Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf: The Real Story

The Tolkien Estate recently announced that J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf will be released in May.  Since there seems to be a little bit of incorrect information floating around the web (thanks in part to some careless work by more than one reporter for British newspapers), I figured I should clarify things.

First, I have nothing to do with this edition. I did work on Tolkien's Beowulf translation about ten years ago and was putting together an edition along the same lines as the one the Estate has described, but the Estate withdrew permission for that project and I have done no new work on it since then.

Second, I did not "discover" the Beowulf translation, not even in the sense that I found it in the Bodleian Library. This claim is a conflation of a story about one manuscript with information about a totally different text.

The real story is not quite as exciting.

I went to the Bodleian Library in 1996 to finish up my dissertation research, which included work on the evolution of Tolkien's 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." From the catalogue in Modern Papers I knew that there were notes and drafts of that lecture in MS Tolkien A26. What I did not know was that not only did the box of manuscripts contain marked-up carbon typescripts and proofs of the British Academy lecture, but also two substantial handwritten texts that were Oxford lectures about Beowulf written in the 1930s. These lectures were obviously preparatory to "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and were quite a bit longer and more elaborate than that text. These were what I "discovered," not Tolkien's translation of Beowulf (which I actually did not examine).

Obviously a text preserved in a library and mentioned in its catalogue is not a "discovery" in the sense that it was ever "lost," but it was a discovery to me and also, as best I can tell, to Tolkien scholarship and Anglo-Saxon studies, since neither I nor the field knew that such lectures existed.  Although Christopher Tolkien obviously knew what they were when he donated the manuscripts in 1986, as far as I know, no mention of the lecture drafts had appeared in any publication in the decade between the donation and the date I read them. So that's was the "discovery" I was talking about.

The Tolkien Estate very graciously gave me permission to have the texts microfilmed and to quote from them in my 1997 Loyola Chicago Ph.D. dissertation, and after I successfully defended and had started teaching at Wheaton, the Estate gave me permission to produce the edition that became Beowulf and the Critics, which was published in 2003.

[Note: the release of the edition was absolutely not timed to coincide with the Peter Jackson films, and there was no coordination at all with the Estate. In fact, my publisher had the manuscript for over two years before the edition appeared. I was nagging them to try to get the book released in time for The Fellowship of the Ring (and my tenure case!), but the queue of previously accepted works was so long that Beowulf and the Critics was not released until around the time of The Two Towers, and then they printed only 300 copies, so it sold out in about a week and new copies were not available until after the hype had passed. My total royalties from the edition have been something like $75.00 -- though I haven't received a royalty statement in a few years; I should check. The Tolkien Estate's total royalties have been $0.00.  So much for the claim that Christopher Tolkien allowed the edition to be published for financial reasons].

In 1999 (I think), I had traveled to Oxford to proof my edition of Beowulf and the Critics against the manuscripts. While there, I had a very pleasant meeting with the Solicitor for the Tolkien Estate and expressed my interested in producing an edition of J.R.R.T.'s Beowulf translation and commentaries. The Tolkien Estate arranged to have all the manuscripts microfilmed and sent to me, and I ended up doing a "feasibility study," proposing an edition that combined the partial verse translation, the complete prose translation and the commentaries. The Tolkien Estate approved this project, and I began working on my edition in early 2002.

Important Note: I did not "discover" Tolkien's Beowulf translation and never made any statement to that effect. The existence of the Beowulf translation was known to Tolkien scholarship long before 1996. Some of it had appeared as early as 1940 in "On Translating Beowulf," and two passages (one verse, one prose) were quoted by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator.  The translations, MS Tolkien 29, were identified in the Bodleian Library's Modern Papers catalogue, and their existence and possible quality were at least a tangential topic of conversation among Anglo-Saxonists at ISAS 1995 at Stanford. Furthermore, I have never seen or touched the physical manuscript of the Beowulf translation, having done all of my work from the microfilms sent to me by the Estate in 2002.

In 2003, my college put out a press release about my work on Tolkien in which the publication of Beowulf and the Critics was announced and my continuing work on the Beowulf edition was mentioned.

