The sale at Sotheby's in London on 4 June 2015 of a first edition of The Hobbit for £137,000 has certainly drawn its share of attention, for having nearly tripled the last previous auction price of such a volume, and for Sotheby's misidentifying as Elvish a dedication which Tolkien had inscribed to Katherine Kilbride in Old English.1 Here is an image from the page in the Sotheby's catalog:
We may transcribe the verses at the bottom of the page
Fela bið on westwegum werum uncuðra,And translate them:
wundra and wihta, wlitescyne lond,
eardgeard ylfa, eorclanstanas
on dunscrafum digle scninað.
There's many a thing on westward ways unknown to men,
Wonders and creatures, a land of splendor,
The homeland of the Elves; precious stones
In mountain caves secretly shine.
The first thing we must note is that the last word, scninað, is a rather surprising scribal error by Tolkien. There is no such verb in Old English as 'scninan.' Clearly it should be scinað, which means 'shine.' Professor Susan Irvine of University College London, whom The Guardian consulted for its article, has also rightly pointed out that the last line and a half of this poem -- from eorclanstanas to the end -- diverges from a similar poem found in Tolkien's The Lost Road (44):
Thus cwæth Ælfwine Widlást:Fela bith on Westwegum werum uncúthra,
wundra and wihta, wlitescéne land,
eardgeard elfa, and esa bliss.
Lyt ænig wat hwylc his longath sie
tham the eftsithes eldo getwæfeth.
Which Tolkien himself renders in prose as:
Thus said Ælfwine the far-travelled: "There's many a thing in the West-regions unknown to men, marvels and strange beings, a land fair and lovely, the homeland of the Elves, and the bliss of the Gods. Little doth any man know what longing is his whom old age cutteth off from return."
Now Tolkien had been working on The Lost Road in the year or so just before The Hobbit appeared (21 September 1937), and it's entirely reasonable to think that as he was casting about for some verses to inscribe in this presentation copy his mind came to rest upon the lines from The Lost Road. These verses, however, have a much darker tone, which Tolkien perhaps judged inappropriate for his former student, Katherine Kilbride, who was an invalid. So, he removed the grim bits and wrote new lines that he deemed more fitting for the occasion and for the nature of the gift he was giving.
This much is prologue, I would argue. For to describe these two poems as 'similar' and to say that the poem in The Hobbit 'diverges' or 'varies' from the poem in The Lost Road is quite an understatement. As Tolkien himself famously remarked in On Fairy-stories:2
... to take the extreme case of Red Riding Hood: it is of merely secondary interest that the retold version of this story, in which the little girl is saved by wood-cutters, is directly derived from Perrault's story in which she was eaten by the wolf. The really important thing is that the later version has a happy ending (more or less, and if we do not mourn the grandmother overmuch), and that Perrault's version had not. And that is a very profound difference....
A 'variation', a 'divergence', would be Bilbo's 'eager feet' (FR 1.i.35) and Frodo's 'weary feet' (FR 1.iii.73) in The Road Goes Ever On. There a small change of the sort that Tolkien was so good at alters the tenor of the poem, and thereby the characterization of the speakers, suggesting something about their views of the roads they were about to set out upon. We may also say the same of the last version of the The Road Goes Ever On (RK 6.vi.987), which in a few new lines reveals yet another road and the speaker's attitude toward it. These changes are improving variations on a theme. Each is linked to the next, each reflects the story that is, and hints at the journey to come, just as the very first version of this poem, sung by Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit (313), relishes looking back down that road as part of the joy of returning home. He knows where he is going, and what he has escaped.
But we have nothing like these variations, these evolutions, in the poems we are considering here. The verses in the Kilbride dedication and from The Lost Road differ from each other as much as Errantry and Bilbo's Song of Eärendil in Rivendell (FR 2.i.233-36). For all the similarities of word and rhyme and meter in Errantry and Eärendil, for all that both tell of a mariner who sets out on a journey to convey a message, the two are different poems. For the tale told in Errantry is silly and funny and the message slips the easily distracted mariner's mind, compelling him to start all over again, which is part of the humor of the poem. Eärendil, by contrast, is about the tragedy and triumph of a determined messenger who saves the world by delivering his message at great cost to himself. The same is true here. We have distinct poems that share part of a sentence.
Let's look first at those shared lines, ignoring the orthographic variations.
Fela bið on westwegum werum uncuðra,
wundra and wihta, wlitescyne lond,
As so often in Tolkien, going all the way back to the early poems Goblin Feet and You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play (The Book of Lost Tales 1.27-32) there is the image of a road and a journey. Westwegum, literally 'westways,' places the end of this road in eardgeard ylfa, the shining homeland of the elves: Elvenhome. This suggests not only the West beyond the sea in Middle-earth, but also -- and this is especially true for those unacquainted with Tolkien's legendarium in 1937, which is to say, for almost everyone -- conjures the other mythic western lands of the great sea, from the Isles of the Blessed to Tír na nÓg, from Atlantis to the unknown destination of Scyld's funeral ship (Beowulf 26-52). We can also likely detect a connection to England itself in this word, since, as Tolkien would have known, vestr-vegir, the cognate phrase in Old Icelandic, referred to the British Isles themselves; and of course Tolkien once meant to make England itself the homeland of the Elves (BoLT 1.22-27).
