Thursday, April 24, 2014

SIGURBLÓT: WHAT IS VICTORY?

Sunrise on Iceland's Selfoss waterfall
National Geographic photo
Today is the first day of summer in Iceland, according to the Old Icelandic calendar. Over a thousand years after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity, the first day of summer is still celebrated as a national holiday in the land of the sagas. This is also the day that the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship,” Iceland’s heathen organization) celebrates Sigurblót (“victory sacrifice”), one of the major Ásatrú events of the year.

What is Sigurblót?

In chapter eight of Ynglinga Saga (c1230), Snorri Sturluson writes of the laws established by Odin. These proclamations include a statement on when the three major sacrifices of the year should be made:
Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót. 
There should be sacrifice towards winter for a good year, and in the middle of winter sacrifice for a good crop, a third in summer, that was victory sacrifice.
Modern scholars have questioned whether this passage accurately reflects actual religious practice. In his Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (2001), John Lindow writes that “the summer ceremony, if it was for victory, would coincide with the departure of ships on raiding (and, more mundanely, trading) voyages.” Rudolf Simek also questions the connection between victory and the third blót mentioned in Ynglinga Saga, asserting in his Dictionary of Northern Mythology (1984/1993) that the saga’s system of sacrifices “probably does not correspond to reality as the Spring sacrifice was undoubtedly a sacrifice of fertility.”

However, victory is not necessarily incompatible with either peaceful voyages or fertility, as will be discussed below.

Ásatrú Sigurblót

Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, first allsherjargoði
of the Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland
The Ásatrúarfélagið’s celebration of Sigurblót on the first day of summer is connected to both the annual event mentioned by Snorri and to an important day in the organization’s own history.

Jónína K. Berg, one of the goðar (clergy) of the Ásatrúarfélagið, has written of the group’s founding: 
On 20 April 1972, the first day of summer (a very old heathen festival day), twelve women and twelve men gathered in Reykjavík, in the tower-room of the Hotel Borg, to begin work on the foundation of the Ásatrúarfélagið. At a subsequent meeting a little later the establishment of the Ásatrúarfélagið was formally declared and Sveinbjörn [Beinteinsson] was chosen to be the head, the so-called Allsherjargoði, of this new heathen society in Iceland.
The Ásatrúarfélagið website connects Sigurblót to the first day of summer, to the founding of the organization and to veneration of the twin deities Frey and Freya:
For many centuries, Sigurblót was held on the first day of summer as a sort of national holiday. It is also the date of the establishment of the Ásatrúarfélagið in 1972. Vorblót [spring sacrifice] is specifically dedicated to Frey and Freya, hopes and good life and fertility of the earth.
Like much of what is practiced by today’s followers of Ásatrú, this celebration combines a connection to the ancient past, to tradition, to modern life and to the Norse divinities.

What is victory?

The word sigrblót literally means “victory sacrifice.” However, translations of the Ynglinga Saga passage as temporally far apart as those of Samuel Laing (1844) and Andy Orchard (1997) expand the word victory to “victory in battle” and “victory in war,” respectively.

This editorial expansion led me to wonder how today’s members of the Ásatrúarfélagið define victory. I had a hard time imagining our Icelandic friends gathering together to raise a horn of beer to the crushing of their enemies on the battlefield. I contacted several members to ask about their thoughts on the celebration.

I asked each of them, “In Ásatrú, in this modern religion in this modern age, what does victory mean to you, personally? What is the victory that you are celebrating at Sigurblót in the 21st century?” Their answers are beautiful and inspiring.

Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir
Photo: Ásatrúarfélagið website
Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir is Staðgengill Allsherjargoða (“Deputy High Priestess”) of the Ásatrúarfélagið. You can read my extended 2010 interview with her by clicking here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
For us, victory at this time of year is so clear. Life has won. Summer and growth are back, and life has won over death. 
We see tiny needles of green grass sprouting and hear the singing of the migrating birds that are back in Iceland after the long, dark winter. The children come out to play with bright smiles on their faces, and soon we will see newborn lambs and foals in the meadow. The sun melts away the last snow of the winter. That is how life wins over death. 
The Ásatrúarfélagið was re-established on this day, and that is also victory – life again winning.
Jóhannes A. Levy is well-known to readers of The Norse Mythology Blog. He has contributed to several articles about Icelandic traditions, including the recent one about the survival of heathen traditions in rural Iceland.
For me it is the victory of life and growth (of the summer) over death and stagnation (of the winter).

When you live close up to the northern Arctic Circle, the coming of summer after a long and dark winter tends to have more meaning to you than to those who live more to the south.

There sometimes comes a year when you feel the first day of summer should be two or three weeks later, because in some years the beginning of summer is cold and there is still snow. Iceland is not always Niceland.
Lenka Kovářová is originally from the Czech Republic. After studying theology and history of religion at Charles University in Prague, she moved to Iceland in 2007 to study Old Norse religion at the University of Iceland. She has been an active member of the Ásatrúarfélagið since her move and served as a substitute member of the Ásatrú group’s lögretta (very roughly translated as “board of directors”) from 2010 to 2013.
Summer night in Húsafell
Photgraph by Ásmundur E. Þorkelsson
For every modern Icelander, this day is the first day of summer, and I believe that most of the Ásatrú people feel the same. Longer days means that it is finally possible to spend more time outside and do something new. Hope is in the air – the hope for new things. With that hope follows the idea of victory.

Today, victory might be something small – something like everything going well during the summer or victory over our own laziness and routine. Summer vacation brings travelling and, as I have said, some new things. These new things bring risk, and therefore a wish for victory.

I think that it was similar in the old days. In summer, many people went on expeditions, exploring the world. Exploring sometimes means a fight – not only with an enemy but also with yourself. Victory does not mean only to fight an enemy and win. 
I don’t see all Old Nordic people as furious Vikings – many of them were merchants, explorers, etc. – but they all had in common that they took the risk to do something new. With that risk the wish for victory comes, no matter who the enemy is. It can be a real enemy or our own fear.

The final thing that comes to my mind is that drinking for victory means simply that winter is over and summer wins. I remember that rituals of King Winter vs. King Summer are done in some countries.

The meaning of Sigurblót or victory is probably personal for each of us. None of us declares it to be the only right one, since such a concept is not in Ásatrú. No dogmas here.
Haukur Dór Bragason (right) in his role as Ásatrú goði
Photograph from the Ásatrúarfélagið website

Haukur Dór Bragason joined the Ásatrúarfélagið in 2005. After serving on the lögretta and doing other work for the organization, he became a goði (priest) in 2010 and is now goði for the southern part of Iceland. I plan on conducting an in-depth interview with this deeply thoughtful man later this year.
The word victory in victory blót is a tricky one, and it seems that some people have put a strong meaning in a concept where there probably wasn't one. First of all, sigur (same as sigr in sigrblót) doesn't necessarily mean victory. It can also stand for success, result, achievement, accomplishment, gain and advantage. Sigur- is also a common prefix in Icelandic words and names, where it doesn't necessarily stand for victory
Saying that sigur stands for “victory in war” is a very narrow interpretation. In Sigurdrífumál [the poem “Sayings of Sigfrdrífa” in the Poetic Edda] we have this word, for example in the name Sigrdrífa itself and in stanza 4:
Heill dagr!
Heilir dags synir!
Heil nótt ok nift!
Óreiðum augum
lítið okkr þinig
ok gefið sitjöndum sigr!

