of Greek Mythology closely associated with nature in many forms

Second, as Alaric Hall has discussed at length in his Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, Latin 'nympha', a direct borrowing of Greek νύμφη, is glossed in Old English as ælfen, that is, 'female elf' (Hall, 2009, 78-88). So, to the Anglo-Saxons female elves shared enough of the qualities that the nymphs of Greek and Roman mythology possessed, for the one word to translate the other. Now a caution is here in order. Whatever Tolkien may have envisioned Goldberry to be, it was not an Elf as he portrayed them. Rather she was something 'resembling a nymph', something that an Anglo-Saxon might have called an elf, but which Tolkien, having restored the Elves from Victorian silliness and redeemed them from the race of Cain, cannot. And it is from precisely the ineffability of Goldberry's nature that Tolkien drew the stunning inversion of an epic simile that he uses to describe the inability of the hobbits' to define her.** In an epic simile the unfamiliar is explained by reference to the familiar. Not so here:
‘Enter, good guests!’ she said, and as she spoke they knew that it was her clear voice they had heard singing. They came a few timid steps further into the room, and began to bow low, feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folk that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf-queen clad in living flowers.
(FR 1.vii.123)
Not so anywhere, except perhaps in Faërie.

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* It is common to dismiss the thinking fox as a left-over from the The Hobbit's style of story-telling, but the other evidence for some kind of sentience in many different creatures and things suggests either that that is not true, or that, if it is, Tolkien has retconned it by the inclusion of the other examples of sentience in nature.

** My thanks to Corey Olsen for pointing out that Tolkien has here inverted what is normal in a simile of this kind.


Hylas and the Nymphs -- John William Waterhouse, 1896

Thomas of Erceldoune II -- Murray's Introduction and the Contents of his Edition

The Introduction will probably seem more than a little dry to most who actually read it. Myself, I either don't read introductions at all or I read them after I have read the book (which is what I did here). My reason is that I don't want to be told how to read the book, as most introductions seem to me to do. Mercifully, that is not the case here. Murray's introduction is thoroughly detailed, informative and quite interesting for those of us who like this sort of thing. He examines the story of Thomas and his works not as just written documents, but as part of a centuries old living tradition about the man and his prophecies that carried weight even into his own time, and that many had held relevant to the history of Scotland. His legend touches upon figures such as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, James the Sixth and First, and Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender


Yet at 77 pages (ix-lxxxi) Murray's introduction is far too long for more than the briefest outline here. When considering the text itself later, I will of course bring in relevant material from the Introduction.