On the day after Christmas in 2003 (I think), just after the release of Beowulf and the Critics, a reporter from a British newspaper called me to follow up on the press release. Having had no serious experience dealing with the media, I spoke to him unguardedly and for a long time. I was very excited about the publication of my first book, and I also talked to him about the new project that I had begun. Several days later the story "Tolkien's Last Great Work is Discovered" appeared on page 3 of the paper. The reporter had conflated my story about the Beowulf and the Critics lectures with the Beowulf translation, and then it was off to the races. Because of the hype surrounding The Two Towers film, the story went global, with well over a hundred newspaper articles appearing. Interestingly, exactly zero reporters contacted me about the story in that first rush of stories, as everyone simply lifted the quotes from the original article but wrote as if they had interviewed me themselves (important lesson about journalism).

By New Year's Eve things had gotten out of hand, and I faxed the Tolkien Estate asking for guidance. They were not happy, especially because they thought I had given a copy of the unpublished translation to the reporter. I was confused by and angry at being accused of leaking the translation, and it was only after quite a bit of mutual misunderstanding that I understood that the Estate had not realized that the passage of the translation quoted by the reporter had been one of the papers in MS Tolkien 26 included in the material I published in the appendix. I had pointed the reporter towards this material and then helped him convert my diplomatic transcript into a readable text (by the way, this was the same passage of text that appeared in "On Translating Beowulf," and in hindsight I should have just directed the reporter to that text). The confusion and misunderstanding led to a somewhat rancorous exchange of letters, and the Tolkien Estate withdrew their permission from my edition. I returned their microfilms and have not worked on my edition since then.

In the years since, the Tolkien Estate in general and Christopher Tolkien in particular have been very helpful with other projects, from giving Tolkien Studies timely permission to quote from and publish previously unpublished works, to helping me decode J.R.R.T.'s handwriting for the revised edition of Beowulf and the Critics. I am glad that I did not follow the advice I received to pursue legal action over the withdrawn permission but instead focused my energies on other projects.

Although I have obviously already read (and edited) the translations themselves, I am still very much looking forward to the release of the book in May. I am interested to see how Christopher Tolkien has put the entire edition together, and I look forward to reading his commentary (especially if it is anything like the excellent apparatus that he created for Sigurd and Gudrún).


The above story is not as exciting as "discovering" Tolkien's "last great work" would be, but it has the benefit of being true.

And in any event, I now know that the low-level "discovery" of finding something in a box of papers could never come close to the thrill of a real intellectual discovery. Thanks to the "Lexomic" methods our research group has developed at Wheaton over the past few years (http://lexomics.wheatoncollege.edu), I have experienced the joy of recovering information that was lost for over a millennium and making discoveries about Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon texts (at least one of these discoveries has been confirmed by an archeological find). The pleasure of finding things out is much greater than the pleasure of just finding things.


















Thursday, March 20, 2014

Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits now on iTunes, CDbaby

Responding to people who have asked "Who buys physical CDs any more?" I have put Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits up on iTunes and CDBaby.

The album includes readings in both Old English and Modern English of 10 classic Anglo-Saxon poems: 

Cædmon's Hymn
The Battle of Brunanburh
The Wanderer
The Ruin
The Wife's Lament
Wulf and Eadwacer
Deor
The Fortunes of Men
Riddle 47 (Book Moth)
The Dream of the Rood

There is a general introduction as well as explanatory introductions for each poem.  

I am working on putting up a downloadable version of Beowulf Aloud as well, but right now I only have physical copies for sale of that 3-CD set at BeowulfAloud.com .

I hope you enjoy listening to the poems as much as I enjoyed translating and recording them. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Value of a Medieval Studies Degree


Parent: I'm really proud of my daughter's success in medieval studies. It's amazing how she has learned these languages and knows so much about literature I didn't even know existed. And being a co-author on an academic paper... no one in our family has ever done that.

But I'm worried about her majoring in something so specialized. She doesn't want to teach, and the economy is still terrible, and we're not a rich family. She has to get a job when she graduates. Wouldn't it be better to major in Psychology or Business, something practical? What is a degree in medieval studies going to do for her?

Professor: Show potential employers that she is really, really smart.

[pause]

Professor: I'm completely serious. Success in medieval studies is incontrovertible evidence of intelligence, self-discipline and the ability to solve complex problems.* Employers aren't allowed to give IQ tests (which don't really work that well, anyway), but they want to hire really smart people. Medieval studies is a big, bright flag that says "Smart Person Here."

