My research assistants and I are still working on the site, adding information as we go, but there is plenty to look at right now. We’ll have a list of secondary sources coming soon.
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We don’t often think of Tolkien as a playwright. Fantasy novelist — of course. Poet, scholar, artist – yes. But we shouldn’t forget that Tolkien also wrote one published play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” – let’s call it “The Homecoming” for short – which was produced by BBC Radio and has been read or performed at various times.
Tolkien wrote other plays, though we don’t have the manuscripts any more, to my knowledge. As a young man, he wrote plays as holiday entertainments when spending time with his Incledon relatives; he probably wrote a farce, Cherry Farm, in 1911 and in the following year, The Bloodhound, the Chef, and the Suffragette (also playing one of the parts). He performed in plays while at school: in 1910 acting as the Inspector in Aristophanes’ play The Birds – in Greek! and also in Greek the following year, taking the role of Hermes in Aristophanes’ Peace. Near the end of 1911, his performance as Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals was praised as “excellent in every way” (Scull and Hammond, Reader’s Guide 313-17).
And of course, all of his debating experience, often in humourous speeches, during his years at King Edward’s and then at Oxford would require a sense of the dramatic in taking up a persona and a position in argument (See the Scull and Hammond Chronology for reports of these debates). John Garth surveys these and other of Tolkien’s early comedic and parodic compositions, pointing out:
By thus limbering up in his early exercises as a writer, he was later able to apply the same skills—more finely tuned, of course—to the most serious topics and with the utmost gravity.”
Even later in life, Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic. Picture him at the Oxford Summer Diversions in 1938 reciting from memory Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale. John Bowers, in his recently published book Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, imagines the scene:
On the merrymaking occasion in summer 1938, Tolkien strode upon the stage costumed as Chaucer in a green robe, a turban, and fake whiskers parted in the middle like the forked beard shown in early portraits like Ellesmere’s.”
The performance received good reviews in the Oxford Mail, and in the following year, Tolkien returned to perform Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, this time producing a shortened and bowdlerized version of the tale for his performance (Bowers 208-211). The poet John Masefield, one of the organizers of the event, described Tolkien’s dramatic abilities:
Professor Tolkien knows more about Chaucer than any living man and sometimes tells the Tales superbly, inimitably, just as though he were Chaucer returned.”
(quoted in Bowers 209)
Above: Geoffrey Chaucer portrait and Tolkien in the 1940s (as close as I could get to the actual date of his performance). You’ll have to imagine Tolkien’s Chaucer costume! Tolkien image from The Guardian, 22 March 2014.
Tolkien’s recitations of Chaucer aren’t the only performances that his audiences remember. His biographer Humphrey Carpenter reports how he used to start his lectures declaiming the opening lines of Beowulf in Old English (137-38). Although students complained that during lectures he mumbled and was hard to follow, these moments of dramatic performance left striking impressions.
In other words, Tolkien had experience in writing and performing dramatic pieces, and I think that he put those skills to good use in “The Homecoming.”
So why don’t we usually think of Tolkien as a playwright? I can think of several reasons. For one, we only have one publication of his in this genre, easily overlooked in the volume of fiction, poetry, letters, and essays that he wrote.
I also think that there’s a tendency to view “The Homecoming” as alliterative poetry for two voices – more like a poetic dialogue not meant for performance on a stage. I would disagree based on the manuscript evidence, but my reasons will have to wait for another time.
Maybe another reason is that “The Homecoming,” inspired by the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon,” first appeared in a scholarly journal, Essays and Studies, in 1953. Medievalists have been interested mainly in the short essay titled “Ofermod” that Tolkien appended to the play, which deals with “The Battle of Maldon,” and compares it to two other medieval texts, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But medieval scholars have not, in general, examined the play as a play.
Finally, we might not think of Tolkien as a playwright because of the negative comments that he made about drama in various letters and in his appendix to “On Fairy-Stories.” In that essay, for example, he claims that drama cannot adequately represent a fantasy world, but whether we agree or not, we should note that “The Homecoming” is different from Tolkien’s other writing. It’s not part of his Middle-earth Secondary World but is based on the aftermath of a battle that took place in 991 according to early English historical chronicles. “The Homecoming” is a work of historical fiction as well as being a play.
The play is now most readily available in the volume Tree and Leaf, tucked in after “On Fairy-Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf by Niggle.”
