Tolkien's Brief Allusion to Dante's Selva Oscura

Leon Jacobowitz Efron (Shalem College, Israel)

Dante Notes / June 29, 2019

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is probably the most important fantasy author of the 20th century, famous for the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s literary creation has become a focus of academic studies and, in recent years, Tolkien sessions seem to have become a staple of academic conferences on the Middle Ages. While many studies of Tolkien’s corpus examine his work in relation to Anglo-Saxon literature, or in relation to Germanic or Norse mythology, which were part of the Oxford philologist’s expertise, there are fewer studies to note the parallelisms between Tolkien’s writing and Dante’s.[1] The following brief note is a small contribution to the insights of these rare Tolkienian studies that refer to Dante, calling attention to what seems to be a small Tolkienian tribute to the Italian poet.

Tolkien’s ambivalence towards Dante would best be presented in his own words. In 1967 Tolkien gave an interview to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. In 8 February 1967, having received the draft of the pre-published interview, he sent back his corrections, and so we have both his original words and his retraction of them in print, which are worth quoting in full:[2]

[Dante] “doesn’t attract me. He’s full of spite and malice. I don’t care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities”

My reference to Dante was outrageous. I do not seriously dream of being measured against Dante, a supreme poet. At one time [C.S.] Lewis and I used to read him to one another. I was for a while a member of the Oxford Dante Society[3] (I think at the proposal of Lewis, who over-estimated greatly my scholarship in Dante or Italian generally). It remains true that I found the ‘pettiness’ that I spoke of a sad blemish in places.

That Tolkien, who knew Italian,[4] not only had a complicated relationship with Dante, but also a fine knowledge of the Divine Comedy is clear from the professor’s above-quoted words, making a reference to the Comedy, as I am about to suggest, possible.

In chapter seven of the Hobbit, “Queer Lodgings,” Beorn, the shapeshifting host of Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves, describes the dangers of Mirkwood, the forest the protagonists are about to journey into:

“But your way through Mirkwood is dark, dangerous and difficult,” he said… “in there the wild things are dark, queer, and savage… There is one stream there, I know, black and strong which crosses the path. That you should neither drink of, nor bath in; for I have heard that it carries enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness. And in the dim shadows of that place I don’t think you will shoot anything, wholesome or unwholesome, without straying from the path. That you must not do, for any reason.”[5]

The way through Mirkwood is described using a set of three alliterative adjectives, “dark, dangerous and difficult,” and the creatures in it are described as “dark, queer, and savage,”[6] with Tolkien’s “queer” meaning strange or eerie. Any Dante scholar would probably note the slight parallelism to the Comedy’s opening lines (Inf. 1.2-6): the adjective “dark” parallels Dante’s oscura, the unusual choice to describe a forest with the adjective “difficult” seems to be a literal tribute to Dante’s dura or perhaps to forte, and the use of “savage” echoes the Italian selvaggia even if in Tolkien it denotes the denizens of the woods and not the vegetation.

To date, no Tolkien scholar seems to have noted this similarity of vocabulary to the opening of Dante’s masterpiece. I believe this similarity is not simply a coincidence, but an intentional allusion. First, the context of this phrasing is a description of the dangers posed by going into a forest and more specifically, the peril that “a great drowsiness and forgetfulness” will befall the traveler in this sorcerous woodland, not unlike Dante-Pilgrim’s symbolic sleepiness and disorientation in the opening lines of the Comedy (“non so ben ridir com’io v’entrai, tant'era pien di sonno a quel punto che la verace via abbandonaiInf. 1.10-12). This stylistic similarity is further bolstered by Beorn’s direct mention of “the path” from which the company must not stray “for any reason,” echoing Dante’s diritta via.[7] Most importantly, it would seem these allusions are one of Tolkien’s philological puns.[8] In his letter to his grandson from July 29, 1966, Tolkien explains the etymology of this place-name:

