Thursday, January 19, 2012

2011 and Some Nobel Thoughts

Last year I had two ancient projects finally see the light of day, and one of my books came out as an ebook.  One of the ancient projects was Tolkien-related, the other not.  The Tolkien-related piece was a short filler article I submitted back in 2006 to CSL: The Bulletin of The New York C.S. Lewis Society.  The two-page piece is titled "The Inklings and Festschriften", and merely surveys the eleven books published to honor nine of the Inklings.  It appears in the May/June 2011 issue.  For information on the New York C. S. Lewis Society, see their web page.  The older book that re-appeared as an ebook is my anthology H.P. Lovecraft's Favorite Weird Tales. (Clicking on the cover at right will take you to kindle version at Amazon. I believe other e-formats were in the works, so check your favorite platform. The print edition is still also available here.) The project unrelated to Tolkien was an expanded edition of a 1933 collection, titled Devils' Drums, of central-African voodoo-styled horror stories by British writer Vivian Meik.  This book was completed back in 2003 for one publisher, who sat on it for eight years until I pulled it and placed it with a different publisher, Medusa Press, who produced a fine edition, limited to 300 copies.  For further details on the new edition, see Medusa Press's website.  For further information on Vivian Meik, see my entry on him at my Lesser-Known Writers blog by clicking here.

And speaking of my Lesser-Known Writers blog, I should point out that a couple of the entries already posted have Tolkienian associations.  There is an entry on Dora Owen, who edited The Book of Fairy Poetry (1920) in which Tolken's poem "Goblin Feet" was first reprinted, along with an original color illustration by Warwick Goble.  And there is an entry on G.S. Tancred, who edited the slim 1927 poetry volume Realities which contains the first publication of Tolkien's poem "The Nameless Land".  There are more entries on writers with Tolkien-associations in the queue to be published, and in the entries being worked on, so check back. I'm using the Labels function of the blog as a kind of index to it, so if you scan down to Tolkien, and click on it, you'll find  the Tolkien-related posts (currently two in number).  Here are the direct-to-entry links for the entries on Dora Owen and G.S. Tancred.

A number of interesting publications relating to Tolkien came out last year.  Most of these have received (or will receive) good coverage elsewhere, so I'd just like to call attention to a few off-trail items that might otherwise escape under the radar.  These are the first two issues of a new (paperback) serial, The Journal of Inklings Studies.  So far, the Tolkien-related content has been minimal (amounting to one book review by Jason Fisher), but the C.S. Lewis content has been very interesting, and I hope we will see the Tolkien coverage expand proportionally in future issues.  Details and contents listings at the publisher's website.

Michael Saler's As If, discussed in a previous post, is now out.  ***UPDATE, 1/20:  Tom Shippey has reviewed As If in The Wall Street Journal, see it here*** Similarly, Paul Edmund Thomas's new edition of E. R. Eddison's Styrbiorn the Strong, also previously discussed, made its appearance in December.  Oddly, the publisher photographed the main text from the 1926 Boni edition, and set the new material in a different font, making for an inelegant hybrid. But that's a minor complaint compared to the good news that this book is available again.

Finally, a few comments on the news reported by Alison Flood in The Guardian that Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1961.  I've seen a lot of snarky comments, the worst of which is probably The Guardian's own headline:  "J.R.R. Tolkien's Nobel Prize Chances Dashed by 'Poor Prose'" .  The Guardian has a history of knocking Tolkien at almost every opportunity, but the article below the headline says something quite different from what the headline implies, AND if you look into the source in the Swedish original, you find the situation is more complicated than the sneering newspaper headline implies.

First of all, we already knew that on 7 January 1961, C. S. Lewis wrote to Alastair Fowler:
In confidence.  If you were asked to nominate a candidate for the Nobel Prize (literature), who wd. be your choice? Mauriac has had it.  Frost? Eliot? Tolkien? E.M. Forster? Do you know the ideological slant (if any) of the Swedish Academy?  Keep all this under your hat.  
What we learned this month, after the fifty-year embargo on the 1961 Nobel discussions was lifted, is that C. S. Lewis, who as a professor of literature was apparently asked to nominate a candidate, did in fact nominate J.R.R. Tolkien.  It was the Nobel jury-member Anders Österling who nixed Tolkien from consideration, as he did several other names proffered.

