A casual reading of Guglielmo Spirito’s “The Legends of the Trojan War in J.R.R. Tolkien”1 sent me down a polyramified rabbit hole the other day, questing for attribution, a bugbear of mine I’ve touched on before (see also the Tom Stoppard footnote below). Spirito begins his paper with a long quote from Alberto Manguel’s Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography, which I will repeat here:
In 1990, the Colombian Ministry of Culture set up a system of itinerant libraries to take books to the inhabitants of distant rural regions. For this purpose, carrier book bags with capacious pockets were transported on donkey’s backs up into the jungle and the sierra. Here the books were left for several weeks in the hands of a teacher or village elder who became, de facto, the librarian in charge. Most of the books were technical works, agricultural handbooks and the like, but a few literary works were also included. According to one librarian, the books were always safely accounted for. ‘I know of a single instance in which a book was not returned’, she said. ‘We had taken, along with the usual practical titles, a Spanish translation of the Iliad. When the time came to exchange the book, the villagers refused to give it back. We decided to make them a present of it, but asked them why they wished to keep that particular title. They explained that Homer’s story reflected their own: it told of a wartorn country in which mad gods mix with men and women who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be happy, or why they will be killed.’2
Interesting, I thought. And, where did this marvelous story originate? I pulled from my shelf my copy of Manguel’s book and looked at the footnote: ““Mucho más que libros”, Semana, 4 June 2001, Bogotá”. Okay, I thought. Easy enough in these internet days for a guy who’s just off a plague year project of translating Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño. I’ll ask Alexa. . . .
How odd: The Semana article is about a celebration of the opening of Bogotá’s new library network, and, there’s Manguel in the first sentence as a special guest. But nothing about donkey’s carrying copies of The Iliad to the eagerly waiting poor people of rural Colombia. I’ll skip over most of my thrashing about in this rabbit hole to say I’m not the first to question Manguel’s story of The Iliad in Colombia, but I haven’t come across anyone else who has noticed the simple editorial mistake that led me through so many convoluted bunny tunnels. César Domínguez, in “Literatura mundial en biblioburro. Un caso procomún de circulación literaria”3 referring to an almost identical telling of the donkey/Iliad story in Manguel’s The Library at Night,4 makes clear that Manguel is wrong in attributing the creation of the donkey libraries to the Ministry of Culture – they were, in fact the invention of a single individual volunteering his time and donkeys (p. 125). And Domínguez further points out that there is little evidence for Manguel’s claim that a Spanish translation of the Iliad was the only book that villagers refused to return. In fact, Luis Soriano, the young man who founded the “Biblioburro” program, acknowledges that a number of volumes have gone missing from the itinerant library’s collection, but The Iliad doesn’t seem to be one of those (p. 127).
What’s going on here? Well, the fact that Manguel reuses the anecdote is no black mark on his name: as Tom Stoppard remarked in an interview with Ronald Hayman in 1974 and published in 1977 and again in 1978 “If it’s worth using once, it’s worth using twice.”5 But how did Manguel get things wrong about the Ministry’s involvement. And where did the idea of the loss of The Iliad come from? Well, I think the answer to the first lies in the nature of celebratory gatherings such as the one at which Manguel was an honoured guest: somebody at the Ministry claimed more credit than the Ministry deserved, it got printed in Semana, and Manguel accepted the claim. As for the Iliad claim, when Manguel tells the story in The Library at Night, he gives two footnotes, one, sourcing the description of the program and the Ministerial contributions (Semana) and one sourcing the story of the loss of The Iliad (“Personal interview, Bogotá, 25 May, 2001.”)
So, Manguel accepted people’s word for things and forgot to make a note of the names of the people who gave him his information. And forgot to move one of the footnotes over when he cut and pasted the story from one book to another. Oh, and, somehow he managed to include in The Library at Night a photo of Luis Soriano, the volunteer creator of Colombia’s itinerant library system, with his burros loaded up with books. And the photo is captioned “One of the ‘donkey-libraries’ of the Colombian rural areas.” (p. 232). No hint that this man and these two donkeys were the actual font of all the learning that Manguel was describing.