Mirkwood is not an invention of mine, but a very ancient name, weighted with legendary associations… its ancientness seems indicated by its appearance in very early German (11th c.?) as mirkwidu although the *merkw- [Germanic] stem “dark” is not otherwise found in German at all (only in O.E., O.S., and O.N.), and the stem *widu->witu was in German (I think) limited to the sense ‘timber’, not very common, and did not survive into mod. G. In O.E. mirce only survives in poetry, and in the sense “dark” or rather “gloomy,”… elsewhere only with the sense of “murky”…[9]

Simply put, the Germanic “Mirkwood” literally means “selva oscura” in Italian, and Tolkien is hinting to his awareness of this happy coincidence by inserting a partial paraphrase of the famous Dantean masterpiece describing another dangerous wood with its similar perils and with its identical appellation. The Hobbit is essentially a children’s book, which makes this, albeit brief, allusion even more remarkable. It is quite possible that Tolkien’s veiled scholarly pun on the name Mirkwood was intentionally aimed at older, more scholarly, readers – what Tolkien called “‘Oxford’ interest” in his descriptions of Oxford dons reading the Hobbit or ignoring knowing about it in order to retain “academic dignity.”[10]

In his seminal paper “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien distinctly claims that Fairy-Stories – and Tolkien does see his Hobbit as falling into his particular definition of this term – should not be dissected by scholarly readers: “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,” he says, quoting Dasent, and then adds “by ‘the soup’ I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by ‘the bones’ its sources or material – even when (by rare luck) those can be with certainty discovered.”[11] Tolkien did not want his narrative, obliquely echoing and recasting many mythological and canonical themes as his own, to lead his readers astray from the straight path of his own plot. He did not want his readers to be distracted by direct erudite comparisons to the sagas or the Eddas, or by allegorical interpretations.[12] That being said, by its very nature, a pun does invite the reader to “meander” from the path, since it is meant to be understood through knowledge external to the narrative. Thus, if we are to set aside Tolkien’s postulated protestations and assume this pun was intentional rather than coincidental, it would seem that Tolkien is partially breaking his rules by referencing a tiny “ox-bone” from his “soup,” even if only a handful of readers would notice this gesture. Even if one chooses not to pursue an allegorical line of interpretation to this Dantean reference, at the very least, one may note the remarkable fact that an uncommonly popular children’s book seems to incorporate a playful reference that requires knowledge both of Germanic etymology and of a 14th century Italian literary masterpiece.

[1] Some examples of such studies include Flieger’s note that in Tolkien’s legendarium the Elves’ first word, “ele” (“behold” in the Quenya language Tolkien constructed for them), is akin to the DVE’s description of “El” (“God”, in Hebrew) as Adam’s first word; see Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Revised edition. Kent, (OH: Kent State University Press, 2002), 179. Other examples of Dantean links to Tolkien are enumerated in Merlin DeTardo, “Dante” in Michael D. C. Drout ed. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), 116-117.

[2] The script of the interview and the retraction text are from Letter 294; see Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 377 [372-378].

[3] See also, Oxford Dante Society, Centenary Essays on Dante. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965, 147.

[4] This is alluded to in letter 167, see Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 223.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), 143-144.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), 143.

[7] The same warning “stick to the forest track” and “don’t leave the path!” is reiterated by Gandalf later, see J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), 149-150.

[8] Tolkien’s philological jests and puns are usually based on names, and require knowledge of Old English and other languages. Three famous examples include Smaug’s name, Frodo’s name, and the supposed “curious chance” that the title “Downfallen,” given to a description of the Atlantis-like sunken isle-civilization of Númenórë, happened to become Atalantë in Quenya; see, Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 31, 223, 347.

[9] Letter 289, see Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 369-370.

[10] Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 24-25.

[11] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (Harper Collins, 2006), 120 [109-161].

[12] On Tolkien’s rejection of allegorical interpretations of his work, see J.R.R. Tolkien, “Foreword to the Second Edition” in The Lord of the Rings (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), xxiii [xxii-xxv]; Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 41, 144, 174, 212, 233, 262.