Tolkien and the Taylorian

In Tolkien in Pawneeland I argue that JRR Tolkien consulted Skidi Pawnee texts in the course of creating his Middle-earth legendarium. Inspired by Pawnee mythological greenery, he colorized Middle-earth with what he thought of as an authentic aura of “primitive undergrowth.” I conclude in my book that Tolkien’s interest in Pawnee myth was sporadic, occurring during three different periods: in early 1919, 1930-1932, and early 1942. To these dates, I would now add the late summer of 1938. On all these occasions I believe he consulted a 1904 book by George A. Dorsey titled Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.

This means that Tolkien had life-long access to a copy of the book. The evidence for this insight is clear enough, but my argument is based on the identification of shared unique textual elements rather than knowledge that he consulted any specific copy of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee over the years. I simply conclude that it is logical to presume access of some kind.

I have seen no evidence that Tolkien or any member of his family owned a copy of the book, and I have no basis for supposing that a friend had a convenient copy. Moreover, I do not have any clear idea as to the general availability of the book in England during the early 20th century. It does seem safe to presume that the book was not widely distributed either in the United States or in England – I know of no English researcher who has ever made use of this volume in any publication.

Comparison of unique and substantive textual material has convinced me that Tolkien did make use of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee in the course of writing The Book of Lost Tales (in early 1919), The Hobbit (in 1930-1932), and The Lord of the Rings (in 1938 and 1942). And in my book on this topic, Tolkien in Pawneeland (p. 140-165), I put forth the view that Tolkien had reasons for deliberately keeping secret his use of obscure Skidi tradition.

In mid-2012 as I began to ponder the possibility that Tolkien made use of Pawnee myth in his Middle-earth legendarium, I discovered that the collections of Oxford University did include a copy of Traditions of Skidi Pawnee. During the late summer of 2013 a prominent Tolkien scholar traveled to Oxford University and she very kindly tracked down a copy of the book in the Oxford library system. She affirmed that the book had entered the collections at the time of its 1904 publication. And she found the book in a very interesting location. It sits today on the shelves of the Taylor Institution, also known as the Taylorian.

A book shelf at the Taylorian

A book shelf at the Taylorian

In Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s authoritative The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide (2006, p. 709) the Taylorian is described as “the centre for the study of modern European languages and literatures at Oxford.” I do not know why a book on Pawnee tradition ended up in this library collection at Oxford. My guess is that this had to do with the fact that certain narratives in the volume contain passages written in Latin.

But one thing is clear. The presence of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee on the shelves of the Taylorian makes it an excellent candidate to have been the copy that Tolkien consulted over the years.

In 1911 Tolkien became a student at Oxford University. That fall he “attended lectures at the Taylor Institution” every Tuesday and Thursday (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 28). Both the book and Tolkien could be found at the Taylorian in 1911, 1912, 1913, and 1914 (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 28, 31, 32, 34, 36, 50, 52, 54).

One area of particular focus for Tolkien during this period was “Medieval and Modern European Languages” (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 39). This means that, in addition to taking classes in the Taylorian, he would have spent quite a lot of time researching the collections of that library. Tolkien had plenty of opportunity during his student days to encounter Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.

Corresponding with the staff at the Taylorian in 2013, I learned that no evidence exists in their fragmentary files that Tolkien ever borrowed Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. But their records do not show that he ever checked out any book from the Taylorian. If this is actually the case, we should probably surmise that during his student days he spent considerable time in the library consulting the collections, roaming among the shelves, selecting materials to study, and preparing notes. As he wrote in an October 1914 letter, “I have got to go to the library now and get filthy amongst dusty books” (Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, 2000 edition, p. 7).

Taking the position that during his later years Tolkien consulted the Taylorian copy of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, we should find a reasonable correspondence between the chronology of his likely access to the Taylorian collections and the chronology of his insertion of Pawnee material in his legendarium. In fact, to a significant degree, these chronologies do match.

