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Posts Tagged ‘tolkien’

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Photo: British Museum
One of the walrus-ivory pieces among the British Museum’s 12th century Lewis Chessmen is a castle that records the metaphorbíta í skjaldarrendur” (“biting its shield-end,” or fighting on in the face of great odds), a phrase still common in today’s Iceland.

Iceland is such an interesting country. I have enjoyed reading about how everyone gives books at Christmas and how volunteers embrace danger to rescue reckless tourists. Now the Economist explains that although almost no one else speaks it, Icelanders love their language.

“It is hardly surprising that Icelanders have names for the many different fish that abound in their surrounding waters — the various types of cod, herring and so on which they have been catching for centuries.

“It is rather more surprising that they have not just one word for the coelacanth, but three. …

“But Icelanders are keen namers of things — and would never dream of simply adopting a transliterated version of someone else’s word. So they call the coelacanth skúfur, which means ‘tassel.’ Or skúfuggi: tassel-fin. Or sometimes forniskúfur: ‘ancient tassel.’ [You can hear the spoken pronunciation at the Economist.]

“Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance. On Icelandic Language Day they celebrate those among the population of 340,000 who have done the most for it. They love the links it gives them to their past.

“Ordinary Icelanders revel in their ability to use phrases from the sagas — written around eight centuries ago — in daily life. The commentator who says that a football team is bíta í skjaldarrendur (‘biting its shield-end’) as it fights on in the face of great odds, is behaving quite normally in borrowing an image from ancient tales of Viking derring-do. ….

“The result is something close to unique — a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian). Its complex grammar has barely changed in almost a thousand years and has a distinct old-worldliness. But if, like the forniskúfur, Icelandic is a living fossil, it is a lovely and lively one. …

“From early on [Icelanders] were particularly keen on using it to write things down; much of what is known about Viking culture comes from Icelandic texts. In the 13th century Snorri Sturluson produced the Prose Edda, one of the earliest and most important accounts of the antics of Thor, Frigg, Loki and their kith and kin. …

“Some words do look similar to English ones: bók, epli and brauð are ‘book,’ ‘apple’ and ‘bread.’ …

“Some of these similarities, though, can mislead. An English-speaker who knows that dóm is cognate to the English word ‘doom’ may find the Reykjavik building marked dómsmálaráðuneytid rather menacing. But it is just the ministry of justice: ‘doom’ in English was once mere judgment; only later did it take on first the meaning of condemnation, then ruin.

“It is not clear in quite what way J.R.R. Tolkien meant the word when he named the climactic locale in The Lord of the Rings Mount Doom. But as a philologist interested in Norse and other ancient tongues, and keen on the archaic, he certainly knew his Icelandic.

“The name of the wizard Gandalf is taken from the Eddas. The Tolkiens’ Icelandic nanny, Adda, not only took care of the children; part of her role was to help him practice Icelandic. Mrs Tolkien was not pleased by the attention.”

Wow, that’s interesting because, as we learned in this recent post, Tolkien was orphaned at the age of 12. His early years with that nanny must have made a big impression on him.

Find other curious facts about the Icelandic language at the Economist, here, and listen to more of the pronunciations.

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Art: JRR Tolkien
An Oxford exhibit will feature decades of illustrated letters from “Father Christmas” to the children of Middle Earth wizard JRR Tolkien.

This is more of a Christmas post, but as the exhibit won’t go up until next summer, you have time to plan a trip to Oxford, England, to see JRR Tolkien’s illustrated Father Christmas letters. They will be on display from June 1 to October 28, 2018. If you can’t go, there is a heavenly array at the Guardian.

