As always, welcome, dear readers.
Recently, I was overhearing Gaffer Gamgee correcting a wild rumor from “a stranger, a visitor on business from Michel Delving” about Bilbo, his fortune, and about the Gaffer’s grandson, Sam:
“Crazy about stories of the old days, he is, and he listens to all of Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)
(Gaffer conversing with a more sinister visitor, one on business from Mordor.)
“Learned him” might strike you as odd—Tolkien himself would have said, “Mr. Bilbo has taught him his letters”. Tolkien, however, is using what would have been an archaic form still in use in rural areas, “to learn someone something”, to suggest that the Gaffer is himself someone without much learning.
As I listened, I thought about the idea of Bilbo teaching Sam to read.
We learn from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien that:
“Mabel [Tolkien’s mother] soon began to educate her sons, and they could have had no better teacher—nor she an apter pupil than Ronald, who could read by the time he was four and had soon learnt to write proficiently.” (Carpenter, 20)
What did she use to teach him? I wondered. If he had been an American child in 1896, his mother might have used a very standard method employed in US schools into the 20th century, McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader,
created by William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873)
and first published in 1836.
When it came to “learn him his letters”, this was taken literally, as the first thing to which a child was introduced was the alphabet, immediately followed by a first lesson, which included an image and a simple sentence about the image, that first image being a dog.
As the pupil worked his way through the book, sentences gradually become more complex, although the words remain simple, having no more than three letters until Lesson VI.
(If you would like to see a copy for yourself, follow this LINK: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14640/14640-pdf.pdf )
There were English equivalents—here’s a page from one called The Victoria Primer, though, by the clothing on the children in the illustration, it’s an edition from early in the 19th century.
There is a problem with these, of course. As different as they look from the kinds of books you and I learned from, dear readers,
they are printed books and, as far as I can tell, the Middle-earth equivalent of Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400-1468)
has yet to appear. This means that, if Bilbo taught Sam from a book, it was a manuscript, that is, something copied by hand, probably from another book.
So often, Middle-earth has parallels in our Middle Ages, and, in our Middle Ages, that manuscript would probably have been the product of a scriptorium, a kind of medieval writing center, where books were created and copied.
Such centers were commonly part of monasteries and monasteries and cathedrals, besides being religious centers, were also the site of medieval schools, where most teaching and learning was done.
Study began with learning the letters of the alphabet, then moved on to words and from there to sentences.
Everything was done aloud, it being the custom in general that all reading was done that way.
And lack of attention or mistakes were not treated kindly.
When it came to practicing writing, it was done on a wax tablet, of the very sort which the Romans had used for rough drafts.
(You used the pointy end of the stylus to write, the blunt end to erase, smoothing the wax over with it. The Roman poet Horace makes a witty remark about its use: “If you’re going to write things which may be worthy to be read again, turn your stylus over often.” That is: “If you’re going to write things worth a second reading, do lots of erasing.”– Saepe stilum vertas, iterum quae digna legi sint scripturus. Horace, Satires, Book I, X.75 )
Presumably, then, Bilbo began by sitting down with Sam (when Sam wasn’t evesdropping)
and began with the letters of tengwar—
Children in the US commonly begin with something called “the alphabet song” (in case you don’t know it, here’s a LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75p-N9YKqNo ) in which all the letters of the writing system used for many Western languages (with some variations) are set to a simple tune.
If you try reciting the tengwar table, it easily (more or less) fits into a rhythmic pattern:
Tinco, parma, calma, quesse,
Ando, umbar, anga, umwe,
Thule, formen, harma, hwesta,
Anto, ampa, anca, unque,
Numen, malta, ngoldo, ngwalme,
Ore, vala, anna, vilya,
Romen, arda, lambe, alda,
Silme, silme nunquerna,
esse, esse nunquerna,
Hyarma, hwesta sindarinwa,
So we perhaps can imagine Sam at work, trimming hedges,
and repeating the letters until he had them down. Then it would be back to learn to form words and then sentences and then?
The ultimate goal of monastic students would be to study religious texts, but to what use would Sam put his newly-acquired learning?
On the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam are talking about their journey and Sam, still “crazy about stories”, as the Gaffer has described him, has proposed that they are in such a story themselves—
“Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards.”
Assuming that Bilbo had books with such stories in his library,
is this the sort of thing which Sam would then have opened and read?
If so, it’s an uncomfortable feeling to remember where they are in light of what the Gaffer had added, “Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.” And to hear Frodo’s reply to Sam’s fantasy:
“ ‘We’re going on a bit too fast. You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: “Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.” ‘ “ (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)
Thanks, as always, for reading,
And know that there’s