Today is Tolkien reading day.
"What?" I can hear you ask, "Isn't every day Tolkien reading day?" and I concede that you may have a point. But it is the way of our people to set aside some days of the year for things of great importance.
Tolkien reading day has been celebrated for over a decade (ah, the murky depths of time), with the date of 25th of March
chosen because it is the date of the Fall of Barad-Dûr and the downfall of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
, which seems as good a date to celebrate as any. All the more so this year, perhaps, as the Tolkien Society's theme for this year's reading day is "Life, Death and Immortality", in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien fought and (unlike many others) lived.
It is hard to escape Tolkien's connection to war writing. Gandalf's "You shall not pass!
" aside, the creation of the world started during the First World War, and the trilogy was published shortly after the end of the Second. And when Tolkien writes that
as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.1
it becomes all the harder to discount the Great War as a formative experience which must have left traces. In the words of Tolkien himself, however,
An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.1
I have often thought that it is interesting to see Tolkien's work in the context of other literary developments of the period which seem to reject progress-oriented realism. But I do not intend to spend today looking for war experiences in Tolkien's work.
I will be taking a rather different route with the life, death and immortality theme, in reading a particularly interesting translation
of The Lord of the Rings
. The fictional editor and translator of the Red Book of Westmarch writes (in Appendix F, II) that in rendering it in English, he has by necessity reduced the range of differences between the speech of the characters in the original. The Norwegian translation I am reading has attempted to restore these differences, taking full advantage of the range permitted by the unusually accommodating Neo-Norwegian.2
The Elves are made to use a variety of Ivar Aasen's original "landsmålsnormal" from 1864, giving their language an antiquated feel, while the Dúnedain and the people of Gondor use the norm from 1901 (sightly less antiquated). The Dwarves and the Ents use yet other versions.3
Gandalf, Aragorn and Saruman use a more modern, unmarked version of the language, and the Orks speak a placeless, timeless hybrid form. The language of the Hobbits, meanwhile, is closely tied to a dialect associated with tradition, though there is a distinction between the dialects of Sam and Frodo due to their difference in class.
The translation leaves some of the Englishness of The Lord of the Rings
behind, transposing it to a large extent to the Norwegian context and relying on the connotations of the various language choices to help create texture in the world. Here is its rendering of another section of the book somewhat concerned with the act of translation: the Fellowship's discussion of the inscription on the door to Moria:
"Ko tyder innskrifta?" spurde Frodo, som freista på å tyde innskrifta på bogen. "Eg trudde eg kjende alvebokstavan, men eg kan ikkje lesa desse."
"Orda er på alvemålet frå vestre Midgard i fornalderen," svara Gandalv. "Men dei seier ikke noko særs for oss. Dei seier berre: Dørene til Durin, drotten i Moria. Tal, ven, og gå inn. Og under er det skrive smått og utydeleg: Eg, Narve, gjorde dei. Celebrimbor frå Eregion rita disse teikna."
"Ko meiner dei med tal, ven, og gå inn?" spurde Lentu.
"Det er klårt nok," sa Gimle. "Om du er ein ven, sei inngangsordet, dørene vil opna seg, og so kan du gå inn."
Gandalv reiste seg så brått at alle skvatt. Han lo! "Eg har det!" ropa han. "Sjølvsagt, sjølvsagt! Løgeleg lett, som dei fleste gåter når ein skjønar svaret!"
Han plukka opp staven og stod framfor berget og sa med tydeleg røyst: Mellon!
"I røynda tok eg heilt i mist," sa Gandalv, "Gimle òg. Lentu, av alle, var på rett lei. Opningsorda var skrivne på bogen heile tida! Omsetjinga skulle ha vore: Sei "ven" og gå inn. Eg måtte berre nemne det alviske ordet for ven, og så opna dørene seg. Lett å sjøne. Lovleg lett for ein lærd og lærkunnig i desse tider fulle av mistru."
I confess I am fascinated by the idea of a translation that is less a translation than an adaptation, or a recreation, reaching back into the fiction to create something new. Death of one aspect of the original, of course; the creation or life of something new; and Tolkien, always, enduring. 1
From the foreword to the second edition, which is generally appended to the trilogy. ↩2
Neo-Norwegian appeals to me as a translation of "nynorsk" rather more than the more cumbersome "New Norwegian". It is one of Norway's three official written languages, created by Ivar Aasen about 150 years ago in an attempt to accommodate the dialects of Norway in a written language, as opposed to the more Danish "bokmål". It was originally called "landsmål", as opposed to "riksmål". Nynorsk allows both a historical depth and geographical range in that its norms have changed since its conception and it permits a range of choices dependent on the different dialects.↩3
The distinction can get rather technical at this point. If you are particularly interested/knowledgeable about the variations of Norwegian dialects/written language: The Dwarves use infinitive forms ending in -a, relying on the norm from 1959; the Ents use a mix of -a and -e endings in infinitive ("kløyvd infinitiv"), following the norm from 1917. ↩