Hail day!
Hail sons of day!
Hail night and her offspring!
With placid eyes
behold us here
and give those gathered victory!

Sigr in this context clearly does not have anything to do with military victory in war or combat. Sigrdífa (a.k.a. Brynhildur) is not preparing herself and Sigurd for warfare. She's preparing those who are gathered or sitting there (sitjöndum) for sharing and learning, for giving advice and gaining knowledge. 
Ynglinga Saga states “Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.” The passage doesn't say anything about warfare, the departure of viking ships on raiding, or anything else that has been suggested to have something to do with sigrblót. It could be trading voyages, it could be harvest, it could be a thousand other things.

I can't see Ásatrú as a warrior religion. I see it as a religion of peace that respects all life. For me, the victory on the first day of summer (which is when we have our Sigurblót here in Iceland) is the victory over winter. 
As I write these lines in a cabin, the timber walls make creaking sounds because of the heavy wind outside. It's mid-April, and we have a snowstorm. The wind speed is 90 mph. When I had to go outside to tie down loose things, it was hard to just stand upright. 
I can't wait for winter to be over, can't wait to conquer yet another winter in a country of long and harsh winters. That's my victory in Sigurblót, and I can't even begin to imagine how that victory must have felt in the old days, when people didn't have the luxuries of modern-day life.
Final thoughts

Remains of winter in Straumsvík, Iceland
Photograph by Ásmundur E. Þorkelsson
You might think this is a bit early in the year to celebrate the first day of summer. However, the old-time Icelanders divided the year into only two seasons: winter and summer. Given the weird weather of recent years in Chicago, I’m starting to think they may have been right!

I have my own hopes for victory in the coming year, but I’ll simply say thank you to Jóhanna, Jóhannes, Lenka and Haukur for sharing their insights as I raise a horn to life and peace.

Monday, March 17, 2014

SURVIVAL OF THE OLD WAYS

Vor Siður – newsletter of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”
Recently, while considering what to feature in a new post, I asked our Icelandic friend Kári Pálsson if he had written any articles on Icelandic traditions since his essay on “The Valley of the Gods.” He didn’t have a new piece, but he was kind enough to search for an interesting item through back issues of Vor Siður (“Our Way”), the newsletter of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship,” Iceland’s heathen organization). Since writing his last article, Kári has been elected to the Ásatrú group’s lögretta (very roughly translated as “board of directors”).

The X on the map shows where Agnar was born in 1940
Kári found the following piece by Agnar J. Levy and emailed it to me. I loved it. While seeking permission to translate and post the short article, I found out that Agnar is the father of Jóhannes A. Levy, a friend who has helped me track down Icelandic sources for several articles (including this one). Jóhannes not only gave me permission to post the piece, but he also kindly provided a collection of related information on his father and on rural life in mid-20th-century Iceland.

First, here is my translation of the article. Agnar discusses two customs he remembers from his youth on an Icelandic farm – customs that he thinks reflect elements of ancient heathen belief that survived long after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. One relates to the prohibition of rune-like ice carvings and the other to leaving a hay-offering for elves or gods at harvest time.

Doodles and Elf-Rakes

Original article by Agnar J. Levy appeared in Vor Siður 17, no. 4 (2008)
Translated by Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried for The Norse Mythology Blog
Special thanks to Jóhannes A. Levy and Kári Pálsson for translation advice
Read the original article (in Icelandic) here
Original text © Ásatrúarfélagið

Rock formation near Agnar's birthplace
Photo by Joel Santos
It may in many ways be considered remarkable that the old faith survives in the Icelandic national consciousness in many things that have been, as far as I know, little researched. This can be seen in several work practices and activities, or in the worship of ancient gods – both of which were supposedly abolished long ago. Some traditions have survived in the population until recent years but are now fading significantly or are not known by modern people. However, under close scrutiny, there are many such elements still existing that may have changed to some extent but still have the same basis as ancient practice. An example of this is the custom of having a Yule tree and dancing around it.

I was born in 1940, and I will now tell of two of the most memorable items from my childhood.

The farm where Agnar grew up, sometime after 1940
The first is that, when we children were playing on ice or in snow, it would often happen that we would carve a variety of doodles on the ice or snowdrift. This displeased the older people, who warned us against this and placed a complete ban on such scrawling. We were told that we would write ourselves to the devil with this scratching. We were never punished for this – the criticism was enough – but I heard stories that children had been spanked in the past to make them obey.

Now, much later, when I begin thinking about this in more detail, I think that this could be the remains of the ancient belief in runes. In those days and until recent times, it was considered certain that, if the runes were wrongly carved, they could cause illness or other disaster. I remember examples from stories in the Saga of Egill Skallagrímsson and other sagas. Since it was not easy to stop our idle and futile scribbling, the old devil was mixed up in the matter to make us behave better – and this often worked well.

Young Agnar raking barefoot
The second example is about harvesting hay in late summer. Many had the tradition of leaving uncut the last little bit of the meadow or a little corner patch. This was called the “elf-rake.” This was to help – or even guarantee – that the grass would grow well the next summer. I remember this here as a child, but the practice has since been completely abandoned. It was not possible to determine if it had any effect the next summer. No scientific study was made, however, since it was self-evidently just a superstition.

I think it is obvious that this practice originated in an ancient fertility cult and survived up to the present time, depsite the change of religion. Nobody does such things anymore – or do they? With modern technology and expedited hay harvesting, you will often notice bits of hay accidentally left uncut out in the fields or in the corners. It can therefore be said that the gods still receive their fill, although the farmers give it unintentionally.

Second, here is what Jóhannes was kind enough to write about his father’s childhood and mid-century Icelandic country life. To those of us who live in urban areas today but have parents who were born in rural areas before the mid-point of the last century, this way of life seems both long ago (historically) and very recent (emotionally).

Farm Life in Iceland

Jóhannes' uncle Stefán Jóhannesson on the farm, around 1940
My father’s name is Agnar Rafn J. Levy. He was born on 30 January 1940, when Iceland was still under Danish control. There were approximately only 120,200 Icelanders at that time. The British occupied Iceland 10 May 1940, and their soldiers were more than 25,000 or 20% of the population of Iceland. It would be like having a 600,000-strong foreign army just outside Chicago today.

