The Tresco MS
Part 1: the manuscript unveiled
During 1996 a short series of essays appeared under the collective title New Middle-earth: Exploring Beyond the Mountains (Other Hands 13, 'April 1996', distributed June; also in Reunion 1, June). In these essays I presented the realm of 'New Middle-earth', an attempt to explore the consequences of asserting Tolkien's role as translator of authentic Middle-earth texts. Also described for the first time was the 'Tresco MS', a document of almost unprecedented antiquity and lineage. The material contained within the manuscript dates back - via the ninth and tenth centuries of the Common Era (Sixth Age) - to a period hitherto described only in the 'fantasy' writings of Professor JRR Tolkien.
The manuscript is, however, of far more than mere historical significance. The body of esoteric lore it contains predates the known origins of the Chinese I Ching, Scandinavian and Germanic runic traditions and the tarot. It speaks to all ages of mankind, providing coherent and accessible systems for both divination and self-discovery.
This article presents a fuller description of the manuscript's history, together with details of the project undertaken to restore and present this wisdom for the modern Age. Future articles will present translations from the manuscript, and detail the underlying wisdom traditions themselves. What, though, are these ancient works, and how have they come to light at the present time?
The story - at least my part in it - begins in the Summer of 1990. I was interested in the history and development of tarot cards, and in the wide range of decks then on the market. In addition to new interpretations of 'traditional' tarot symbolism, cards were being published offering interpretations of various cultural, mythological and religious traditions of the past. These included those of Amerindia, China, pharoic Egypt and Ancient Greece. Yet, for all their interest, it seemed to me that such approaches lacked immediacy and relevance for the modern Western reader. For many such people, myself included, the most accessible mythological framework was that published by the late Professor JRR Tolkien under the guise of fantasy fiction.
Surprised that no tarot deck seemed to exist incorporating the symbolism of Tolkien's writing, I placed an advertisement in the June 1990 edition of Prediction magazine. Published by Link House Magazines, Prediction is the largest circulation occult / New Age magazine in the UK. My advert sought contact from anyone interested in developing a Tolkien-based tarot deck. [It has recently come to my attention that at least one Tolkien tarot is commercially available, and has been for several years].
I received maybe twenty-five replies to my advertisement, from tarot readers, Tolkien fans and artists. Amongst these, one letter in particular stood out. The writer, a Ms Alice Bailey from Truro in Cornwall (UK), described an 'old book' that had passed into her possession from her late grandfather's estate. Enclosed with the letter were a couple of photocopied pages from the book, and others from a partial translation into modern English, apparently made during the late nineteenth century.
Alice claimed there were a number of correspondences between the translations and Tolkien's published works. Furthermore, as a reader of the tarot herself for many years, she had been struck by the book's illustrations, some of which evoked for her strong echoes of early tarot cards. One illustration, of a young woman seated in a high-backed wooden chair or throne, was amongst the enclosed photocopies. As she noted in her letter, this illustration does bear a striking relation to many interpretations of the tarot Arcanum III, 'The Empress'. Alice claimed to have little idea of the book's origins, nor of what the untranslated portions of the text comprised, but thought it might be of interest to my project.
Naturally, I wrote back immediately, requesting further information. Almost by return, a parcel arrived by registered post. Inside, I found copies of part of the original translations, dated 1886; also a series of notes in the same hand that told of the manuscript's discovery some fifty years earlier. The notes' author, a Reverend Bennett, was, Alice informed me, an ancestor of her grandmother's. She also enclosed a sheaf of typewritten pages outlining the correspondences she claimed to have found between the 'old' material, Tolkien's published works, and the tarot.
Reading the material carefully, I found the correspondences irrefutable, if incredible. The translations contained clear references to divination using cards some five hundred years before the earliest recorded emergence of the tarot in fifteenth century Italy. The mention of incised 'stones' suggested divination by casting lots, and the runes in use for both writing and magic throughout North-western Europe from the fifth century onwards. Yet all of this was presented as originating in a world already ancient beyond memory at the end of the first millennium of the Common Era: a world bearing unmistakable parallels with material published in the latter half of the twentieth century as fantasy fiction. How could these paradoxes be resolved? Was it all some elaborate hoax? Clearly, the first step was to examine the manuscript and attempt to verify the authenticity of the material it was purported to contain.
At Alice's invitation I made the journey to Truro during September 1990. I went expecting to examine the manuscript, and if possible to copy or photograph it in sufficient detail for independent analysis. To my considerable and lasting surprise, after discussing the material and its potential significance, Alice announced that she would entrust the Tresco MS itself and all related material into my care.
My study of the material began with Bennett's translations into modern English. These are contained two hardback notebooks, dated respectively 1886 and 1887. As mentioned above, there are also a number of loose-leaf notes in Bennett's hand. The earlier notebook contains a translation of Aerlinn's Notes. The origins of an ancient work of lore - The Book of Visions - are described, also how a system of divination using 'leaves and stones' evolved out of this lore.
