Sunday, February 08, 2009

My First Tolkien Post: How Tolkien Helped Me With Aelfric

A few people on the Usenet group rec.arts.books.tolkien, a group I joined on the first or second day of its creation back in the early 90s and first posted to in 1994 on Leaf by Niggle, found this blog through Mike Drout's reference to it regarding the PEAA awards (more on which anon). So in honor of them, this is my first Tolkien post.

I'm not sure why I haven't really had a Tolkien related post before. Tolkien and Lewis were rather influential on my early thinking and imagination and I'm hoping to continue to make both part of my academic as well as my entertainment endeavors. But here's the story:

One of the first Old English poems I read in its entirety in the original language was Exodus. I later discovered, or rather rediscovered, that Tolkien taught this poem many times, and had even worked on an edition and commentary, later edited and published by Turville-Petre. One of the oddities in that poem for those familiar with the Biblical story is that the children of Israel went south out of Egypt but couldn't go further because they encountered the land of "sigelware", too often glossed as "Ethiopian" without further ado.

I decided, out of interest, some years back to collect and read not just Tolkien and Lewis (and Sayers for that matter) professional and scholarly works and not limit myself simply to their creative output--a move that eventually moved me to consider becoming a medievalist. One that I had difficulty locating and reading was the two part "Sigelware Land" published in 1932 and '34 in Medium Aevum. But eventually I found it and read it with interest, and it made it into my discussions about Exodus in the Tolkien Encyclopedia and elsewhere.

Now, one of the things Tolkien does in those 2 articles is detail where the term occurs in Old English literature, or some form of the term. One of the most prolific users of the word is Aelfric, and this before now has elicited little comment. One of the places that Aelfric uses the term is in the Letter to Sigeweard where he talks about Matthew's demise, in Latin sources said to be among "the Ethiopians." I used Aelfric as a watershed in determining why he uses the term so often, and uses it in that specific and particular context.

Before Aelfric c. 1000, Genesis A, Exodus, and Cynewulf use the term in poetry, and in prose the Old English Martyrology and Alfred the Great in the Paris Psalter. All other instances of the word or form thereof are roughly contemporary with Aelfric or post-date him. There is no evidence that Aelfric knew the Martyrology (and if Lapidge is correct, done by Acca in the early 8th century and contemporary with Genesis and Exodus) or the Paris Psalter. But I have argued that Aelfric derives the term or at least resuscitates it in prose from Genesis, Exodus, and Cynewulf's Fates of the Apostles....all poems that I argue in the grand, sprawling, never ending dissertation influence Aelfric. Interestingly, he uses the term in exactly the same place and in the same way as Cynewulf does in the Fates, and elsewhere similarly to the Exodus poet. This to me was simply the last cherry on top of the sundae that sought to illustrate Aelfric's dependence on those poems. But I wouldn't have even thought twice about it had it not been for Tolkien's articles on the meaning of the word in Exodus 69.

I happen to think that Tolkien's study of the term has a lot to do with his mythology and LoTR, things I unfairly hinted at in articles for The Tolkien Encyclopedia ed. by Michael Drout. But perhaps if I have time I'll outline what those are in preparation to a pair of articles on Tolkien, one about Exodus and one about the study itself that I'll blog here too.

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