Tuesday, February 22, 2011

this is blowing my mind

I have "lurked" on this list for a while and finally have a comment to offer, albeit a very insignificant one.
I wonder if the fact that Prof. JRR Tolkien apparently had an interest in (or at least knowledge of) the Voynich Ms has been discussed or indeed is of any interest at all?
The thing is, a nagging feeling that I had once seen the VMs many years ago - long before my recent interest was sparked by that piece in The New Scientist - is resolved. I now recall it - and though the persons concerned having died long since makes my little anecdote mere hearsay and in no way veridical, I thought I'd forward it. An old friend, a retired military man with an amateur interest in codes and cyphers, once showed me a couple of not entirely distinct b&w copies of pages from a curious coded manuscript, which I now realise were a couple of folios of the VMs. I was not especially interested in them at the time, I think, but the reason that the incident made an impression was that he said that they had been given to him by Prof JRR Tolkien. At that time I had just discovered and was very much 'into' Tolkien so I was most envious of my friend's knowing him and pressed for details of the great man, though in the end I never achieved my longed-for personal introduction. So I now wonder if there might be any reference anywhere in the mass of Tolkien papers to our VMs, and is this of any possible slight significance? After all, JRRT knew a great deal about languages and artificial scripts of course and if he was interested enough to make and pass on copies to a friend, he might have devoted some time to the VMs himself. And the Voynichese script does have a Tolkien-ish look to it or vice versa: could it have influenced him?

In any event it is of some relief to me to have scratched this mental itch at last. I only put two and two together last night when I was browsing and found all those nice images of the VMs at the Beinecke site (I hadn't realised that so many good reproductions could be seen on-line) - folio 86v it was that rang the bell, with those strange pictures of what to me looked like giant jellyfish eating some poor sea-gulls (and a couple of people for good measure.)
I would also like to use this opportunity to thank all the many excellent contributors to this list. Quite apart from the actual VMs itself, the multitude of curious and often obscure by-ways you entice us to wander down are endlessly fascinating and following them is a valuable education in itself. Many thanks to all.


The above is quoted from the Voynich Manuscript mailing list.  If you are not in the loop, the Voynich Manuscript is an untranslated codex from (maybe) the 15th century, in an unknown tongue and a weird script, accompanied by baffling illustrations.  Wikipedia has a pretty reasonable page on it.  Or check out pics of the whole dang thing yourself here.  The ultra cool online comic xkcd provides this nutshell version.

To me, the Voynich Manuscript represents one of the great secrets of history, in the league of Jack the Ripper's identity, combined with the mystique of the grimoires that inspired H.P. Lovecraft's creation of the Necronomicon.  But there's also the hint of the sweet aroma of a possible hoax on the scale of the Priory of Sion.

The suggestion that Professor Tolkien had a piece of that action just makes the universe seven shades more awesome than I had previously expected.  Somebody needs to get cracking on a two-fisted alt-history novel or comic covering this strange conjunction.

EDIT TO ADD:  The more I look at the first panel of that xkcd comic, the more I wonder whether Randall Monroe has a message hidden there!


  1. Given Tolkien's academic qualifications, it's no surprise that he'd have encountered the book at some point, but one does wonder what his involvement was.

  2. "hoax on the scale of the Priory of Sion"

    Fascinating story, never heard of this until your post.

  3. Anonymous12:49 PM

    It's all so clear now. . .

    The Lord of the Rings, it's a COOK BOOK!!! ;)

    This is very curious making me want to tear through some of my old Tolkien books of letters, etc. I wonder if one could pose this question to someone at Eldalambion.com. They put out alot of obscure information on Tolkien's languages as it is.

  4. Just last week, I read somewhere, Boing Boing maybe? That the Voynich Manuscript had just been shown to definately date to the early 1400s.
    At least the paper it is writen on was made near to 1420 I believe was what I read.
    I don't remember where I saw that, sorry.

  5. here ye be

    Origin of 'nobody can read' Voynich manuscript pushed back further

    Read more: http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/111771/20110212/voynich-manuscript-age-davinci-code-radio-carbon-ating.htm#ixzz1EiZnMFM0

  6. I bet Batman could crack the code. Just sayin'

  7. Re: academic hoaxes

    In order to protect the parties involved, I won't use any names but I will say that I know of at least one well-regarded scholar who, while a graduate student, inserted a fake text written in an imaginary script on very old paper into an existing manuscript as a prank -- and was surprised to discover that the library's curators thought they'd discovered something quite remarkable.

    I'm not saying the Voynich Manuscript is a hoax or a prank of exactly this sort, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover it was either.

  8. I used a PDF of the Voynich Manuscript in a cross-over Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse chronicle. The players really liked than when they found a strange book in the game, I had a PDF of a very strange book to look at. The pictures of the women bathing in the green liquid, even inspired parts of the chronicle. :)

  9. Dang, that's a fun speculation. But the art is too sloppy, and, besides, Tolkien would probably have found the exercise demeaning and insulting. He was a very serious academic, after all, and a very good water color painter.

    Still, you're right: This sound like a job for a good alt-history novelist.

    I recommend Dan Simmons. Right up his alley, this is.

  10. I remember reading an article (Time or National Geographic?) where a cryptographer was tasked with building an unbreakable cipher code ala the Voynich Ms.

  11. The Priory of Sion is a hoax? Good job no-one's based an entire novel on the assumption that it's true. They'd lose all their credibility as a writer.

    Oh, wait a minute...

  12. I remember reading one theory (with a little bit of research behind it) that the Voynich Manuscript was meaningless, but was created in the Middle Ages as a fake grimoire or alchemical manuscript, either to sell to someone gullible or to allow the manuscript's creator to pass themselves off as a scholar or alchemist. I also recall something about computer analysis suggesting the manuscript isn't a code at all, just random letters, supporting that theory.

    On the subject of hoaxes in general, there was also the Canadian student who presented a fake Nostradamus quatrain predicting 9/11 as part of his paper on the way vagueness in prophetic texts can be used to support supposed accurate predictions, and even though he said in the paper "I made this up," the quatrain escaped into the wild and people were soon reporting that Nostradmus predicted 9/11. Hoaxes start in the funniest ways, sometimes.

  13. I remember reading one theory (with a little bit of research behind it) that the Voynich Manuscript was meaningless, but was created in the Middle Ages as a fake grimoire or alchemical manuscript, either to sell to someone gullible or to allow the manuscript's creator to pass themselves off as a scholar or alchemist.

    Wayyy to much trouble to go to just to pass yourself off as a magus. The old grimoires just aren't that pretty and judging by the number of surviving mss. were fairly ubiquitous.

  14. @James: I don't mean "grimoires", exactly, but more like some kind of formulary, since presumably whoever it was wouldn't want to die. I'm assuming someone faking a document is trying to get money from the wealthy, which means nobility or royalty in medieval times. Traditionally, medieval people pretending to be sorcerers didn't present themselves to the legal authorities for execution.

  15. Very cool about Tolkien and the Voynich but not surprising.

    Whatever Voynich is, it's really old and seems legit. Although the original intention could have been anything. There are unbreakable ciphers that could have been used for it.