Tolkien certainly had definite ideas about how the play should be performed on BBC Radio, as his letters tell us, though he was dissatisfied with the BBC production that aired in 1954, with a rebroadcast in 1955. He recorded his own version at home in his study, distinguishing between the two characters’ voices and adding in his own sound effects. A copy of that recording was given out at the Tolkien Centenary Conference in 1992 (Scull & Hammond, Reader’s Guide 547). But you don’t need a copy of that tape to experience Tolkien’s voice dramatizations. Just listen to his reading of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter from The Hobbit. He does a pretty good job of performing the roles of Bilbo and especially Gollum.
Above: listen to Tolkien’s voicing of Gollum in his reading of “Riddles in the Dark”
It must be pretty clear that I find Tolkien’s play very interesting; in fact, it’s the topic of my current research. I’ve written about “The Homecoming” as a World War One work in my recently published essay, “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming’” in the collection “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War. There, my thesis can be summarized in this way:
Like Tolkien’s better-known works of fiction, HBBS addresses issues of war and heroism that are relevant to a modern writer who is transforming his past experiences into fiction, and as is not uncommon with Tolkien, doing so through the lens of medieval literature.”
What currently interests me in “The Homecoming” is the skilful handling of alliterative metre in the play. Yes, this is a play in alliterative verses, which may sound old-fashioned and stilted, but Tolkien’s knowledge of and handling of alliterative verses is, I think, a tour de force in his creation of different styles in a demanding medium. If you’re able to attend the International Medieval Congress in Leeds , you can hear me talking about “Tolkien’s Alliterative Styles in The Homecoming” on Monday, July 6, 11:15, session 104. Look for an article as well, coming soon, I hope!
I’d love to know in the comments if you’ve read “The Homecoming” and what you think of it. Have you ever heard or seen it performed?
Bowers, John M. Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. Oxford UP, 2019.
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Garth, John. “’The road from adaptation to invention’: How Tolkien Came to the Brink of Middle-earth in 1914.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 11, 2014, pp. 1-44.
Scull, Christina and Wayne Hammond. J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.Reader’s Guide and Chronology. Revised and Expanded Edition. HarperCollins, 2017.
Smol, Anna. “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming’.” “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Annika Röttinger, Walking Tree Publishers, 2019, pp. 263-83.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 121-150.
As always, if you are an independent scholar (i.e. you do not have an institutional affiliation) and do not have access to some of these resources, please send me an email and I will try to provide private research copies if possible.
I’ve just heard about a new project, the journal Eala, which will publish compositions in Old English and other medieval Germanic languages. The founding editor and editor-in-chief of Word Hoard Press, Richard Littauer, plans to publish the journal online and include original compositions in Old English, Old Norse, and the like, as well as translations.
I can’t help thinking that Tolkien would be pleased to see this kind of venture, as he was a proponent of writing in the alliterative verse styles of Old English and Old Norse, either in the original languages or in modern English. As readers of his recently published Beowulf know, Tolkien was adept at composing in Old English – see his prose story “Sellic Spell” in that volume as an example. Tom Shippey has written about the difficulties of counting just how many poems and fragments Tolkien wrote in alliterative meter in both modern and Old English; in his essay “Tolkien as a Writer of Alliterative Poetry” in the book Tolkien’s Poetry, Shippey counts 22 compositions in modern English alliterative meter plus “The Homecoming”; another nine complete poems and five fragments in Old English, and that’s not including modern English poems imitating Old Norse alliterative style. In other words, Tolkien wrote a lot of alliterative verse.
Although Tolkien did write in other verse forms besides alliterative meter, he believed that alliterative verse was a natural form for English speakers and advocated its use – but who was listening? Lately, though, I’ve seen signs of interest in bringing medieval poetry more in contact with modern writers. Jane Chance, for example, is hosting an “Original Medievalistic Poetry Reading and Open Mic” at next year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I’ll have to check it out next May in the hopes of hearing some alliterative compositions. And here’s another sign of interest from a couple of years ago: Modern Poets on Viking Poetry: A Cultural Translation Project resulted in the publication of poems in modern English, which can be downloaded here.
These last two are projects that highlight the influence of medieval poetry on modern writers, but to write “correct” alliterative verse in a medieval language like Old English is another matter entirely. I’m looking forward to seeing what shows up in Eala.
The 12th Annual Tolkien at University of Vermont conference is just days away. The conference is free and open to the public. It starts with a Friday night Fireside reading at which participants can get up and read their favorite passages, and continues on Saturday with a day of conference presentations. On Sunday afternoon, the University Tolkien Club organizes a “Springle-Ring Shire Festival” with all kinds of fun activities.
This year’s conference theme is Medieval Verse Narratives, and the keynote speaker is Dr. Michael D.C. Drout, who will be speaking about “Scholarship as Art, Art as Scholarship: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf.”
