Tolkien, Race and Cultural History
Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Dimitra Fimi. Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. xvi + 240 pp., £50.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0230219519; £16.99 (softcover), ISBN 9780230272842.
Reviewed by Mark T. Hooker
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:9 (#338) in September 2010.]
First, congratulations to Dimitra Fimi for her well-deserved win of the 2010 Mythopoeic Society’s Award for Inklings Studies with this title. And now, to the review.
My title for the book would have been “Tolkien in His Historical Context.” The questions of race and fairies mentioned in the title as published are indeed points on the historical spectrum that Fimi covers to bring Tolkien into perspective, but they are not the only ones. There is much more. Fimi traces Tolkien’s creativity as his legendarium progresses from an Anglo-Saxon mythology for England to a more “realistic” pseudo-history of a “proto-historic” era of Europe, “as a response to his [Tolkien’s] historical reality” (197). It should be noted, says Fimi, “that Tolkien was a man of his time and that this would affect his work” (187). “[T]his book’s aim,” remarks Fimi, “is to examine Tolkien’s work from a historical perspective, showing how it relates to his own time” (157) within the framework of Middle-earth. To apply modern constructs to the analysis of Tolkien, continues Fimi, “would be a non-sequitur” and “would de-contextualize his writings from their historical period” (157).
This kind of treatment of Tolkien is especially attractive to me, as it is the kind of thing that I do myself. Fimi’s approach, however, is to look at the big picture, while I, like Niggle, tend to focus on details. The fairies of the title are the starting point for Fimi’s historical tour of Tolkien’s time. She skillfully traces how the diminutive, winged creatures of Victorian literature grew in the course of the development of Tolkien’s tales to the elves at the North Pole who help Father Christmas, and then into the tall, stately, larger-than-life beings who inhabit Middle-earth.
The question of “race” found in the title follows the development of this topic from racial anthropology, to eugenics, to racism, defending Tolkien from accusations of being a racist, by demonstrating how Tolkien’s views fit within those of his contemporaries. Most telling in this respect, perhaps, is Fimi’s recapitulation of Tolkien’s rejection of a request for a statement of Aryan origin from Nazi Germany as a condition of purchasing the rights to translate The Hobbit. Fimi’s elucidation of the historical tides behind the change from an Anglo-Saxon mythology to a mythology for Britain is particularly enlightening (129). She cogently points out the effect that World War I had not only on Tolkien, but on the whole of British society, as well as how this was reflected in a shift in the Weltanschauung of Tolkien’s mythology away from the Anglo-Saxon to the pastoral setting of the Shire.
Her discussion of why The Hobbit was a turning point in Tolkien’s creative life is likewise worthy of interest. The publication of The Hobbit created a demand for a sequel, but also created problems of consistency with Tolkien’s underlying mythology. The tale of how Tolkien had to revise The Hobbit to make the story of Bilbo’s acquisition of the Ring fit into the story of The Lord of the Rings is well known. Fimi points to a number of other problems that Tolkien, who constantly tinkered with his texts, encountered because one portion of his legendarium (The Hobbit) had become fixed when it was published and made available to the public. As an author of fiction myself, I immediately understood Tolkien’s problem and felt an even greater empathy with him.
Fimi’s exploration of the historical context of Tolkien’s “secret vice” (philology) is the kind of thing that warms the cockles of an old linguist’s heart. Tolkien’s “enthusiasm for language invention and sound play,” says Fimi, reflects the era before World War I, “which favored both the creation of numerous artificial languages and the radical sound experiments of the revolutionary avant-garde” (114). His penchant for making up his own languages does not seem “so peculiar when seen within the context of the long tradition of language invention in Britain and the rest of Europe” (97). While this makes Tolkien seem less “unique”, it nevertheless adds perspective to the understanding of his “secret vice” (a vice that I share myself).
The Cultural History of the title covers a wide swath of topics, but is, mayhap, most “concretely” expressed in Fimi’s discussion of “the real and imagined material cultures” of Middle-earth (Chapter 10). “Material culture” is a contemporary anthropological term for the study of the physical remains of cultures of the past. This is not a term commonly associated with literary study, but Fimi deftly applies it to good effect. Her comparison of the leaves of the “Book of Mazarbul” to the “sherd of Amenartas” from Rider Haggard’s She is but one tangible example from this thread of her logical discussion.
This is a well-written and accessible book, the quality of the text being all the more praiseworthy when one considers that Fimi is from Greece. I would consider it de rigueur for the bibliographies of serious college courses on Tolkien. For those who would like more, Dr. Fimi teaches two on-line courses via the University of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC) that will be of interest to Tolkienists: “J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth and Middle-earth in Context,” and “Fantasy Literature: From Victorian Fairy Tales to Modern Imaginary Worlds.” For more information, consult her personal website: http://www.dimitrafimi.com.