Tolkien’s “Holy Grail”

– The never-ending quest …

In some of the early Arthurian Literature, knights would often find themselves embarking on heroic quests in order to attain a much revered object in the Christian world – the Holy Grail.arthur

Fast forward to approximately 900 years later and a parallel can be created with many Tolkienists – vying their way to find a very obscure artifact from a long lost period in history.

It all started sometime in the 1920s, when Tolkien (together with E.V Gordon – whom he would later collaborate in the translation of the 14th Century Middle-English poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’), formed the so-called Viking Club; a gathering of students and teachers from the University of Leeds with a passion for Old Icelandic sagas. These meetings eventually produced a collection of some of the most fascinating poetry works – translated into a variety of languages (amongst which: Old English, Gothic and Norse).

The modestly thin “book” was entitled: ‘Songs for the Philologists’.

Songs 1

Gordon later gave this collection to some students in order to privately print them sometime in 1935 – however, all copies that made it in print were soon to be stored away due to the realization that no permissions were requested from the authors of the works.   Unfortunately, a fire destroyed most of the books and it has been often reported that between 13 and 14 copies survive worldwide.

This has propelled this “book” to be the rarest of all of Tolkien’s works – the man himself having contributed some 13 poems among the 30 that are to be found in the collection.

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Personally, not only the story that surrounds this particular work, but also the scarcity of details on its existence have made me realize that this could well be defined as Tolkien’s own Songs Contents“Holy Grail”.

I have been scouring the internet for years, trying to find any source of information related to these poems – but with little success.

Although copies of the collection seem to be circling around, only 6 of Tolkien’s 13 poems have made it into print (4 of which can be found in Tom Shippey’s brilliantly written book ‘The Road to Middle-earth’).

If money is no problem, you can always acquire it online. A copy or two have been “on sale” for years now, with prices ranging between $30,000 – $40,000 (ridiculous!). Then again, it is rare.

Apart from wanting to experience Tolkien’s own contribution to the collection in its entirety, I’m also interested in discovering the other remaining works that make up this very particular piece of work.

I considering this a kind of private “quest” of mine to discover more about this very elusive collection and bring to light a piece of work that unfortunately remains in the dark.

Songs Printing

Here’s hoping that one day, the Tolkien Estate will pursue the task to make these poems available to the general public and thereby, not only introducing us to some of Tolkien’s unknown writings, but given an opportunity to the other authors who have also given their contribution in the making of ‘Songs for the Philologists’.

If anyone has further information on specific details of this compilation, please share them here or send me an email. Let’s try and gather as much material as we can! 🙂

[Painting of King Arthur by Frank Dicksee; Images of ‘Songs for the Philologists taken from ‘Tolkien Library’]

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12 thoughts on “Tolkien’s “Holy Grail”

  1. This is so interesting post and yes it’s the first time I hear about this book and now I am going to hunt it down all over the web but about buying a physical copy; let us hope it has a mass publishing…

  2. I have seen them for sale online, but as you say the price is ridiculous. It is peculiar how the Estate has yet to release them for general consumption. Perhaps since the work is so illusive there is a lack of demand. There may be a chance that if we can rally together, petition or any other similar form we can try to get the estate to consider publishing this work.

    • I actually hope we can do something like that. Hopefully, one day, if this blog manages to attract a high number of people with like mind we may be able to (at least) propose the idea 🙂 – though I do not doubt it already has been done …

  3. […] Tolkien’s “Holy Grail” (atolkienistperspective.wordpress.com) […]

  4. My (pure) guess as to why the Estate has never reprinted this is that there a number of errors in the Songs pamphlets (primarily missing accents on characters, but also some wording issues and several typographical errors). They are obviously pretty strict with regards to JRRTs reputation, so it may be that they feel that reprinting “defective” material is not the right thing to do. This is pure speculation on my part, though — it may just have been fairly low priority given the limited market.

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