Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
Unlike The Hobbit, which is written in a chatty modern style, much of The Lord of the Rings is written in what we now might see as an elevated tone, with lines like
“ ‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’ “
Such language in a novel published in the 1950s, could be called “Wardour Street English”, after an area of London known in the 19th century for its antique dealers,
and, to some, it reeked of old-fashioned melodrama, with high emotions spoken in archaic language, full of “Thou villain!” and “Seek ye to do scath?”
As one who weighed practically every word of the many drafts of the book, Tolkienreplied to criticism of the lines above by writing:
“For a king who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used.” (draft of unsent letter to Hugh Brogan, September, 1955—Letters, 226)
We can accept his reasoning or not, but JRRT’s literary medievalism already had a relatively long history. Beyond the deliberate Elizabethan archaizing of Edmund Spencer’s ( 1552-1599)
The Faerie Queene (1590-1596),
real sustained interest in the medieval past—as people of the time understood it– began to appear in the 18th century with everything from Bishop Percy’s (1729-1811)
Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765)
(an early edition)
to Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797)
“gothique” novel—the first of its kind—The Castle of Otranto (1765),
to Walpole’s own “castle”, Strawberry Hill (seen in the background of his portrait),
which still survives (it’s a wonderfully wacky building, full of architectural surprises).
The “Middle Ages” became an abiding fascination in Britain, extending through the 19th century. Here, not content to read those novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832),
like Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825), which were set in the medieval past, there were those who were imaginative enough (and wealthy enough) who wanted to relive a bit of that long-ago time by holding a joust, like the one described at Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Ivanhoe. This was the famous Eglinton Tournament of 1839.
(This is a color plate from the 1843 commemorative book—you can have your own copy from the Internet Archive by going to: https://archive.org/details/eglintontourname00rich/page/n41/mode/2up –and don’t forget to contribute—many of the LINKS I’ve included in doubfulsea postings over the years have all come from this really important site.)
By mid-century, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
was producing, under the omnibus title Idylls of the King (1859-1885),
a long series of poems about King Arthur and his court. For modern readers, I suspect that they would appear heavy and sometimes overly-moralistic—Guinevere, for example, instead of being nearly burnt at the stake, but rescued just in time by Lancelot,
as she is in Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, one of Tennyson’s main sources, repents her adultery, is forgiven by Arthur, and dies in a convent.
There is a wealth of Arthurian illustration from this period and, should you want to see many examples, I recommend that you visit the University of Rochester (New York)’s Camelot Project at: https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot-project This is a comprehensive site for Arthurian subjects and full of things to read and look at.
There is an alternative view of that near-burning, however, by a very important source for medievalism in later-Victorian Britain, as well as a powerful influence upon Tolkien, William Morris (1834-1896).
In 1858, Morris published The Defence of Guinevere and Other Poems .
In the title poem, Guinevere’s defence isn’t an act of penitence, as she is, in fact, not in the least concerned with Tennyson’s Victorian morality, but a way of stalling her sentence until Lancelot appears to rescue her. From its opening stanza, this is a very different approach to the Arthur story and, if you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s a LINK: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.45751
Morris takes us late into this medieval revival, but I want to conclude by going back to the beginning of the 19th century, to one of my favorite examples of such literature, Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, written, it seems, in a single draft in 1819. We have two different versions, however, one published in 1820, during the poet’s lifetime, and a second, which is, if you know the poem, more likely the version you are acquainted with. Although this was published in 1848, long after Keats’ death in Rome in 1821, it appears, in fact, to be the first version of the text. (Here’s a LINK so that you can compare the versions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci )
The poem itself belongs to a specific story type, that of someone who is taken by people from another world—perhaps, in contemporary terms, it would be “alien abduction”—
but, to earlier creators and their audiences, this would be “taken to Faerie”, a theme as early as Irish and Welsh myth, and which appears in a number of later ballads—a major source for Keats—like “Tam Lin” (Child Ballad #39—here’s a LINK to one—among a number of versions: http://www.tam-lin.org/versions/39A.html )
and “Thomas Rymer” (Child #37—and a LINK: https://sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch037.htm ).
In such ballads—and in older stories—a mortal is either invited to, carried off to, or seduced to go to, another world, sometimes by an enchanting (literally) woman, as in the Keats poem. Often, the mortal has either to be rescued, or returns to this world only to find that time, as in the case of Narnia, isn’t measured in the same way, and it’s hundreds of years later, as in WB Yeats’ (1865-1939) early long poem
“The Wanderings of Oisin” (1885) (OH-sheen).
Here’s the 1848 text of the Keats poem—
There’s a striking setting of this by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
and here’s a LINK to a beautiful performance by the mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNa-3zuSrY4
The English satirist, Michael Flanders (1922-1975),
once translated Keats’ title as “the beautiful lady who never says thank you” and, rereading the poem, perhaps you’d agree?
Thanks for reading, as always,
Decline invitations by unknown (but seductive) persons,
And know that there’s always