He was born on a farm in northwest Iceland near Húnaflói. His aunt was a midwife in the area, and when she went to help with his birth, she nearly drowned when her horse went down on the ice on the river. She then had to ride seven kilometers [4.3 miles] in winter temperatures.

Unpaved road in Iceland
Farms were small and most were for subsistence. All agriculture was conducted manually or with horses; machines were little known. Houses and stables in the countryside were made from various matter (turf, wood, stone), and concrete came much later. Roads were bad gravel road – impassable more or less in the wintertime – and they did not reach every farm in the countryside.

An early hand-cranked Icelandic phone
The telephone came in 1947, but not to every farm right away. It was a hand-cranked phone, and the ringing for his farm [before modern telephone numbers] was one long and three short. The telephone line was open to everyone, so everybody could listen to each other. I remember my grandfather listening/spying on his neighbors.

Electricity came in 1968, but not at first to every farm in the countryside; some waited six more years. Before that, my grandfather owned a wind-power plant which was widely used to charge the batteries which were used by radios at that time. People came very far in the country to get them charged.

This list above is only to describe the circumstances of my father’s childhood. I am so lucky to know the remains of the old time which was quickly fading away.

Agnar racing on the track in 1964
My father was an athlete in his early years and participated in sports competitions, both nationally and internationally on behalf of Iceland. He won some prizes and trophies. Besides being a farmer, he was a chairman of the parish committee and magistrate for many years. He was also involved in many county commitees – Building Committee, School Board, Deputy Accountant for the county, and a few more. He is a member of the Iðunn Society, which aims to preserve the tradition of rímur-chanting. He has composed many rímur and poems.

Third, Jóhannes was kind enough to translate this information about a unique photograph of a mid-century elf-rake from the National Museum of Iceland website. Taken nearly twenty years after Agnar’s birth, the photo documents the moment when one of the last survivals of the old practice of leaving a hay-offering to the Powers finally came to an end.

More on Elf-Rakes

In mid-September 1958, a young man takes a picture when an old tradition is followed for the last time on the banks of the Eyjafjarðará, opposite the farm Hrafnagil. There lies a meadow owned by his father, Jóns Júlíussonar the farmer from Munkaþverá, who lives on the part of the farm that housed a monastery for about 400 years.

Burning the final elf-rake on the banks of the Eyjafjaðará (1958)
Photograph from The National Museum of Iceland
Making hay in the meadows is done at this time, but only after moving out the last bales on the trailer – seven with each trip. One haystack is, however, left on the field according to old practice – the last one – and Júlíus brought fire to it so it began to smoke. The young man, named Kristján Hans (Christian Hans), is in early twenties at this time.

This is truly the last haystack on the banks of the river, as his parents quit farming the year after and move to Akureyri. It was a tradition in Munkaþverá to leave the last stack on the banks and burn it, or at least from the time that the family of Jóns began to farm shortly after 1880. This custom was known on several farms in Eyjafjörður. With the new techniques and methods of hay-gathering, this ancient custom died out, probably around 1960.

Engjafang (“meadow portion”) was also called dreifarfang (“scattered portion”), englarök (“angel-rake”) and álfkonufang (“elf-lady-rake”).

Jóhannes adds that “Icelandic folk tales and fairy tales collected by Jón Árnason say that people should avoid gathering the last hay bundle, or else the hay will not last the winter and grass growth will be less the following year.” As Agnar wrote in his article, these ideas seem to be remnants of an old belief in the importance of offering a portion of the harvest to elves or gods.

Finally, Jóhannes made some comments on krumsprang, the word his father used for the etchings he and his friends made on the ice as children.

More on Doodles

Agnar on the farm, sometime after 1950
The word krumsprang has been known in the Icelandic language since at least the mid-19th century. The oldest example is from 1854. The Icelandic Dictionary (2002) defines it as “ornamental hooks in writing, irregular scrabble.” In the book Íslensk Orðsifjabók (“Icelandic Etymology”), Ásgeirs Blöndal Magnusson states that the noun krumsprang is a loanword from Old Danish, but in modern Danish the word is krumspring. The Danish word is again derived from the German Krumsprung, composed of the words Krumm (“hooked or curved”) and Sprung (“jump or skip”).

I say the right translation of the word krumsprang in this case would be doodle.

Alles klar! On the advice of Jóhannes, that’s the word I use in the translation.

And in the end...

Banks of the Danube in Wolfingen, where my dad played as a kid
Much of what Jóhannes and his father wrote reminds me of the stories my own father told me of his childhood during the 1930s in Wolfingen, a German farm colony in an area that later became part of Yugoslavia. The town had been settled in the 18th century by Donauschwaben (“Danube Swabians”), Germans who had floated down the Danube to the rich farmland. I’ve written about remnants of heathen beliefs in my father’s Catholic village here and here.

The Seigfried family home in Wolfingen
My dad, like Jóhannes’ father, remembered when his farming village got electricity, when the first automobile showed up, when he first saw so many elements of modern life that we now take completely for granted. His family lived in the oldest house in town – the only one left with a thatched roof. Embarrassed at having an antiquated home, my grandfather planned to tear it down and made a set of bricks to build a new place. The Second World War interrupted his building plans, however, and our family was forced out of their village and into an anti-German extermination camp by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavian Communist Partisans. My grandparents never saw their birthplace again.

Kári has also told me about the wonderful stories he has heard from his grandparents about the old rural ways of living. All three of us realize the great gift we have been given by being lucky enough to have had a personal connection to those who lived in a time that now seems so long ago and far away from modern urban life.

Agnar J. Levy in 2008, around the time he wrote the article
Jóhannes’ father is still working on his farm today. Kári recently lost his grandfather, but his grandmother continues to tell him stories of her youth. My own father died on my birthday in 2006, so I can’t ask him all the questions I still have about life in the old country. I have to cast my memory back and try to piece together elements from all the stories he told me around our kitchen table when I was growing up.

If you have people in your own family with stories to tell, take time now to listen. If you don’t learn the family traditions and pass them on to your own children, this beautiful heritage of oral tradition will be lost forever.

Friday, February 28, 2014

LETTERS FROM THE ELF CHURCH

All photographs in this article were taken by Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, who also provided the captions. She has kindly allowed me to use them on The Norse Mythology Blog.

Sunrise seen from inside the elf church
Last December 22, the Associated Press posted a story titled “Iceland’s Hidden Elves Delay Road Project.” It discussed how protests in Iceland had temporarily halted construction of a road through the Gálgahraun lava field on the Álftanes peninsula – an area that was declared officially protected in 2009 – until the country’s supreme court could rule on the case. The story downplayed the fact that environmentalists had been publicly battling the project since its inception. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on the idea that “elf advocates” was leading the protests because the construction was invading an area inhabited by elves and containing an elf church.

