Black & White Ogre Country
Black & White Ogre Country: The Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien. Hilary Tolkien. Edited by Angela Gardner. Illustrated by Jef Murray. Moreton-in-Marsh, Great Britain: ADC Publications Ltd., 2009. ISBN 978-0-9551900-1-8. £9.99. (currently from $17.65 via Amazon)
Reviewed by David Oberhelman
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:9 (#338) in September 2010.]
“In very far off days in a part of Warwickshire, there dwelt a Black Ogre and a White Ogre.” This opening sentence lacks the familiar ring of the beginning of the tale of a hobbit and his hole in the ground, but nonetheless has its origins in the same imaginative wellspring out of which John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s tale emerged. It is the first line of the “Bumble Dell” vignette from notebooks of Ronald’s younger brother Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien (1894-1976), now edited by Angela Gardner of the Tolkien Society and beautifully illustrated by Jef Murray. Black & White Ogre Country publishes the “lost tales,” or, more properly, the fantastical literary sketches and musings Hilary Tolkien hastily jotted down along with some line drawings—a work very reminiscent of his brother’s Father Christmas Letters, Mr. Bliss, or the myriad notes and drafts he left behind on the legends of the First Age. Although Hilary, a market gardener had no literary aspirations, lived a vastly different life from Ronald the Oxford professor and famed author, Hilary’s notebook indicates that he too absorbed the folklore and fairy tales of England and had some of the same concerns as his brother about the changes brought on by industrialization and the mechanization of the countryside and the gradual disappearance of Faerie.
This volume does not have fully developed tales with rounded characters and plots, but offers us some previously unknown writings from a close family member of the Professor, along with Murray’s whimsical illustrations, and a brief biographical outline of Hilary Tolkien’s life. These stories were born when Hilary was a boy, and put down in this written form sometime after World War II. The short collection is made up of three sections of “tales,” brief descriptions of magical lands and fairy-tale creatures living in Hilary’s familiar Warwickshire countryside. “Bumble Dell” paints a picture of the land of the shoe-stealing Black Ogre and the fruitful dells of the White Ogre. “Black & White Witches” gives us a picture of the lands of the sinister Black Witch who turns children into stone or tree stumps, and the good White Witch with her sweets shop. These figures lack the depth and sophistication of Ronald’s Elves or other beings he adapted from folklore and sagas, but elements of the trolls in The Hobbit and even some aspects of his early conception of the Cottage of Lost Play inevitably come to mind. The last section offers a series of vignettes in which Hilary, the author, reflects on experiences in and near those lands, and shows the encroaching modern world (ranging from the introduction of the railway to the rise of the motor car) and the looming shadows of World Wars I and II. He concludes with a somber reflection on the German bombing raids over Coventry. Murray’s lavish illustrations add to the brief tales and make this volume a delightful companion to many of Ronald’s illustrated works. Fans of Jef Murray’s Tolkien and fantasy art will be interested in this small volume for the pictures alone.
The book concludes with a short biography of Hilary Tolkien which features family photographs and images of letters and the actual diary from which these sketches were taken. The biographical section is brief, though this book is but the first part of what Gardner promises to be a fuller biography of Hilary Tolkien that she is currently undertaking. This will include new letters from the Tolkien and Suffield families, artwork by Hilary Tolkien, and additional photographs. Since Black & White Ogre Country is published in a very limited edition by ADC Publications Ltd. in Gloucestershire, U.K., it is not widely available in the United States, but it can be ordered online from the ADC website at http://www.adcbooks.co.uk, where it is £9.99 (plus £8.00 shipping to the U.S. - n.b., "buy online" links go to Amazon where it is currently available for under $20.).