Menachem Mendel

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Tolkien and the Text

Never having read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was younger, I have been reading them with my son and enjoying them very much. There are few 20th century writers about whom more has been written by both common readers and scholars than J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a professor at Oxford of Anglo-Saxon language and then English language and literature. His scholarly interests informed his writings on every page of his work, and one example of the seriousness with which his work is taken by the scholarly community is the recently released J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (see a list of entries here). There is one aspect of Tolkien’s work which I think will be of some interest to readers of this blog. It has already been pointed out by scholars how Tolkien’s interest in manuscripts and writing influenced his work and it is not surprising that the great scholar of orality, Walter J. Ong, was interested in Tolkien’s work and attempted to meet him. I think that the following selections from the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring and Note on the Shire Records will resonate with those who are interested in manuscripts, oral vs. textual traditions, etc.

Now it is a curious fact that this is not the story as Bilbo first told it to his companions. To them his account was that Gollum had promised to give him a present, if he won the game; but when Gollum went to fetch it from his island he found the treasure was gone: a magic ring, which had been given to him long ago on his birthday…This account Bilbo set down in his memoirs, and he seems never to have altered it himself, not even after the Council of Elrond. Evidently it appeared in the original Red Book, as it did in several copies and abstracts. But many copies contain the true account (as an alternative), derived no doubt, from notes by Frodo or Samwise, both of whom learned the truth, though they seem to have been unwilling to delete anything written by the old hobbit himself.

At the end of the Third Age the part played by the Hobbits in the great events that led to the inclusion of the Shire in the Reunited Kingdom awakened among them a more widespread interest in their own history; and many of their traditions, up to that time still mainly oral, were collected and written down.


The original Red Book has not been preserved, but many copies were made, especially of the first volume, for the use of the descendants of the children of Master Samwise…The Thain’s book was thus the first copy made of the Red Book and contained much that was later omitted or lost. In Minas Tirith it received much annotation, and many corrections, especially of names, words, and quotations in the Elvish languages; and there was added to it an abbreviated version of those parts of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen which lie outside the account of the War.

Sound familiar?

One Response to “Tolkien and the Text”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    For what it’s worth, Ong’s attempt to meet Tolkien took place before publication of The Fellowship of the Ring and well before Tolkien’s popularity in the United States. Ong may have known of Tolkien’s fiction, but he most certainly knew of Tolkien as a scholar — in fact, one of the classes Ong took at Harvard, which would have been prior to Ong’s trip to Europe, used the Tolkien/Gordon edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Tolkien’s work was discussed in the Beowulf class that Ong also took while at Harvard.
    John | Homepage | 12.31.06 – 6:44 pm | #

    Thanks for the clarification. I actually just looked to see which copy of Sir Gawain I read in college but I am not sure if it has accompanied me this far through the years.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 01.01.07 – 8:41 pm | #




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