In The Lost Road the wonder and splendor to be revealed in the West reaches yet higher. Not only will we men find Elvenhome, but we will glimpse esa bliss, the bliss of the gods. Though not for long, it seems. Esa bliss slips quickly away, beyond our grasp. We are left only with longing and old age. The wonder and beauty of the first lines turn dark because we cannot attain such bliss. It is not for us. Even the sight of it awakens a longing we can neither turn from nor satisfy. The divide between us and them could not be more clear.
These lines, moreover, are 'laden with the sadness of Mortal Men,' as Legolas puts it after hearing Aragorn recite a poem of the Rohirrim in their own language (TT 4.vi.508). As such they touch upon themes of 'Death and the desire for deathlessness' which Tolkien later said lay at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.3 Not only does The Lost Road employ these lines with immediate personal relevance to the characters speaking and hearing them, a son and his aged, failing father, but it affords them a wider application. For with this work begins the Tale of Númenor, the island where men reject the fate of death and try to seize immortality and the 'bliss of the gods' by force, with cataclysmic results. Tolkien continued to develop this story for decades (as was his wont), in The Lord of the Rings, in The Notion Club Papers, in Akallabêth, and finally in Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth, which depicts men as already embittered about their 'swift fate' before the First Age had ended.4 The verses in The Lost Road may be said to contain within them the seeds, and perhaps the summary, of these themes. In the end, every man knows the longing for the bliss of the gods from which old age and death cut him off.
How different is the world the Kilbride dedication depicts. So far from an elegy of loss and longing, here a treasure shines secretly before us in the mountain caverns of Elvenhome. This is of course quite apropos in a presentation copy of The Hobbit, as is Tolkien's use of eorclanstanas, another form of which, eorcanstan, in the singular gives us arkenstone. But eorcanstan itself brims with allusion, as this marvelous post by Dr Eleanor Parker makes clear, most prominently to Sigurd and to Christ, both of whom are likened to precious jewels using this word -- for Sigurd it's the Old Norse cognate jarknasteinn -- and both of whom fight dragons. 'And,' as Dr Parker points out,
'there's not as big a gap as you might think between Sigurðr and Christ; the scene of Sigurðr killing the dragon appears on early carvings in a Christian context, which are difficult to interpret but may show Sigurðr's triumph being cast as a battle between good and evil.'
In the day of Doom
he shall deathless stand
who death tasted
and dies no more,
seed of Óðin:
not all shall end,
nor Earth perish.
On his head the Helm,
in his hand lightning,
afire his spirit,
in his face splendour.
When war passeth
in world rebuilt,
bliss shall they drink
who the bitter tasted.
(Völsungkviða en Nýja ix.80-81)
This mention of bliss here is interesting because even the possibility of it seemed to be denied to men in The Lost Road verses, and the defeat of old age and its sequel appeared quite final. As above, it is not so difficult to see what Sigurd has to do with Christ: bliss beyond the ending of this world in a new heaven and a new earth. Others words, too, in the Kilbride dedication provide a link to Christ and his ancient enemy, the dragon. For the words 'on dunscrafum digle' allude to the bestiary poem The Panther* in the collection Physiologus.
Just as the common lines of both Tolkien poems begin by enumerating how 'many are' (fela bið) the wonders and creatures of the world, before narrowing the focus down to the homeland of the Elves, The Panther also begins by stating how 'many are' (monge sindon) the different kinds of creatures across the wide world, before drawing our attention to one single animal,the panther, who is the most wondrous of them all. He guards a far land and dwells æfter dunscrafum (12), 'among mountain caves.' Kind to all other creatures, he has but one enemy, the dragon, to whom he does all the harm he can (15-18).5 Twice he is described in terms familiar from the common lines of Tolkien's verses (19: wundrum scine; and 26-27: scinra / wundrum). And again after further descriptions of his beauty that dazzles the eye, with each of his hues more lovely than the last (19-30), and of his mild and moderate character, except when it comes to the dragon (30-34), we are told he retires to sleep for three days digle stowe under dunscrafum 'in a secret place beneath the mountain caves' (36-37). In the latter half of the poem (38-74), the panther is explicitly identified with Christ, now risen from the secret places of the earth (dīgle ārās, 62), and the poet ends with a formula like that with which he began:
monigfealde sind geond middangeard
god ungnyðe þe ūs tō giefe dǣleð
and tō feorhnere Fæder ælmihtig,
and se ānga Hyht ealra gesceafta
uppe ge niþre.
