"How often. . .did Tolkien stop and chuckle to himself?"
Bilbo's song, posted a few days ago, generated a tremendous response, as Bilbo's songs were wont to do, from Jim Hodge, Professor Emeritus of German at Bowdoin College, Maine. Jim opened tantalizing glimpses into Tolkien's exploration of the subterranean roots of European myths. He wrote:
This is a follow-up to our conversation--precipitated by reading Bilbo's song on Brits At Their Best--about my writing three short articles on Tolkien, dealing with the echoes and evidence in his fiction of his extensive scholarly acquaintance with the Celtic, Germanic and Finnish mythological traditions.
A great deal of what lies behind and is implied in the "national" literatures of Europe, and is sometimes referenced there is not just the residue of Classical Antiquity, but is the venerable and powerful remnant of the great, non-classical peoples who became Europeans. At about the time I became interested in Tolkien's use of this material and wrote a few things about it, graduate students in English of the generation born in the 1960s were writing MA theses and doctoral dissertations about him.
Tolkien was far ahead of me, but I recognized the spoor and followed the tracks. And that is the source of these three articles which pay tribute not only to the folk traditions of our ancestors, but to the genius of the man who incorporated so much of them into the fabric of the Fellowship of the Ring. My short studies were confined to The Hobbit, but since that time, much more has been written about the whole series. Unlike, in my opinion, any other writer of fantasy, Tolkien has woven the stuff of original European, ethnic folklore and myth into a fabric that reflects the magic of a time when the gods rode the winds, when the darkness of violence moved across the land, when those who stood in its path were armed only with their resolve and when the warmth of hearth and home was still the reward at the end of the task. Well, maybe not so different from now.
The articles were chronologically:
1) "Tolkien, Formulas of the Past," Mythlore (Fall,1981)
2) "Tolkien's Mythological Calendar" in Aspects of Fantasy (Greenwood, 1986)
3) "The Heroic Profile of Bilbo Baggins," Florilegium (Fall, 1987)
I will use some of the ideas from these articles, expanding and adapting in places, to give some idea of their content and also their intent.
1) Formulas of the past will be the longest section, because it goes to the DNA of folk traditions. It refers to a stylistic trait flamboyantly employed in English literature by Henry Fielding: author intrusion, When the narrator of a "standard" tale told in the third person leaves the third-person and speaks in first person, saying, for instance: "And now I must leave these good people and warn you about the dangers their friends are in at this very moment," there is at first a kind of mild shock --Who is this talking to me? It must be the storyteller! What does he want?
When Fielding used it, it could be a lengthy comedic device, a commentary on society and many other things, and it was a characteristic high point of his style. When it occurs in The Hobbit, however, it is usually fairly brief.
I don't know what river it was...
I can't tell you what happened after that...
I don't know how long he kept on like this...
I don't know her genealogy, but...
Like Tolkien, I am not above playing a trick. The first and third quotes really are from The Hobbit, but quote two is from the medieval German Song of the Nibelungs and four is from the Icelandic Prose Edda. So the technique existed long before Fielding made such lavish use of it. It intruded upon these third-person tales to make a point, and then move on. The quotes above serve to leave something unresolved or mysterious, and, in a sense, to rub our noses in the fact that we will not find out.
There are other similarities; for instance, what we call foreshadowing--a device that warns the audience that something portentous and perhaps unpleasant will happen. Think of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer saying "I knew I was going to regret this..." And then compare to:
Neither of them had any idea of what was going to happen...
(Song of the Nibelungs)
I am afraid that was the last they ever saw of (them)...
There is also interjection for the purpose of making a gratuitous judgment:
I think it must have been the devil himself who convinced her
(Song of the Nibelungs)
I expect they were a kind of "purple emperor"
A final style characteristic to finish our examples--switching the focus of the tale from one person or group to another, for instance:
But if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug...
Now, as to Nuada, he was holding a feast one time...
(Gaelic, from Lady Gregory: Gods and Fighting Men)
Now it is time to speak of Ahti,
Of that lively youth to gossip...
(The Finnish Kalevala)
The author intrusion which grows so big and entertaining in Tom Jones is in these works usually short and for a purpose in turning or explaining the story. It is, if you follow the theory developed by Milman Parry and his student and successor Albert Bates Lord from their life-long study of Serbian folk singers, an echo of a different time. Tracing such brief remarks--as well as other elements--in Serbian song and legend, they propounded an idea that set the scholarly world on its ear and still feeds the arguments of opposing camps.
Accepted now by more than reject it, it suggests that even the winged words in Homer may be a form of this relic of an oral age, when tales were not written down, but preserved by bards, whose life work it was to preserve the great stories of their people. Just imagine that there is no film, no television, no printing and "writing" only carved into stone in sacred places. And you are given the task of preserving for the next generation the entire epic story told by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. How will you ever accomplish that? Is it even possible to memorize all the scenes, incidents, characters? And recite the whole thing as you pluck at your guitar or ukulele?
Parry and Lord suggest that such a mammoth mass of material cannot simply be memorized. Like the Serbian singers, the ancient bard must have been familiar with themes, scenes, actions and dialogues standard to the story-telling culture of that particular people, so that he could string them together in different order and with different emphasis for each tale--not as fast and furiously as a Robin-Williams-on-a-high-monologue, but just as inexorably and apparently inexhaustibly. And with no aid other than his own knowledge and wits. No teleprompter, thank you.
For your task of re-telling the story of Private Ryan, you would presumably have a store of typical battle scenes, for instance, including scenes with tanks versus foot soldiers. Of course, there might not be a scene in which one lone man fires his handgun at an approaching tank, but there will be some scene you can draw from for the emotion and drama, And now and then, since you are addressing your audience directly, you might make remarks such as the ones above, to orient them in the tale.
