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History Repeating

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  • Carl F. Hostetter
    I was recently reminded of the existence of a report by Charles Noad on a talk given by Guy Gavriel Kay, in which Kay reminisced about his work with
    Message 1 of 2 , Jun 10, 2008
      I was recently reminded of the existence of a report by Charles Noad
      on a talk given by Guy Gavriel Kay, in which Kay reminisced about his
      work with Christopher Tolkien in compiling and editing _The
      Silmarillion_ ("A Tower in Beleriand: A Talk by Guy Gavriel Kay given
      at Conspiracy '87", published in _Amon Hen_ 91 in May 1988). In
      rereading this report for the first time since it was published, I was
      struck by two things:

      First is Noad's report of Kay's relating that Christopher Tolkien
      initial idea for "The Silmarillion" papers was "to produce a scholarly
      text rather than a single narrative. Such a book would have been some
      1300 pages long, and would have consisted of chapters which had as
      their main text the latest version of the passage concerned, followed
      by appendices giving variant readings from other, earlier versions,
      complete with an editorial apparatus of footnotes and comments on
      dates and inconsistencies, and so on." Noad goes on to report that it
      was Kay who dissuaded Christopher Tolkien from this approach,
      resulting eventually in the strictly literary and narrative
      compilation of edited texts that was published as _The Silmarillion_
      in 1977.

      Christopher Tolkien has of course since publicly expressed regrets in
      adopting this approach, and since produced the monumental 12-volume
      "History of Middle-earth" series, a detailed, scholarly, chronological
      presentation of all "The Silmarillion" papers, which reflects his
      original idea and intention. I'll leave to others to decide for
      themselves which of these approaches and their resulting works has
      proven the more valuable to those who wish truly to understand the
      content and scope of Tolkien's mythopoeic vision, thoughts, and
      concerns, his creative intentions and methods, and the "inner reality"
      of his subcreations in broad and in detail.*

      In light of this, is it really at all puzzling that, when Christopher
      Tolkien decided to arrange for the editing and publication of his
      father's linguistic papers, that he approached the Christopher Gilson,
      the editor of the foremost scholarly journal of Tolkienian
      linguistics, with the idea? Is it at all puzzling that he favored --
      and favors -- a chronological presentation of the materials, just as
      he first did and came again to favor for the literary papers? Is it at
      all puzzling that he first sent that editor photocopies of the very
      earliest of the extant papers to be the first publication project? Who
      could possibly pretend to have given the matter more, and more
      deliberate, thought than Christopher Tolkien; or to have a judgment in
      this matter superior to that derived from many decades of actual study
      of these papers, and actual editorial experience with Tolkien's papers
      and their publication?

      The second thing that struck me was Noad's report of Kay's "story of a
      visitor [he and Christopher Tolkien] received.... This was an
      interested Swede who was shown around the place and introduced to Kay.
      Not long after this visit, to both his and Christopher Tolkien's
      surprise, they received the manuscript of a book in Swedish which
      contained such exact, detailed descriptions of what was to be seen and
      of what was said during conversations, that they felt that the Swede
      must have had a tape recorder, if not a hidden camera!"

      Though unnamed by Kay, the Swede in question was the late and infamous
      Åke Ohlmarks, about whom you can read much more by doing a Google
      search for his name in the rec.arts.books.tolkien usenet newsgroup
      here: <http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.books.tolkien/topics?hl=en
      > (including the charming details that after Tolkien dared to
      criticize Ohlmarks's Swedish translation of _The Lord of the Rings_,
      Ohlmarks took to accusing Tolkien of Nazi occultism). What I will note
      here is the intense, and intensely public, bitterness that Ohlmarks
      directed against both J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien after they had
      the temerity not to accede to his will and obviously superior intellect.

      Needless to say, this anecdote and Ohlmarks's character will ring
      bells with those who have followed the careers of certain other
      Ohlarmksian characters in Tolkienian linguistics: in their attitudes
      towards Christopher Tolkien, towards the Tolkien Estate, and towards
      the editors of Tolkien's papers (linguistic and otherwise); and with
      regard a certain visit to my own home, and the report that followed
      it. It also bears a striking resemblance to the report of Michael
      Drout, editor of Tolkien's "Beowulf and the Critics", about his own
      encounter with certain Ohlmarksian characters:

      "Then word got out to a wider audience that I was editing the
      manuscript. A friend forwarded an e-mail from an electronic discussion
      list where someone wrote: 'somebody named Mike Drout has gotten ahold
      of' a Tolkien manuscript (as if I had stolen it). Someone else put me
      on a list of the Estate's 'lackeys.' Soon thereafter I began to
      receive e-mails from people I'd never met requesting or demanding
      electronic copies of the manuscript. When I had to decline, I received
      vituperative e-mails questioning my 'right' to 'selfishly' keep
      material 'bottled up.' I found this last comment ironic, since at the
      time I was desperately seeking a publisher."

      Drout doesn't name names, but I bet I can; and I bet you can too. The
      rhetoric of these people bears all too familiar venomous marks.

      It's all just a little bit of history repeating.

      Carl F. Hostetter

      * Personally, I'm very glad to have both versions of "The
      Silmarillion; but if I had to chose one or the other, I will without
      hesitation take the full presentation, not the editorial construct.
      I'll also note that compiling and stitching together a _literary_ text
      from multiple drafts and versions, while immensely challenging, is
      still by its very nature far easier than doing so for the massive
      systems of myriad, intimately interdependent, and abstract details and
      features that are Tolkien's invented languages and their seemingly
      endless versions. It is not for lack of study that _The Silmarillion_
      itself reflects differing stages of Tolkien's languages in its
      nomenclature: Tolkien himself was unable to resolve the problems
      presented by that nomenclature to his own satisfaction.
    • Carl F. Hostetter
      P.S. A far more extensive account of Ohlmarks, Lord of the Errors or, Who Really Killed the Witch-King? by Martin Andersson, can be found here:
      Message 2 of 2 , Jun 10, 2008
        P.S. A far more extensive account of Ohlmarks, "Lord of the Errors or,
        Who Really Killed the Witch-King?" by Martin Andersson, can be found


        (scroll down to the entry for Jan. 22, 2007). Some eerily familiar

        "Ohlmarks ... had a glowing but self-inflated reputation for
        brilliancy; during his long career he translated such classics as
        Shakespeare, Dante, the Icelandic sagas and the Koran. And Ohlmarks
        did not waste any time in reaping credit either. If it was one thing
        he liked, it was being told how brilliant he was - and telling others
        how brilliant he was."

        "What annoyed Tolkien most was Ohlmarks's casual attitude toward the
        names in the novel. None of them was invented by pure accident;
        Tolkien spent a lot of time getting them absolutely right in their
        particular context."

        "[Ohlmarks] was completely impervious to all kinds of criticism of his
        translation anyway. Whenever he received negative criticism, it was
        summarily dismissed as coming from ignorant people who obviously had
        no idea what they were talking about."

        "[Ohlmarks] fell out of love with the Tolkien phenomenon; it began in
        the late 1970s, when Christopher Tolkien allowed The Silmarillion to
        be published in Swedish only if Ohlmarks have nothing to do with the

        "[Ohlmarks] wrote a vicious, disgusting little book called Tolkien och
        den svarta magin [Tolkien and Black Magic]. In this amazing concoction
        of half-lies, half-truths, innuendo, tabloid journalism, and pseudo-
        scholarship he makes a number of doubtful assertions..."

        Carl Hostetter
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