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Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer

Cover of Bowers' "Tolkien's Lost Chaucer"2,268 words

“Tolkien knows more about Chaucer than any living man.” — John Masefield, Poet Laureate (1930-67)

John M. Bowers’ book Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (Oxford 2019) finally puts paid to the recently concocted mythology propagated in spurious articles like The Telegraph’s September 2009 piece “J.R.R. Tolkien Trained as a British Spy” and Elansea’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Codemaker, Spy-Master, Hero: An Un-Authorized Biography (2015), that the creator of Middle-Earth was some kind of tweed-jacketed Indiana Jones, or indeed, a pipe-smoking incarnation of le Carré’s George Smiley from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974).

Far from being a mysterious code-cracker or secret agent, Tolkien was studying and drawing influence from one of the most intriguing poets of the Middle Ages.

Tolkien may well have been called upon to train at Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park during World War Two. More likely, he was at home sitting in front of a blazing log fire reading Kolbitar Club, navigating the intricacies of original Chaucerian texts, rather than orchestrating missions on behalf of Britain’s Special Operations Executive. It could be argued, though, that as a long-time subscriber to A. K. Chesterton’s Catholic-oriented patriotic publication, Candour, he may have regretted his lack of involvement.

Bowers’ investigation into Tolkien’s scholarship does, however, begin rather inauspiciously with the American writer admitting:

Everyone has his own Tolkien story, and mine almost disqualifies me from writing this book. I never read The Hobbit in high school or the Lord of the Rings at university because I was put off by the Tolkien cult whose members wore FRODO LIVES t-shirts. Reading the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings did not motivate me to tackle the original work. And when I arrived as a student at Oxford in 1973, I sensed the lingering resentment toward Tolkien as a professor who published bestsellers about fairies instead of scholarly books about Beowulf. So I remained a holdout.

And of course, that resentment still remains with celebrity intellectuals like the feminist zealot Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch (1970), saying “Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of fully grown women wearing puff sleeves, clutching teddies and babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th Century. The bad dream has been realized.” This viewpoint was shared by Edmund Wilson, the famous American literary critic who was heavily influenced by both Freud and Marx, who described The Lord of the Rings as “juvenile trash,” adding “Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form.”

Criticism of Tolkien persists to this day on more than simple literary grounds. Johann Hari wrote a toxic hit-piece on Tolkien in The Independent in 2003, after the Waterstone’s book store chain named The Lord of the Rings as the best novel of the 20th century, and the BBC’s Big Read Competition was set to name Tolkien’s magnus opus the country’s favorite book. Hari’s article describes Tolkien’s works as a “dire trilogy” and one that “isn’t loved because it’s a good novel, but because it taps into some of the most atavistic and ugly impulses of our times.”

The most obvious of these so-called ugly impulses is, as usual, racism. The purely evil Orcs are, in Tolkien’s words, “squat, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant-eyes.” The chief enemy of the novels is the Dark Lord, who lives in the Black Land. The heroic hobbits and elves are, by contrast, seemingly über-Aryan and ethnically pure. The noble ideal of “blood” and its purity consistently appears throughout Tolkien’s narrative; for example, the Men of Gondor — “the high men” — are descendants of the Numenorians, the greatest of all warriors. Over the centuries of the novels, their bloodline “degraded” due to breeding with inferior races. Prior to this, however, the Gondor bloodline was pure (such as those descended from Aragorn), and the “strength of the original Lords of the West [was] retained.”

Hari is not alone in her criticism. Dr. Stephen Shapiro, an “expert” on cultural studies, race, and slavery, denounced Tolkien’s classic as an “epic rooted in racism . . . Put simply, Tolkien’s good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate and a psychologically undeveloped horde.” Shapiro does offer one insignificant concession, stating that “Tolkien was not a Nazi but he was a Nordicist in that his works hark back to England’s original culture before the Norman invasion.”

This insight, while meant to be derisive in the hands of Shapiro, actually serves as a relevant starting point for Bowers; he picks up on Tolkien’s Nordicism at the very beginning of Lost Chaucer, noting that “Tolkien was a specialist in early Germanic languages haunted by how much had disappeared, regretting especially the lost mythology of pre-Christian England and the lost poetry of the Anglo Saxons.”

