I’ve been rereading Eric Kelly’s 1928 novel The Trumpeter of Krakow, one of my childhood favourites, in preparation for my attendance at the IVR Congress in Kraków next month (where I’ll be giving a paper on Spooner – but more about that in a future post).
I must say the book is even better then I’d remembered; but I had never previously noticed (perhaps because I first read it before I read Tolkien) some of the striking similarities between the book and Tolkien’s work. [NOTE: There are SPOILERS AHEAD for those who haven’t read Trumpeter.] This time the family’s flight from their home, pursued by a dark rider who seeks a treasure they carry, reminded me of Frodo and his companions fleeing the Nazgûl; Johannes Tring’s influence on Nicholas Kreutz seemed reminiscent of Wormtongue’s on Théoden, of the palantír’s on Denethor, or of the Ring’s on Gollum; both the alchemist Kreutz and the philosopher Jan Kanty resembled aspects of Gandalf; and the arrow-interrupted trumpet call itself (which incidentally can still be heard today) put me in mind of Boromir’s.
But the most striking parallel is the Tarnov crystal, a magnificent gem which Kelly describes as follows:
The room was suddenly filled with the light of a thousand candles. Colors of the rainbow fell upon the walls – a huge center of radiance like the sun in the heavens blazed into being …. Flickering, dancing flecks of light leaped about the room and transformed its gloom into the brilliancy of day. … The outer layers were clear like the water of a mountain spring; as the eye fell farther and farther within the surface, a bluish tint was perceptible …. Such was its absolute beauty that whoever looked into its depths seemed to be gazing into a sea without limit.
This is remarkably similar to Tolkien’s description of the Arkenstone:
It was like a globe with a thousand facets; it shone like silver in the firelight, like water in the sun … it was tinged with a flickering sparkle of many colours at the surface, reflected and splintered …. it took all the light that fell upon it and changed it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow. … It was as if a globe had been filled with moonlight and hung before them in a net woven of the glint of frosty stars.
Of course this might be coincidence; perhaps there are only so many ways to describe a magnificent gem. But the Kelly-Tolkien parallels continue. The Tarnov crystal also turns out to have aspects of a palantír:
Indeed you have been under the hand of a devil if you have been gazing into that thing. Why, do you know that this stone can send a man into a trance in which all manner of truths will be divulged? …
The instant the king’s eyes were fixed upon the stone he became suddenly oblivious to everything else that was before him, and stood as one in a dream or trance, gazing into the depths of the fearsomely beautiful thing.
And Kelly’s description of it as “a thing of wickedness and blood” with “a woeful history, as old perhaps as the world itself,” suggests a comparison with the One Ring itself. Moreover, in its influence on the characters, the Tarnov crystal partakes of aspects of both the Arkenstone and the One Ring:
It is already having a bad influence upon me. I cannot see straightly in the world of men as once I did. When I have looked into it for minutes and minutes my thoughts come back to me crookedly …. I sometimes feel as if my very soul were getting caught in the rays of that bright thing. … The first sight of it drove honesty from my head, as it has driven honesty from the heads of many who have seen it. I saw there the means of working out a great name for myself, of becoming famous, of becoming envied over all the world. I was tempted and I fell ….
Likewise, the central “gimmick” (in the Randian sense) of Tolkien’s story – the idea of a quest, not to locate a magical object, but to get rid of it – is to some extent prefigured in Kelly’s book also. The final solution of the problem posed by the crystal is suitably Tolkienesque as well:
“[W]ith such jewels as this, that cause strife between man and man, and war between nation and nation – here – now – I make an end!” … [H]e swung about and hurled the crystal into the air with all his force. … The sun struck it there as it seemed for a moment to hang between earth and sky like a glittering bubble or a shining planet. Then it fell, fell, fell – until it dropped with a splash into their black, hurried waters of the Vistula River, so that the circles for a moment beat back the waves of the rushing torrent – then all was as before.
So were some of Tolkien’s ideas inspired by The Trumpeter of Krakow? I can’t say for sure. Kelly’s book antedates the composition of The Hobbit (just barely) and Lord of the Rings, but would Tolkien have read it? When it first came out it was enormously popular in the U.S., but was it likewise so in Britain? It would also be interesting to know whether Tolkien had already developed the idea of the Silmarils by 1928; if so, then the idea of strife over magical gems was in any case already present without help from Kelly (and of course there are alternative sources of this idea too, most notably the Nibelung legends). Still, I can’t help wondering ….