The other presentations are:
Gerry Blair (Independent Scholar). “J.R.R. Tolkien, Performance Artist and Modern Medievalist.”
Jamie Williamson (University of Vermont). “Verses and Prose: Medieval Narrative, Nineteenth Century Medievalism, and Tolkien.”
Andrew Liptak (Independent Scholar/Norwich University). “Modern Fantasy’s Roots in Medieval Verse.”
Kristine Larsen (Central Connecticut State University). “Guinevere, Grimhild, and the Corrigan: Witches and Bitches in Tolkien’s Medieval Narrative Verse, or, Good Girls Don’t Use Magic (Except if You’re Galadriel, but Elf Magic is Diff erent, and Who Ever Said Galadriel was a Good Girl?)”
Andrew C. Peterson (Harvard). “A Brief Exploration of Tolkien’s Alliterative Verse and Echoes of The Fall of Arthur Heard in Middle-earth”
Christopher Vaccaro (University of Vermont). “’Dyrne langað’: Secret Longing in Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings.”
Anna Smol (Mount Saint Vincent University). “Poetic Time-Travel in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son”
Cheryl Hunter (Independent Scholar). “Beowulf and Thorin as Ancestral Heroes: Their Choices, and the Dragons They Face.”
In my previously posted thoughts on Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur, I predicted that the character of Guinever would give rise to a lot more discussion, and we are seeing that debate occurring already on several sites. Troels Forchhammer, who has listed a thorough collection of reviews on his blog Parma-kenta, has added his own thoughts on the poem in three installments. In one of these, “Philosophizing on Fall of Arthur” he comments on three issues that are garnering attention: the connection of Fall of Arthur to Tolkien’s Silmarillion mythology; Tolkien’s view of the Arthurian source material; and the character of Guinever.
Troels Forchhammer excerpts a number of comments from reviewers pointing to Guinever’s negative characteristics; at one extreme is the view labelling Tolkien’s picture of Guinever as misogynist. Troels disagrees, and I think he’s right.
What makes the portrait of a character misogynist? I would say that a misogynist writer sees women in the light of the traditional virgin / whore stereotypes: women as completely virtuous and/or women as completely evil temptresses. Real people, of course, are a combination of good and evil tendencies in varying proportions. In The Fall of Arthur, Guinever is, let’s face it, no angel, but she isn’t a stereotypical character either. Just because Tolkien gave her flaws (some of which are inherited from the source material) doesn’t mean it’s a misogynist portrait. That would mean that no writer could ever admit a woman had faults without being labelled a misogynist! Equally problematic would be a writer who treated all women as being virtuous angels. Neither approach portrays women as real people, only as stereotypes at one or the other extreme end of the spectrum.
Tolkien’s Guinever, in my view, is a more complex character than just the evil seductress who destroys what men have created. Yes, she is greedy, stubborn, and selfish, but she’s also clever, fearful, sad. She is capable of arousing pity in the reader, even admiration — think of how she escapes Mordred’s lustful demands and removes herself from a precarious political and personal situation. Tolkien doesn’t spend a lot of lines on Guinever in the cantos that we have, but the lines he does give us suggest an interesting character who is not a simple stereotype.
It can be difficult making judgements about Tolkien’s work: on the one hand, you might feel inclined to defend Tolkien against all criticisms. On the other hand, you might fall into one of the old critical commonplaces that have been used to attack Tolkien: that he writes juvenile literature for boys, that he doesn’t write about women at all, that he writes misogynist portraits of female characters. I hope I haven’t fallen prey to the first temptation, but I do think a lot of work remains to be done in examining afresh Tolkien’s views and his characters.
I posted a list of reviews of Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur back in June, but I now have a few more to add. Most recently, Kathy Cawsey has published “The Lord of the Round Table” in Open Letters Monthly. Below is my collated list of selected reviews in online publications and in a few blogs (including my own thoughts). Some are detailed reviews; some, brief comments; and a couple, controversial.
You’ll find some other reviews listed in Troels Forchhammer’s useful summaries of Tolkien-related material in his monthly Tolkien Transactions post on his blog, Parma-kenta. Look in his June, July and August posts for his listings of Fall of Arthur reviews.
[Can there be spoilers in an Arthurian tale? I don’t know if my review would count as a spoiler, but if you’re worried about such things, you might want to proceed with caution.]
In a darkening world, tides are flowing fast and winds sweeping into the west while ghostly apparitions ride through the skies. Tolkien’s long-awaited poem, The Fall of Arthur, presents a world veering towards the end of an age – after Lancelot and Guinever’s affair, after the breaking of Round Table allegiances – as Arthur and his loyal Gawain journey to make war in a mission clearly doomed from the start, “a last assay / of pride and prowess” (I. 15-16).