The Associated Press item was picked up and reposted by news agencies around the world, with unfortunate results. Here in Chicago, WGN-TV News used images of the cartoon Keebler Elves to illustrate their giggly coverage of the story. National Public Radio’s website repackaged the AP article as “Highway In Iceland May Be Sidetracked By Elves” (it seems that we’re now capitalizing prepositions) and illustrated it with an image of Liv Tyler as Arwen from The Lord of the Rings. Apparently, they’re following the lead of Public Radio International, who used a photo of someone dressed up as Marvel’s movie version of Thor to illustrate a story on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs finally allowing Thor’s hammer as a religious symbol on government grave markers.

For news agencies the world over, the AP item was just too cute to pass up. Who wouldn’t want to tell the story of a simple island folk and their quaint belief in invisible beings? It’s much easier than doing nasty time-consuming things like researching and interviewing sources. It’s also much easier than the bothersome chore of learning about minority faith traditions and treating them with the same respect as popular religions.

Altar of the holy place of the elves
Icelandic media immediately challenged the reporting of Jenna Gottlieb, the author of the Associated Press news item. The Reykjavík Grapevine ran a story declaring “Environmentalists Not Elf Lobby,” pointing out that they and other Icelandic news outlets had been covering the environmental protests for months – and that Ms. Gottlieb had created an article by “cobbling together quotes from notable figures.” Colleagues of mine in Iceland told me that, for instance, Gottlieb’s quotes from University of Iceland’s Prof. Terry Gunnell were “old and taken out of context.” In the United States, The Wire ran a story summarizing the response: “Iceland’s ‘Elf Lobby’ Isn’t Real, According to Icelanders.”

The AP story quoted two sentences about elves from Iceland’s Raghnildur Jónsdóttir and referred to her as “a self-proclaimed ‘seer.’” This was pounced on by writers who struck out against Gottlieb’s article. Icelandic Review Online called Ragnhildur her a “self-confessed elf believer” in an article asking “How Stupid are the Icelandic People?The Wire singled her out for ridicule in their coverage without bothering to mention her name; they simply and nastily wrote of “loony elf ‘seers’ trying to stop construction of a road being built.”

All of this is a bit strange. The fundamental premise of the original AP story is that “elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula.” However, Gottlieb does not quote any “elf advocate” involved in the protest – except for the two sentences from Ragnhildur.

In its response, Icelandic Review Online simply states, “The story is false” – but didn’t seem to have bothered contacting Ragnhildur for her input. The Wire, while criticizing Gottlieb’s journalistic methods, shows no sign that it conducted a single interview of its own; the piece was written by “cobbling together quotes” just as much as the AP story was. The Reykjavík Grapevine – the originator of the “cobbling together” accusation – likewise created its response by sticking together existing quotes (including a Facebook status update) instead of doing any original interviews.

Where are Gottlieb’s interviews with others in the supposed group of “elf advocates”? Was the entire premise of the story built on a two-sentence interview with Ragnhildur? Why didn’t any of the writers criticizing the AP piece bother to interview Ragnhildur for their own stories? Would the Associated Press have identified a Catholic priest involved in the protest as “a self-proclaimed ‘holy man’”? Would Icelandic Review Online refer to a Jewish demonstrator as a “self-confessed Yahweh believer”? Would The Wire refer to a Muslim protestor as “loony” and put imam in sarcastic quotation marks?

A light-elf in the Gálgahraun lava field
I have corresponded with Ragnhildur for several years, and I met her in at Þingvellir in Iceland after participating in the sumarsólstöðublót (summer solstice ceremony) of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) in 2010. As Iceland’s leading elf specialist, she leads elf walks through Álfagarðurinn (“elf garden”) in Hafnarfjörður and creates original art based on her contact with the elves. I wrote about her public work when covering a 2012 “Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland” that also involved road construction and elf habitats.

Back in December, I thought that it might be a good idea if someone actually asked Raghnhildur what she thought of the coverage. I emailed her a link to the Associated Press story and congratulated her on the successful halting of the construction project. Here is her reply:
December 25, 2013

Hello and thank you, Karl Erik.

Yes, it is a wonderful story, but I am so sorry to say that it is not completely true. The Road Administration is still working on the road. They are halfway through the lava field with the road, but the elf church and their holy area is still in place.

The elves (with me as their speaker in the human world) have come to an agreement with the Road Administration and Garðabær’s mayor to move a known elf church called Ófeigskirkja a few meters out of the way of the road into a safe place next to a very sacred place to the elves. The humans will make sure nothing of this will be damaged and it will be marked as an elf holy area.

I know it will be too hard for the humans in charge to stop the road from being made, but they are at least willing to help the elves now as they can, to make the best of the situation as it is. I am very happy that the mayor and the Road Administration are willing to do this now; it is a good step. This project of moving the Ófeigskirkja is a very large project, plus making sure the whole area is safe and protected from then on. I am sure you will hear about that when it happens.

Best elf wishes to you and thank your interest. Thank you for all you are doing.

– Ragnhildur
I told her that I would like to post her letter, and she was gracious enough to agree. The next day, however, she wrote:
December 26, 2013 
Dear Karl, 
I will have to ask you something. I am so sorry, but something came up, and it would be better to wait a little bit before announcing it. I need some time before I can talk about the protection of the elf church. I am really sorry. But I can say, “I have a good reason to believe the holy place of the elves will be saved and protected.”
Six weeks later, Ragnhildur wrote again:
February 7, 2014
Hello Karl, I promised to tell you about the protection in the Gálgahraun lava field. I have now met again with Magnús from the Road Administration and some of the men working on the road. They showed me drawings with changes of the road where it goes by the side of the elf church (holy place). They are going to move one known elf church (more like a chapel) out of the way of the road. It will be placed a few meters away, right beside the main holy place that we call Elf Church. One more elf rock called Grænhóll (Green Hill) is also being saved.

The road is going to be four meters narrower while passing this area of three rocks. It will be fenced off from the road, and pathways will be leading to the area from another direction. The road being narrower means that the road itself is the same width but the area beside the road [i.e., the shoulder] is made narrower.

Anyway, wanted to tell you this. Thank you for your interest in this, Karl.

Best wishes,
Ragnhildur
She sent another update this week:
February 25, 2014

I have heard from the man Magnús at Vegagerði (Road Administration). They are going to move the Ófeigskirkja in the middle of March. This rock called Ófeigskirkja – a kind of an elf chapel – is in the middle of the road they are making. They will move it out of the way to a nearby, almost flat lava. It is right next to the main elf church or holy place.

That means the two holy places – high energy places – will both be saved and protected there, next to each other. There is the third rock, known as Grænhóll; it is very close also.
Finally, she was kind enough to send additional photographs of the area with detailed explanations.
February 26, 2014 
Hello Karl, 
I am sending you two photos from the sacred place in Gálgahraun lava field.

