As ever, dear readers, welcome.
Back in early November, I wrote a posting which explored the idea of how Bilbo had “learned [Sam] his letters”.
Because Middle-earth is a place which roughly mirrors the Western Middle Ages, I imagined that Bilbo had begun with the equivalent of the Roman alphabet, Tengwar, and Sam had practiced saying and writing the letters. In earlier times, just as literate people were many fewer in the West until the 19th century, material for writing was often hard to come by. Scriptoria (medieval writing centers in ecclesiastical establishments)
used prepared animal skins—parchment–for copying older works and writing new ones.
Our paper, made from wood pulp, is a 19th-century invention, created as a replacement for its predecessor, paper made from rags. The earlier paper had been invented by the Chinese about 100AD, only reaching the West, via the Islamic world, by the 12th century.
As literacy grew rapidly in the West in the 19th century and printing methods improved, the demand for the older rag paper outpaced supply. This brought on a shortage and it seems that wood pulp paper was produced as a cheaper and more plentiful substitute. With our medieval view of Middle-earth, then, we can expect that Bilbo, being wealthy, could afford as much parchment as he wanted, but we can also expect that, like medieval students, as they learned their letters, Sam might have used a cheaper and easily-renewable resource: a slate and chalk,
or another tool, handed down from the Classical world,
the diptych of wax-covered board and stilus.
We might see another part of what we can imagine was Sam’s education in something he does on the long journey into Mordor:
“Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began…”—his poem being that about the “oliphaunt”. (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 3, “The Black Gate is Closed”)
Medieval schoolrooms, for all that they were situated in places which often had strict rules about speech and silence, must have been relatively noisy places. First, because books were copied by hand, which took time, and the materials were somewhat expensive, there would have been few of them–perhaps, in fact, only one copy of the text and that in the hands of the master, who would have read the text to be studied aloud, while the students took notes—like Sam, on slate or tablet.
Second, because, unlike the modern idea of reading: eyes scanning the page, mouth tightly shut,
Western people all the way back to the Greeks, whose alphabet, derived from the Phoenician, forms the basis of the Roman writing system which, in turn, forms the basis of the system I’m writing this posting in, customarily read everything aloud. They would begin to do this from their days learning the letters
and continue throughout their lives.
In fact, monastery schools, like that of St Gall in what is now western Switzerland,
taught not only how to make sense of the letters, words and sentences, but how to deliver a text publicly. This was important in worship services,
but it was also employed during mealtimes, when one of the monks would be given the job of reading some religious work aloud while the others ate.
There were strict standards for public reading and so early drill was intense and texts might even carry conventional signs to indicate things like correct pronunciation, where it was appropriate to raise or lower the voice, and where and how to end a passage.
A schoolroom, then, would be filled with voices, those of the master reading and commenting and correcting, those of the students reciting and repeating what they’d been taught—just like Sam and his “speaking poetry”.
It’s not known why people began to read silently, although there is lots of theory and scholarly argument on the subject. Certainly it seems to be true that, somewhere perhaps in the later 17th century, the custom had changed.
This isn’t to say that, by the way, that everyone from the beginning had conformed to the custom. In a famous passage in his autobiography (Book 6, Chapter 3), St Augustine (354-430AD)
describes his bishop in Milan, St Ambrose (c340-397AD),
as a silent reader. Scholars have seen this from two directions, depending on what they want to say about the act of reading. Some say that this suggests that it wasn’t unusual for at least some people to read to themselves. Others, however, say that St Augustine mentions it because it seems so odd. For myself, I suspect that it’s the latter, but, not being so well-versed in both texts and arguments as such scholars, I would claim that this is no more than a hunch on my part.
Although there is academic argument over silent versus aloud, I’ve recently been rereading a fantasy novel in which, for some people, it’s actually dangerous for them to read aloud. This is Inkheart (Tintenherz in the original German),
published in 2003, and written by Cornelia Funke.
In time, she has added two more novels to this, Inkspell (Tintenblut—why the title change, I don’t know) 2005, and Inkdeath (Tintentod) 2007. (She now promises a fourth volume, Die Farbe der Rache—The Color of Revenge—to be published next October.)
These are books all about the love of books and the adventures you can find in them—and the peril if they become too real, a major theme being that there are certain people in the world whose ability to read a book—specifically a novel—is so magical that they can actually bring characters out of books—and send people into them (a sort of literary cosmic balance).
Needless to say, I recommend them to you, along with an earlier novel, Herr der Diebe (The Thief Lord )
published in Germany in 2000 and in an English translation in 2002.
But—at this moment, it’s almost Christmas—or, if you prefer, the Feast of Sol Invictus, or that which Bilbo and Gandalf celebrate with Beorn, Yule, and, while I continue to read, I’m in hopes that someone else has read something of mine and, following that list, is bringing a pile of treats on his epic trip Thursday night flight. (He can’t be scanning my list—that one’s much too short!)
Because this blog has readers from around the world, perhaps the best wish that I can make is that the new year brings peace and health throughout the world for everyone.
In the meantime,
Thanks, as always for reading, stay well,
And trust that, in the last week of the old year, there will be
I would also recommend the films made from The Thief Lord (2006)
and Inkheart (2008).
Both do a very good job of providing you with a visual context for their respective books, as well as employing actors who do a convincing job of being their characters.