Pen pals from beyond the grave!

Back during my senior Literary Translation course, Professor Felstiner asked us to find ourselves a Secret Sharer, by which he meant a writer whose voice spoke to what we were trying to do, who had blazed a trail we could follow, who could provide us a shoulder — if not a crutch — to lean on when we got stuck.  While he always stressed the importance of being faithful to the text, he was also acutely aware of the artistry inherent in good translation.  He would frequently present us with axioms of poetry and point out that you could just as easily substitute “translation” for “poem” without losing any meaning.  The one I recall best is Paul Valéry’s: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”  Which was true in my case, but not in the way he meant.

So who could my secret poetry pal be?  The most obvious answer was Auden, whose own translation of the poem was my constant reference.  But it was because of that propinquity that he wouldn’t work.  Not only did I disagree with some of his choices, but I was actively trying to distinguish myself from what he’d done; otherwise, what’s the point?

To my mind, the most distinctive move I was making was emphasizing the alliteration, so I wanted my friend to do the same.  Renowned chair-breaker and fascist Ezra Pound’s interest in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse had led him to translate The Seafarer, but even a cursory glance will show that he’s consciously archaizing in ways I’d really like to avoid.  My promise to you is that I will never end a verb in “-eth” just because the poem’s an old one.  My hope is to make the poem vital and engaging and harrowing and reasonably accessible while still being artistic.

As it happened, the man for the job, as you may have already guessed, was Tolkien, not only the author who basically created modern fantasy, but also the medieval philologist who rescued Beowulf itself.  You probably don’t need me to tell you that among his many influences in creating Middle-Earth (just guess whence he borrowed that word itself!) was Anglo-Saxon culture and poetry, most notably in the Rohirrim of LOTR.  For example, their king is Théoden, son of Thengel (directly translated from Old English, that’s King, son of King).  Yet more interestingly, for me anyway, is their oral alliterative poetry, best put on display at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which not surprisingly is my favorite bit.  A few examples:

Tall and proud [Théoden] seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!

Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!

spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,

a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride now, ride now!  Ride to Gondor!

And again:

Mourn not overmuch!  Mighty was the fallen!

meet was his ending.  When his mound is raised,

women then shall weep.  War now calls us!

And my favorite, with an ethos straight outta The Battle of Maldon:

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising

I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.

To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:

Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!


Yes yes with a waistcoat like that I think we can be friends yes yes

But even more useful was Tolkien’s extension of the unfinished Battle of Maldon, his The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (full text), which is almost entirely written in alliterative style imitative of its Anglo-Saxon forebear.

On top of all that, those of you familiar with The Hobbit will perhaps be interested to know that Tolkien plucked his dwarf-names directly from Völuspá itself, which includes a litany of them along with the first dwarves, Durin and Motsognir:

Nýi ok Niði, 
Norðri ok Suðri, 
Austri ok Vestri, 
Alþjófr, Dvalinn, 
Nár ok Náinn, 
Nípingr, Dáinn,

furr, Báfurr, 
Bömburr, Nóri, 
Án ok Ánarr, 
Ái, Mjöðvitnir.
Veigr ok Gandalfr, 
Vindalfr, Þráinn, 
Þekkr ok Þorinn, 
Þrór, Litr ok Vitr, 
Nár ok Nýráðr, 
nú hefi ek dverga, 
Reginn ok Ráðsviðr, 
rétt um talða.
Fíli, Kíli, 
Fundinn, Náli, 
Hepti, Víli, 
Hanarr, Svíorr, 
Nár ok Náinn, 
Nípingr, Dáinn, 
Billingr, Brúni, 
Bíldr ok Búri,

Frár, Hornbori, 
Frægr ok Lóni, 
Aurvangr, Jari, 

Þar var Draupnir 
ok Dolgþrasir, 
Hár, Haugspori, 
Hlévangr, Glóinn, 
Dóri, Óri, 
Dúfr, Andvari,

Skirvir, Virvir, 
Skáfiðr, Ái. 

Álfr ok Yngvi, 
Fjalarr ok Frosti, 
Finnr ok Ginnarr.

Phew.  The very alert may have noticed, along with old friends like Bifur and Gloin, Gandalf himself.  Literally translated, “Gand-alf” means “staff-elf,” and what better name for a wizard?  I’ve heard it said that here we have the very conception of The Hobbit, as Tolkien tries to explain how a wizard got mixed up with all these dwarves.

Well, I seem to have wandered a little off track, and now it’s getting late. I actually want to tell you about my second, newer versebuddy, but it will have to wait.



  1. mordicai said,

    November 10, 2009 at 7:14 am

    So gonzo for the Prof. When I, 13 or so, found our he had his wife’s gravestone say “Tinuviel” & then when he died they wrote on his “Beren”? Oh, man. Oh man oh man.

    • November 11, 2009 at 12:33 am

      He is a man with a lot of facets. I love the fact that he’s a serious scholar and yet so creative and vital.

      I dunno about getting gravestones made, but I did name-drop Farmer Giles of Ham in my vows.

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