This first one shows the new road. In front to the left is Ófeigskirkja. It is an “elf chapel,” so to speak. The elves told me humans and elves said a prayer there before or while going through the rough lava field. This big rock is in the middle of the new road, but the Road Administration and the mayor of Garðabær are making changes. They will move this rock over the road where you see the dog. The main elf church is in the back to the right, with a flag on top.
The second photo shows the main elf church or holy place. This beautiful place is so very special and has great, very high energy. The beings there tell me it has been a holy place for them for thousands of years, since long before humans arrived here – and they will protect it. Ófeigskirkja will be put down right next to this one. The road is narrower where it goes past this area. They will fence it off from the road and put up signs to say what it is. If the elves had done nothing, this whole area would have been destroyed.
I hope this helps. Next month they will move Ófeigskirkja and we will probably have something in the news then, at least. I will let you know and I will post about it on Facebook. Best wishes for you and thank you for your interest.

– Ragnhildur
There you have it, gentle readers. Make up your own minds about the original story, the critiques, the letters and the photographs. I simply thought that the professional journalists on both sides of the issue could use a bit of reminding about original research, speaking to sources and following up on a story as it develops after the initial AP report. My faith in modern journalism keeps getting lower as, for example, I repeatedly catch reporters in the mainstream media who are writing articles by literally cutting and pasting from Wikipedia articles.

I’m not sure if this is a problem that saturates all areas of journalism today, or if it’s localized to religion reporting. Journalists who cover the religion beat seem particularly perplexed when confronted with any belief systems outside the Abrahamic mainstream. I would love to see (to use a tired but apt phrase) fair and balanced coverage of minority faith traditions, but it’s sometimes hard to keep my hopes up – especially when we have shoddy reporting like that surrounding this particular story.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

TOLKIEN ARCHIVES FIELD TRIP, Part Two

Click here for Part One.

Tolkien's background materials for Middle-earth

Tolkien made many charts and graphs to help him keep track of all the complicated elements of The Lord of the Rings. In addition to the maps discussed in Part One, we were shown a variety of materials Tolkien created as aids to his writing. They demonstrate that he was continually working out background information for his fictional world. Some of these pieces, like the page we saw titled “Pronunciation of Words and Names,” appear in the published book; others were created solely for Tolkien’s own planning purposes.

Tolkien in his study as a Fellow at Oxford's Merton College on December 2, 1955

Tolkien wrote out a handwritten “spreadsheet” tracking the movements of characters in the novel, cross-referencing actions with dates and moon phases. He created a Shire calendar and a conversion chart to work out how the Shire calendar worked together with the modern calendar and those of Gondor and Imladris (Rivendell).

These materials were created using a wide variety of paper sources. Tolkien’s charts to keep track of moon phases were written on the back of a printed air raid warden form. While performing his volunteer duties as an air raid warden during World War II, he would keep track of actual moon phases as reference material for his fictional calendars. Some holographs were written on the back of student papers. Likewise, his chart of hobbit measurement systems was written on the back of a menu from a faculty cafeteria. Hobbit measuring is, naturally enough, based on the foot – distances are measured by a step, a toe and a nail.

While our archivist hosts connected Tolkien’s use of these scraps of paper to wartime paper shortages, I think that this is only part of the story told by these particular pieces. In 1999, Iceland’s Morgunblaðið newspaper published an interview with Arndís Þorbjarnardóttir, an Icelandic woman who had served as Tolkien’s Icelandic au pair starting in 1930 and lived with the family as Tolkien was starting to write The Hobbit. Arndís remembered that
[Tolkien] took lots of ideas from Icelandic folk stories… and he really believed that all of nature was alive. He lived in a kind of adventure fantasy world.
The Professor & the Ents
The last sentence is the important one. The idea that Tolkien sometimes had his head in the clouds is corroborated by the nature and number of his written works. His scholarly output is completely dwarfed by the amount of material he created for his original mythology, and it’s clear that his heart was in Middle-earth.

One reading of his short story “Leaf by Niggle” is as an allegory (despite his supposed loathing of the device) of his own creative process. In the story, the artist Niggle enters into a world that he himself created (or sub-created) through his painting. It’s not hard to picture Tolkien’s mind wandering to Middle-earth during his long nights as an air warden or during a particularly tedious academic lecture at the faculty club, and it’s not a stretch to think that he would simply start working out a technical problem of his mythology on the back of whatever paper came to hand.

Deleted scenes and unpublished materials from The Lord of the Rings

The archivists selected some materials to show us that not everything that Tolkien originally intended to be part of The Lord of the Rings made it into the final published version. As if the multiple endings of the novel weren’t enough, Tolkien wrote a further epilogue that took place fifteen years after the final scene and featured Sam explaining his adventure to his children.

Gandalf crowns Aragorn as King Elessar
Art by the Brothers Hildebrandt
As he did with the pages from the Book of Mazarbul, Tolkien created two facsimile versions of a letter from King Elessar (Aragorn) to Sam – one in English and one in Elvish. The letter refers to “Aragorn Strider Arathornsson the Elfstone: King of Gondor and Arnor, Lord of the Westlands.” Interestingly, Tolkien uses the form Arathornsson instead of the “son of Arathorn” formulation familiar from the published novel. The patronymic form is, of course, common in the Icelandic sagas that Tolkien so loved and that so influenced his work. This method of generating a second name for men (father’s name + son) is still used in Iceland today; women are named slightly differently (father’s name + dóttir).

We also saw the holograph of what is perhaps the novel’s best-known deleted scene, “The Quest of Erebor.” Along with his rewriting of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter for the second edition The Hobbit, this is one of the clearest examples of Tolkien’s attempt to retroactively change the continuity of what was essentially a children’s book to line it up with the events in The Lord of the Rings.

In “The Quest of Erebor,” our heroes relax “in a fair house in Minas Tirith” after the crowning of Aragorn as King Elessar. Gimli asks Gandalf how it happened that everything had worked out so fortuitously with the dwarves and Bilbo during their mission to regain Erebor, the Lonely Mountain:
But who wove the web? I do not think I have ever considered that before. Did you plan all this then, Gandalf? If not, why did you lead Thorin Oakenshield to such an unlikely door? To find the Ring and bring it far away into the West for hiding, and then choose the Ringbearer – and to restore the Mountain Kingdom as a mere deed by the way: was that not your design?
Versions of this chapter are now available as part of Unfinished Tales and The Annotated Hobbit, so I leave it to you to read Gandalf’s answer. In any case, this chapter is a clear example of what we now call retconning. Tolkien’s drafts of The Hobbit show that this later explanation was absolutely not in his mind when he composed the earlier work.

Fragments from The Silmarillion

First edition cover of The Silmarillion (1977)
The archives at Marquette only contain two fragments from The Silmarillion, a book which I have always thought of as the Edda of Middle-earth. They were included by accident in a shipment of Tolkien’s manuscripts sent to Milwaukee in the 1950s. Christopher Tolkien used these fragments when writing his record of The Silmarillion’s creation as part of his History of Middle-earth. The fragment that we saw was the “Song of Ainulindalë,” the creation myth of Middle-earth. It doesn’t get any more epic than that.

