Tolkien and the Study of His Sources

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays. Editor, Jason Fisher. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. 228 pages. Softbound: $40. ISBN978-0-7864-6482-1.

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Reviewed by Mike Foster

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 30.1/2 (#115/116) (2011): 189–92.]

Editor Jason Fisher prefaces this collection of eleven essays by reiterating Tolkien’s famous quotation of Sir George Dasent as it appears in “On Fairy-Stories”: “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones out of which it has been boiled” (1). Indeed, the thick, rich soup of Tolkien’s legendarium and minor writings has been scrutinized, it would seem, down the very last pinch of this, sprig of that, and spoonful of everything else. Critical books and scholarly periodicals and journals, some devoted solely to the author, have proliferated for nearly fifty years with no cessation in sight.

In his “Introduction: Why Source Study?”, Tom Shippey, one of the most artful practitioners of that craft, argues that Tolkien’s dismissals of source-criticism from 1938 on does not illegitimatize volumes like this one:

All literary works bear some relation to the milieu in which they are composed and received, but we often do not realize how quickly the elements of those milieux are forgotten. One generation’s common knowledge becomes a later generation’s historical footnote […]. [A]s [Jason] Fisher says below, to turn one’s back on source study is “to risk stripping a text of its context” […].  (9)

Shippey and Fisher are correct. While many of Tolkien’s readers are familiar with, for instance, Beowulf and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, only a few have mastered the works of John Buchan and H. Rider Haggard, subjects of superb essays by Mark T. Hooker and John D. Rateliff, respectively. William Caxton’s The Golden Legend, his fifteenth-century English translation of the thirteenth-century Aurea Legenda, may be common fare for medieval scholars who study stories of the saints, but those unfamiliar with the work will find Judy Ann Ford’s chapter illuminating.

Source Criticism: Background and Applications” by E.L. Risden, the second item in this anthology, is exactly that. Dealing more with the Bible and with Shakespeare than Tolkien, it presents a survey of the history of this kind of scholarship. Concluding, Risden states that

[T]he dangers of source criticism lie in uncertainty: the critic must assemble evidence, of course, but must often rely on guesses. […] Even a mistaken guess can lead to insight, as long as we as readers fairly distinguish between what author and text do and what we do as respondents.  (26-27)

Nicholas Birns offers a study of “Biblical mythopoeia” in the “consciously mythic” “first nine or so chapters of Genesis” (45). This leads to a disquisition on both similarities and differences: the Creation account in the Ainulindalë exemplifies the former; the Akallabêth, the latter. “Númenor was not Eden, […] a primal place of innocence, but a restorative land of gift that went awry” (48). Likewise, the Cain and Abel story evokes the kinslaying at Alqualonde but is not the same thing. Birns delves into Mesopotamian myth (the “stones” referred to in his title in “The Stones and the Book”) and links the Gilgamesh epic to King Eärnur, the rash, bold last king of Gondor in the Third Age.

The stellar essay “Sea Birds and Morning Stars,” contributed by astronomy and physics professor Kristine Larsen, looks at the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone and discovers eleven similarities to Eärendil and Elwing. She traces the older legend from Ovid to Chaucer to John Gower: “Given Tolkien’s classical education, and his expertise in medieval texts, it is all but certain that he would have not only been familiar with the basic story […] but [also] with its various retellings” (77). As the title indicates, Larsen deals expertly with the metamorphoses of Elwing and Eärendil in astronomical and avian incarnations. “Finally, there is the possibility that Tolkien also connected this couple with well-known weather patterns,” she appends (82).

Byzantium and Gondor are linked in Miryam Librán-Moreno’s contribution. “Byzantium, New Rome!” brings the troubled history of the Goths, the Langobards, and Constantinople into the stockpot of Tolkien’s stories. “In this I follow the lead of Tolkien himself, who found the comparison with Byzantium historically appropriate: ‘In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium’” (86). She cites ten Gothic names, two Langobardic, and three in Byzantine Greek (all hobbits) in the legendarium. Constantinople had its Argonath, a bronze equestrian statue of Justinian I looking east with his hand raised in warning to invaders. The Emperor Heraclius’s Hellenization efforts, reverting to Greek from Latin, is analogous to the abandonment of  Eldarin languages by the last kings of Númenor once they had rejected the Valar. Justinian’s great general Belisarius’s noble semblance to Aragorn, as well as Attila the Hun’s terrifying similitude to the Witch-king in the battle of the Pelennor Fields, deserve attention.

