Tolkien’s Influence on the Translation of Job
I was reading Job 28:1-11 in the Jerusalem Bible, which uses the metaphor of mining for jewels to depict the search for wisdom, and I was struck by how much the passage reminded me of the dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I learned that in fact, Tolkien had a hand in editing the translation of Job in the Jerusalem Bible for English style. Purportedly, he hung onto the manuscript for a year or so and insisted on many changes, even though he had little knowledge of Hebrew. An encyclopedia article by L.J. Swain claims as much:
“Tolkien received the copy of Job that had been translated by Andrew Keeney…Tolkien held up the work for a long time because he was unable to complete his revisions in part due to other work, in part due to Tolkien’s perfectionism. According to Keeney, when he and Jones went to Tokien’s home to discuss the translation, Tolkien proved difficult and intractable on some of the issues of the translation’s English expression and forced through the changes. This resulted in yet more delay in publication.” (‘Judaism,’ in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, p. 315)
While Tolkien only consulted on the English style for Job, apparently he actually translated the Book of Jonah from the French for the Jerusalem Bible.
Here’s the passage from Job 28, with my comments:
1 Silver has its mines,
and gold a place for refining.
2 Iron is extracted from the earth,
the smelted rocks yield copper.
Immediately, this makes me think of the dwarves in Lord of the Rings and their lust for precious metals. Constantly, they search for ore, for wealth. They can trace their origin from Aule, the smith of the Valar. Here I can see the dwarvish blacksmiths and smelters at work, making golden treasures and weapons for battle. Silver and gold point to wealth, while iron and copper have more practical uses on the battlefield or in the kitchen.
3 Man makes an end of darkness,
when he pierces to the uttermost depths
the black and lightless rock.
4 Mines the lamp-folk dig
in places where there is no foothold,
and hang suspended far from mankind.
Can’t you just see the dwarves hanging upside down searching for gems and ore in their lust for precious stones and metals? Not to mention Tolkien himself thinking “lamp-folk”=dwarves? The power of this passage lies in the piercing of darkness by light. Mining is a very unusual activity for us sunlight-loving humans, but it can be wildly profitable—just like the search for wisdom. What seems like a descent into obscurity and darkness actually is a seeking of greater light.
5 That earth from which bread comes
is ravaged underground by fire.
Here, I am reminded of the haunting glow of fire, which presaged the appearance of the Balrog in the Fellowship’s trek through the mines of Moria. The Balrog, a “dark figure streaming with fire” emerges from the deep to challenge Gandalf and company. The Balrog had sprung from the earth after the dwarves had dug too deep, and eventually it forced them to flee from the mines altogether. The “deep” thus embodies a tension. On the one hand, it is full of riches and jewels, but on the other hand, deeper still lies baleful fire, the molten rock of the underworld. It is a beautiful mystery how the earth can contain both diamonds and magma, portents of wealth and of death.
6 Down there, the rocks are set with sapphires,
full of spangles of gold.
Here I can sense the dwarves’ lust for gold and precious stones, which drove them to an almost crazed search for greater and greater wealth. The Silmarillion describes the dwarves who receive the Seven Rings, in whom an “over-mastering greed of gold [was] kindled in their hearts.” The search for worldly wealth can indeed become a deception, a trap, while the search for wisdom, which is merely similar to the search for jewels, in fact delivers a bountiful payoff in virtue and happiness.
7 Down there is a path unknown to birds of prey,
unseen by the eye of any vulture;
Do you remember the vultures that were sent out by Saruman to search for the Fellowship of the Ring? The vultures spy on the Fellowship and, along with a snow storm, drive them down to enter the Mines of Moria, out of the carrion birds’ sight. “There is a path unknown to birds of prey…” I mean, I’m not saying that Tolkien encoded his plot into Job 28, but…
8 a path not trodden by the lordly beasts,
where no lion ever walked.
9 Man attacks its flinty sides,
upturning mountains by their roots.
Dwarves in Lord of the Rings always seem to be drilling mines beneath mountains: the Blue Mountains, the Misty Mountains, the Lonely Mountain, the Grey Mountains, and Barazinbar, under which they dug the mines of Moria or Khazad-dum where they found mithril. Of course, in their hunger for this extraordinary material, they disturbed the evil Balrog who, as I mentioned, eventually drove them to flee from Moria. “Lordly beasts” like lions don’t walk around in mines, only nasty fire-beasts like the Balrog can be found there. Tolkien’s mythology here draws on age-old notions of the underworld as a place of tantalizing evil, where you can see but not touch the shades of your lost friends, where you can eat the food but be imprisoned, like Persephone, by that very act. The dark places under the earth do contain some light, but it not the light of day—it is rather a fiery red glow of lurking evil.
10 driving tunnels through the rocks,
on the watch for anything precious.
11 He explores the sources of rivers,
and brings to daylight secrets that were hidden.
Do you remember where Gollum found the ring to begin with and where he was hiding out when Bilbo Baggins stumbled across him? In the watery depths under the Misty Mountains—and if I remember right, it was the source of a river.
After reading through this passage again and noticing all of the many connections to Tolkien’s dwarves, I’m convinced that he embedded the connection. The Lord of the Rings was written long before the Jerusalem Bible came out, so the dwarves hidden in Job 28 had time to marinate in Tolkien’s mind for a while. His touch is subtle enough that one could overlook the connections, but if you assemble all the pieces carefully enough, the evidence is there. It is amusing to me to see the great 20th Century novelist leave his fingerprints on the biblical text much like legend about the famed 17th Century playwright slipping a “shake” and a “spear” into Psalm 46 of the King James Version. What do you think? Did Tolkien allow his dwarves to shape Job 28 in the Jerusalem Bible?