As John Garth points out, the story alternates between big scenes and close-ups. We see large battle vistas – “In the foaming sea flashed a thousand / swift oars sweeping” (IV. 172-3) – as well as striking individual moments: Mordred rushing up the stairs to the queen’s bower and taking in the sight of her while she, proud and fearful, pretends not to see him; or the exiled Lancelot, looking out to sea and half hoping that Arthur will call for his aid – and half hoping that he won’t.
Do not look for romantic courtly love in this tempestuous world. The affair between Lancelot and Guinever is in the past, and their last parting, seen in flashback, is strained with pain, sorrow, anger, and regret as Lancelot restores the queen to Arthur in the hopes of regaining his honour and his king’s love, and Guinever departs “With searing words” (III. 102) leaving Lancelot feeling hopeless. Their alienation from each other is deftly suggested as each seems strangely altered to the other.
Meanwhile, Mordred is consumed with lust, not only for the queen but also for the chance to wrest power and glory for himself. Gawain, ever loyal to Arthur, is contrasted with the conflicted Lancelot who is much like the exile in the Old English poem “The Wanderer”: “On that knee no more, knight in fealty/ might he hilt handle, nor his head there lay” (III. 116-17). And consider Guinever, rescued from burning at the stake, handed over to Arthur by her lover Lancelot, forgiven and restored as queen if only to avoid further national conflict, and in immediate peril of being seized by Mordred in his bid for power. In her we see a woman who is greedy for love and glory, dissatisfied with her present lot, and extremely clever in negotiating her precarious situation. There is much more that can and will be said about these characters by Tolkien readers and scholars.
Throughout, Tolkien’s descriptions evoke painterly images depicted with a few strokes of light and colour and shape. Take, for instance, this description of morning: “Beams fell slanting through the boughs of trees/ glancing and glimmering in the grey forest;/ rain drops running from rustling leaves/ like drops of glass dripped and glistened” (IV. 21-24). And here, a description of the seashore: “Fair wind came foaming over flecked water,/ on gleaming shingle green and silver/ the waves were washing on walls of chalk” (IV. 47-49).
All of this comes to us in an alliterative poem composed in the meter of Old English verse (and similar to Old Norse and some later Middle English poetry). In my recent presentation in Kalamazoo, I spoke about “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” as an alliterative tour de force in which Tolkien demonstrates how alliterative meter can achieve various effects and styles in Modern English. When Tolkien writes a Modern English alliterative poem, he does not merely sprinkle into his lines a few alliterating words (that is, words beginning with the same sound) in order to gesture towards the older style. Instead, he carefully composes in the rhythmical verse types and alliterating patterns that were thought to constitute the choices of early medieval English poets. Like “The Homecoming,” the Fall of Arthur does not disappoint as a modern alliterative poem. (Curious fact: both poems contain the words “Wild blow the winds of war in Britain” – I feel another conference paper coming on!).
An appendix in The Fall of Arthur includes an excerpt from one of Tolkien’s lectures on the features of Old English verse, such as inverted syntax and parallelisms, which can sometimes be difficult for readers who are unfamiliar with the style. For best effect, read the verse aloud (or listen to it with your inner ear) and let the natural rhythms of the words be your guide. This alliterative verse style does not require the same number of syllables per line, in the same rhythmical pattern line after line, as in later English verse. Tolkien does write long segments of enjambed lines, piled high with parallel phrases, but he also knows how to punctuate such sections with short, forceful statements: “Strong oaths they broke” (III.62). And while alliterative lines can often seem slow and convoluted, Tolkien also knows how to change the pace: “Beacons were blazing, banners were lifted,/ shaft rang on shield, and the shores echoed./ War was awakened and woe in Britain” (IV. 161-3).
Readers familiar with medieval literature will recognize the dangers of putting one’s faith in Fortune, who will turn her wheel when you least expect it, and they will know that the traditional medieval beasts of battle – eagle, raven, wolf – who circle the action from the very beginning only presage war and slaughter. How Tolkien’s content and style relate in more detail to the medieval texts that were his inspiration is a larger question. In the extensive commentary provided in this volume, Christopher Tolkien discusses the poem’s relation to the Arthurian tradition and to the Silmarillion material, as well as the evolution of the poem. There is much to digest here that will take more time.
What I can say for now is that the line “Here ends The Fall of Arthur in its latest form” came as a shock followed by an immediate wish, if only Tolkien would have given us more.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2013.