Tolkien, Race and Cultural History

Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Dimitra Fimi. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. xvi + 240pp. Hardcover: ISBN 978-0230219519, $90.00 (£50.00); softcover: ISBN 978-0230272842, $28.95 (£16.99).

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Reviewed by Jason Fisher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 29.1/2 (#111/112) (2010) : 167–72.]

In the spring of 2008, Tom Shippey wrote a guest editorial for Mallorn, the journal of the Tolkien Society, in which he discussed several areas of Tolkien studies which he felt had not yet been adequately explored. In one of these areas, “the influences on [Tolkien] of writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so often now deeply unfashionable, forgotten and out of print” (3), Shippey gratefully acknowledged Dimitra Fimi’s “articles on the Victorian fairy tradition” (4) as one more step in the right direction. He also called for more extended studies of this kind, wondering (for example) whether the fraud of the “Cottingley fairies” in 1917 might have played some part in Tolkien’s abandonment of the diminutive fairies in his earliest works (loc. cit.). Dimitra Fimi’s full-length study, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, answers Shippey’s call and attempts to answer questions of the kind he raised in his editorial.

Fimi addresses the development of Tolkien’s legendarium in three broad categories, with a major section of the book devoted to each. In the first part, she discusses the evolving conception of Tolkien’s supernatural beings, initially fairies in the late Victorian mold, but eventually becoming the remote, imposing, and even holy elves of his later works. In the second part of the book, Fimi expands her study to encompass Tolkien’s “secret vice” of creating ideal languages and alphabets. In the third, she turns to questions of nationalism and race, particularly in terms of how these are reflected in the material cultures Tolkien devised for his legendarium. Throughout the book, Fimi takes great care to contextualize Tolkien’s writings within the cultural, linguistic, and nationalistic milieux in which he lived. Rather than point to Tolkien as an exception to his time, Fimi argues rather the reverse, that in many cases what Tolkien was doing was not so extraordinary (yet how he did it, and what he accomplished, were).

Part I brings to the stage the central figures of Fimi’s study, Tolkien’s elves — in their earliest conception: fairies, dryads, gnomes, and so on. She examines the parallel questions of the diminution of fairies in the literary and folkloric traditions of the primary world and as reflected in Tolkien’s secondary sub-creation (the former being the groundwork for the latter). Fimi deftly traces the history of the fairy image, exploring the reasons for its gradual diminution from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and finally noting its abrupt end with the frauds of the “Cottingley fairies” and the arrival of the Great War. She contrasts this with Tolkien’s initial acceptance of the traditional “flower-fairies and fluttering spites with antennae,” despite his claim to have disliked them even from childhood (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 29–30). Fimi contends that we cannot quite take Tolkien at his word here but that he did come to reject the fairy tradition over time, and his response was to reverse the natural process of diminution by making his own elves ever greater and more imposing. Tolkien’s elves do still diminish, but spiritually, not physically, and Fimi rightly points out that the concept of the passing or fading of his supernatural beings was present from the earliest writings (15). In early works (e.g., “The Lonely Isle,” “The Cottage of Lost Play”), Tolkien’s fairy beings are childlike and innocent, not yet world-weary and burdened with Blakean experience. But as Tolkien himself grew up, so did his elves. Later, as Fimi will discuss in Part III, the hobbits emerged to fill the void of childlike innocence left by the departure of fairies from the legendarium.

Fimi does readers a great service by untangling Tolkien’s early references to elves, fairies, gnomes, brownies, pixies, leprawns, nymphs, and dryads (46–8). It is interesting (though unremarked by Fimi) that just such a welter of supernatural beings from such a variety of traditions would become one of Tolkien’s chief complaints about C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Carpenter 224). Fimi also makes excellent points (pace Deborah Rogers and Randel Helms, and often still mistaken by critics today) about the need to treat The Hobbit as a children’s fairy tale that grew out of Tolkien’s early poetry and storytelling, rather than as a work somehow foreshadowing The Lord of the Rings and consciously preparing children to go on to a darker tale. Such treatments are, in Fimi’s words, “a-historical” (25). At the same time, Fimi may overstate the matter a bit when she assures us that “Tolkien did not plan for The Hobbit to fit into his greater mythological cycle” (loc. cit.). In The History of The Hobbit, John Rateliff makes a tentative case to the contrary, noting references in the drafts to Beren and Lúthien, inter alia. It is a thorny issue, to be sure; the best answer seems to be that Tolkien probably did not know, or had not decided, what the relationship between his various stories should be.