The article in the Swedish newspaper which broke the news, the Sydsvenska Dagbladet, can be found here. I'm grateful to the Swedish translator John-Henri Holmberg for commenting on this and allowing me to quote him here.  John-Henri writes: 
What Anders Österling wrote about Tolkien was that "resultatet har dock icke i något avseende blivit diktning av högsta klass”, which is actually difficult to translate. Literally, I might try: "The result, however, has in no particular turned out to be 'diktning' of the highest order", but the problem is the word "diktning", which is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it means "literary creation, poetry, poetics"; as a verb it means "the creation of poetry, the act of literary creation" etc. Make of it what you will; as a Swede, I'd say that the sense isn't really that Österling (himself a poet and literary critic, in his late 70s in 1961 though he remained active until around 1978) isn't primarily complaining about Tolkien's prose, but of the totality of his literary creation: what he says is that as a whole, The Lord of the Rings just isn't up to par.
Which is of course not what The Guardian says. But to put further context on this, it should be pointed out that the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings was then just appearing (the first volume in 1959, and the third later in 1961).  The translation was by Åke Ohlmarks, and Tolkien himself knew enough Swedish to complain of Ohlmark's translation ("guilty of some very strange mistakes") and of the "ridiculous fantasy" that Ohlmarks constructed as a biographical introduction (see Tolkien's letters to Allen & Unwin of 24 January and 23 February 1961, in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).

This leaves one to wonder if Österling dismissed Tolkien based on having seen only Ohlmark's Swedish translation (or only a volume or two of it, since the translation of the third volume had not apparently been published).  John-Henri Holmberg comments:
Incidentally, sure, by now the members of the Academy probably are reasonably fluent in English. Maybe not as much in 1961; remember that Sweden was primarily influenced from Germany during the later 1900s and until WWII. The first and obligatory foreign language taught in Swedish schools was German, until and including the Spring term of 1944; since the Fall term that year, it's been English. Which means that Swedes older than around 30 in 1961 didn't necessarily study much English in school
And about the dismissal of Tolkien, John-Henri wrote further:
The writer expressing this view, the then Constant Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Anders Österling, himself a poet (1884-1981), was already 77 in 1961 (possibly ironic, considering his views on the age of some Nobel award candidates; he continued publishing almost until his death), and had been greatly influenced by Henri Bergson as well as by the British romantic poets. In fact, Österling was quite impressive both as a poet and as a critic; his active work spanned some 75 years, as his first book of poems was published in 1904 and his last in 1978. As a critic, he was famous for his extremely high literary demands, but he remained open to new forms of expression in the arts; in his mid-eighties, in the early 1970s, he wrote appreciatively of psychedelic and hippie culture.
To me, the most newsworthy aspect of this revelation is not that Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1961, nor that he didn't win it (the Swedish Academy has a long history of eclectic choices), but that given this small bit of Tolkien-related news those at The Guardian jumped at the opportunity to twist it and sneer.  Shame on them.


  1. Always good to see more and more interest in Tolkien ! Please contact me regarding a Kenneth Morris project. thanks, Ken Small
    ( )

  2. Ohlmarks's translation is, alas, something of a joke. I'll see if I can dig up an old article I wrote about some of his more horrendous mistakes (and deliberate changes!) for some future mailing of the EOD.


  3. Thanks, Martin. I'd love to see this. Most US Tolkien fans know of Ohlmarks only by heresay, so commentary by someone who's actually read him would be greatly appreciated.

  4. I just recalled that it has been published online, in the blog of another APA that I belong to:

    This is just a very small selection -- there are literally thousands more in Ohlmarks' translation. I simply wanted to show the more horrendous ones.

    Read it and weep!


  5. Thanks, Martin. Highly interesting!