Later come the monks and other scribes who will set down this oral heritage in writing for the first time, making "literature" out of "orature." In doing so, they will memorialize all the paraphernalia of oral recitation as a part of the whole.
And that is what I meant by formulas of the past.
2) "Tolkien's mythological calendar" is actually about a little more than a calendar. It starts with a consideration of Gandalf's expeditionary party, which will be raised to 14 by adding Bilbo. So Gandalf and 12 followers is the "perfect" number 13. The number that gives us triskaidekaphobia--cf. the Friday the Thirteenth movies. And yet, it seems that there is another way to see it: Christ and 12 apostles,, Arthur and 12 knights of the Round Table, King Conchubar of Ulster and the 12 heroes at Bricriu's feast, etc. At any rate Gandalf (and, of course, Tolkien) plays a bit with the idea of the unlucky number for the journey. (It is an interesting--and probably completely useless--side note that Tolkien was very influential among the various interpreters of Beowulf and its Cain-like villain, Grendel, and that Michael Crichton's own interpretation of the Beowulf legend is made into a film called The Thirteenth Warrior.)
Another subject I take up briefly is the emphasis on three days of the week as the day of Gandalf's arrival, the day of his appointment to see Bilbo and the anniversary of the disappearance of Thrain's father one-hundred years before: namely, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. These are the 3 days of the English language week named for the most powerful male Germanic gods: Tiu, god of war and justice; Woden/Odin, CEO, magician and unscrupulous lover; and Thor--just don't make him angry! Why is there no mention of Friday and the powerful goddess of love? Only Tolkien knows, but it may have something to do with the fact that there is only one female mentioned in The Hobbit, and that is Belladonna Took, who is long dead.
And by the way, both Tiu and Thor as well as Freya survive in an appropriate form in the German days of the week, but Woden does not. Once established, Christianity found the chief of the pagan gods a bit worrisome in the middle of the week, so the day became Mittwoch--mid-week.
Finally, the calendar. I quote from my concluding paragraph: "The most significant portion of this chart--April 21 (The Wild Hunt) to November 1 (Samhain)--implies a background of pagan rituals invoking fertility in the spring, sacrifices in the summer to ensure a great harvest and protect against plague and calamity, and finally, great appeasement sacrifices at the end of the year's fertility and the beginning of the cold season or 'death' of the world. The repeated, emphasized occurrence of May Day, Midsummer and All Saints'--to name the most important--demonstrates Tolkien's conscious and purposeful use of Western European tradition."
The Wild Hunt may personify storms, and is led by a character named Wut/Wod, in other words, a likely personification of Woden.
You may recall "Samhain" from its repeated mispronunciation in the early films of the "Halloween" horror series. Outrage from Irish and friends of the Irish soon corrected it, and many more horrors only vaguely associated with the crucial pivotal time in the Celtic calendar were to come. The weight of the article, in other words, not only confirms Tolkien's knowledge of ancient European seasonal counting but also reminds us that some of these ancient thoughts and rituals live on in the most unexpected places.
3) Bilbo's heroic profile follows a long line of profiling of the heroic figure. The best-known studies in English are probably The Hero by Fitzroy Richard Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan, including heroic figures from Classical Antiquity, the Bible, Germanic and Celtic traditions and others, and a chapter in Celtic Heritage by Alwyn and Brinley Rees. Since Lord Raglan's time, there have been many modifications to the profile. I touch on a few characteristics Bilbo has in common with his predecessors,
First, Bilbo comes from a special background. As noted, the only woman mentioned in The Hobbit is Bilbo's ancestor, Belladonna Took. Her name and description suggest a powerful and audacious person and a fairy connection, not unlike the noble parents of many heroes, but tinged with Tolkiien's puckish sense of humor.
Bilbo also has his magical helpers. Gandalf, after all, means "magic elf," and it is easy to see a similarity in his sponsorship of Bilbo with Odin's sponsorship of Sigurd. The dwarves, as everyone of the ancient world knew, are in exclusive charge of the treasures of the underworld.
Bilbo has his magic implements: a ring that makes him invisible, as Sigurd's cape does for him; a sword that is a "named" weapon, as are significant Germanic weapons, but one that has been named from a particular incident--a uniquely Celtic trait.
His value to the expedition is, oddly it may seem, as a thief. This suggests a connection to the Trickster figure, who has the power to do both good and evil: Loki, Prometheus, Hermes, Coyote, etc.
Tolkien's humor shows up again in what I call inverse relationships. Beowulf reaches for the giant sword--a weapon only he can wield and the only one that can kill Grendel's mother. (Who, by the way, did not look at all like Angelina Jolie.) Bilbo's sword was so small it might have been a needle for someone else but it was magic and just the thing for killing goblins.
Sigurd carries away Fafnir's enormous treasure on the back of his supernaturally strong horse, Grani. Bilbo loads his pony with a minuscule share of Smaug's treasure, but it is enough for a hobbit.
Other similarities: both Bilbo and Beowulf visit the Underworld; Sigurd and Bilbo both answer the dragon with riddles and a metaphorical name instead of their real name. Finally, when Bilbo wins the riddling contest with Gollum and retains the fateful ring,he does it by--unintentionally!--asking an unfair question. This mirrors Odin's purposeful cheating of the giant, Vafthrudnir in their riddling contest, which costs Vafthrudnir his life.
It just makes me ask myself: how often in constructing what has become a talismanic tale of yesterday reaching into today, and an ageless reflection on good and evil, did Tolkien stop and chuckle to himself?