Today would have been the 121st birthday of C.S. Lewis. A week ago today marked the 56th anniversary of his death, which was, at the time, overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy.
To celebrate his birthday, I decided to read the second essay found in the 1969 edition of Selected Literary Essays by C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper. Interestingly, the copy I checked out from the Kansas City Public Library may be a first edition. If not, it’s been in circulation for fifty years, as evidenced by date stamps through early 1996, after which, I assume, the Library moved from analog to digital (card catalog to barcodes):
I originally checked out this volume specifically to read the 21st essay entitled “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism” which was referenced in a footnote in an essay I read recently in A Tolkien Compass. For today, though, I wanted to celebrate the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, so I read, instead, the second essay entitled “The Alliterative Metre.”
The essay covers many of the rules governing alliterative verse, including these definitions:
The half-line consists of Lifts and Dips. Every half-line must contain neither more nor less than two Lifts.
A Lift is either (1) one syllable both long and accented (as the first syllable of ogre or mountain); or (b) two syllables whereof the first is short but accented, and the second unaccented (as the first two syllables of merrily, vigorous, melancholy, evident).
A Dip is any reasonable number of unaccented syllables whether long or short.
Despite my best efforts, I quickly got sidetracked by yet another footnote. It all began with a short example alliterative verse, composed (I’m assuming) by Lewis.
We were TALKing of DRAGONS, | TOLkien and I In a BERKshire BAR. | The BIG WORKman Who had SAT SILent | and SUCKED his PIPE ALL the EVEning, | from his EMPTy MUG With GLEAMing EYE | GLANCED toWARDS us; "I SEEN 'em mySELF', | he SAID FIERCEly
Note: Syllables printed above in capitals are Lifts, the rest are Dips.
The first and most distracting footnote followed the word ‘fiercely’ and read:
Partial Synopsis: Contributors analyze Gollum’s character transformation, the psychological journey of Bilbo, the regime set up by Saruman at the end of Lord of the Rings and its parallels to fascism, the books’ narrative technique, and Tolkien’s rich use of myth and symbol.
I found most of the essays collected in A Tolkien Compass to be intriguing and thought provoking. At least three of them added twenty new books, journals and articles to my to-be-read queue. The notes alone on a couple of the essays were three or four pages in length and sent me down fantastic research rabbit holes. I can’t decide which essay is my absolute favorite, so I’ll list my top five here (in author alpha order):
Huttar, Charles A. “Hell and the City: Tolkien and the Traditions of Western Literature”
Miller, David M. “Narrative Pattern in The Fellowship of the Ring“
Rogers, Deborah C. “Everyclod an Everyhero: The Image of Man in Tolkien”
Scheps, Walter “The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings“
West, Richard C. “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings“
Honorable Mentions include Agnes Perkins’ “The Corruption of Power” and U. Milo Kaufmann’s “Aspects of the Paradisiacal in Tolkien’s Work”
A Tolkien Companion, originally published in 1975, amazed me with the depth of insight and scholarship gleaned from the then available works published by Tolkien and about Tolkien’s writing. I saw at least one reference to the manuscripts archived at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Yet, these essays still pre-date the publication of The Silmarillion and the volumes of The History of Middle-earth. Unlike Master of Middle-earth, however, I did not gain any new revelations about Tolkien’s Legendarium, but I did experience profound and thought provoking moments. If I had to choose my favorite essay from the collection, it would probably be Richard West’s “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings” because I had to restrain myself from recording the entire essay as an audio excerpt.
I recommend this to people interested in delving deeper into Tolkien’s writing.