Joking aside, it's probably a safe bet that any undergraduate who can do original research in a centuries-old academic discipline dominated by prickly Oxbridgians, grumpy Germans and in-bred Ivy-types is going to be able to handle something like banking or administration.

[pause]

Parent: That's a really good point.

[pause]

Parent: [sounding frustrated] Why don't liberal arts colleges ever just say that? Why all this vague "critical thinking" stuff that is obviously b.s.?

Professor: Colleges are run by administrators, not medievalists. Administrators like vague phrases like "critical thinking," because the same group of words can mean different things to different constituencies. So "critical thinking" can mean "criticizing aspects of current social organization" to the people who care about that stuff and "being able to think in a disciplined manner" to people who care about that stuff. But the very vagueness that makes the cliche appealing to administrators robs it of rhetorical power.

However, some of us non-administrators are trying to get the word out: How to Think: The Liberal Arts and Their Enduring Value



* Two of my student research partners, both of whom concentrated in medieval studies and wrote honors theses on Anglo-Saxon topics, recently graduated from a top-25 law school. They didn't study pre-law or political science but were nevertheless perfectly prepared for the academic challenges. Why? Well, honestly, mostly probably because they're both ridiculously smart and self-disciplined, for which their parents get the credit, not me. But also because medieval studies prepared them to handle complicated, ill-defined problems--just like the kinds of things they had to deal with in law school. The difference? The law-school problems are all in Modern English, so they're a bit easier. Also, their undergraduate focus in medieval studies demonstrated to law schools that they were extremely smart, which helped get accepted into an elite school in which they could then prove themselves.



Monday, February 17, 2014

Lecture at Swarthmore

Giving a talk at Swarthmore next week: "Tolkien and Beowulf: Towers and Ruins," Feb 26, at 8:00 p.m. in Science Center 101.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Football Story

This was my first season coaching football. I learned a lot. I also came to love the game far more than I ever expected I would. This little story is one reason why.

The Dedham E-team is made up of seven- and eight-year-olds as well as the "older, lighter" nine-year- -olds (an 8-year-old can weigh 90 pounds and still stay at E; a 9-year-old has to be under 75).

A kid that we will call "Martin" was one of the smallest 7-year-olds on the team. He was a little shy, a little nervous, and not yet very physically developed. He was always one of the last two runners in from a lap, and he often would excuse himself to get water, ask his parents about something, go to the rest room, get his equipment fixed. I don't know if he was playing because his parents were forcing him to (I don't think so) or because once he had signed up they weren't letting him quit (more likely).

Part way into our season we had a game against South Boston on their home field. For some reason, the veterans on the team were talking up Southie, telling the rookies how tough they were, how mean they played, how they had a tree growing in the end zone of their field that you could run into and kill yourself (that part is true), how the parents and spectators always went crazy.

"Martin" seemed to take this talk very seriously. When he arrived at Southie, tears were streaming down his face and his father had to force him onto the field. He was absolutely terrified, and he kept sobbing "I don't want to play. I don't want to play."

Arthur was one of the senior assistant coaches on the team. To give you an idea of how much Arthur knows about football: his first year coaching Pop Warner was the year I was born.

Arthur saw Martin crying, walked over to him, and didn't try to talk him onto the field. Instead, he picked up a football.

"Hey, Martin, play catch with me," he said, and began tossing the ball back and forth.

Arthur is at least 6' 6" and 250 pounds. He is a retired police officer. He has a very deep voice and a commanding presence.

But he just kept tossing the ball back and forth with Martin, slowly edging him out onto the field by stepping away, so that Martin had to follow him in order to play catch.

When they were in the middle of the field, near where the team was warming up, some of Martin's teammates saw him and called out "Hey, Martin! We need you over here for cals."

Martin looked up at Arthur.

"You know, Martin," Arthur said. "I threw up before every single football game I played until I got to high school. I was that nervous." Pause. "I'll bet you didn't throw up today, did you?"

Martin shook his head.

"You want to go warm up with your friends?"

Martin nodded. And he did.

And he got through the game without incident and was smiling from ear to ear when we ended up winning in a blow-out.

*

But the story doesn't end there.