Maev Kennedy writes at the Guardian, “In December 1920 Father Christmas wrote a letter to a modest house in the Oxford suburbs, enclosing a watercolour sketch of his own rather more exotic domed snow house, approached by a flight of steps lit by ice lanterns. ‘I heard you ask Daddy what I was like and where I lived,’ he wrote to three-year-old John Tolkien, and as the family grew to four children, he continued to write every Christmas for 23 years. …

“The illustrated letters continued to arrive every Christmas Eve, sometimes delivered by a postman who had been persuaded to include them with the more boring letters and cards, sometimes materialising on the hearth rug with a handmade stamp. Some years Father Christmas was evidently very busy, and could only pass on the briefest snippets of news, and other years, when he had time on his hands, he could include elaborate multi-layered paintings. One showed his reindeer and sleigh arriving over the Oxford skyline – ‘your house is just about where the three little black points stick up out of shadow on the right.’

“Many recount the adventures of his friend and helper the Polar Bear – in 1926 he accidentally switched on all the Northern Lights – or the goblins who attempted to steal the stored presents in 1932. In one letter Polar Bear ‘found a hole in the side of a hill & went inside because it was snowing.’ He slid down a rocky slope, more rock fell on him, and he could not climb back: ‘But almost at once he smelled goblin & became interested & started to explore. Not very wise for of course goblins can’t hurt HIM but their caves are very dangerous.’

“The snow, the entrance to treacherous caves and the smell of goblin will be instantly familiar to readers of the book Tolkien was working on at the time, The Hobbit, the first of the adventures of Middle-earth. …

“Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian, [says,] “There couldn’t be a clearer demonstration of how important his family was to him. He was orphaned from the age of 12, when his mother died, and then he spent years boarded out in lodging houses in Birmingham.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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As Maria Popova likes to point out, J.R.R. Tolkien maintained there was no such thing as writing for children, and Maurice Sendak said much the same thing. I myself have found that the “children’s books” Popova recommends to her Brain Pickings readers work as well for me as for my grandchildren.

Here she describes a book about the beauty of imperfection: “Wabi sabi is a beautiful Japanese concept that has no direct translation in English. Both an aesthetic and a worldview, it connotes a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. Wabi Sabi is also the title of a fantastic 2008 picture-book by Mark Reibstein, with original artwork by acclaimed Chinese children’s book illustrator Ed Young, exploring this wonderful sensibility through the story of a cat who gets lost in her hometown of Kyoto …

“A true wabi sabi story lies behind the book: When Young first received the assignment, he created a series of beautifully simple images. As he went to drop them off with his editor, he left them for a moment on the front porch of the house. But when he returned to retrieve them, they were gone. Rather than agonizing over the loss, Young resolved to recreate the images from scratch and make them better — finding growth in loss.” More here.

(Remember the mortification of John Stuart Mills when his maid mistakenly burned the manuscript of Thomas Carlyle‘s first volume of the seminal French Revolution? I like to think that Carlyle’s starting from scratch on volume one after completing volumes two and three made made volume one better, as Ed Young found with his art. It’s still painful to think about how Mills felt.)

Art: Ed Young
Illustration from Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein

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I’ve been wanting to share this remix of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland but hoped to add something beyond saying that I like it.

Then today, Asakiyume tweeted some comments on fantasy that science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin posted at the Book View Cafe blog.

Le Guin was reacting to a comment Kazuo Ishiguro made about his latest novel when he was interviewed by the NY Times: “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Le Guin launched into a spirited defense of fantasy in which she mentions the very story I had been thinking about for this post.

“Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality. ‘Surface elements,’ by which I take it he means ogres, dragons, Arthurian knights, mysterious boatmen, etc., which occur in certain works of great literary merit such as Beowulf, the Morte d’Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, are also much imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork.

“Their presence or absence is not what constitutes a fantasy. Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid, powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful and coherent story, such as those mentioned, or The Odyssey, or Alice in Wonderland.” More here.

I love Le Guin’s characterization of fantasy. It reminds of something C.S. Lewis said about writing good fantasy. He said that, within the laws of its own realm, everything had to be plausible. Or words to that effect. And he wrote an essay with a splendid title, “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said.” (For a comparison of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s ideas about fantasy, check this essay.)

 

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