Interestingly, this draft of the first section of what was to become the posthumous Silmarillion compiled by Christopher Tolkien begins with the words “In the beginning.” This obvious reference to Genesis does not appear in the published version, but it’s interesting that Tolkien intended to begin his work with these words – at some point in the writing process, at least. In the end, the dedicated Catholic consciously de-Biblified the opening of what is arguably his major work on the religious beliefs of the inhabitants of Middle-earth.

Letter from Horus Engels to Tolkien (November 1, 1946)

Letter to Tolkien from German artist Horus Engels
as reproduced in The Annotated Hobbit
One of my favorite bits of Tolkien-related art was framed and hanging on the wall in the meeting room of the archives. This very large paper (think of a movie poster turned sideways) was sent to Tolkien by the German artist Horus Engels. The German text is handwritten in red ink, but the wonderful thing about the letter is the fact that Engels drew scenes from The Hobbit on the page. The drawings feature Gandalf blowing colored smoke rings, Bilbo attempting to pick the pocket of one of the trolls, a dwarf smoking a pipe under a plant, and Bilbo speaking with Gollum.

The scene with Gollum shows Bilbo stands at the edge of the underground lake as Gollum stares at him while sitting in his boat. Gollum’s island is visible in the distance. The striking thing is that Gollum is portrayed as much, much larger than Bilbo; he’s more like an obese, green, amphibian troll than he is like a hobbit. Remember, though, that this letter was written nearly eight full years before the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Although Peter Jackson would have us think of The Hobbit as the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, we should remember that Tolkien had no intent while writing the first book that he would ever create a sequel. There is no sense of Gollum as a warped hobbit in the original 1937 edition; the narrator simply states, “I don't know where he came from, nor who or what he was.” Gollum’s backstory as Sméagol the Stoor hobbit was created for The Lord of the Rings. So, Engels can be forgiven for his strange (in retrospect) image of Gollum.

Letter from Rayner Unwin to Tolkien

This letter from Tolkien’s publisher ends, “I hope Gondor is all it should be and that you will return refreshed.” Tolkien and his daughter had been in Venice, and Tolkien had commented that the aesthetic of that Italian city was “Gondorian” – an interesting fact to keep in mind when reading The Lord of the Rings and trying to picture the locale as Tolkien himself imagined it.

Why the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection isn’t available online

During World War II, Tolkien used whatever bits of paper he could get to write on. Much of it was very poor quality stock. Due to its fragile nature, researchers mainly work with microfilm and photocopies of the manuscripts – unless a detailed look is needed to examine such things as faint pencil marks. The library owns two complete microfilm copies of the entire Tolkien archives that were photographed in 1983.

The microfilm reader was seen as technology of the future in 1935
The items in the archives have not been digitized. According to our hosts, digital is not considered a good means of preservation; microfilm is still considered the better format for long-term storage. Amy Cooper Cary, Head of Special Collections and University Archives, told us that no one can guarantee that any digital material will still be readable in ten years (due to endless format changes) but that the stable shelf-life of microfilm is 500 years.

This may be true, but it drastically limits access to the archives to those with enough cash and free time to transport themselves to Milwaukee. I worked extensively with microfilm while writing my doctoral treatise on Wilbur Ware. Microfilm is not easy to use, it’s not searchable (except by laborious manual scanning-through of page after page after page after page), and it requires the viewer to be physically present at the archives in question.

This insistence on microfilm seems a bit backward at a time when museums are creating free online digital 3D scans of objects like the Overchurch Runic Stone and organizations like the National Library of Finland are working to digitize their manuscript collections in order to “make the fragments accessible to both scholars and the general public without endangering the originals and without the difficulty and great care required in handling them.”

Christopher Tolkien is quite outspoken on his father's legacy
Our guides told us that “Christopher [Tolkien] views his father not as a writer of modern fantasy, but as a scholar.” I questioned both this remark and the above statement about the longevity of digital materials versus microfilm. I believe that Christopher says this. I believe that microfilm is a relatively stable medium. However, the staff at the archives was very strict that we were not allowed to take photos of any of the material on display – not because photos would damage the objects, but because the Tolkien estate controls the copyright of all material in the archives. Therein lies the crux of the matter.

This copyright clause was part of the deal with the original sale of the materials to Marquette. Scholars may come to the archives and study the manuscripts at the discretion of the library, but the estate has control over what may be excerpted or reproduced in published works. This fact places a bit of a shadow over the insistence that poor longevity of digital material precludes making the archives available online.

If Christopher Tolkien really wants his father to be seen as a scholar and a creator of serious works – and not simply a maker of revenue-generating pop culture product – he needs to loosen restrictions on the archival material and make it more readily available to scholars around the world. I fully understand that we are dealing with the son of the creator, and I support the idea that the family deserves to reap the financial benefits of Tolkien’s creativity.

However, if Tolkien scholarship is really to grow and thrive, a time must come when the family loosens the reins on the material and makes it more freely available for researchers worldwide. If Tolkien’s works are to be studied as great literature – not as genre fiction – scholars must be allowed to treat the holdings of the archives as literary-historical documents, not as the private property of one man’s family. Scholarship on Richard Wagner could not come into its own until his widow Cosima Wagner’s grip on the material was loosened. We may have to wait a while yet for Tolkien scholarship to come into its own.

Fathers & Daughters

After our tour of the archives, we all had lunch together in one of the library’s meeting rooms. Each person in the group introduced himself or herself and said what class or Tolkien Society he or she belonged to. Each person then explained what drew him or her to Tolkien’s works.

Students from Norse religion course, Newberry Library class on The Hobbit’s mythic
sources, Carthage College Tolkien Society & Wheaton College Tolkien Society

Strikingly, nearly all of the women said that their fathers had introduced them to Tolkien’s works when they were little girls, and that the Middle-earth legendarium continues to either be something that they share with their fathers or which reminds them of their dads when they can’t be together. Given the often-made charge that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are boys’ club affairs (which isn’t entirely untrue), it was both surprising and moving to hear so many testimonials of how Tolkien’s works connected fathers and daughters.

Another interesting item of discussion was the fact that teachers at Wheaton College seem to approach Tolkien’s fictional works as centered on Christian mythology and ethics. In my own courses, while acknowledging Tolkien’s Catholic worldview and beliefs, we spend our time investigating his use and transformation of the pre-Christian mythology of Northern Europe. The Hobbit, especially, almost reads like a tribute to Tolkien’s favorite northern sources.

Students model the official Tolkien society t-shirts
of Carthage College (left) & Wheaton College (r)
After this discussion, Laura Schmidt (archivist at the Marion E. Wade Center and staff advisor for the Wheaton College Tolkien Society) was kind enough to invite me to present a talk on “’Riddles, Runes and Icelandic Dwarves’: The Hobbit and Norse Mythology” as the 2015 Scholar’s Corner Lecture at Wheaton College. I greatly look forward to the discussion that this talk will spark.