Several of Tolkien’s titles reflect what his official biographer Humphrey Carpenter describes as his “deep sense of impending loss,” riffing on the idea that “nothing was safe; nothing would last.” With titles like The Lost Road, The Cottage of Lost Play, The Book of Lost Tales, and of course the majestic Silmarillion which Bowers rightfully describes as a “chronicle of loss upon loss” that Tolkien jestingly hinted was full of the “heigh stile,” a phrase he directly borrowed from Chaucer. Tolkien, therefore, expresses his ethereal sentiments with frequent references to Chaucer, an example of which may be advice given to wives that they should be “light as leef on Lind” — appearing in Tolkien’s Lay of Beren and Luthien:

Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that come down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Luthien. Of their lives was made the Lay of Leithian, Release from Bondage, which is the longest save one of the songs concerning the world of old . . .

Tolkien’s fascination with Chaucer was not limited to passing reference in his fiction. In fact, he sustained his affection for Chaucer over many decades — as a schoolboy he came to medieval literature by way of The Canterbury Tales, and as an undergraduate, he took copious notes on Sir Walter Raleigh’s Chaucer lectures and wrote essays on Chaucer’s Dialect for his then-tutor Arthur Sisam. During his first academic appointment at Leeds, he lectured on the General Prologue as well as Chaucer’s Language. At Oxford he had given lectures on The Pardoner’s Tale. When he became Oxford’s Merton Professor of Language and Literature in 1945, twenty years later, he lectured on Chaucer once more. The Pardoner’s Tale was a set text in the Literature course and The Clerk’s Tale for the Language course, the latter replaced by The Parlement of Foules in 1948, as noted by Bowers.    

It was this pedigree that allowed Tolkien to compose the well-regarded landmark study “Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve’s Tale” published in Transactions of the Philological Society (1934) and various references to the subject in his ‘Valedictory Address’ when retiring in June 1959. Tolkien’s knowledge of Chaucer, however, did not preclude hardship, as Bowers makes clear; his procrastination and perfectionism (a hallmark of his fictional universe) also blighted his academic aspirations. His collaborators frequently complained about Tolkien’s tardiness in polishing up 160 pages of annotations which he worked on occasionally.

Strangely enough, Tolkien’s most famous and closest friend between 1927 and 1940, the Christian apologist and Chronicles of Narnia author C. S. Lewis, who also published an influential article on Troilus and Criseyde in 1932 and an important critical re-assessment of Chaucer in his Allegory of Love (1936) was not called upon by Tolkien when this Clarendon project stalled and seems to have been completely unaware of Tolkien’s efforts in this regard. Perhaps, a sign of academic jealousy? Bowers certainly thinks that was a possibility. He writes:

Though six years younger, Lewis had academic proficiencies more far-ranging…Tolkien may have entrusted him with reading his first full draft of The Hobbit, but, academics being academics, some degree of competitiveness persisted. No man likes admitting failure to another; showing weakness did not figure among Lewis’s definitions of ‘friendship’ in The Four Loves. So it is understandable that Tolkien would have been unwilling to admit that he had stumbled — and his philological enterprise had come to ruin as well — for what should have been the elementary assignment of publishing a student reader of Chaucer.

John of Gaunt, the fourteenth-century poet, influenced in the 1370s by luminaries like Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio and patronized by the Duke of Lancaster, certainly warranted Tolkien’s undivided attention. He was celebrated as “The Noble Philosophical Poet in English” and later the subject of Terry Jones’s (of Monty Python fame) two books Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (1994) and Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery (2003), and in 1386 began his epic Canterbury Tales with the lines:  

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power,
As brings about the engendering of the flower, When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath

Interestingly enough, the above translation was rendered by Professor Nevill Coghill, an Oxford man, who like Tolkien served as Merton Professor of English Literature from 1957 to 1966. He was ably assisted by Tolkien’s own son and later literary executor, Christopher, who was a tutor in English Language at New College between 1964 and 1975.

Chaucer, like Tolkien, a man who enjoyed the favor of his contemporaries. Writers like John Gower (c. 1330-1408) who wrote his Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Shrift) in English, Vox Clamantis (The Voice of One Crying) in Latin, and Speculum Meditantis (the Mirror of One Meditating) in French, was a fan. The Prologue of his Confessio begins:

Of those who wrote in days of yore,
The books remain, and we therefore
May learn by what was written then

William Langland, (c. 1330-1386) whose great alliterative poem Piers Plowman stands alongside Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales at the very centre of medieval English literature, was influenced as well. This is argued by A.V.C. Schmidt, whose path also crossed with Tolkien’s while employed at Tolkien’s own alma-mater Exeter College, Oxford. The Prologue to Langland’s masterpiece commences:

In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.