The second notebook contains the translated text of Hundred's Preface to the Tresco MS. This relates how the 'book of Finan', a copy of the Book of Visions, had been translated into English at Lindisfarne (Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast, UK), and how the translations later passed into Hundred's keeping. Hundred, a British (Celtic) mariner, edited and compiled the texts into the document that Bennett names (in the accompanying notes) the 'Tresco manuscript', after the island upon which it was discovered. This, then, was the 'old book' which had passed down into Alice Bailey's keeping, and which now lay in my own possession.
From Age to Age
The date of completion of Aerlinn's Notes is given in the text as year 1482 'of the 4th age'. During the seventh to eighth centuries CE, Christendom recognised six ages of the temporal world, five of which had already passed. The sixth and final age had commenced with the birth of Christ. The fourth age in this chronology was defined in Biblical terms by the life of David and the Captivity of Judah: that is, as the period approximately 1000-600 BCE. It is possible, then, that the manuscript term '4th age' represents a conversion from the original chronology, made either by Hundred or - more credibly - by the monks of Lindisfarne who first translated the material into Anglo-saxon. However, there is evidence that the '4th age' chronology was actually in use at the time the Notes were written, in which case there need be no correlation with the Biblical system. Describing the completion of the Book of Visions text, Aerlinn refers to 'the new Age that is the fourth since the World was made, as the elves tell'.
Of Elves and Men
This brings us to an element of the Notes, indeed of the manuscript as a whole, that is difficult for the modern Western mind to accept. Aside from the uncertainties in dating, and also in geography, the 'historical' accounts of both Aerlinn and Hundred abound with tales of 'elves' (manuscript ylfe, singular ælf). The Book of Visions text itself is said by Aerlinn to have been written by the elf Gelydion (Rómendil), 'Master of Lore ... learned in all the wisdom of the elves'. In this instance, Aerlinn is describing events occurring thirteen hundred years before his own birth. This temporal distance may have lent a certain mythic enchantment to what originally had more mundane explanations. In Aerlinn's own time it seems the ylfe were not readily encountered: 'the paths to the Golden Wood [last recorded stronghold of the elves] are now lost to Men'.
But what are we to make of Hundred's first-hand accounts of the ylfe: his assertion that the West Country, 'the ancient realm of Dumnonia, that men now call Wessex', was in his day the last mainland habitation of elven kind? Other ylfe dwelt upon 'Súli' (the Isles of Scilly). In the closing passage of his Preface, Hundred writes:
And now for four years I have lived upon Súli amongst her people, men and elves ... The elves have taught me much concerning the history and lore of the elder days, and of the Ages of Men. With their aid I have long laboured to restore these works, correcting the innocent errors of Herefrid and Witmaer, and also the ruder mischiefs of lesser men. For surely the great book that came to Lindisfarne was corrupt, though now the true wisdom is restored ... And these pictures that surpass the craft of men the elves of Súli have made.
No more of this can be said here, although I hope to return to the subject of the ylfe of England and Súli in a later article.
The Tresco Manuscript
The manuscript itself is not immediately impressive in its outward appearance, though to even a casual eye it conveys an impression of extreme antiquity. The manuscript bears the overall title Boc þaera Hehsighðana ('The Book of Visions'), but in fact it contains five independent texts, of which the Book of Visions proper, is but one. For detailed timelines of the Fourth and Sixth Ages, derived from the Tresco MS material, see New Middle-earth: Exploring Beyond the Mountains (Other Hands 13, 'April 1996', distributed June; also in Reunion 1, June 1996).
Hundred's Preface describes his early life and how passed into his keeping two works - the Grey and the Green Books of Lindisfarne - which were themselves translations of an older, lost text of unknown ancestry. Hundred's role, then, is that of chronicler, editor and compiler. But, what were the texts from which Hundred composed his BÐc, of which the Tresco MS appears to be the sole surviving text?
To answer this question we must turn to the luxuriously entitled Notes on the History of the Book of Visions and the Commentaries of Rómendil, ascribed to one 'Aerlinn of the Island Coast'. In the Notes we find documented the origins of the Parma Taratirion - the original 'Book of Visions' - together with a description of two distinct 'wisdom traditions', each ultimately derived from the Parma lore. Aerlinn also provides a wealth of historical detail concerning the first centuries of the Fourth Age, most of which is unrecorded elsewhere.
The unattributed 'Lore of Life, Leaf & Stone' provides details of the wisdom traditions themselves: what they were and how they were used. The Parma Taratirion and Commentaries, written for the first time into a cohesive whole by Hundred, constitute the underlying wisdom itself. One of the major aspects of the Tresco MS project has been to realign these techniques for the modern era.
The project thus far
Since its inception, the 'Tresco MS Project' has developed along a number of more or less discrete strands.
The Tolkien Tarot
As I have already mentioned, my original interest was to develop a tarot deck based upon The Lord of the Rings. Whilst this aim was soon overtaken by events, considerable effort was expended in the search for valid correspondences between the Major and Minor cards of the tarot arcana and the published works of JRR Tolkien. In this work I was greatly aided by Yuri Leitch, whose deep knowledge of tarot symbolism and the Kabbalah was of great practical assistance and inspiration. I would also like to thank the several other people who commented on my proposed tarot ascribances, and indeed all those who replied to my original advertisement.