Introduction

"Traditional" ballad of Thomas and the Queene of Faerie (ix-lvi)
  1. Sources and dates (ix-xi) --
    • Contemporary documents suggest that Thomas was born between 1210 and 1220, and was perhaps dead by 1294, but the latter date may be wrong. See below, section 3.
  2. Family (xi-xiii) -- 
    • His surname, de Ercildoune, suggests a connection, whether of blood or vassalage, to the Earls of March who used de Ercildoune as their surname. His other name, Rymour may be a family name or 'derived, it is generally supposed, from his poetic or prophetic avocations' (xii). 
  3. Alexander III and William Wallace (xiii-xvii) --
    • In 1286 Thomas supposedly predicted the death of Alexander III of Scotland the next day. He is also linked to an incident in the life of William Wallace that can date no earlier than 1296.
  4. Posthumous fame as a prophet (xvii-xx) -- 
    • Quoted as a prophet as early as 1314 or so, Thomas was frequently mentioned in company with Merlin.
  5. Poetic Abilities (xx-xxiii) -- 
    • Numerous works are attested in his name from an early date.
  6. Dual Character as Poet and Prophet (xxiii) -- 
    • Thomas 'continued to be venerated for centuries' in this character, starting with the earliest composition attributed to him, the present poem.
  7. Naming the actual author (xxiii-xxiv) -- 
    • Thomas sometimes seems to be the poet, and sometimes a character in the poem, as he shifts back and forth between the first and third person.  For this reason deciding if the professed author is the actual author is a vexed question.
  8. Dating the poem (xxiv-xxvii) --
    • Events mentioned in the prophecies in Fitts II and III indicates that the poem was composed later than 1401, though a date in the aftermath of the Battle of Otterbourne in 1388 is also possible.
  9. Fitt III (xxvii-xxix) -- 
    • Murray regards the greater part of the predictions in Fitt III as adaptations of earlier legendary prophecies (e.g., about Arthur) now revamped and attributed to Thomas, whereas the prophecies of Fitt II can be related to historical events. Interest in the prophecies helped preserve the fairy story on Fitt I.
  10. Identification of the English (xxix-xxx) --
    • These traditional prophecies, which often spoke of how Arthur would drive out the Saxon invader, encouraged the Scots in their 14th century struggles with the English to identify the English with the Saxons. Here, too, Thomas is often paired with Merlin. Murray asks: 'Is is too much to suppose that Thomas of Erceldoune may, form his literary tastes, have been the repository of of such traditional rhymes, and himself have countenanced the application of their mysterious indications to the circumstances of his country, and thus to some extent at least given currency to the idea of his own prophetic powers?' 
  11. The prominence of Thomas in printed prophetic literature (xxx-xl) --
    • From 1603 onward printed collections of prophetic and occult lore contain frequent citations of Thomas.
  12. Connection to James I/VI (xl-xli) --
    • Thomas was held to have prophesied the ascent of James the Sixth of Scotland to the throne of England as James the First.
  13. Thomas' reputation as a prophet in Scotland in the 18th century (xli-xlii) --
    • In the Stuart rising of 1745 men expected Thomas's prophecies to be fulfilled. In fact his prophecies commanded such widespread belief in 18th century Scotland that a contemporary historian felt it necessary to disparage and refute them. 
  14. Thomas' reputation as a prophet in England (xlii-xliii) --
    • All the copies of Thomas' prophecies that survive do so in English, not Scots, which suggests how wide an audience he had in England. English prophetic writings of the 15th and 16th centuries commonly appeal to him and his prophecies. 
  15. Thomas in Tweedside (xliii-l) --
    • Locally and throughout Scotland well into the 19th century the people preserved traditional local predictions traced back to Thomas. Sir Walter Scott preserves some of these in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 'Within my own memory' (xlvi), Murray, who was born in 1837, can attest people quoting at least one prophecy of Thomas'.
  16. The Eildon Tree and Huntlie Brae (l-lii) --
    • A discussion of these locations mentioned in the poem.
  17. Sir  Walter Scott's and Robert Jamieson's ballads of 'Thomas the Rhymer' (lii-lvi) --
    • Murray presents the texts of each in parallel.
Description of the MSS and Editions (lvi-lxii)

MSS (lvi-lxi)
  1. MS Thornton (lvi-lvii): circa 1430-40. '[O]n the whole a very careful and accurate text; only in a few places...Robert Thornton has misread his original, which can however generally be restored.' '[The] original Northern form of the language [is] little altered.'
  2. MS Cambridge (lvii-lviii): mid 15th century. Murray quotes Robert Jamieson on it: '"The Cambridge has suffered by rain-water nearly as much as the Cotton has by fire, a great part of each page having become illegible by the total disappearance of the ink."' A Southernized version badly done, with scribal errors and varia from Thornton generally unsupported.
  3. MS Cotton, Vitellius E x (lviii-lix) Damaged in the notorious fire at Ashburnham House in 1731 (the same fire which damaged the Beowulf MS, Cotton Vitellus A xv). This is a poorly done copy, but it generally agrees with Thornton.
  4. MS Landsdowne 792 (lix): between 1524 and 1530. Well and neatly copied, but incomplete.
  5. MS Sloane 2578 (lix-lxi): dated 1547. It does not contain Fitt I at all, likely because the book in which it is bound is specifically interested in prophecies.