A few weeks later, we were playing Ashland, a team that was absolutely enormous. They had 12 nine-year-olds, compared to our 6, and they towered over us. But things went well, and we were tied in the last two minutes of the 4th quarter with the ball on the 50 yard line.

Coach Paul, our offensive coordinator, is Arthur's nephew and has been coaching for 20 years. He is a football genius, able not only to teach a bunch of little kids the full high-school play book, but to read a situation and know exactly what play our team could pull off against the particular opponents on the field.

This time he saw something and set up a play for a long pass and a touchdown, talking it over during a time-out. The kids all seemed to understand what they were supposed to do. Paul went over their roles again, and then:

"The one thing that has to happen in this play," he said, "is that the Left End has got to hold the block for more than a full second. Otherwise the Quarterback is getting hit before he can throw. Who is Left End on the black offense?"

"Martin!" various kids called out. Paul did a bit of a double-take, because, remember, Martin is tiny and these Ashland kids were huge.

"Martin," he said. "You've had a great game. The guy you're blocking is really tall. If you want, I can put Mitch in your spot and you can play his position. Do you want me to move you?"

You could see Martin swallow hard. And then he said, in his high-pitched, little boy's voice: "I can do it, Coach."

And the team started chanting "Mar-tin! Mar-tin! Mar-tin!"

When the kids ran out onto the field and got themselves lined up, I turned to Paul and said, "Well, no matter what else happens, it's now a successful season." He nodded.


(It doesn't matter than the QB fumbled the snap, Martin never had to block anybody, and the game ended in a tie).

From that day forward Martin was a different kid. He laughed and goofed around, he no longer came in last when we were running laps, he hit the tackling sled like he actually wanted to move it. He's still tiny, but when I see him at basketball he's playing with a smile on his face and jumping for rebounds and taking shots. And he told Mitchell that he can't wait for football next year.

That's why I have come to love football so much: the game creates opportunities for kids to be heroes to their teammates and heroes to themselves--not necessarily because of their athletic prowess, but just because they've tried to do something difficult.

Great coaches, like Arthur, Paul and our head coach, Jay, work to help every kid succeed and put that kind of achievement ahead of wins or stats or promoting their own children. They may not know it, but they are teachers (which probably explains why I enjoyed being around them).









Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Metaphor Alert: History of the Field

Cuts from the in-progress book on Lexomics:

The very best traditional philologists, people like Lapidge and Gretsch, can collect widely scattered shards of information and piece together enough to get a view of a little piece of lost culture. But scholars like this are rare, and their very brilliance shows how much the scholarly world has had to change because the great philologists of past generations have worked out the mine. 

Back in the Age of Grimm, scholars like Kemble and Grundtvig could casually pick the best nuggets right from the tunnel floor, the dust of diamonds on their shoes. And although the next generation might have needed picks and shovels, Thorpe, Müllenoff, Sweet and Köhler and still found riches. There was still high-grade ore for Sweet, Sarrazin, Sievers and Skeat, but the lode was beginning to be depleted, so Olrick, Panzer, Chambers and their contemporaries had to be miners rather than prospectors, following the dwindling veins deeper and deeper below the surface. In the post-war period scholars were reduced to panning for glistening flecks, and by the 1980s the field was reduced to mechanically processing vast piles of low-grade ore in hopes of eventually extracting a small amount of metal from the overburden.


To push the metaphor perhaps further than I should: The introduction of lexomic techniques allows us to find riches even in the tailings piles of previous generations. What was for them un-useable is for us, with new knowledge and technology, a new source of wealth.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A good trick? (and is it legit?)

Every couple of years I team-teach the lit half of a "Connected" pair of classes with my friend, the mathematician Bill Goldbloom Bloch. "The Edge of Reason" links my SciFi class with his Math Thought class over the course of an entire year, with us alternating teaching days and each prof sitting in on and participating in all of the other's classes. It's incredibly fun, and I learn a lot about math and, maybe more importantly, about how mathematicians think. Bill says that most mathematicians have 1 or 2 "good tricks," ways of conceptualizing the world or handling problems, that allows them to make multiple discoveries. Going beyond mathematicians: physicist Richard Feynman had his "integrate over all paths" trick, Einstein had his visualizations, etc. My own "good tricks" have included "read the whole thing" (you'd be amazed by how few scholars do) and "push the metaphor until it breaks."

Now I think I have a new one. And it's mathematical.