Part II discusses Tolkien’s life-long obsession with inventing languages (and alphabets to go along with them) and situates this avocation alongside the parallel development of Tolkien’s elves. The key claim is that as Tolkien’s early fairies evolved into the more idealized and semi-divine elves, the language(s) they spoke had to develop into more mature and idealized forms as well. In Fimi’s words, “the ‘divinity’ of the elves and fairies would be indissolubly linked to their ‘ideal’ language. Tolkien’s ‘nonsense fairy language’ would have found a morally justifiable raison d’être” (98). To help make the case, Fimi presents a short history of glossopeia in the primary world, detouring among Volapük, Esperanto, Novial, and even zaum, the “experimental poetic language [of the] Russian Futurists” (90).

To some extent, as in Ross Smith’s Inside Language: Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien, this discussion suffers from the difficulty of making meaningful connections to Tolkien; however, Fimi does a much better job than Smith of pointing out what few connections there are, as for example in her discussions of James Joyce and Lewis Carroll (88–92). In the case of the former, Fimi has the benefit of having seen unpublished notes Tolkien made on Joyce’s use of language in Finnegan’s Wake (90). She also cites Tolkien’s opinions of Esperanto and Novial (95), one of Smith’s major oversights. Fimi’s discussion of languages does suffer from a few misstatements, as where she asserts that Welsh is “linguistically unrelated to English and Tolkien’s beloved Germanic languages” (87). Of course, this isn’t quite true. As I am sure she knows, all these are Indo-European languages, and Welsh is certainly closer to English than it is to some other Indo-European languages — say, Armenian or Italian — to which it is only very distantly related. Fimi likewise misses something when she says Tolkien modeled Quenya and Sindarin on Finnish and Welsh “but only phonetically” (96). This isn’t quite true either. There are documented lexical and morphological borrowings as well, particularly in the case of Quenya (see Tikka; Fisher, “From Mythopoeia”).

In Part III, Fimi brings the study around to matters of race. The case for Tolkien’s interest in (and envy of) nationalistic movements in other parts of Europe, as well as how and why he came first to emulate these and later to abandon them, is strongly made. Fimi does a fine job establishing context with the “scientific” theories of race promulgated in the late Victorian period and other background material relevant to the germination of Tolkien’s ideas about race (132–5). These ideas would become strangely confused, as Tolkien sometimes advances the apparently racist, or at least eugenic, view that pure blood is the best blood (the case of the Númenóreans; 148); other times, that the mingling of blood leads to the better outcome (the case of the Half-elven; 151–2). Fimi discusses Tolkien’s personal feelings about race as well, giving as one example his aversion to the practices of Nazi Germany (as exemplified in a draft letter to Rütten & Loening Verlag in 1938). Fimi could have added that Tolkien’s German prejudices went much further back, to circa 1915–20, as shown by entries in the Qenya Lexicon linking kalimbo “giant, monster, troll” with kalimbardi “the Germans” (Tolkien, “Qenya Lexicon” 44). “But,” cautions Fimi, “we should remember here that although ideology appears to define a literary text from the outside, literature also has its own internal rules. It is the dialectic co-articulation of ideology and aesthetic form that finally produces the literary text.” Moreover, “accusing Tolkien of racism would decontextualize his writings from their historical period” (157).

