Tolkien Studies: Volume VI

Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. Volume VI. Edited by Douglas A. Anderson, Michael D.C. Drout, and Verlyn Flieger. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2009. 363 p. ISSN 1547-3155. $60.00 individuals, $120.00 institutions.

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Reviewed by Janet Brennan Croft

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 28.1/2 (#107/108) (2009): 192–96.]

The continued and growing success of Tolkien Studies is a cheering indication that our narrow field of mythopoeic and Inklings studies is healthy enough to support two substantial and highly-respected refereed scholarly journals on the general topic in this country alone (Seven: An Anglo-American Review and Mythlore), as well as a number of specialized journals devoted even more narrowly to individual Inklings and fellow fantasists, like Tolkien Studies. We all have unique enough (though closely related) missions that the student of the Inklings and related writers will find it a challenge to keep up with everything being published in the field.

But Tolkien Studies is certainly worth keeping up with, if one must triage one’s journal expenditures, and this particular issue is full of treasures. One thing Tolkien Studies does that sets it apart is commissioning a lead article from a major Tolkien scholar, and following it up with an appreciation and/or checklist of their scholarship. Their lead article for this volume is by John Rateliff, and it’s an appreciative and thought-provoking look at Tolkien as a literary artisan highly conscious of every word he put to paper. As Rateliff points out, one overwhelming impression the reader gets from Tolkien’s stories and poems is that they “were made, by a master craftsman whose medium was words, ink, paper” (1-2). But one of Tolkien’s less obvious strengths as a craftsman, and perhaps what draws readers back to the books over and over again, is his extraordinary carefulness in not dictating to the reader — in allowing the reader room to draw on their own memories when visualizing characters, locations, and action and their own experiences when considering the applicability of the work — in effect, encouraging the reader to cooperate “in the (sub)creation of the work” (4). This ties back to Rateliff’s damning of the Jackson films with faint praise earlier in the essay — the reader has the freedom to argue whether Jackson “got certain characters right” (2) because Tolkien permits — almost requires — each individual reader to develop “their own inner vision of the characters” (5), which a movie does not. One particular observation Rateliff makes caught my attention: “We do not need to know what Frodo looked like, because we are looking through his eyes” (6); indeed, Tolkien is always very careful to give us a viewpoint character. We always know exactly whose eyes we are looking through, and thus become part of that character for a time. Douglas A. Anderson follows the essay with a checklist of Rateliff’s work, which has been wide-ranging; the checklist fortunately includes links to his online series of reviews of classic fantasies.

Rateliff is a hard act to follow, but Ármann Jakobsson’s somewhat misleadingly titled “Talking to Dragons: Tolkien as Translator” is as good a follow-up as one could want. The article is not about translation per se, or even just about dragons, though they figure predominately, but about speaking monsters and how the monster’s ability to speak turns the hero’s confrontation with the monster into something unpredictable, ambiguous, and often psychologically disturbing. As Jakobsson points out, once the monster starts to speak, one can no longer refer to it as “it” — “he has started speaking” (28). The monster becomes a character, a person. The hero must confront the fact that the monster is no longer entirely Other — it has in some deep sense become akin to him, even his “double” (30). Smaug becomes “strangely and unnervingly human” in his conversation with Bilbo (31), while Bilbo must face the probability that there is “a tiny essence of dragon” in his own heart (32). We confront the uncanny, and it is within us.

While I must confess I was originally very much a “what Jackson got wrong” purist, I am recently finding myself coming around to the perspective Judy Ann Ford and Robin Anne Reid advocate in their article tackling the question of Aragorn’s portrayal in the books versus the movies: they argue that the most productive approach is not to “argue whether Jackson’s Aragorn is a good or bad adaptation” but to “consider these two texts in relation to each other” (83). The films exist, in other words, and therefore must be considered as they are, not as we would wish them to be, and on their own terms as different media telling (almost) the same story. The authors analyze both texts for their underlying assumptions and models of kingship, showing that in the novel, Aragorn “needs to convince others of who he is” since the book’s model relies on proven competence in addition to lineage; while in the movies, in contrast, “Aragorn need to change himself, to overcome his own doubts” (78) since the movie’s kingship model relies entirely on heritage. They do miss a recent article on sacral kingship (Nikakis) that might have bolstered some of their conclusions about book — Aragorn’s sacrificial role.

I would perhaps consider Cynthia M. Cohen’s article on trees in Middle-earth the weakest in this issue, though this is not to say it’s not worth reading. But I find it stretches its material a bit thin in places and could have been tightened substantially without loss of meaning. It verges close to the edge of Middle-earth Studies, categorizing and speculating about the species of trees described in Tolkien’s works, but doesn’t quite fall in. But there are useful observations only a person paying close attention to trees could make — for example, that the symbolism of the headless statue at the crossroads is echoed and reinforced by the “gaunt and broken” tops of the trees in the surrounding valley, both being still fundamentally sound and capable of regeneration (97-99).