Printed Editions (lxi-lxii)
  1. Sir Walter Scott published Fitt I, based on the Cotton MS, in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03). (lxi)
  2. Robert Jamieson included all three fitts in his Popular Ballads and Songs from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce editions (1806). 'Jamieson's edition presents many misreadings and not a few wanton alterations of the text.' The Cambridge MS was the basis of his text. (lxi)
  3. David Laing in 1822 based his edition in Select Remains of the Ancient Popular Poetry of Scotland. Relied on the Lincoln MS, supplemented from the Cambridge. (lxi)
  4. J. O. Halliwell in his Illustrations of the Fairy Mythology of a Midsummer Night's Dream of 1845. According to Murray, Halliwell also used the Cambridge MS, but did a better job of it than Jamieson had. (lxi-lxii)
  5. F. J. Child, 1861, English and Scottish Ballads, reprints and corrects fitt 1 from Laing. (lxii)
  6. The Present Edition (lxii-lxiv)

Collation of MSS. (lxiv-lxviii)

  • A table of five columns, 'showing the lines present and absent in the various MSS., and the actual line in each, which answer to each other and to those numbered in the printed text.'


Notes Textual and Explanatory (lxix-lxxxvi)

  • In which Murray offers commentary on noteworthy or difficult items within the text itself.

Tomas of Ersseldoune (1-47)

  • Fytte I (2-17)
  • Fytte II (18-31) 
  • Fytte III (32-47)


Appendix (48-63)


  1. I (48-51) --
    • The text of 'The Prophecie of Thomas the Rhymer' (1515-1548) as published in "The Whole prophesie of Scotland" by Robert Waldegrave (1603).
  2. II (52-61) --
    • "The Prophisies of Rymour, Beid, and Marlyng" (1515-1525) from Landsdowne MS. 762 and Rawls MS. C. 813.
  3. III (62-63) --
    • "An English Prophecy of Gladsmoor, Sandisford, and Seyton and the Seye" (1549).
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05 September 2017

Evil Trees






A few sessions ago in Exploring The Lord of the Rings we briefly considered how odd it seemed that Old Man Willow was surrounded with such lush growth, when in Tolkien's legendarium evil is usually associated with no-man's-land-like devastation, destruction, and rottenness (as in 'the leprous growths that feed on rottenness',The Passage of the Marshes). Some passages that seemed relevant came to my mind. 
First, when Sam, affected by the gravity of the Ring, imagines himself Samwise the Strong, hero of the Age, at whose command 'the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit'. Luckily his love of his master and his hobbit-sense sober his vision: 'The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.' 
'Swollen' is here the critical word. It suggests that, however beautiful and green Sam's garden might have been, it would have exceeded its due measure and thus become bad. Elsewhere we find it used to suggest that Ugluk's head is too big for his shoulders, and to describe Sam's parched tongue on the slopes of Mt Doom. Then there's the Deeping Stream at the Hornburg, swollen by rain until it overflows its banks. And of course there's Shelob, 'who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her'. And again: 'behind her short stalk-like neck was her huge swollen body, a vast bloated bag, swaying and sagging between her legs.'
The other passage was in Of Aule and Yavanna
... and Yavanna returned to Aulë; and he was in his smithy, pouring molten metal into a mould. 'Eru is bountiful,' she said. 'Now let thy children beware! For there shall walk a power in the forests whose wrath they will arouse at their peril.' 
'Nonetheless they will have need of wood,' said Aulë, and he went on with his smith-work.
It's interesting to note two things here. First Yavanna refers to the 'wrath' of the power that will walk in the forests, but Manwe had just said to her before she returned to Aule that the just anger of these powers (by which of course they mean the Ents) would be something to fear. So proportion is important here. Second Aulë's response is also about balance. Wood is needful. In due measure. 
Turning back from these passages to Old Man Willow, consider his extreme power over the other trees of the Old Forest and his status as the most dangerous of the trees who hated all that went free upon the earth and remembered the time when they were lords. His evil remembers and foresees a dominance as green and growing as the Barrow-wight's foresees a dead sea and a withered land.