Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration. Stratford Caldecott and Thomas Honegger, eds. Cormarë Series 18. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2008. [vi] + 237 pp. $25.00. ISBN 978-3-905703-12-2.

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Reviewed by Charles A. Huttar

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 29.3/4 (#113/114) (2011) : 192–95.]

Walking Tree Publishers, whose logo pictures an Ent, established the Cormarë Series to further scholarly study of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. This book, eighteenth in the series, grew out of a conference organized by Exeter College, Oxford, in 2006 to celebrate and give institutional recognition to the emergence of Tolkien studies as a serious discipline, not limited to the Anglophone world, and one that is by nature, as Stratford Caldecott points out in his introduction, interdisciplinary. The volume includes a selection from the conference papers, supplemented by other essays. It exhibits both strengths and weaknesses of the “Proceedings” genre: most of the papers are quite readable, often marked by an engaging oral informality of style; the reader will find in them many fresh insights; but both the tone and the quality are uneven, and the collection as a whole lacks a clear focus. An index would have revealed greater unity than is easily detected, but making good indexes takes time.

From the title, I was expecting studies of earlier writers who in one way or another contributed to Tolkien’s creative work, but I soon found that its subject-matter is more varied, including attention to nonliterary influences and essays on Vico and Nietzsche, with whose work, it is acknowledged at the outset, Tolkien is not likely to have been familiar. The introduction even takes the title phrase in the opposite direction, briefly considering Tolkien himself as a source of inspiration in, for example, the Harry Potter series; but Caldecott’s primary theme in those pages is the question of the academic status of Tolkien studies. He seems to me overly diffident on the matter, but perhaps the issue looms larger in Britain than it does in the United States.

The ten essays are arranged in three parts, starting with ones designated “Biographical.” John Garth describes his contribution, “Tolkien, Exeter College and the Great War,” as a supplement to his book Tolkien and the Great War (which received a scholarship award at the 2004 Mythcon). It presents a fair amount of new research, for example from memoirs and unpublished documents. Its twenty-three short sections cover Tolkien’s undergraduate career—focusing mainly on the nonacademic aspects—and the impact of the war (begun while he was still enrolled) on Exeter College. They run from accounts of various escapades of adolescent high-jinks to more serious literary matters and a section on “Exeter’s war dead,” deeply elegiac in tone, before a final assessment of “Tolkien’s legacy.” Verlyn Flieger in her essay, “Gilson, Smith, and Baggins,” continues the elegiac mood with touching sensitivity. Gilson and Smith were two of Tolkien’s close friends from schooldays—two of the self-styled “immortal four”—who lost their lives in France, and Tolkien’s grief, Flieger says, somehow became a permanent part of his makeup, transmuted through long meditation into one aspect of his creative genius. Death and immortality are major themes in his life’s work (and not merely the immortality of being celebrated in song, though that is important too). He confronts us, as he himself had been confronted, with the mystery of divine purpose in the survival of one person together with the premature loss of another. Even Frodo Baggins, though technically he survived, was too damaged to remain long in earthly life. Flieger’s suggestion that in Sam’s famous closing speech, “I’m back,” we try putting the emphasis on the first word rather than the second is not entirely whimsical. Between these two pieces is the second essay, or rather three mini-essays in one, in which Peter Gilliver, Edmund Weiner, and Jeremy Marshall offer “Perspectives on Tolkien as Lexicographer and Philologist.” Like Garth, they expand on portions of their book, The Ring of Words (2006). Gilliver gives some details on Tolkien’s work with two of his mentors at the New English Dictionary, William Craigie and Henry Bradley, and with Kenneth Sisam on other linguistic projects, some completed and some abortive. Weiner’s section explores the way words stimulated Tolkien’s creative imagination, words encountered in two writers of an earlier generation, Charles Kingsley and William Morris, and even in an Icelandic dictionary and an Old English grammar. Marshall shows that the alternative plural dwarves, with a v, has a better pedigree in English than is usually thought and suggests that Tolkien was unnecessarily apologetic about his choice of the form. These three opening chapters are all, each in its own way, stocked with fascinating facts and instructive insights.

