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Tolkien and Wales

July 27, 2011

Tolkien and Wales upper coverChristina writes: Since our last post, we have been discussing the production of our new book with our publisher and waiting to see proofs. Wayne, a professional designer since the seventies, has designed and typeset the interior of almost all of our books (excepting only the 50th anniversary Lord of the Rings and The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion), but HarperCollins have ideas too, and the production of illustrated books is always complex.

Otherwise, we have been trying to stay cool in the July heat, keep the garden looking nice, and stay current with our reading. The latter is of course especially hard when two people have varied interests and buy Too Many Books. One book I have read, and Wayne has just begun, is Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity by Carl Phelpstead (University of Wales Press, 2011), and I must say that it has been a long time since I enjoyed a work on Tolkien as much as I did this one.

I opened Tolkien and Wales with some trepidation, fearing that it would echo the claims made by the organizer of last year’s Tolkien Festival in Pontrhydfendigaid that Wales was the source of Tolkien’s Shire. Instead, far from exaggerating the importance of Wales in Tolkien’s life and writings, Phelpstead presents a thoughtful and balanced account. In the first part of his book, he explores Tolkien’s relationship with Wales and the Welsh language, and the connection between Welsh and languages that Tolkien created. For this he draws upon Tolkien’s essays English and Welsh and A Secret Vice and upon pertinent letters by Tolkien. Later, Phelpstead considers the influence of Celtic, not just Welsh, literature on Tolkien’s writings, with specific sections on Arthurian literature and Breton connections.

He treats these topics with a light touch, as an investigation rather than the pursuit of an agenda, refreshingly unlike so many other writers on Tolkien. He makes no outrageous claims, and carefully distinguishes between facts and the likely validity of deductions drawn from those facts. He refrains from building one supposition on top of another, or justifying similarities with phrases such as ‘Tolkien must have read that’, or ‘I can’t believe Tolkien was unaware of this’, or ‘clearly this was the source for’ something he wrote. Although the author is a Reader in English Literature at Cardiff University, his text is relatively free of academic jargon, and even when it dealt with matters in which I have no great expertise (such as the Welsh language and Tolkien’s invented languages), I had no difficulty in following the thread.

Phelpstead has studied primary Tolkien material in the Bodleian, and appears to be well-read altogether in Tolkien’s works and in the literature about him. I cannot think of anything relevant concerning Wales that he has missed, nor did I find much to query factually. Sadly, many of those writing on Tolkien today, even for scholarly journals, appear to make very little effort to find out what has been previously written on their topics, or they look only at recent publications, ignoring valuable research done in the days before Tolkien scholarship (broadly considered) became almost an industry, around the beginning of this millennium. Of course, the current rate of publication of books and articles on Tolkien makes keeping up more difficult and often a chore rather than a pleasure. I look back with nostalgia to the time when a new Tolkien book was an event (collections of essays were especially rare), and it could be read and digested at leisure.

Even worse, many writers do not even take significant primary sources into account. For instance, I have seen recent articles on Farmer Giles of Ham without any reference to the 50th anniversary edition, which has the text of the earliest version and Tolkien’s outline for a sequel; on Smith of Wootton Major in which the author seems unaware of the new edition with Tolkien’s own commentary; and on, say, Tom Bombadil or the influence of Beowulf on ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ in The Lord of the Rings without reference to the relevant chapters in The History of Middle-earth.

In a brief history of criticism of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, Phelpstead notes (p. 99)  Jessica Yates’ belief, published in 1991, that Tolkien must have had firsthand knowledge of the ballad ‘Aotrou Nann hag ar Gorrigan’, published in Breton and French by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in Barzaz-Breiz, a collection of Breton ballads first published in 1839; and he credits Dimitra Fimi in Tolkien Studies IV (2007) with the revelation that Tolkien once owned a copy of the 1846 edition, now in the English Faculty Library at Oxford. Although Fimi may have been the first to publish this fact, it has been known to some Tolkien scholars since 1992, when the English Faculty Library displayed a selection of books from Tolkien’s collection as part of the art exhibition during the Tolkien Centenary Conference. Both volumes of Barzaz-Breiz were shown, one of them open to Tolkien’s inscription dating his purchase of the books in 1922, and the other to the opening of ‘Aotrou Nann hag ar Gorrigan’ with a curator’s label drawing attention to this as an ancestor of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. I remember Jessica Yates telling me about this with great satisfaction, as it confirmed what she had written not long before.

Wayne and I are ourselves very satisfied to note that Phelpstead has made good use of our own writings, particularly The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

Image: Upper cover of Tolkien and Wales by Carl Phelpstead, paperback edition.

  1. Robert Parker permalink
    July 27, 2011 12:51 pm

    When you say, “a note drawing attention to this as a source for The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” do you mean Tolkien wrote this in the book?

  2. July 27, 2011 11:14 pm

    Sorry, as a former museum employee I used ‘note’ to mean a label added by the curator of an exhibition. In this context it does not refer to added writing by Tolkien. I have emended the post to make it clearer. – Christina

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