The Mirror Crack’d: Fear and Horror in JRR Tolkien’s Major Works

The Mirror Crack’d: Fear and Horror in JRR Tolkien’s Major Works. Ed. Lynn Forest-Hill. [Newcastle upon Tyne]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. 246 pp. US$52.99 ISBN 13: 9781847186348.

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Reviewed by Edith L. Crowe

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.3/4 (#105/106) (2009): 186–88.]

This collection of ten essays (designated as “chapters”) is more narrowly focused than its rather general title might suggest. As the introduction clarifies, the core of the collection consists of expanded versions of the three papers presented at the 2006 Leeds International Medieval Congress, with additional contributions by “established scholars and researchers.” Therefore, although all the authors address fear and horror in the works of Tolkien, they do so primarily (though not exclusively) in terms of his medieval sources.

Maria Raffaella Benvenuto’s brief contribution “From Beowulf to the Balrogs: The Roots of Fantastic Horror in The Lord of the Rings” asserts that Tolkien scholars have rather neglected the horror/Gothic aspects of his work, which she sees as his “personal reinterpretation” (6) of various motifs owing much to both medieval roots and nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. In only a few pages she discusses the theme of Middle-earth as a world besieged, followed by the Balrog, Gollum, Shelob, the Ringwraiths and Sauron. The amount of space devoted to each is frustratingly brief, from the admirably succinct to the near-superficial. However, the range of topics covered makes the paper function reasonably well as an introduction.

Many of the essays focus on specific characters or character types usually described as “monstrous.” Reno E. Lauro and Rainer Nagel both tackle Shelob (who appears as a supporting player in a number of other papers as well). Lauro’s “Of Spiders and (the Medieval Aesthetics of) Light: Hope and Action in the Horrors of Shelob’s Lair” discusses the perceived influence of the medieval philosophy and aesthetics of light (with a nod to Barfield’s theories of “ancient semantic unity”) on Tolkien in general and his depiction of Shelob in particular. Even this mildly philosophy-phobic reviewer found it compelling. Nagel (“Shelob and her Kin: The Evolution of Tolkien’s Spiders”) argues convincingly that Tolkien’s spiders are consciously constructed symbols of “religious danger” — based on the evidence of etymology and the characteristics associated with spiders in medieval bestiaries (90).

Romauld Ian Lakowski (“Horror and Anguish: the Slaying of Glaurung and Medieval Dragon Lore”) carefully traces the development of the Glaurung/Túrin confrontation through its various and often contradictory versions, noting both the clear debt to medieval sources and the occasional departures from that tradition. Julie Pridmore (“Evil Reputations: Images of Wolves in Tolkien’s Fiction”) looks at the influence of medieval literature and Northern European mythology on Tolkien’s depictions of wolves, wargs and werewolves. She notes that unlike other appearances of wolfish creatures in Tolkien’s oeuvre, the mutual destruction of Huan and Carcaroth in The Silmarillion fits the traditional medieval model of the wolfhound as the wolf’s primary enemy. Amy Amendt-Raduege (“Barrows, Wights and Ordinary People: The Unquiet Dead in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”) presents a discussion of barrows, mounds and their various inhabitants in Middle-earth. Her satisfyingly detailed evidence for Tolkien’s sources includes Icelandic legends, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon traditions, and medieval ghostlore.

Providing a transition from these papers on specific characters or types to those dealing with broader themes is Jessica Burke’s “Fear and Horror: Monsters in Tolkien and Beowulf.” This is the longest paper in the collection, beginning with an attempt to define the concepts of fear, horror and monstrosity. The last leads to a detailed discussion of the close relationship between the monsters in Beowulf and those in Tolkien, particularly Melkor, Shelob and Gollum. Unfortunately, the section defining fear and horror is unconvincing — particularly using Darwin as a source rather than more recent scientific discoveries in neuropsychology — and frankly unnecessary. The detailed Beowulf/Tolkien comparison, including speculations on the nature of monstrosity, is much better argued and would have easily stood on its own.

Another contribution that could have benefited by more rigorous editing is Shandi Stevenson’s “The Shadow beyond the Firelight: Pre-Christian Archetypes and Imagery Meet Christian Theology in Tolkien’s Treatment of Evil and Horror”. She argues that Tolkien’s unique achievement was to imbue archtypes of Northern European pagan mythology with Christian theology. In the process of this transformation of worldview, people’s attitudes changed from the fear of something supernatural but amoral and outside oneself to a conception of evil that included fear and horror of becoming evil. There is much to ponder here (though I wonder if pre-Christian peoples were truly as lacking in hope she claims). However, she drives home her particular argument with too many repetitious examples, leaving little room to cover very broad archetypes of Northern European experience (fire, mountains, forests, beasts) more than superficially. Each of these topics is worthy of a paper in itself.

The remaining two broadly thematic papers are very satisfying in different ways. Kristine Larsen’s “Shadow and Flame: Myth, Monsters and Mother Nature in Middle-earth” looks at the mythopoeic role of natural phenomena, particularly disasters. Given the importance of the world-making aspect of Tolkien’s legendarium, this geomythological/astromythological approach is effective and refreshing. Michael Cunningham (“The Cry in the Wind and the Shadow on the Moon: Liminality and the Construct of Horror in The Lord of the Rings”) focuses on a particular type of repeated narrative device in which characters interact with landscape and topography at points of transition and crossings of thresholds. He ably demonstrates how Tolkien repeatedly uses this technique — often very subtly — throughout LotR to elicit a frisson of danger, fear, and/or anticipation of distress in the reader.

As is typical of most thematic collections, there is some repetition of coverage among the various papers — the same medieval sources are mentioned frequently, and many of the same characters and incidents are treated multiple times. However, each author has a sufficiently different approach or viewpoint that this repetition is illuminating rather than tedious. Any editor of a collection must make the difficult decision to what extent unique authorial voices should be subjected to editorial control. I think a number of the contributors to this volume would have been served by more of the latter (as would the reader). In addition to tightening the focus of some of the entries, it might have served to eliminate a number of typographical errors and grammatical infelicities. All things considered, however, there is a great deal of interest and value here, and much inspiration for further research. Some of the topics addressed briefly could benefit by additional focused, in-depth treatments. I commend the editor for focusing on the fear/horror theme, an area not frequently addressed in Tolkien studies. (I also commend her for providing an index!) Should this collection inspire others to focus on Tolkien as a horror writer — particularly in terms of more contemporary comparisons and inspirations — a rich new vein of scholarship might be opened up.

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