“The road from adaptation to invention”: How Tolkien Came to the Brink of Middle-earth in 1914
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“The road from adaptation to invention”:
How Tolkien Came to the Brink of Middle-earth in 1914

Éarendel sprang up from the Ocean’s cupIn the gloom of the mid-world’s rim …

These are the first words of the poem long seen as the first glimpse of the authentic Tolkien, creator of Middle-earth—written 100 years ago.1 As has been accepted since Humphrey Carpenter said so, they show Tolkien in September 1914 turning an opaque reference to éarendel in the Anglo-Saxon poem Crist into something “entirely original” (Bio 71), the beginnings of his epic of Eärendil. Though we do not see Tolkien here using his invented languages to reappropriate the name Éarendel or to coin new names (something he seems not to have done within his legendarium until “The Shores of Faëry” in July 1915), this 1914 poem has some claim to stand as the earliest “Middle-earth” text. Anticipating C. S. Lewis’s famous review of The Lord of the Rings as “like lightning from a clear sky,” Tolkien’s friend Christopher Wiseman told him in April 1915 that this poem and others “burst upon me like a bolt from the blue … I can’t think where you get all your amazing words from” (Garth, Great War, 70). In the established and accepted version of events, developed (for example) in my Tolkien and the Great War and by Andrew H. Morton in Tolkien’s Gedling 1914, Tolkien’s poem is a juvenile yet fresh piece, launched solely from a medieval source and instilled with a vigor and form which are entirely Tolkien’s own making.

It now looks as if this version of events is fundamentally incomplete. Although the link to Crist is solid, the poem actually appears to have been modelled on an existing piece by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Arethusa,” borrowing Shelley’s rhyme scheme and much of the rhythm, as well as his mythological approach to natural phenomena and even some of his phrasing. “Arethusa” begins:

Arethusa aroseFrom her couch of snowsIn the Acroceraunian mountains …

The metre is close, the rhyme scheme identical (though Tolkien relocates the line endings). The phrasing is even nearer in Tolkien’s final version: [End Page 1]

Éarendel arose where the shadow flowsAt Ocean’s silent brim …

Tolkien’s debt to Shelley’s poem, which has been pointed out to me by Hugh Brogan, seems quite transparent. Might this be one reason he did not revise and publish it alongside other early poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil: because he felt its source was irremediably obvious?

First, some will ask, why does it matter? After all, Tolkien famously criticized the hunt for sources as a misdirection of energies, quoting George Dasent: “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled” (OFS 39). To Milton Waldman in 1951, he described his Túrin Turambar as “a figure that might be said (by people who like that sort of thing, though it is not very useful) to be derived from elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Oedipus, and the Finnish Kullervo” (Letters 150).

The question of the relevance of source criticism in its general application to Tolkien’s works has been answered elsewhere (see especially Fisher). A special case can also be made for source criticism of Tolkien’s earliest writings, including (despite his claim that “it is not very useful”) the pivotal adaptation that gave rise to his Túrin saga. The goal is not to dismantle Tolkien’s legendarium, but to examine how it was built and, just as interesting, how he learned to build it. His achievement as a writer is unique, but at one time he was not a writer. How did he pass from one state to the other? A further point is to see how he disposed his vital materials, including his source materials. The exploration of intertextual relations with the works of predecessors or contemporaries follows naturally and logically from his own statements about his influences (e.g., S. R. Crockett’s The Black...