Translation of the texts
The first objective was, naturally, to obtain definitive translations of all the Tresco MS texts. Translations of the Preface and Notes of Aerlinn were based closely upon Bennett, and were completed relatively easily. The remainder of the manuscript was available only in Old English, and proved much more difficult. During this phase of the project, I posted an advertisement on a notice-board in the University of Cambridge (UK). I was rewarded with two offers of assistance: one from a final year undergraduate, the other from a postgraduate student. As I am unfortunately no longer in contact with either, they must remain unnamed. Nevertheless, for their considerable help and interest at a critical early stage of the project I was and remain deeply indebted to them both.
The Middle-earth link
This strand of the project focused on the links between Aerlinn's Notes (and to a lesser extent the unattributed 'Lore of Life, Leaf & Stone') and the published works of JRR Tolkien. The Notes' narrative covers the approximate period 50-1500 Fourth Age, and so has little overlap with the narrative and chronologies in The Lord of the Rings (which close with Elessar's death in 120 Fourth Age). There are, nevertheless, a wealth of details - many geographical in nature - by which the veracity of the Notes can be asserted.
Hundred / Tresco
Hundred's Preface provides the prime interface between the Tresco MS and recorded history, purporting to take place during the ninth-tenth centuries of the present Age. Investigations here have focused on the detailed narrative concerning Hundred's journeys with the brothers of Lindisfarne, and upon his accounts of 'Súli', identified as the Isles of Scilly. I am deeply indebted to my friend Sorcha Cubitt, then a resident of Scilly, who provided me with much local and historical detail (and a lot of postcards!)
Hundred / Ælfwine
One inescapable conclusion of the above research is that Hundred Elf-friend is revealed as none other than that Ælfwine of Warwick described in the writings of Professor Tolkien (see especially The Book of Lost Tales, volume 2). Of this much more could be said (and perhaps one day will be!)
Realigning the lore
The Parma Taratirion and Commentaries between them comprise by far the largest portion of the Tresco MS texts. Once translated, it became clear that these passages would require further rewriting, in order to render them accessible to a modern reader. This is the more so in the case of the Commentaries, whose very purpose is to illustrate and explain the - often cryptic - taratiri passages. In parallel with this, the material contained in the 'Life, Leaf & Stone' text required extensive realignment and validation for use in the present Age.
It is beyond the scope of the present article to fully describe the body of wisdom contained in the Tresco MS: I hope to present aspects of this lore in full in future articles. Nevertheless, some brief introduction is appropriate. The lore is most conveniently split into two distinct strands.
The first uses either cards ('leaves') or incised stones to perform divinatory readings in a manner analogous to - yet different from - the tarot and Futhark runes. The second strand comprises a body of 'life wisdom', by which a series of archetypes are applied to periods of your life. This derives an overall (year-by-year) 'LIFE-vision' profile, and a YEAR-vision profile for each year in turn. Both strands are traceable back to the Parma Taratirion (Q. 'Book of Visions'), written in the second century of the Fourth Age (see provenance diagram at the end of this article). This seminal text detailed a body of lore based upon the thirty-six letters of the Fëanorian Tengwar alphabet.
Two examples of the kind of realignment undertaken will suffice. The 'Wisdom of Life' is strongly calendar based, and investigations required a full reconciliation of the Middle-earth reckonings with the modern, Gregorian calendar. A summary of this calendrical reconciliation has appeared in Amon Hen (issue 128, September 1994). Full day-by-day concordance tables have also been published in Iron Crown Enterprises' Southern Gondor: The People module (1996).
Similarly, the various tables used to calculate a person's profile of YEAR-visions, and to determine their 'Inner Wheel of Visions', had to be redrawn using the modern calendar. As both of these procedures are tedious (if essentially straightforward), a software application has been written to compute these details on demand.
The great publisher chase
Almost from the beginning, it was obvious that the Tresco MS would be of considerable interest in the Fannish realm, if not much wider afield. To this end I drew up a proposal document for a book detailing the history and development of the MS texts (even before the bulk of them had been more than partially translated!), and presenting the wisdom traditions they contained. This proposal was first sent to a number of UK publishers, who I deemed might find the concept of relevance to their schedules. Despite some initial interest, and approaches since that time to a couple of publishers in the US, at this time the book remains without a certain future. Nevertheless, I live in hope!
I have tried to give an overview of the finding of the Tresco MS, its component texts, and the project presently underway to re-interpret the lore those texts contain for the modern Age. My primary purpose has been to provide background information to my earlier New Middle-earth article, also to introduce more detailed treatments of the Tresco MS material, which hopefully will feature in future issues of this Journal.
I am aware that much of all this carries the potential for controversy, even outright repudiation. I do not expect a wholly positive response, especially from those for whom Tolkien's own published works hold a position tantamount to canon law. Yet controversy is a wholesome thing, provided it remains informed and open, and I would like to sincerely invite any and all comments and responses, whether critical or otherwise.