Sunday, 10 May 2009

Note on the term ''legendarium''

It seems worth making a note about the term ''legendarium.'' Tolkien employed this Latin noun as a sort of ''umbrella'' term to refer to the entire mythology, that is, the great mythopoeic work that began with The Music of the Ainur and ended with the departure of the Ring-bearers from Mithlond at the end of the Third Age (it is in this sense that I shall make use of the term in future posts). However, it is actually rather difficult to define specifically, because those familiar with Tolkien's great work (such as Christopher Tolkien, Joseph Shaw and others) all seem to use the term in slightly different (although not conflicting) ways. Christopher Tolkien uses the term in The History of Middle-earth to mean, roughly, the continuity from one stage of composition to another, by such phrases as ''primary'' legendarium. John D. Rateliff, in The History of The Hobbit, defines the term more broadly as the whole collection of narrative material dating from 1917 with The Lost Tales, through the '20s and '30s with The Sketch of the Mythology, the Grey Annals and the Annals of Aman, the Quenta Silmarillion etc.

The origin of the term is fascinating. Originally, a ''legendarium'' was a collection of legends (hence the name) surrounding the lives of a saint or saints. Essentially, they were illuminated manuscripts, beautifully decorated, very much like old Books of Hours. Tolkien's use of the term is significant in this respect, because he conceived of himself not so much as an ''inventor'' of a secondary universe, but as a recorder of facts, or a chronicler; very much like Bilbo Baggins. In a deeply moving draft letter to Carole-Batten Phelps from 1971, Tolkien wrote that when in conversation (about his work) with someone who read and enjoyed it, he was astounded to be asked by him: ''Of course, you don't suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?'' Tolkien, in his characteristic humility, responded: ''No I don't suppose so any longer.'' In that same letter, Tolkien made reference as to why The Lord of the Rings feels like real history and said: ''It was written slowly and with great care for detail, & finally emerged as a Frameless Picture: a searchlight, as it were, on a brief episode in History, and on a small part of our Middle-earth, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space.''

This sense of ''real history'' finds expression in what might appear to be the unlikely character of Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo (one of my favourite characters) spent the best part of his life ''composing,'' or rather, gathering together from divers sources, the so-called ''Red Book of Westmarch.'' I like to think that Tolkien thought of the Red Book as like an illuminated manuscript; it was certainly supplemented with maps. Once I had a dream that The Lord of the Rings (or any of Tolkien's work) was never published, but that I had wandered into Merton College Library one late Autumn evening and discovered this ''illuminated manuscript'' stuffed in a drawer or relegated to some top shelf. I took it down, and began to read it, and was intoxicated with it, as though I had never known literary pleasure. Sed tantum in somniis...

The above picture is taken from a Belgian Book of Hours. It seemed appropriate, as it is the month of May, the month of Our Lady.

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