I would like to thank Laura for inviting my students and me to participate in the field trip, and I heartily salute the Marquette archivists for putting together this private showing for us. It was a wonderful experience for students from all three institutions. Skál!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

TOLKIEN ARCHIVES FIELD TRIP, Part One

Please don't smoke in the library, Professor Tolkien.
On October 26, I led a group of my students on a field trip to see the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Like the Viking ship field trip earlier in the month, the excursion was open to students in my Norse religion class at Carthage College, members of the Carthage College Tolkien Society that I started last year, and students from my class at Chicago’s Newberry Library on “The Hobbit: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mythic Sources.” The trip was organized by Laura Schmidt, archivist at the Marion E. Wade Center and staff advisor for the Wheaton College Tolkien Society. She kindly invited me to help set up the joint trip for my students from the two institutions and the members of her Wheaton College group.

History & holdings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection

In 1956, Marquette University hired Wales-born William B. Ready as director of libraries and gave him the task of collecting materials for the school’s new Memorial Library, which had been completed in 1953. Ready had come to the United States after World War II and worked at Stanford University before heading Marquette’s libraries. He believed that each institution should have a collection policy focusing on specific specialties. Since Marquette is a Jesuit university, he decided to focus on Roman Catholic writers and set his sights on acquiring the works of Tolkien, a Catholic author then heading into the mania of American popularity that gave rise to the “Frodo Lives!” phenomenon in the 1960s.

In his first year, Ready contacted Tolkien through a London antiquarian book dealer named Bertram Rota. As no institution had ever asked to purchase Tolkien’s manuscripts, the author quickly agreed to sell the material to Marquette for £1500. Using the retail price index, this amount would be approximately £30,000 today, or nearly $50,000. At the time, it was about equal to a year’s salary for Tolkien.

Marquette University's Memorial Library
In 1957, the materials relating to The Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham and Mr. Bliss arrived in Wisconsin. Tolkien was scheduled to speak at Marquette during the year that these first manuscripts were delivered but canceled due to his wife’s health issues. In 1958, the manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings arrived. Tolkien canceled another scheduled Milwaukee talk in 1959, again due to his wife’s condition.

In 1965, Tolkien wrote to William A. Fitzgerald, the new library director. The American publisher Ace Books was releasing a pirated paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, which had only been available in hardcover to that point. Tolkien and his publishers had decided to come out with their own authorized paperback edition to compete with the bootleg. While revising the text for the new publication, Tolkien had found further original manuscripts of the work. He told Marquette’s library director that these manuscripts should come to the archives. However, Christopher Tolkien would eventually use these manuscripts while compiling books six through nine of his monumental History of Middle-earth, and these earliest drafts of The Lord of the Rings would not be forwarded on to Marquette until the 1980s.

Today, the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection is a wonderful resource that holds the original drafts and manuscripts for The Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham and The Lord of the Rings. The archives also hold an extensive collection of published editions of Tolkien’s works, books about Tolkien, fan fiction, fanzines and recordings. A permanent display of reproductions of various Tolkien manuscripts and illustrations greets the 800 to 900 people who visit each year, including both fans and researchers.

Although I had hoped to see Tolkien’s manuscripts for The Silmarillion and his original Middle-earth artwork, those are now housed at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University along with his personal and academic papers. The only art in the original sale to Marquette are the marginal drawings Tolkien made on the manuscripts themselves. When temporarily stumped as to how he should describe a locale that his characters had wandered into, Tolkien sometimes sketched the image on the manuscript page in order to crystallize his vision before continuing with the text. Some of these small illustrations are elaborate and colorful enough to give the pages the glamor of illuminated medieval manuscripts.

Bill Fliss and Amy Cooper Cary welcome us to the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection
In addition to Tolkien’s holographs (manuscripts in the author’s own hand), the collection contains typescripts and page proofs with his written corrections. There are nearly 10,000 pages of manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings and over 1,500 pages of The Hobbit. There are 201 pages of manuscripts of Farmer Giles of Ham, originally told by Tolkien as a tale to his family. The collection also holds sixty-one pages of manuscripts for Mr. Bliss, an illustrated children’s book not published until nearly a decade after Tolkien’s death.

Our student group was greeted by archivist Bill Fliss and Amy Cooper Cary, Head of Special Collections and University Archives. They had prepared a wonderful display for our private visit that featured some of the most impressive items in their vast collection. They explained the significance of each piece to the group then answered questions as we slowly filed by to get close-up views of the items. What follows are brief descriptions of the pieces that we saw.

Original printer’s rendering of first edition dust jacket of The Hobbit

We didn't see Tolkien's original art for The Hobbit cover,
but we did see the original printer's rendering
The archives hold the early page proofs of The Hobbit – the earliest printed edition in a series of unbound folios, complete with Tolkien’s list of initial corrections of revisions. Always tinkering, Tolkien introduced new text onto supposedly “final” page proofs. Although the archives have Tolkien’s original watercolor and ink illustration for the cover, it has unfortunately been damaged. We were shown the first rendering by the printer.

Holograph of The Hobbit, Chapter 5: “Riddles in the Dark”

This was a wonderful thing for my students to see. In my Norse religion course, we study the poem Vafþrúðnismál (“Vafthrudnir's Sayings”), which features a wisdom contest between Odin and a wise (yet dangerous) giant that was one of Tolkien’s models for the competition of Bilbo and Gollum. While working on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien changed some elements of this chapter to line it up with his new conception of Bilbo’s ring as the One Ring in the later book. He sent the updated version of chapter five to his publisher in 1947 but received no reply; the publisher quietly incorporated the changes into the new edition of 1951 without notifying the author.

Original handwritten title page of The Lord of the Rings

On this first draft, the work’s original title – The Magic Ring – is crossed out and changed to the name we know. We also saw a later, more elegantly crafted title page with the final title in both runes and tengwar (Tolkien’s elf-script). Although Tolkien had completed his draft of The Lord of the Rings in 1949, the final version did not see print for another five years.

Page with the “One Ring” poem from The Lord of the Rings

Although Tolkien’s mother had taught him calligraphy, his handwriting is often rushed and illegible. We also saw various drafts that showed different stages in the composition and revision of the poem.

Reproductions of six different versions of the first page of The Lord of the Rings

One of Tolkien's many attempts at writing
a first page for The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien famously wrote his way into his magnum opus. In other words, he did not set out with a clearly defined plan but developed and changed his ideas as he composed the early parts of the book. When Tolkien first introduced the Black Rider, for example, he originally had no idea who the figure was. Eventually, of course, he connected him to Bilbo’s ring.