These worthy works command respect centuries after their creator’s quill scratched its way by candlelight across parchment; and Tolkien was expected to work on extracts, using the eminent Victorian Walter W. Skeat’s monumental Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer produced in the 1890s. Tolkien was not asked to take responsibility for selecting or editing the texts for the Clarendon Chaucer. But, as Bowers indicates:

He made almost no substantive emendations, although he insisted upon better punctuation as well as diacritical marks to help newcomers with pronouncing Middle-English. When he did make some minor change in spelling or word-order, however, he grew stubborn about it. Later in his fiction-writing when printers changed ‘dwarves’ to ‘dwarfs’ and ‘elven’ to ‘elfin’ in the first edition of the Lord of the Rings, he demanded that the original forms be restored throughout. This sort of obstinacy [was] already on display when editing Chaucer.

At the time, Tolkien seemed to resent this job by turns. He dismissed some of Skeat’s work, but later admitted when writing to Dan Davin of the Oxford University Press that he came to recognize Chaucerian influences in his own fictional characters. Examples of this were Troilus and Criseyde on the love and courtship of Faramir and Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings and The Pardoner’s Tale, where Chaucer’s core-story, Bowers asserts, revolves around “three men fighting over a golden treasure” which of course resonates with the core-story of Tolkien’s Third Age of Middle-Earth. Bowers continues:

Tolkien’s masterpiece came into being and changed the literary landscape, in short, because George Gordon finagled successfully to hire Tolkien at Oxford in some measure for the sake of completing their stalled Chaucer edition. Thus this humble-looking text book, albeit never finished and published, became a fateful link in the chain of events. If not for Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose, it is just possible that we would never have heard of Bilbo, Frodo, and Gandalf the Grey.

And for that reason alone, this extremely well-written and informative academic piece by Bowers is well worth the time and pecuniary investment. For those looking for relevant, and perhaps canonical information on Tolkien to assist them in reading this, consider the following volumes:

  • Humphrey Carpenter’s  J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977) and his Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – A Selection (1981)
  • Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien – Author of the Century (2010) and The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a  New Mythology (2012)
  • John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth (2004)
  • Joseph Pearce’s Tolkien: Man & Myth (1998)
  • Wayne Hammond & Christina Skull’s The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2017)

Along with the Celtic myths, the Norse Sagas and the Finnish language, Chaucer can now be added to the boundless list of catalysts that ignited the imagination of this giant of fiction. And hopefully the value of this somewhat mysterious fourteenth-century squire, soldier, diplomat, astronomer, and Controller of Customs and Subsidy of Wools, Skins and Hides in the Port of London, buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, can be truly appreciated by Tolkien’s ever-growing army of serious-minded admirers across the globe.

 

25 Comments

  1. Orcish Scribe
    Posted January 4, 2020 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    Interesting article. I’ve always thought myself that there is implicit racism in the Orcs and evil races in Tolkien. It has appeal because we are tribal at taproot. I think the friction could be solved if Rivendell would promote more orc/elf miscegenation.

    Professor bowers does an excellent teaching company course, and he talks about knowing Tolkien. He relates this anecdote: Gordon and tolk were editing the Pearl Poet manuscript which includes Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl and two short poems, thought to be by the same poet known as the Pearl poet. Gordon died in the meantime, and Tolkien symbolizes that with Gandalf’s death in fellowship. Subsequently, when they come to Lothlorien, a place of comfort, and meet Galadriel, this corresponds to where Tolkien was in the manuscript, at The Pearl poem, wherein the poet finds a secret island of relief from the death of his small daughter, symbolized as a pearl lost in the grass.😢
    On the island he meets Lady Philosophy, from Boethiuss consolation of philosophy, who consoles him. Lothlorien symbolizes the island and Galadriel lady philosophy in fellowship, as lothlorien is their comfort after the death of Gandalf. I imagine bowers was using similar parallels with Chaucer and assuming Tolkien was doing the same thing with them.

    Thank you for this interesting review.

    • Orcish Scribe
      Posted January 4, 2020 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      It’s sort of a general tactic in fantasy, to take something figurative in literature and make it literal. I’m sure you guys have noticed this but when in Macbeth “dunsinane will not fall until byrnam forest comes to dunsinane”, the unbreakable tower of orthanc does not fall until the forest literally comes in the form of the Ents, and with the witch king. Er Edison does this a lot too.

    • Gnome Chompsky
      Posted January 4, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Did you read any of the writing or background writing? Of course Tolkien’s tales have an ethno-racial element

      Why not?

      I have not seen the any of the bloated Peter Jackson takes on the Hobbit. I gather that it throws in much gratuitous ‘diversity’. That is enough to keep me away.