In 1919 Tolkien returned to Oxford to work as a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary. His knowledge of the Taylorian collections must have helped. We can assume that he spent some time at the Taylor Institution because it was in 1919 that details from Skidi stories began to enter his legendarium. This may have been the period when he first encountered Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, but it remains possible that he learned of the book during his tenure as a student in 1911-1914 when he studied Latin. By the time of his return to Oxford Tolkien had already launched into early versions of several of his mythological tales. Visiting the familiar collections of the Taylorian to do his OED research, he now had a special interest as a budding mythmaker to revisit the Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. Picking it up and skimming through it in early 1919, he found inspiration for his creation story and for Ungoliant the spider.

After 1925 Tolkien could be found once again at Oxford, this time as a professor. In the spring of 1930 he lectured on “Germanic Numerals” – it would have logical for him to stop by the Taylorian at some point to look for material to help prepare his lecture notes (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 153). Recalling the usefulness of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee in 1919, it must have been in the late spring of 1930 Tolkien revisited the volume. Again he found it helpful. He drew from three Skidi “Animal Tales” to envision four episodes that appear in a poem, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” This experience also precipitated the writing of The Hobbit.

Beginning in January 1932 Tolkien’s schedule included two lectures held every Tuesday and Friday at the Taylor Institution (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 162). Sometime in the course of 1932 he paused once more to open the pages of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. He had taken a long pause in writing The Hobbit, and perhaps he sought inspiration of the same sort that had helped him on two previous occasions already. Now he encountered a Pawnee story that helped him to chart a course into the story of Beorn the shapeshifter and into the story of spider-infested Mirkwood.

Tolkien next consulted Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee during the late summer of 1938. In May of that year he received an appointment to serve as “an elector to the Taylorian Professorship of German Language and literature” (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 216). He would have had reason to stop by the library on occasion during the months that followed. Now hard at work on The Lord of the Rings, one day he decided to consult Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee for help in situating Tom Bombadil in Middle-earth – he looked once more at the same story that had inspired his poem about Bombadil in 1930. This took him deep into the darkest recesses of “The Old Forest.”

Beginning in early January of 1942 Tolkien’s lectures brought him to the Taylorian every Tuesday and Thursday (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 252). It was then that he made his final foray into Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. He encountered a story that helped to shape his account of the death and resurrection of Gandalf in “The White Rider.”

My research in Tolkien in Pawneeland reveals that non-trivial parallel textual elements are shared by Tolkien’s legendarium and the Skidi stories. A theory of independent invention is unlikely. While no direct evidence has come forward to show that Tolkien opened any specific copy of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, it is clear that he had ample opportunity to do so throughout the course of his academic life at Oxford University. The established chronology of Tolkien’s known associations with the Taylorian contains meaningful overlap with the chronology of his evident use of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.

JRR Tolkien was a mythologist. The process he followed in borrowing from Pawnee myth was not an isolated or unique creative process for him. This is evident in his recently released story “Sellic Spell” (JRR Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2014). The story is Tolkien’s reconstruction of what he took to be the lost folktale behind the Beowulf poem. To recreate this story, Tolkien followed an approach that he termed (in “On Fairy-stories”) “turning… the bear-boy into the knight Beowulf…” To do this, it seems apparent that he took inspiration from a story found in a collection of Russian folktales (Post Wheeler, Russian Wonder Tales, 1912, “Little Bear’s-Son,” p. 249-271). But his process was to borrow elements, rather than cut and paste from the story or simply retell it. This was also the procedure he followed in using Pawnee material.

As an academician Tolkien had access to global mythological literature, and it is clear that he had access to Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. In the extensive literature of Tolkien source scholarship that has emerged since his death, Tolkien himself has come to be treated as a comfortably parochial author who knew next to nothing about world mythological traditions. This notion deserves to be revisited. While it is certainly surprising to learn that he secretly drew on Skidi Pawnee traditions to colorize the mythological textures of Middle-earth, it should not be surprising to anyone that he would feel curiosity about the wide world beyond mythic Europe.

Taylorian Traditions (artwork by Roger Echo-Hawk)

Taylorian Traditions
(artwork by Roger Echo-Hawk)

 

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One thought on “Tolkien and the Taylorian

  1. […] The Professor consulted a 1904 book by George A. Dorsey titled Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. In this blog post, he seeks to explain the basis of his argument. Give it a read and if you want to learn more, make sure to check out the full book, Tolkien In […]

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