The Rohirrim: ‘Anglo-Saxons on Horseback’?” by Thomas Honegger looks once again at a source long-known to be one of the stronger flavors in Tolkien’s stockpot of story, despite the author’s contrasistent claims to the contrary. “The idea [in 1942] of equating the Common Speech with modern English and, as a logical conclusion, to represent Rohirric by Old English, also suggested the solution to his problem of how to accommodate the ‘rabble of Eddaic-named Dwarves out of Völuspá’ that he had inherited from The Hobbit” (120) by using Old Norse. He links the courageous code of Anglo-Saxon poetry, especially The Battle of Maldon, to Rohan. But, he concludes, “the Rohirrim are primarily the embodiment of the common Germanic ideal of the northern heroic and as such not to be identified with any historically known (Germanic) peoples […] in the same sense that orcs are Huns without horses” (128). Nonetheless, “they remain […] the people most dear to Tolkien and to all medievalists” (129).

Medievalists will likewise delight in Judy Ann Ford’s essay on William Caxton’s translation of the legends of the saints, The Golden Legend. With witful brevity, she cites examples: a posthumous story of St. Stephen and a corrupting fatal ring that, like Tolkien’s Ring, can desert its owner of its own accord. St. Martin’s and St. Bernard’s powers over weather suggest Tom Bombadil. Legends of St. Amande, St. Julian, St. Basil, and St. Michael the Archangel also enter Ford’s commentary. Dragons appear in no fewer than nine [ten, by this reviewer’s count] saint’s tales, including the Éowyn-like feats of Sts. Margaret and Martha: “they […] offer medieval models in which women on the side of good overcome evil beasts” (143).

John D. Rateliff’s “She and Tolkien” returns to an essay on H. Rider Haggard Rateliff first published in Mythlore in the summer of 1981. The opening of She resembles the first two chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. The affinities between Galadriel and Ayesha, “She” herself, are “the most obvious parallel.” (148). She’s setting, the ruined city of Kôr, presents “the clearest case.” (150). Leo and Ayesha parallel Beren and Lúthien. Rateliff’s study of less well-known works has an ancillary benefit: the reader will want to seek out and read these works as well: “The Lord of the Rings is a greater work than anything Haggard ever wrought, but Haggard deserves mention for having contributed his bit to the overall edifice” (157).

Mark T. Hooker’s “Reading Buchan in Search of Tolkien,” at thirty pages the longest essay in Fisher’s collection, does for John Buchan, best known as the author of 1915’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, what Rateliff does for Haggard. The wartime experiences of Buchan’s redoubtable Scotch spy Richard Hannay and Tolkien are similar but “there are no discernible, uniquely Hannayesque resonances in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings” (163). As with his other works on Tolkien, Hooker emphasizes names and languages. Plot and symbolism also connect the two writers. Midwinter’s title character evokes Tolkien’s attempt to explain Tom Bombadil. “By comparing the two [authors],” Hooker concludes, “the story elements of both come into sharper focus. What may be missing in one is found in the other” (190).

The last chapter, “Biography as Source: Niggles and Notions” by Diana Pavlac Glyer and Josh B. Long, who was a research assistant on Glyer’s 2007 study of the creative influences of  Inklings, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers of Community, is an addendum to that book. Enriched by unpublished letters from Tolkien, this essay includes observations on The Lost Road, The Notion Club Papers, and “Leaf By Niggle” and serves as a satisfying coda to this collection.

As Fisher observes in his essay, “most of the low-hanging fruit has long gone” (37-38). Scholars including Shippey, Rateliff, Douglas A. Anderson, Verlyn Flieger, John Garth, and Janet Brennan Croft may have climbed higher up the Tree of Tales to harvest, but this book proves that, like Niggle’s Tree, plenty of fruit still remains for the picking. Studies like these, in Larsen’s words, improve “our individual chances of holding our own, if only for a brief moment, in a lively discussion with the Good Professor in whatever version of the Eagle and Child [sic] awaits the Second Born beyond the Walls of the World” (82).

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays. Editor, Jason Fisher. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. 228 pages. Softbound: $40. ISBN978-0-7864-6482-1.

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