      I suppose, Christopher Tolkien’s regret (and I agree with him, the LotR trilogy may be as good as we will ever get, but was pretty bad in many ways) was valid.

      Why was the hobbit lead (Frodo) played by a Jew?

      Any further productions in this ‘franchise’ are on ice for now. The only reason the new Hobbit went ahead was an old rights deal, for an animated version.

      However, (((their))) wish to defile is strong.

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted January 4, 2020 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        There is no evidence that Elijah Wood is a Jew.

        • Gnome Chompsky
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          Doc.

          He said it, at least once.

          Whether it was true or not, I know not. If one does a ‘net search now, one one finds a slew of hits intended to debunk it. That, to me, is suss.

          Until last year, and Rosanna’s anti-white screed, everybody assumed the Arquettes were white.

          We now know that was not the case, through plastic surgery and hair bleaching, they made a pretense. Not that that makes me dislike all of their performances.

          • Greg Johnson
            Posted January 5, 2020 at 8:10 am | Permalink

            It was long known that the Arquettes are half Jewish.

            • Orcish Scribe
              Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:00 am | Permalink

              Uh oh, his mother’s maiden name is Krause!

              • Greg Johnson
                Posted January 5, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink

                LOL

      • Fenek Solere
        Posted January 4, 2020 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Dear Gnome Chompsky,
        The Jackson LotR trilogy of movies are not too bad. The Hobbit movies fall short in a number of ways. I fear the forthcoming Netflix series of Tolkien material will feel obliged to enter the ‘diversity stakes’ by inserting certain racial groups into heroic lead roles/invented characters to boost audience interest of the Wakanda-variety and comply with the clearly unwritten but fully expected quota system applied to all programming.
        Best Wishes
        FS

      • Orcish Scribe
        Posted January 4, 2020 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        I read the Humphrey Carpenter biography and I’ve gotten some of the ones Greg has recommended, but haven’t gotten around to reading them yet, but will.

        I dislike the movies too, but I’m pretty sure Elijah Wood is not Jewish. The only visual Tolkien production I like are, believe it or not, the rankin bass cartoons of the Hobbit and Return of the King. I can be seen rocking out to the songs. Also, the rob ingliss voiced audio book productions are highly recommended. He sings the songs really well! The Martin something audiobook of silmarillion is good too.

      • Toasty
        Posted January 4, 2020 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        “Any further productions in this ‘franchise’ are on ice for now.”

        Are you not aware of Amazon’s forthcoming television series? They acquired partial rights to stories in the Silmarillion and other Tolkien works.

        Amazon now has rights to make a series on the Second Age of Middle Earth, though they lack the rights to stories concerning the “First Age.”

        • Gnome Chompsky
          Posted January 5, 2020 at 10:02 am | Permalink

          No, why should I be?

          I dont watch any of that crime, and do not want to give Bezos even one yen.

          The few things I can only buy on-line, I can buy from other places.

          And the mighty black warrior じぎすくしさんぼうい, ,apeared, a typical black warrior.

          He started by attempting randomly to rape any woman in the vicinity. … and failed.

          It was not yet too cold, so one of the local men present addressed the African, suggesting a swim, at which the latter promptly vanished.

      • Edward Bridle
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

        Peter Jackson has not filmed “The Hobbit.” Three of his films appear to have borrowed some of the characters from that book, but the bizarre story that they tell bears no relation to Tolkien’s work. You have missed nothing by not seeing them.

        • Fenek Solere
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:23 am | Permalink

          Dear Edward,
          Hence my clear disavowal of Jackson’s The Hobbit movies as bearing ‘very little’ resemblance to the original text upon which they ‘claim’ to be based!
          Best
          FS

  2. Fenek solere
    Posted January 4, 2020 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your thoughtful and very interesting response. I agree with the links you make and am familiar with the authors/playwrights you cite
    Best Wishes for 2020
    FS

  3. Gnome Chompsky
    Posted January 4, 2020 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Tolkien was a great writer. I am, coincendatally, re-reading his darkest tale, the Children of Hurin, now.

    Is it his work, or that of his son, Christopher? Since Chritopher has made almost all of the source material available, it seems to me a loving work of editing.

    I read, on the heritical.com Web site, that J.R.R. was a subscriber to a Mosleyite publication, not only to Chesterton’s magazine.

    For the anti-Christians on the site, there was a push to have Chesterton made ‘blessed’ (next step below a saint) for some years.