Even Tolkien’s ideas about the ring itself were not solidified early in the writing process, and the idea of a ruling ring only developed slowly. In a 1938 holograph that was shown to us, Tolkien wrote questions and answers as he thought through what the ring could be. One simple but telling question: “Necromancer?”

Months later, possibly in 1939, another of Tolkien’s questions to himself shows the road he was beginning to travel: “Why did Dark Lord desire it so?” Below, in pencil, he wrote a description of the full powers of the ring. As the archivist Bill Fliss remarked to us, this was an aha! moment.

Some chapters, such as the one featuring the introduction of Treebeard, pop out in almost final form. Some characters, such as Faramir, appear out of nowhere in the manuscripts as fully formed products of quick inspiration. In other cases, such as the chapter with Strider’s first appearance, Tolkien agonized over small sections of material for years. Originally, the man known as Strider was a hobbit with the porcine name of Trotter. Not the most epic character, his summation of the Black Riders in an early holograph was, “They give me the creeps.”

Trotter disappeared from the Middle-earth mythology when Tolkien decided to split Boromir into two characters: the Boromir we all know and the Strider who becomes Aragorn. While explaining these changes to the characters, Mr. Fliss referred to Tolkien as “the patron saint of revision.” What is so interesting about the materials in the archives is that visitors can actually watch Tolkien’s creative process as it unfolds over time. By changing Trotter to Strider and creating the backstory of Aragorn, Tolkien was able to connect the character to the fall of Númenor and other older legends of his created world – or, as Tolkien would have said, his sub-created world. As an ardent Catholic intellectual, Tolkien believed that the creator of fictional worlds was a sub-creator, as only the Christian God could truly create.

Drawing of the Doors of Durin

Tolkien's early art for the West-gate of Moria
This was an early, less ornate version of the West-gate of Moria than that which appears in The Lord of the Rings. It shows the two trees of Valinor in simpler form than as published, with moons connected to their tops. The hammer blasts little bits of metal from the anvil – a detail not seen in the final version.

Runes of Balin’s Tomb

Tolkien wrote these on strips of paper with dots between the runic letters, in the style of historical Old Norse runic inscriptions on stone. Translated, they read (as in the published book) “Balin, Son of Fundin, Lord of Moria.” My Norse religion students especially enjoyed seeing this; Tolkien’s dwarvish runes are based on the Anglo-Saxon runic futhorc, and we study runes in class during our unit on Odin.

Pages from the Book of Mazarbul

These were some of the items I was most looking forward to seeing. Tolkien himself created facsimiles of pages from the dwarvish book found by the Fellowship of the Ring as they make their way through the mines of Moria. We saw several drafts of the pages. Tolkien first wrote the text out in English before translating it into dwarvish runes and tengwar script for the facsimiles. Perhaps the nicest element of the simulated pages is the scrawl of the final elf-letters spelling out “They are coming.”

"They are coming."
Tolkien’s great love for Beowulf shines through in these facsimiles. He designed them to look burned, as the pages of the Beowulf manuscript were burned in the fire at the Ashburnham House at Westminster in 1731. Tolkien had worked with facsimiles of the Beowulf manuscript as well as working with the book that St. Boniface held up to defend himself while being martyred. The sword-marks from Boniface’s martyrdom can still be seen on the manuscript. Yes, the same St. Boniface who cut down Thor’s Oak as part of his efforts to convert the heathen Germans. Tolkien was clearly impressed by the sense of history embedded in these ancient manuscripts and sought to create imaginary manuscripts from his own Middle-earth with the same sense of historicity.

Pencil drawing of Orthanc

Isengard and Orthanc
This was another early drawing, this time of the dark tower used as base of operations by the wizard Saruman during the War of the Ring.

Sketches and maps on holograph pages

“Sketch of pass between cliffs (Cirith Ungol)” and “The Tower of Kirith Ungol” (the variant spelling is Tolkien’s) are both small drawings on pages of manuscript text for The Lord of the Rings. As mentioned earlier, Tolkien sometimes drew directly onto his manuscript pages when he was stuck at a point in the story and needed to visualize an element he was trying to describe. While writing the chapter titled “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” Tolkien sketched a map onto the page of text and labeled it “Sketch of Route.” In a 1964 BBC interview, Tolkien said, “I had maps of course. If you're going to have a complicated story you must work to a map, otherwise you can never make a map of it afterwards.”

Holograph of The Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter 6: “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”

I’ve written before about the role of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings, so it was very exciting to see the original manuscript of the great scene of battle between Éowyn and the Witch-king of Angmar. We were also shown a pen-written holograph with penciled-over revisions in addition to a typescript with revisions in pen.

Drafts of The Lord of the Rings, Book VI, Chapter VIII: “The Scouring of the Shire”

Our hosts picked this particular chapter to show how complicated Tolkien’s writing process could be, and how he continued to change his mind about key elements until the book literally went to the printer. The stages for this particular chapter included:
holograph notes
rough draft
draft in fairer hand
typed version
galley proofs
Galley proofs are usually simply checked by the author for mistakes before going to print. Tolkien, however, used the review process as an opportunity to make a fundamental change to the chapter. He attached a bit of paper to the bottom of one of the pages containing extra text dealing with the death of Saruman. The printed proof read:
Saruman laughed. ‘You do what Sharkey says, always, don’t you, Worm? Well, now he says: follow!’ He kicked Wormtongue in the face as he grovelled, and turned and made off. But at that something snapped: suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane. Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead. 
‘And that's the end of that,’ said Sam. ‘A nasty end, and I wish I needn't have seen it; but it’s a good riddance.’
Tolkien’s bit of extra text was meant to be inserted between these two paragraphs. It read:
To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing. 
Frodo looked down at the body with pity and horror, for as he looked it seemed that long years of death were suddenly revealed in it, and it shrank, and the shrivelled face became rags of skin upon a hideous skull. Lifting up the skirt of the dirty cloak that sprawled beside it, he covered it over, and turned away.
An illustration of Saruman in the Shire by Inger Edelfeldt
(Not in the archives, but a great illustration of the scene)
This is a fairly momentous change to make at the eleventh hour. Without it, Saruman simply dies a mean and pitiful death. With it, Tolkien connects Saruman back to his roots as the Saruman the White, as one of the great wizards sent by the godlike Valar to aid the inhabitants of Middle-earth. His death becomes a moment of weighty tragedy as he turns to the Undying Lands for forgiveness and is denied. I find it one of the most powerful and mythic moments in the book, and I was quite surprised to discover that it was added almost as an afterthought.

Even more surprisingly, this was not the end of Tolkien’s tinkering with the chapter. The edited galley proofs were followed by an advanced proof copy that Tolkien responded to with a list of changes to be made to the text. The publisher had finally had enough, and the final item in this part of the exhibit was a letter from publisher Rayner Unwin politely but firmly asking Tolkien to hurry up and provide a final version of the chapter so the book could go to press.

To be continued in Part Two.
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