Blind Read Through: J.R.R. Tolkien; The Book of Lost Tales Part 1, The Cottage of Lost Play Commentary
“I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of it’s own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff (pg 22).“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the commentary of Christopher and hear from Tolkien himself about the meaning behind the tale and why he told it.
Last week we touched on Tolkien’s feelings about the mythology of his native England. The quote above is from a letter he sent to his friend Milton Waldman, where he states he felt that there were no real fairy tales originating out of England. So “the primary intention of his work was to satisfy his desire for a specifically and recognizably English literature of ‘faerie’ (pg 22).”
The idea of an old world filled with creatures great and small that was a precursor to our modern world swirled in his mind. In the beginning, “The story of Eriol, the mariner, was central to my father’s (Tolkien) original conception of the mythology (pg 22).“
The concept was to have Eriol find his way to a land of Faerie and learn some lost or archaic knowledge, which he would then report to the reader. This form is still in this “Book of Lost Tales.”
Tolkien started his (metaphoric) journey into Middle-earth with the basis in one of the oldest stories ever told – Beowulf.
This may seem strange because Beowulf has more history related to the Danes, but the first known translation of Beowulf is in Old English. Tolkien came to love the story because he was a linguist and one of his projects was to translate the tale from Old English. He took particular notice of the character Hengest, a sailor, traveler, and hero to the Thanes. Though Hengest only had a small appearance in Beowulf, Tolkien took notice. Again it was the language that garnered his interest, and we know this because Hengest and his brother Horsa’s names roughly translate to Stallion and Horse, respectively.
When Tolkien began to write his tales, not just translate those of others, he created Eriol; however, his original name was Ottor, and he used an old English name that meant wanderer. His father was Eoh which meant horse (of which he took from Hengest), and he had a very Cain and Abel relationship with his brother, Beorn. That name may sound familiar to those who read The Hobbit, as Beorn was the shapechanger.
Tolkien uses some Germanic, Finnish, Danish, and Ole English names to evolve his language, which eventually became Elvish (though at the time of writing these “Lost Tales,” he called it Gnomish). The evolution of the tale coincided with the development of the language.
Christopher spells it out in the commentary, and it makes perfect sense. “But in the earliest conception he was not an Englishman of England: England in the sense of the land of the English did not yet exist; for the cardinal fact of this conception is that the Elvish isle to which Eriol came was England – that is to say, Tol Eressëa would become England, the land of the English, at the end of the story. Koromas or Kortirion, the town in the centre of Tol Eressëa to which Eriol comes in The Cottage of Lost Play, would become in after days Warwick [and in elements Kor- and War- were etymologically connected] (pg 24-25).“
So it could be possible that in Tolkien’s mind, Eriol was a Dane of the line of Hengest who went traveling for adventure and happened upon a strange land that would eventually be called England but was then called Tol Eressëa. He came upon it with surprise because it hadn’t been there previously, because Ulmo, the Valar who most loved Man (read that as humans), moved the island of Tol Eressëa from the bottom of the ocean. It’s possible Ulmo did this because of his love of Man, enabling Eriol to discover it so he could propagate the Lost Tales.
The difficulty with that is Tol Eressëa was an island just off the coast of Valinor, so how could Eriol travel to Tol Eressëa and not see or experience Valinor?
Because Tolkien created a unique device that has become a staple in most modern Fantasy, from Robert Jordan to Terry Goodkind. The Dream World.
Tolkien called it Olórë Mallë, otherwise known as the Path of Dreams. “After the description of the Hiding of Valinor, it is told that at the bidding of Manwë (who looked on the event in sorrow) the Valar Oromë and Lórien’s devising was Olórë Mallë, the Path of Dreams; by this road, when ‘Men were yet but new-wakened on the earth’, ‘the children of the fathers of the fathers of Men’ came to Valinor in their sleep (pg 27).”
Men could gain access to Valinor at the bidding of the Valar by dreaming, so why couldn’t Eriol get the stories from the Valar instead of The Cottage? I see two different reasons. One is the nature of dreams; when we dream, we tend to forget details when we wake, and the second is The Valar wanted to remain hidden. Also, if they could have everyone coming to Valinor through the dream journey, it would upset the balance of the Music of the Ainur.
It is the Children on Tol Eressëa who use Olórë Mallë the most often. When Eriol comes to the Cottage, they are all sleeping, and it takes a gong to wake them. I’d propose they are communing with the Valar and gaining power, morals, and purpose, which gets syamped into their being, though they forget about the communion upon waking.
Remember that Eriol’s father was one of these children at one point, so it would stand to reason why he felt called towards Tol Eressëa and the Cottage in the first place.
Though most of this is conjecture (much of which on my part), it makes sense, especially because “The ‘Eriol-story’ is among the knottiest and most obscure matters in the history of Middle-earth and Aman.“
Christopher goes on to say, “Those ideas can indeed be discerned from his notes; but the notes were for the most part pencilled at furious speed, the writing now rubbed and faint and in places after long study scarcely decipherable…(pg 23).”
Join me next week as well take a step back and review “The Fellowship of the Rings” and unveil and few surprises!
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