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Elvish has left the building: Rare book auctioned had Tolkien verses in English, not Elvish

A rare first edition of The Hobbit that was auctioned by Sotheby's this week included handwritten verses by J.R.R. Tolkien that the auction house mistakenly said were in Elvish

Sotheby’s website

It sounded like the kind of arcane, mystical stuff J.R.R. Tolkien fans would love: Sotheby's announced Thursday that it had sold a rare first edition of The Hobbit in which the famous author had handwritten some verses in Elvish, one of his invented languages.

The news was duly picked up and published around the world.

Unfortunately, the verses were not in Elvish, as the auction house had proclaimed. They were in English – albeit Old English.

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"I hope the person who paid the huge sum of money for the book won't be disappointed!" Simon Horobin, a professor at the University of Oxford, said in an e-mail interview.

Prof. Horobin, who teaches medieval English language, was one of two scholars, along with Rebecca Brackmann of Lincoln Memorial University, who noticed the mistake and flagged it on Twitter.

The book went under the auctioneer's hammer in London this week and sold for £137,000 (about $260,000).

In its auction catalogue, Sotheby's said the book, which was published in 1937, had a handwritten dedication to one of Tolkein's students, Katherine Kilbride.

The inscription included four verses in Elvish, the catalogue said.

Sotheby's catalogue is inaccurate, said Andy Orchard, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, the academic chair once held by Tolkien.

"It is indeed Old English, and in fact a piece of Old English verse that JRRT obviously coined for the occasion, concocted from bits of Beowulf and other Old English poems that he taught and knew well, so in this case as his humble successor I am delighted to pronounce that 'Elvish has left the building,'" Prof. Orchard told The Globe and Mail.

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Old English was the Anglo-Saxon language spoken before the Norman conquest, he said.

The Elvish languages that Tolkien devised were an amalgam of different languages, including Finnish and Welsh, Prof. Orchard said.

He provided his translation of the inscription:

There are many marvels and creatures unknown to men

on the paths to the west, a land bright to behold,

the dwelling-place of elves; precious stones

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shine secretly in mountain caves

"Sounds like Vancouver to me!" said Prof. Orchard, who once lived in Canada, where he was provost at the University of Toronto's Trinity College.

A representative for Sotheby's said the sale won't be affected by the catalogue mistake.

"The reference in the lot description to Elvish does not affect in any way the authenticity, provenance and condition of the lot and we would not cancel or rescind the sale on this basis," said Matthew Weigman.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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