Part 2, “Mythos and Modernity,” is more problematic. What the three essays have in common is an interest in relating Tolkien to contemporary trends in philosophy, especially those that call into question the dominance of Enlightenment thought. Patrick Curry explores the concept of enchantment in Tolkien’s thought and in his narratives, as contrasted with the mood of disenchantment that has characterized much of modernism. I have found Curry’s other writings on Tolkien quite readable, but here his argument is hard to follow (at least, for me). On the key term, it is difficult to trace the route leading from Tolkien’s and Max Weber’s remarks about enchantment to the four characteristics listed by Curry (101–2) or to catch the connection between Tolkien’s theoretical statements and his personal experiences that Curry selects as paradigmatic. Nor does he explain why he considers the experience of enchantment incompatible with theological commitment. In short, we are offered a series of obiter dicta in place of a line of careful reasoning. Yet for all that, Curry’s essay contains much food for thought. “The Affirmation of Myth against the Tyranny of Reason” is the subtitle of the essay by the Polish Inklings scholar Marek Oziewicz. He notes interesting similarities between Giovanni Battista Vico (1668–1744) and J.R.R. Tolkien—both were philologists whose life work was to build large systems on a belief in the value of language, at a time when such belief was fatally unfashionable, and both were therefore marginalized by the intellectual Establishment but in the last thirty years or so have gained wider appreciation. He then devotes most of his essay to “deep[er] parallels”: both “offered a viable humanist philosophical alternative to […] oppressive modernity and […] affirmed the value of myth” (121–22). Peter M. Candler, Jr., compares Tolkien with yet another philologist in “Frodo or Zarathustra: Beyond Nihilism in Tolkien and Nietzsche.” But here the differences loom larger than the parallels, though Candler’s starting point is the opposition of both thinkers to modernity and its elevation of the mechanical over the beautiful. They advocate opposite remedies, however. Tolkien’s involves art—”sub-creation,” an idea that he developed in the context of his Christian faith—and eschatological hope. For Nietzsche, given his notion of eternal recurrence—of which, for Candler, Sauron’s One Ring is “an image” (158)—creation is illusory and power is the only answer to modern nihilism. Tolkien’s is the larger vision, with room even for valorizing pagan ideals (with due allowance for their imperfectness) and for final joy.

Already in Candler’s essay we note increasing attention to the Christian underpinnings of Tolkien’s thought, and this becomes dominant in the four essays in Part 3, “Mythos and Logos.” That the preferred term frequently is “Catholic” rather than “Christian” (though biographically it is accurate enough) seems to me a trifle tendentious given the essential catholicity (small c) of many aspects of his worldview. But set that aside. Leon Pereira, O.P., is concerned chiefly in his essay, “Morals Makyth Man—and Hobbit,” with the Christian foundations of Tolkien’s work and particularly of the ethics implicit in his hobbit heroes’ behavior. His focus on the virtues of pity and love links this essay nicely with the one preceding, since Nietzsche had no use for such softness. Crucial to Pereira’s argument are Tolkien’s own statements, largely found in letters, about what motivated his work and how it should be interpreted. “Tolkien, Chesterton, and Thomism” is the title of Alison Milbank’s contribution. “Chestertonian philosophy undergirds Tolkien’s Middle-earth” (187), she argues. Tolkien’s invented world in its “density and completeness of realisation” (190) reflects the metaphysics of Aquinas, as mediated by not only Chesterton but also Jacques Maritain and his followers in the Ditchling artistic community. She does not explore the possibility of Tolkien’s more direct acquaintance with St. Thomas through his professional study of medieval culture, but the case for Chesterton’s influence is bolstered by a striking verbal parallel in “A Long-expected Party.” Milbank also finds traces of Thomist esthetics in Tolkien’s portrayals of such artificers as Niggle, Aulë, Fëanor, Galadriel and her people, and Sauron. “The Influence of Holiness: The Healing Power of Tolkien’s Narrative,” by Guglielmo Spirito, O.F.M. Conv., is not so much an academic paper as a wide-ranging and eye-opening meditation on several of Tolkien’s key ideas and images: light, joy, holiness, mystery, and the truth of myth. Oddly, in the “References” one book by Rowan Williams is correctly listed but another is listed, and cited (199n), under “Rowan” as a surname. Perhaps Spirito recalls one of Tolkien’s favorite trees? Finally, Caldecott in a wrap-up paper called “Tolkien’s Project” writes of Tolkien’s “sense of mission to […] ‘rescue’” (216) the true “England” from the materialism and (already in the 1940s) globalization that he believed threatened it. (We may compare the struggle between “Logres” and “Britain” in the symbol system of his fellow-Inklings Williams and Lewis.) He longed for England to be “scoured”—like the Shire (he faults the Peter Jackson film for excising that episode). For him the marriage of Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton, and their homage to Elvishness in naming their daughter Elanor, points toward a hoped-for restoration of the “[balance] of the metaphysical masculine and feminine principles” and a rediscovery of “moral depths and cosmic significance within the domestic world” (230).

By way of “Conclusion,” his coeditor, Thomas Honegger, returns briefly to the subject of the future of Tolkien studies. He cites an impressive outpouring of scholarship in the past decade, “strong foundations” on which to build, and anticipates the opening of “new areas of study” and the continuation of “mutually inspiring dialogue” (236) through more conferences like the one at Exeter College.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration. Stratford Caldecott and Thomas Honegger, eds. Cormarë Series 18. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2008. [vi] + 237 pp. $25.00. ISBN 978-3-905703-12-2.

buy online

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