This summer our research group was working on the problem of thorn / eth distribution  . We were having trouble visualizing the data. I don't know why, but suddenly into my mind popped the notion of a rolling average, something I think I'd learned way back in high school and which had shown up when I was being creative with budgets to avoid laying people off during the financial crisis: it turns out that the amount of money you are allowed to draw from an endowment's revenue stream is based on a rolling average of the returns in several previous quarters. This saved me during the crash, as we had a little more money right at the beginning—since the the previous quarters were propping up the average—so we could at least give visiting and part-time faculty a year or two to try to find something else instead of just dropping them into a terrible economy (my sole accomplishment as department chair was that I didn't lay anyone off or fail to renew a contract).

So I started calculating the rolling ratio of θ (total number of þ divided by total number of þ plus total number of ð) through a text: choose a "window" of words or letters, add up all the thorns and eths in that window, calculate θ, and then move the window one unit to the right and re-calculate. The plots of the rolling ratios turn out to be very interesting. I'm just finishing up a paper now on what they might tell us about a work's textual history.

But I have been worried--following a chance remark by Janet Bately at ISAS Dublin--that all we were detecting with θ was the frequency of first-, second- or third-person plural present tense or plural imperative verbs. These forms end with an interdental, and there certainly seems to be a correlation between terminal interdentals and scribal use of ð (most famously by the B-scribe of Beowulf, but elsewhere as well). I wanted to know if θ was just a complicated proxy measurement for portions of the poem in the plural present tense or the imperative.

So we developed another measure, τ, which is the ratio of terminal interdentals (þ and ð) to the total number of interdentals in a passage. We calculated τ as a rolling ratio as well, and then compared the plots of τ and θ.

Sometimes these plots appear to be negatively correlated with each other: when τ goes down, θ increases, but other times,  not so much. And just looking at the graphs wasn't entirely satisfactory. So I calculated Pearson correlation coefficients between τ and θ. It turns out that these are pretty ambiguous when applied to whole texts, generally being on the order of .3  (1.0 would be perfect correlation and 0 would be no correlation at all). That wasn't entirely helpful: with an r of .3, tense and number could be contributing to θ, but other things (textual  history) could be as well.

Then last night I was staring in frustration at the τ and θ graphs for the Old English Genesis, and it hit me: there was a visible correlation between τ and θ in Genesis B, but not in Genesis A. I quickly calculated the Pearson correlation coefficient for each poem and indeed, Genesis B is highly correlated, with an r of .69, while Genesis A is only weakly correlated.

And here's where both the "good trick" and my question of legitimacy comes in. I realized that I could do the rolling window trick with the correlation coefficient. Calculate τ and θ, then choose a window length and calculate the correlation coefficient for that window. Then shift to the right and recalculate r. Plot the whole thing.

Except that it was hard to read the plot, since you ended up with both positive and negative correlations (negative correlation just means that when one variable goes up, the other goes down. It's just as much a correlation as a positive one).  So I had idea of taking the absolute value of r and plotting that. When you do so, you get very interesting results. Genesis B, for example, jumps right out of the Genesis plot. So too does the canticle-sourced material in Daniel and the section of Christ III that's based on the sermon of Caesarius of Arles.

My tentative conclusion: because not all scribes consistently followed the "terminal interdental to be represented by ð" rule, the correlation between τ and θ is actually useful data. Instead of simply invalidating θ, the correlation--and its absence--tells you something about the copying history of the text. My hunch is that it's the later scribes who produce segments with closely correlated τ and θ, so when we don't see the correlation, we can hypothesize that we're looking at a text that was written and copied earlier and so in which the inertia of the earlier forms is influencing that final copy.

But my worry is that a rolling Pearson's correlation coefficient is somehow statistically or mathematically illegitimate. You've got two rolling ratios (τ and θ), each of which over-samples many of the same data points (because the same point is going to influence multiple windows) and then you're doing the same kind of rolling comparison with over-sampling with the relatively complex Pearson formula.  I'm worried that my lack of mathematical and statistical sophistication has led me to miss something that should cancel out something else. Unfortunately, it is finals week, so I can't meet with my friend and co-author the statistician for a while at least, so I just have to live with being both excited at a potential discovery and worried that at any moment the intellectual floor is going to collapse out from under it.