Does it matter? Certainly I learned a great deal down the rabbit hole Manguel left for me with his mildly sloppy yet very simple clerical work. But I would prefer that he had, if not guided me down the path, at least shown me the gate and not turned the thing into a mystery story. And it would have been nice if Manguel had given Soriano the credit he deserved. And maybe I should have quoted the Spanish references here, guiding you down the path, rather than just giving rather full references in the notes for those who wish to go through those particular gates . . . .
I started by referencing a paper about Tolkien and I should bring things full circle. Last night I started reading Deborah Sabo’s “Archaeology and the Sense of History in J.R.R. Tolkien’ s Middle-Earth”,6 and was struck by this little bit:
Encounters with ruins are found in the earliest expressions of English literature, so it is not surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien would also include such scenes in his own fiction. For example, the dragon’s lair in Beowulf is a chambered tomb (Keillor and Piggott 360–61), the Old English elegiac poem The Ruin describes a Roman town (Mitchell 131), and in Tolkien’s own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the green chapel is a barrow mound(79).7
“. . . in Tolkien’s own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the green chapel is a barrow mound”. This wasn’t a deep rabbit hole. Sabo provides the page number (79) so it’s easy to check out Tolkien’s translation. Indeed he does describe the Green Chapel as a barrow mound. But anybody who actually looks at the original Middle English poem will see that the 15th Century poet described it in those very terms. So, Tolkien was being a good translator. But Sabo’s description makes it seem like the barrow mound description is something uniquely Tolkien’s: the dragon’s lair as chambered tomb is of Beowulf; The Ruin “describes a Roman town”; but, “ the green chapel is a barrow mound” in Tolkien’s translation [uniquely?]. I can’t help suspecting that Sabo didn’t bother looking at the Middle English, which is sad, because it would have been such a simple and obvious thing to do.
Sone, a lyttel on a launde, a lawe as hit were;
A balȝ berȝ bi a bonke þe brymme bysyde,
Bi a forȝ of a flode þat ferked þare;
Þe borne blubred þerinne as hit boyled hade.
Þe knyȝt kachez his caple, and com to þe lawe,
Liȝtez doun luflyly, and at a lynde tachez
Þe rayne and his riche with a roȝe braunche.
Þenne he boȝez to þe berȝe, aboute hit he walkez,
Debatande with hymself quat hit be myȝt.
Hit hade a hole on þe ende and on ayþer syde,
And ouergrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere,
And al watz holȝ inwith, nobot an olde caue,
Or a creuisse of an olde cragge, he couþe hit noȝt deme
1Guglielmo Spirito, “The Legends of the Trojan War in J.R.R. Tolkien”, Hither Shore 6 (2009) pp.182-200.
2 Manguel, Alberto. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography, Vancouver 2007, p. 6.
3 Domínguez, César. “Literatura mundial en biblioburro. Un caso procomún de circulación literaria”. Gesine Miller, Jorge J. Locane, and Benjamin Loy, eds. Remapping World Literature, pp. 119-130.
4 Manguel, Alberto. The Library at Night. United Kingdom, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 229-30.
5 This was another very deep rabbit hole. In the interest of providing the reference absolutely no one in the world who quotes this Stoppard quip seems to be aware of: page 2.
And here’s a really complete reference:
H.E.B. paperback contemporary playwrights series
Heinemann Educational Books Paperback: Contemporary playwrights series
Author Ronald Hayman
Publisher Pearson Education, 1978
ISBN 0435184415, 9780435184414
Length 146 pages
6 Deborah Sabo, “Archaeology and the Sense of History in J.R.R. Tolkien’ s Middle-Earth”, Mythlore 26:1/2 Fall/Winter 2007, pp. 91-112.
7 p. 91.
8 Tolkien, J.R.R., and E. V. Gordon, eds. Sir Gawain & The Green Knight. Oxford, 1960. pp.67.