Wednesday, February 21, 2024

R.I.P. Richard Mathews (1944-2024)

I just googled to see if my old friend Richard Mathews was still the Director of the University of Tampa Press, only to find out that he died last month.

I met him at the 1987 Mythcon in Milwaukee, where we both appeared on a panel on David Lindsay. We found we had many common interests. Richard had published, with Borgo Press, a short book on Tolkien, Lightning from a Clear Sky (1978), and other short books on William Morris and Brian Aldiss. His most notable work was the Twayne volume Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination (1997; reissued in 2012), which was filled with insights despite the somewhat odd structure of the book (presumably imposed upon him as part of the series it was in). Richard also contributed introductions to some of the William Morris reprints for the Newcastle fantasy series in the 1970s. 

He was devoted to his work at the University of Tampa Press, from which I see he retired in 2020. I worked on one long term project that would have excited him very much, and I was looking forward to showing it to him. But that cannot happen now, alas.  

Read more about Richard here:

In Memoriam, from the University of Tampa Press 

Local obituary

and a 2011 interview.

Condolences to his family and many friends.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Tolkien on Max Beerbohm

 Oscar Wilde by Max
The New York Public Library recently hosted an exhibition on Max Beerbohm: The Price of Celebrity from October 20, 2023--January 28, 2024. A small book (around one hundred pages), with text by Margaret D. Stetz, with Mark Samuels Lasner, describes many of the items showcased in the exhibition. 

Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) is perhaps best remembered as a caricaturist (he signed his work "Max"), but he was also an essayist and drama critic. His two most famous pieces of fiction are the novel (his only one), Zuleika Dobson, or, an Oxford Love Story (1911), a satire of undergraduates, and the clever short story, "Enoch Soames," about a lesser poet from 1897 who makes a deal with the devil and travels one hundred years into the future for an afternoon, in order to ascertain his own posthumous reputation. 

Item 70 in the exhibition is a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to J.G. Riewald (1910-2006), a Beerbohm scholar who had written to Tolkien as a Professor at Merton College to ask if he knew of any personal stories about Beerbohm, who had been at Merton College as an undergraduate, and who had been made and honorary Fellow there in 1942. Tolkien replied on 20 August 1948 that he knew little of Beerbohm, whose "published cartoons ... amuse me" while Beerbohm's literary work "usually fails to amuse me." (quoted from p. 91 of the book). 

We don't know what of Beerbohm Tolkien had read (there are no Beerbohm books listed in Oronzo Cilli's Tolkien's Library, 2023), but Zuleika Dobson came out late October 1911, just as Tolkien had commenced his own undergraduate studies at Oxford, so it seems likely that Tolkien would have encountered it.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Fairy-tale Versions of Beowulf

In Tolkien On Fairy-Stories (2008), Verlyn Flieger and I noted that in Tolkien's research notes for his famous lecture/essay, Tolkien queried himself twice about whether on not Andrew Lang had included a retold Beowulf in any of his Fairy Books--the first time briefly, but in the second instance with a bit of commentary: 

A Fairy Story. But when retold (seldom) it is not retold as such. For what the poet did to it was for his own purposes--rel[ated] to the substance but not the manner of the story. It should be retold as a fairy-story. [Tolkien On Fairy-stories, p. 100]
Verlyn and I suggested that this note (probably dating from 1943) might have been the germ for Tolkien's fairy story version "Sellic Spell" (in existence by the summer of 1945), which was unpublished at the time our book came out. "Sellic Spell" has since been published in Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell (2014), edited by Christopher Tolkien. It appears there in final form (occupying 26 pages by itself), with additional material including an introduction and commentary on the drafts by Christopher, and a version by Tolkien in Old English. 

I checked the twelve Andrew Lang colored fairy books when researching Tolkien On Fairy-stories, but found no fairy tale version of Beowulf. Since then I have worked with others of Lang's various anthologies for children and, oddly (considering its title), in Lang's The Red Book of Animal Stories (1899), I found two chapters covering the Beowulf story. As usual, Lang was the compiler of stories written by other people, and the Beowulf sections, and other stories about "unscientific animals" (to use Lang's phrase) were told by Mr. H.S.C. Everard, or Harry Stirling Crawfurd Everard (1848-1909), who was best known as a writer of columns on golf, for newspapers, magazines, and specialist journals. 

Everard's "The Story of Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel's Mother" and "The Story of Beowulf and the Fire Drake" were illustrated with plates by H.J. Ford--two for the first story, one for the second. (I  copy all three along with this posting.) Both stories are short, and you can read the first here, and the second here. Both of the Everard versions have some interesting Tolkienian aspects, in details that do not come from the original. Enjoy.