16 September 2018

Mainly for Tolkienists and Hellenists.

Currently, in the New Bod, there is quite a tasty little exhibition relating to the brilliant Catholic apologist and philologist J R R Tolkien. Among the goodies is a jeu penned by T when on a walking holiday with fellow Inklings.

It constitutes a spoof Examination Paper. This is how it begins:

College of Cretacious Perambulators. 

[?1] April 1938

Comment on the following.

(1) It is no good setting them that, they would know it.
(2) 'The poet sat in the third and laughed.'
(3) 'Ten twenty thirty you're very dirty.'
(4) 'The Armada can wait but my bowels can't.'
(5) Panta sphairei [in Greek letters with accents.]
(6) Felix qui potuit felis cognoscere caudam.

(1) presumably parodies the thought processes assumed to be present in the minds of cantankerous examiners. (3) is from George MacDonald ... Does anybody have any thoughts about (2)? Or about contextualisation in general?

(4), (5), and (6) speak for themselves ... or do they? In (5), the ink of the final two letters is much stronger, and it appears to me that they represent a correction of what was first written rather more faintly. Grammarians will immediately guess that the lectio prima might have been Panta sphairoi. But, in either case, what is the phrase supposed to mean?

I wonder if there are conceptual links between the 'questions'. One could certainly imagine a link between the appalling Drake's profluent bowels and the apophthegm of Heraclitus "Panta rhei". And between Heraclitus and the greatest of the Greek philosophers, Epicurus, as mediated through Lucretius to Virgil.

Whose was the cat and whence its sapient tail?


Banshee said...

It is a linguistics (or rather, philology) exam. One is supposed to comment on how the sentences work, and probably the historical and literary contexts. The choice of sentences is probably an in-joke of some kind.

Sometimes linguistics problems revolve around deliberate mistakes, or why X is a grammar mistake made by native speakers, but Y is clearly a typo or a mistake made only by non-native speakers. So the "corrected" Greek could be something like that.

I don't know much about the field in the 1930's, so I don't get the rest of the joke or point.

Thomas said...

I'm not a classicist, but perhaps I have a crude mind. If "sphaira" means "sphere", then 5) could signify not only that the cosmos is all concentric spheres (as proposed in Aristotle's Physics) but also: "it's all [round shapes]", for which [noun] substitute the English obscenity beginning with 'b-------'!

Banshee said...

I think (2) might also be about pronunciation of the a sound. In the US, both "sat" and "laughed" would share the vowel ash (cannot do IPA on my tablet), but they are different sounds in UK dialects, IIRC.

In US linguistics classes, we used to spend a lot of time in cot vs. caught, marry vs. Mary, etc., because the distinction only really exists in the East Coast or such.

Colin Spinks said...

(6) reminds me of an episode of Oxford's great detective Chief Inspector Morse in which the murder victim, who runs a sideline creating fake genealogies, engraves a coat of arms with the motto "felis nocte exponendus" which he mistranslates as "blessed is the man who goes out into the darkness".

E sapelion said...

I see, though mistily, a connection with the Rev. C L Dodgson, some of whose perambulations in the vicinity of Oxford led to whimsical stories. I hesitate to comment on no.5, since I regularly came bottom of the class in the two years I studied Greek (not helped by our following Oxford in changing to the pronounciation formulated by an establishment in the Fens after my first year), but is the obvious just a trap for the semi-educated.

Unknown said...

The Greek "panta sphairoi" means literally "everything rolls up into a ball." The ball alluded to in this case would be the celestial globe. Perhaps the expression is intended to be more folksy than either astronomical or metaphysical. Perhaps it means something like "what goes round comes round."

But I'm just guessin'. Taught Latin and classical Greek for more than 40 years before retirement. The most I got out of it was a kind of intellectual humility bordering on humiliation.

More info please said...

Could number 5 be an echo of liar liar pants on fire?

John Vasc said...

Re 2) Is it possible Tolkien meant the poet was travelling in a third-class carriage on the railway? i.e. the lowest, cheapest and least comfortable way.

An indigent poet, forced to travel cheaply, might regard the discomfort lightly, and laugh to scorn the bourgeois rat-race of pecuniary ambition, in emulation of the Oxonian Scholar Gypsy, perhaps? (English literary tradition is stuffed full of 'poor poets'.)

Might the question stimulate the examinee into writing about economics and the psychology of the creative artist?

Re 5) Perhaps the student would be expected to expound wittily on the presumed meaning of a a verb based on 'sphaira'. E.g. that the entire universe can be divided along Manichean lines into a duality of rugby and soccer, or more conventionally into a Trinity including tennis: in recent years, 1934, 1935 and 1936, the Englishman Fred Perry had famously won the title at Wimbledon. Or a cosmology divided into the four spherical humours might be postulated, for squash was already very popular at Oxford by the late 1930s. (The OUSRC was founded in 1925).

The question might imply that Heraclitus' dictum had been superseded in sporting terms? A mischievous suggestion on 1 April 1938, as the 1938 Boat Race was to be contested the following day, 2nd April 1938: Oxford were rated the favourites to win, and did so. (One imagines the topic might have come up in the Oxford SCRs at the time, as the 1938 Boat Race was the first one to be televised.)

6) Cats' tails indicate the moods and intentions of an otherwise inscrutable being. What we now call body language.

John Vasc said...

P.S. At least two of the questions might tempt poetic answers:
2) is a pithy tetrameter, that might be extended into one or more rhyming quatrains, and
6) is a Latin hexameter, so an Horatian or Virgilian continuation might be expected of a good pre-war scholar with a classical education.

Further thoughts on:
3) Would George MacDonald and his elvish fantasies (such as 'The Princess and the Curdie') have had currency enough in the late 1930s for this Grimm-ish nonsense-poem to be recognizable to undergraduates? Or was Tolkien posing a 'what on earth do you make of this, and can you continue it in verse' question?

5) I missed out one obvious ball-game - cricket. A pseudo-Miltonian answer to that question might begin

'When I consider how my life is spent
In batting, bowling, tea-ing in the tent...'

4) is a classic pre-war schoolboy howler about Sir Francis ('bowels' for 'bowls') so perhaps Tolkien was hoping for more such? ('1066 and All That' was still fairly recent - publ. 1930 - and very popular with the young...)

Thorfinn said...

Tolkien also used the ‘poet’ quote in a letter to R.W. Chapman, reminiscences on George S Gordon (Letters, #46):

Yet he created not a miserable
little 'department', but a team. A team fired not only with a depart-
mental esprit de corps, determined to put 'English' at the head of the
Arts departments, but inspired also with a missionary zeal. ...
A personal contribution of his was his doctrine of lightheartedness:
dangerous, perhaps, in Oxford, necessary in Yorkshire. No Yorkshire-
man, or woman, was ever in danger of regarding his class in finals as a
matter of indifference (even if it did not have a lifelong effect on his
salary as a school teacher): the poet might 'sit in the third and laugh', but
the Yorkshire student would not. But he could be, and was, encouraged
to play a little, to look outside the 'syllabus', to regard his studies as
something larger and more amusing than a subject for an examination.