    Jews whined, because he wrote a very brief and accurate passage about their (sure, not all, but I wonder) sharp practises, so the cause was dumped.

    The Vatican, instead, decided to beatify Newman. I have read some of his writing, it doesn’t seem creepily heretical (though things I have not read likely are).

    The name does it for me. Although not all ‘Newman’s are Jewish, most are, and I have little doubt that Newman was a pawn in the lead-up to the very destructive Vatican II.

    I recommend Chesterton’s writings to CCers, he was a very entertaining writer.

    Of course, I mean his fiction only to non- or anti-Christian readers, his writing on the faith is also of interest, and in his Father Brown detective stories.

    You can have no higher recommendation than that organised Jewry blocked his cause.

    • Fenek Solere
      Posted January 4, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Dear Gnome Chompsky,
      It was A.K. Chesterton’s Candour magazine that Tolkien subscribed to. G K Chesterton was a close relative and as per your commentary was an extremely interesting character in his own life – politically and in terms of his writing. Tolkien’s Fall of Gondolin (recently worked upon/edited by his son Christopher) is also a VERY interesting text for CC enthusiasts. You are in my opinion correct in highlighting the importance of Tolkien to the right. In Italy the MSI ran summer festivals at Camp Hobbit for several years. Tolkien’s world is in many ways a metapolitical sublimation of what we are going through now (if that is not an over-simplification) – The Lord of the Rings et al calls to our subconscious in extraordinary ways and is a seminal book of our movement.
      Best
      FS

      • Gnome Chompsky
        Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        Thank you. I finished re-reading it today, before anything else, the final confrontation with Glaurung, and the pyrrhic (not really the correct term, i don’t know I have a better word) triumph of Turin.

        However, his sword’s address to him …

        The tale is a mastepiece. In the end, he is a great hero, always acting under a curse from a demigod, but achieves a superb feat (kilking the supremely evil Glaurung).

        It is such a sad tale.

  4. Gnome Chompsky
    Posted January 4, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    A lighter comment, and one that anybody who has both listened to, and followed the libretto of Wagner’s Nibelungenlied would see, J.R.R. Tolkien’s disavowal of any connection of his legendarium to anything of Richard Wagner is clearly false. This is not only true of LotR, also appears in several places in the works edited or released by Christopher.

  5. Community Bookstore
    Posted January 4, 2020 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    The Hobbit is one of the best children’s stories. Perhaps the best. Why? It tells them about mountains. When I read The Hobbit at 10 or so, I lived in a place that had no mountains or hills or ridges visible from the window or porch. It was fine otherwise, yet because of that lack I couldn’t make much of Tolkien’s descriptions of the journey approaching the Misty Mountains, but that made it more fascinating. Later, of course, the characters go through the mountains, forests, rivers, etc., with much great adventure, but it’s the beginning of the journey, days of approaching the mountains, always there in their sight, sphinxlike, that I remember, and that I think, unless I’m a total weirdo, children respond to, even if unconsciously.

    • Fenek Solere
      Posted January 4, 2020 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Dear Community Bookstore,
      Tolkien took great care with his descriptions of landscapes, flora and fauna. there is a whole myriad of books about how he did this. The Hobbit (book) is indeed magnificent – I recall purchasing my hard back copy in Oxford when I was around eleven years old – never looked back !
      Best
      FS

  6. Vehmgericht
    Posted January 4, 2020 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Might I recommend one more book? Stratford Caldecott’s Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J R R Tolkien.

    • Fenek Solere
      Posted January 6, 2020 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      Yes indeed, an excellent choice!
      FS

  7. Edward Bridle
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    By “John of Gaunt, the fourteenth-century poet,” I think that you must mean “Geoffrey Chaucer, the fourteenth-century poet … patronised by the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt.”
    I can heartily recommend Tom Shippey’s “The Road to Middle-Earth,” not least for the way in which it eviscerates hostile and condescending critics of the Edmund Wilson type.
    As for Tolkien’s attitude to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, I think that we can take it that he was quite familiar with it (his friend C.S. Lewis certainly was), but that he was even more familiar with the mediaeval texts, German and (especially) Norse, upon which it was based, and heartily disapproved of the way in which Wagner had treated them. It is probably these mediaeval sources, rather than Wagner’s redaction of them, which underlie those parts of Tolkien’s work which appear to reflect Wagner.

    • Fenek Solere
      Posted January 13, 2020 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Dear Edward,
      Sometimes there are ‘many slips between the pen and the page’.
      Shippey’s books are indeed ‘worthy’ interpretations of Tolkien’s master-works!
      Best
      FS

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