Down a Tolkien rabbit trail;
or, Why you shouldn’t trust Wikipedia;
or, Why you should sign up for classes at Signum University right now.
I am happy that I live in the 21st century–and I am delighted to be a member of a lively, intelligent, persistent community of Tolkien scholars and fans. Yesterday, the perfect #NerdFest happened on Facebook, and I want to share it with you. It began with this:
It was pretty obvious that this text is a summary of Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.” But it really didn’t sound like Tolkien. The tone, the syntax, the diction–it’s just not his style. Also, he was extremely hesitant to make public theological statements; he believed that was the purview of ordained priests, only, so he was quite cautious when it came to talking about God in print. So I could only imagine that it came from a private letter, perhaps to one of his sons, but then I came up against the problem of tone again. It just doesn’t sound like Tolkien. I got a little frightened; do I know my authors so little?
Therefore, I decided to follow this rabbit, never ceasing in my running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, until I found out the truth–or at least, I would post it on Facebook and let my nerdfriends do the work. 🙂 Here is an edited selection of our comments back and forth on the unofficial Signum and Mythgard facebook hangout. In the end, the heroic Marie Prosser found out the answer!
Sørina Higgins: It’s not a quote from Thompson, but it might be a paraphrase. It certainly sounds more like Lewis than Tolkien to me.
Deborah Sabo: I used the simplest element I could think of to turn this up (“the hound”) and search Letters—Nope.
Deborah Sabo: Oh, look: Janeen Ippolito references it under “Tag Archives: c.s. lewis”.
Sørina Higgins: The speaker mentioned that book to me; I think Hunter quotes it? So it’s that book’s summary of Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven”? …how did Tolkien come into it?
Sørina Higgins: I think this is the deal:
- The Neumann Press book gives that quote as a summary of Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven.”
- James Davison Hunter quotes that summary in his book To Change the World.
- Hunter probably also mentions Tolkien on the same page.
- The speaker I heard attributed the quote to Tolkien.
If somebody has the Hunter book handy, maybe you can check for me?
Deborah Sabo: I can’t access the book but amazon preview allows checking the index. There, Tolkien is mentioned on some pages that the preview will not allow us to see. HOWEVER, nothing by Tolkien is in the References Cited for the book, which we can see, so this leads me to doubt that Hunter actually quotes anything by Tolkien.
Sørina Higgins: What a crazy rabbit trail. With the Hound of Heaven on the rabbit’s tail. 🙂
Marie Prosser: Ah. But then, the next question would be if the Neumann Press poetry book got its summary from elsewhere!
Sørina Higgins: That is also a question!
Deborah Sabo: Anyway, the passage seems to come from that Newmann Press Book of Verse, which I don’t believe Tolkien is known to have contributed to.
<Sarah Powell sent the following images:>
Sørina Higgins: Hunter does attribute it to Tolkien. Now I need to get my hands on the Neumann book, which I haven’t even been able to find listed in World Cat yet.
Deborah Sabo: I can’t find such a title either.
Sørina Higgins: I couldn’t even find it on the publisher’s website.
Deborah Sabo: It’s a fake book!
Sørina Higgins: Like Williams’s Medieval sources in The Place of the Lion.
Deborah Sabo: This calls for an email to this Hunter guy, if you ask me.
Sørina Higgins: Writing it now!!
Marie Prosser: I’ve seen two separate online sources listing this summary of ‘The Hound of Heaven’ and attributing it to the Neumann book. So, it’s possible they both took it from the quote in Hunter’s book, or…. The book really did exist (1988 is listed as the publication date on one blog post) but something happened when TAN bought Neumann Press?
Sharon L Hoff: Funnily enough, whoever wrote the wikipedia entry offers this Tolkien connection:
The Hound of Heaven – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
“The Hound of Heaven” is a 182-line poem written by English poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907). The poem became famous and was the source of much of Thompson’s posthumous reputation. The poem was first published in Thompson’s first volume of poems in 1893. It was included in the Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917). It was also an influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, who read it a few years before it was published in 1917.
Sørina Higgins: More and more connections: The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917) was complied by by D. H. S. Nicholson and A. H. E. Lee, two English occultists, and Charles Williams worked on the book in his editorial capacity at OUP. He got to know the two compilers very well, met with them biweekly for 20 years, and maybe, just maybe (according to Lindop’s new bio), got initiated into the actual Order of the Golden Dawn by them! This means that Williams and Tolkien had at least this small point of contact *years* before they met or read each other’s books.
Deborah Sabo: That Oxford book has no commentary in it. It’s available at archives dot org online.
Sørina Higgins: Where is this elusive text by Tolkien?!? There WAS an original rabbit in this quest. 😉
Deborah Sabo: Why, it’s in the elusive Neumann Press Book of Verse! 😉
Sørina Higgins: Which we agreed doesn’t exist…..
Marie Prosser: So…the fact that Tolkien’s name appears immediately before this quote in the Wikipedia article is suspect. And the only online references I can find to “The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988” are all regarding this quotation, suggesting the title of the book is wrong.
Sarah Powell: I’ve done some Neumann Press hunting, and I wonder if the Book of Verse’s contents may have been “repackaged” – in part or in whole – in their Readers. But I can’t find a ToC for any of them.
Sørina Higgins: I’ve written to the current owners of the previous “Neumann Press” to ask them.
Deborah Sabo: Also I’ve a couple of times seen the assertion that Tolkien read the poem “a few years before it was published in 1917.” How might this have come about?