Many are the good things across middle-earth,
Abundant goods which the Almighty Father
Assigns us for grace and for salvation,
And he the only Hope of all creatures
Above and below.
So clearly points of contact exist between these texts, which help Tolkien to create the more hopeful tenor of the Kilbride dedication. For even if the reader of The Hobbit soon learns that the arkenstone glittering in secret beneath the mountain halls is guarded by a dragon, heroes, whether Sigurd or Christ, can also shine like a jewel in the darkness and defeat that venomous, ancient enemy (33-34: þām āttorsceaþan, his fyrngeflitan). And given his faith and his words on the wonders of far off Elvenhome, it is rather tempting to think that in the words geond middangeard Tolkien saw the meaning 'beyond Middle-earth.' However that may be, the allusive links are not to be doubted, even if in 1937 only C.S. Lewis and perhaps a few others could have felt their full import.
Within these two distinct poems -- for that is what they are -- we can see Tolkien working masterfully to create opposite effects through the 'divergence' of his materials. In The Lost Road we find elegy, in the Kilbride dedication to The Hobbit hope. And the difference that this makes suits the Tales he is telling in each work. For The Hobbit is a Tale of hope and happy endings, of renewal and return. In The Lost Road the Tale of Númenor could only have ended in cataclysm, with the great green wave sweeping across the land and a world lost forever, just as it does in Akallabêth:
In an hour unlooked for by Men this doom befell, on the nine and thirtieth day since the passing of the fleets. Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea, with all its children and its wives and its maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and its halls and its towers, its tombs and its riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its lore: they vanished for ever. And last of all the mounting wave, green and cold and plumed with foam, climbing over the land, took to its bosom Tar-Míriel the Queen, fairer than silver or ivory or pearls. Too late she strove to ascend the steep ways of the Meneltarma to the holy place; for the waters overtook her, and her cry was lost in the roaring of the wind.(Silmarillion, 279)
*Before anything else I would like to express my thanks to Dr Eleanor Parker for her gracious conversation and correspondence on the verses discussed above. It was she who brought The Panther to my attention. Any errors of translation or interpretation are entirely my own.
1The initial error in the Sotheby's catalog is doubly wrong, first as to the language of the dedicatory lines, and second in seeming to name John Rateliff as the source of that attribution: 'Rateliff identifies the Elvish verse as an extract from Tolkien's The Lost Road.' But in Rateliff's The History of the Hobbit (second edition, 2011) appendix v, which Sotheby's cites, Rateliff makes no mention of the language in which the verse is written. It is possible that Sotheby's did not intend the sentence to be read that way.
2 On Fairy-stories has appeared in print and on the internet so many times that referring to a page number in any one edition is almost unfair. I shall follow the practice adopted by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson in their Tolkien on Fairy-stories (2014), where they number the paragraphs. The quotation in the text above is from paragraph number 24.
3 See letter 203 (Letters 1981): 'But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!' And also 211: 'It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the "escapes": serial longevity, and hoarding memory.' These letters date from 1957 and 1958, respectively.
4 The Athrabeth, or The Debate of Finrod and Andreth, seems to date from 1959 or a little earlier. See Morgoth's Ring (New York 1993) 303-304. The bitterness about their brief lives compared to the Eldar and the resentment men felt over it runs throughout the Athrabeth (303-366), appearing within the first page of the dialogue (307-308):
'More than a hundred years it is now,' said Andreth, 'since we came over the Mountains; and Bëor and Baran and Boron each lived beyond his ninetieth year. Our passing was swifter before we found this land.'
'Then are you content here?' said Finrod.
'Content?' said Andreth. 'No heart of Man is content. All passing and dying is a grief to it; but if the withering is less soon then that is some amendment, a little lifting of the Shadow.'
'What mean you by that?' said Finrod.
'Surely you know well!' said Andreth. 'The darkness that is now confined to the North, but once'; and here she paused and her eyes darkled, as if he mind were gone back into black years best forgot. 'But once lay upon all Middle-earth, while ye dwelt in your bliss.'
'It was not concerning the Shadow that I asked,' said Finrod. 'What mean you, I would say, by the lifting of it? Or how is the swift fate of men concerned with it? Ye also, we hold (being instructed by the Great who know), are Children of Eru, and your fate and nature is from Him.'
'I see,' said Andreth, 'that in this ye of the High-elves do not differ from your lesser kindred whom we have met in the world, though they have never dwelt in the Light. All ye Elves deem that we die swiftly by our true kind. That we are brittle and brief, and ye are strong and lasting. We may be "Children of Eru", as ye say in your lore; but we are children to you also: to be loved a little maybe, and yet creatures of less worth, upon whom ye may look down from the height of your power and your knowledge, with a smile, or with pity, or with a shaking of heads.'5 I find it impossible not to think of Aslan while reading of the panther, but it seems equally impossible that no one has never noted that before.