Fimi also includes a very strong discussion of the racial divisions in Middle-earth. She discusses three kindreds — Elves, Men, and Hobbits — each of which exhibits its own tripartite divisions (143–6). In the case of the Elves, there are the Calaquendi, the Sindar, and the Avari. The Calaquendi themselves may be further divided into three: the Vanyar, Noldor, and Teleri. Of Men, we have the three great houses — Hador, Haleth, and Bëor. Or, to take the view from a higher elevation, there are (as with the Elves) Men of Light, Men of Shadow, and Men of Darkness. And finally, the Hobbits are comprised of Fallohides, Stoors, and Harfoots, again revealing the tendency for a tripartite division. In all these cases, Tolkien associates distinct physical and mental capabilities with each “race,” hinting at an underlying Victorian view. Across races, Fimi insightfully compares the functional role of the Rohirrim in the Third Age to that of the Sindar in the First (149).

Fimi concludes her book with an epilogue, in which she makes the case that the loss of Tolkien’s innocent, diminutive fairies opened up a place for the emergence of the hobbits. She dates this transition to roughly the middle of the 1930s, noting that Tolkien was still planning to include his fairy poem, “Goblin Feet” (1915), in a collection intended for publication in that decade (195). I have pointed out elsewhere that Tolkien was still working on another, more substantial fairy poem, “Errantry,” during the 1930s as well. It was first published in 1933 and was subsequently included — retaining the very kind of diminutive fairy imagery Tolkien claimed to detest — in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil at the very late date of 1962 (Fisher, “Parody? Pigwiggenry?”). This certainly throws some doubt on Tolkien’s protests; however, it is clear that Tolkien intended the hobbits to take the imaginative place of his early Victorian fairies in Middle-earth at least. “Finally,” writes Fimi, “the light-heartedness, humour and whimsy of the early fairies were transposed to the hobbits, who were conceived as ‘light’ fairy-tale characters from the beginning” (197). And so her study makes good on the promise of its subtitle, “From Fairies to Hobbits.”

The book is beautifully designed, intelligently arranged, and written in a clear, articulate voice. Fimi’s prose is like a breath of fresh air in a room too often stuffy and pedantic. In the hardcover edition, there are more typographical errors and spelling mistakes than one would like to see in a book of this quality. Perhaps the most glaring has Tolkien delivering a lecture on the Kalevala to the Sundial Society in 1814 (53), about seventy-five years before he was born (this lecture has just been published in Tolkien Studies 7). Another error describes the Poetic Edda as the Younger, not the Elder (119). Fortunately, these two errors and many others have been corrected in the softcover edition. The index is serviceable, though incomplete in both entries and references; a conspicuous omission is the “Cottingley fairies,” which you’ll remember Tom Shippey singled out in his editorial. It’s a pity these may not be found in Fimi’s index in either the hardback or paperbound editions, in spite of explicit discussion in the book (29, 36, 38, 121). Worse, a number of the references are off by a page or two (a sign that the index was prepared before the layout was finalized).

But lest I seem overly critical, let me hasten to note that such small defects do little to mar the overall quality and value of this work. Dimitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits is a clear, thorough, well-argued study of what has been a key lacuna in Tolkien studies. It will be especially welcome to students and general admirers of Tolkien’s writings, to whom most of the background material will be unfamiliar. For even the most experienced Tolkien scholars, the book stands as a model of how scholarly studies of Tolkien should be approached and carried out. In addition, Fimi’s research opens the door to new questions and deeper inquiries. (For example: I’d like to see more rigorous investigation into exactly when and why Tolkien abandoned “elfs,” “elfin,” and “elfish” for “elves,” “elven,” “elvish.”) The strength of Fimi’s thesis and her skill in marshalling the evidence to support it — traversing the entire legendarium and its many satellite writings to do so — has earned her the 2010 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies. The same care and skill should justly earn her a place on the bookshelves of scholars and fans alike.

Works Consulted

Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Dimitra Fimi. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. xvi + 240pp. Hardcover: ISBN 978-0230219519, $90.00 (£50.00); softcover: ISBN 978-0230272842, $28.95 (£16.99).

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