Sørina Higgins: Maybe he and Charles Williams were in the same secret magical society. 😉
Marie Prosser: The poem was published (with other poems of Francis Thompson) in 1893. The anthology put together by those secret society types was published in 1917. The Wikipedia article asserts (w/o any reference) that Tolkien was familiar with the poem ‘before it was cool’ 😉
Sørina Higgins: Hm… it was Wilfrid Meynell who discovered Thompson.. Wilfrid and Alice Meynell paid for the publication of Charles Williams’s first book of poetry (“The Silver Stair”) in 1912, so they very well could have shown “The Hound of Heaven” to Williams… but I don’t know the Tolkien connection.
Deborah Sabo: We did already know that Tolkien admired Thompson but I cannot recall when he first read Thompson. Check John Garth’s site?
Sørina Higgins: I’ve just checked Garth’s book: JRRT gave a talk on Thompson in 1914.
Marie Prosser: Do we have the text of that?
Sørina Higgins: Folks: If “The Hound of Heaven” was published in 1893 and Tolkien was born in 1892, he’d have to be a pretty remarkable prodigy to know it before it was published.
Deborah Sabo: Clever child!
Marie Prosser: Wikipedia has the reference for our ‘rabbit’ (the quote Sorina posted that started this all) given as The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988… and the link is to this blog post: “Hound of Heaven: Part 1.” While you’re e-mailing folks, you might want to try to get in touch with the Oblates of St. Benedict at Belmont Abbey (do not expect a prompt response).
Until I hear otherwise, I will assume that Hunter got both the quote (and the [mis-]attribution to Tolkien) from the Wikipedia page on ‘The Hound of Heaven.’
If the goal is to find the origin of this quote (and its mysterious attribution to a book that doesn’t seem to exist), the idea would be to figure out which website/blog published it ‘first’ and which are just copy/pasting…I realize that the idea is to find the original *printed* source, but finding the original online source might point to finding the correct printed source. Maybe.
That, and I want Sorina to fill out a form to become a Benedictine Oblate in her quest for the truth. 😉
Sørina Higgins: That depends which Benedicts are involved….
I did once consider joining the local Rosicrucian order to learn more about Williams. I can’t tell you whether I did or not….
Deborah Sabo: The oblates page states it was posted in 2009.
Sørina Higgins: Hunter’s book was published in 2010.
Marie Prosser: The ‘rabbit’ appeared on Wikipedia before 2009, so no need to contact the Oblates; they’re not the source.
Sørina Higgins: It’s that darn non-existent book again.
Marie Prosser: This was the Wikipedia page on Oct 14, 2005:
The Hound of Heaven is a long religious poem by Francis Thompson, and the source of much of his posthumous reputation. It was included in the Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917). It was also an influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, who read it a few years before that.
The name is strange. It startles one at first. It is so bold, so new, so fearless. It does not attract, rather the reverse. But when one reads the poem this strangeness disappears. The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and impertubed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit. The Neuman Press “Book of Verse”, 1988.
I think it a safe bet that all the online quotations of this passage find their ultimate source in the Wikipedia page…which gives a much later blog post as the ‘source’ – so that’s a circular reference. I have no idea where the original Wiki editor got the quote from, but…it does not seem to be accurately attributed!
Sørina Higgins: Tan Books, which took over from Neumann Press, emailed me back this not very helpful message:
“The Hound of Heaven is a poem by Francis Thompson which influenced Tolkien. When I search for the quote, I find the same citation as you. Unfortunately, we no longer have access to the book, but it seems to originate with this Book of Verse.”
Sørina Higgins: It’s held in a couple of college libraries near me.
Deborah Sabo: The version I can view via my library (it goes to project gutenberg) is the same one as at archive dot org.
[it’s now 5 o’clock in the evening]
Marie Prosser: I FOUND IT!!!!!!
Deborah Sabo: SPLENDID! Well done! So possibly JRRT read this while at school.
Marie Prosser: I guess the secondary thing to check would be to see if J.R.R. Tolkien quoted from O’Conor in his 1914 address on Thompson – is there any way to do that?
Deborah Sabo: The essay has not been published but John Garth must have read it as he does quote from it in Tolkien and the Great War. Garth provides two quotes from the essay; (1) refers to Thompson’s “images drawn from astronomy and geology, and especially those that could be described as Catholic ritual writ large across the universe” and (2) is a more general approach to the poet: “One must begin with the elfin and delicate and progress to the profound: listen first to the violin and the flute, and then learn to hearken to the organ of being’s harmony.” BTW, it’s not in his pamphlet “Tolkien at Exeter College” either.
Deborah Sabo: No, but if JRRT gave this talk at Exeter in 1914, perhaps he could have used this 1912 book. The catch is that it was published in NY so the thing would be to find out if Tolkien’s college library had a copy of it.
Deborah Sabo: In other cases, his name is on the loan records for books J
Sørina Higgins: You guys are AWESOME!!! I will write to Garth and ask him that remaining question. Marie, you are a hero.
So that’s that, for now. The answer is: NOT BY TOLKIEN.
I’ll update this post if I hear back from John Garth about the Exeter College talk in 1914 (or from James Davison Hunter about the source of his citation). Meanwhile, Marie continued her heroic efforts on behalf of accurate scholarship; she edited the Wikipedia page to take out the errors about the publication date. Wikipedia undid her edits and put back the errors (!), but she persisted, and the page is now correct.
The moral of the story?
(1) Don’t trust Wikipedia.