Welcome, as always, dear readers.
If you are, like me, a compulsive reader of footnotes, endnotes, and appendices, you’ll immediately recognize the names in the title of this posting. If not, you’ll probably imagine them as locations on a very exotic map, somewhere south of the Kingdom of Prester John.
They are in fact, the original names of Sam
and the Gaffer,
(Seen here giving directions to a tourist.)
from The Lord of the Rings—or, rightfully, Ban and Ran. As Tolkien explains:
“But Sam and his father Ham were really called Ban and Ran. These were shortenings of Banazir and Ranugad, originally nicknames, meaning ‘halfwise, simple’ and ‘stay-at-home’; but being words that had fallen out of colloquial use they remained as traditional names in certain families. I have therefore tried to preserve these features by using Samwise and Hamfast, modernizations of ancient English samwis and hamfast which corresponded closely in meaning.” (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, Part II, “On Translation”)
(“Samwis” , my Old English dictionary tells me, means “stupid/foolish”, and “hamfast” means “resident/homeowner”.)
JRRT’s pains in creating the world of Middle-earth are endlessly surprising and, to me, oddly touching. He will spend hours or even days adjusting a lunar cycle (as mentioned in a letter to his son, Christopher, on 14 May, 1944, Letters, 80—there’s a very interesting article about this and other lunar sightings here: https://shire-reckoning.com/moon.html ) and go to such trouble to translate names he has created in a language he has created into an earlier form of the language he has “translated” his story into.
Which brings me to the subject of this posting: that The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit, for that matter), are not written by JRR Tolkien, but “drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch”, and edited and translated by him. (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, “Note on the Shire Records”)
Claiming to be other than the author is not a new game in English literature. Horace Walpole (1717-1797),
the author of the early Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764),
(by the date on the title page, I’m presuming that this is a later printing)
provides quite a lot of information on the title page: “A Story Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of Saint Nicholas at Otranto”. And he doesn’t stop there, but goes on in the “Preface” to explain that this supposed true story was “found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529.” And, if that’s not enough: “If the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095, the era of the first Crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards.” So, this was a medieval manuscript which somehow found its way into print in the Renaissance. All of which is false, of course. The whole thing was made up by Walpole, the 1529 volume, the manuscript, the Canon—only the castle is real.
Walpole was a wealthy gentleman with a high social position to maintain, being not only the son of a former prime minister of Great Britain, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745),
but would himself become the 4th Earl of Orford. It would be easy, perhaps, to understand why he would choose to distance himself from his creation, on social grounds alone—but then something happened: the book was a big success.
This prompted him to write in the “Preface to the Second Edition”:
The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it. But before he opens those motives, it is fit that he should ask pardon of his readers for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator. As diffidence of his own abilities, and the novelty of the attempt, were the sole inducements to assume that disguise, he flatters himself he shall appear excusable. He resigned his performance to the impartial judgment of the public; determined to let it perish in obscurity, if disapproved; nor meaning to avow such a trifle, unless better judges should pronounce that he might own it without a blush.
Clearly, being the author of a book which met with popular favor put a different complexion upon things for Walpole!
But what can we say about Tolkien’s choice? It’s possible that this was just all part of his project to provide a kind of mythical history for England, as Verlyn Flieger has ably discussed in several books (which I would very much recommend to anyone interested in understanding The Lord of the Rings in a larger context). Mythology may be collected by someone with an identity, but myth is created before authors—and especially editors—ever exist.
Although a reader of and occasional writer about Tolkien, I am not a Tolkien scholar. I sometimes happen upon books and articles either by recommendation or by accident, and so I wasn’t aware until recently of this interesting book, published last year by Oxford.
The author points out that Tolkien had long been uncomfortable about his creative work versus his scholarly responsibilities, citing, for example, this, in a 1956 letter to Anne Barrett, of his American publisher, Houghton Mifflin:
“Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for twenty years’.” (Letters, 238)
The above speculation about Tolkien’s distancing may be true, probably is true, but perhaps we might not be totally wrong to wonder whether this pretense at translation also has a subconscious motive? Did JRRT say to himself, “Author of ‘trivial literature’? Not at all. You see, this is really a medieval manuscript, the sort we medievalists deal with all the time, and all I’m doing is exactly what a medievalist might do in preparing a modern edition”?
As ever, thanks for reading,
And be assured that there is
If you don’t know The Castle of Otranto, an important work for the history of the Gothic in English literature and as an ancestor of English Romanticism, here’s a LINK to your own copy: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/696/696-h/696-h.htm Be warned, however: by modern standards, it’s all pretty silly stuff, including the fall of selective pieces of a giant suit of armor at useful moments.
Walpole was such a highly intelligent and witty man that it’s hard to tell just how seriously to take it all. Reading his letters makes you wish that he were your correspondent.)
While rewriting this, I realized that, since first reading The Lord of the Rings, many years ago, I had always assumed that the Gaffer was Sam’s grandfather, with “gaffer” being an ancient contraction of “grandfather”. Because of that assumption, it was only when I reread Tolkien’s explanation of his and Sam’s names that I saw my mistake. As Holmes says to Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia”: “You see, but you do not observe.”!