Josh Long’s article “Clinamen, Tessara, and the Anxiety of Influence: Swerving From and Completing George MacDonald” is another of the gems of this issue. Long uses two concepts from Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence to explain how Smith of Wootton Major arose from Tolkien’s reaction to re-reading The Golden Key after a long lifetime of thinking about and writing fairy tales, and builds on Diana Pavlac Glyer’s recent research on influence among the Inklings in general. In Smith, Long says, Tolkien attempts to correct the “juvenility” and over-reliance on allegory of MacDonald. One interesting point he makes is that Tolkien’s elves have an effect on the primary world — a point also made in Johnston (14). The only major disappointment I have with Long’s article is that he does not mention its near-twin: William Gray’s 2007 Mythlore article which does the same for Lewis, tracing a path of “anxiety” from MacDonald through Lewis to Pullman. Comparing their reactions to this earlier master of the genre is a fascinating look into their respective creative minds.

It is very good to see some of the materials from Verlyn Flieger and Carl Hostetter’s invigorating debate over fate and free will at Mythcon 39 made available in print. Flieger proposes that one of the major differences between the races of Elves and Men (in which she includes Hobbits) is that Elves are “fated” and Men have free will. She interprets Ilúvatar’s statement about the creation of Men reproduced in The Book of Lost Tales I (the second, and fuller, version) to mean that only Men, among all creation, have been given the gift of free will, and all other races are subject to fate. Her working out of how, then, Fëanor was fated to lose the Silmarils but might have reduced the ill effects of this catastrophe by moderating his following actions, is a fascinating bit of close reading, giving full attention to Tolkien’s carefully considered word choices. And as she notes, the “three Great Tales” all have as their central conflict “the intrusion of a free-willed Man into a fated Elvish stronghold” (179n12). Carl Hostetter counters Flieger’s argument with a collection of documents that cast some doubt on this rigid division into “fated” and “free-willed” races, particularly documents relating to the Quenya base word MBAR, root of ambar “world” and umbar “fate.” It is left as an exercise for the reader to determine just how clear-cut the difference may be between fate and free will and how it affects the interactions of the races of Middle-earth.

Several articles demonstrate clearly why we need Tolkien Studies as well as Mythlore; they don’t precisely fit Mythlore’s mission, being primarily about Tolkien’s scholarship rather than his literary work, but they would still intrigue many of our readers. Jill Fitzgerald writes about the state of Lang. and Lit. studies at Oxford during Tolkien’s career there, which is fascinating in itself, but the real delight of the article lies in the inclusion, and ensuing explication, of the complete text of Tolkien’s Chaucerian pastiche “Þe Clerkes Compleinte.” (Her footnote claiming that the journal Arda is only held at Harvard, Bowling Green, and Marquette is not entirely accurate; they are the only libraries listed in WorldCat, but the Wade Center also has selected issues, though not a full run and not the issue she refers to.) Stefan Ekman continues the theme of considering Tolkien’s scholarship in the next article in his study of how Pearl, a work Tolkien translated and thought about deeply, is echoed in the landscape and the sense of dreaming time in Aman and other places in Arda. Stuart D. Lee similarly looks at Tolkien’s teaching notes on The Wanderer, with some discussion of its use in designing the culture and poetry of Rohan.

I am alas not a linguist and can only judge Christopher Gilson’s article on the basic vocabulary of Quenya on its general merits, which are substantial. Again, this is the sort of article which would not appear in Mythlore but would hold much interest for many of our readers. Gilson makes a point of contrasting the “fictional” Quenya — the poetry, phrases, names and so on that were integrated into the published and unpublished stories — and the “invented” Quenya, the background references of vocabulary and grammar. The two sets are not wholly congruent; words might be represented in the “dictionary” but never used, and composition of a new poem might call for a new word or create nuances in the definition of an established word. In this way Quenya was a living language for Tolkien; words grew, accumulating meaning, variation, and subtle shading, as he used them, in turn calling for changes in the dictionary definitions — just like languages in the primary world.

The book review section is substantial and well-considered. Some of the items have already been reviewed in Mythlore, or are reviewed in this issue, but when it comes to reviews an additional perspective is always something to be welcomed. Colin Manlove, for example, in his review of the expanded edition of Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, points out an unfortunate deficiency in the volume: it lacks a bibliography of scholarship about the essay. Indeed this is a sad weakness of this entire series of expanded editions. Another notable review is that of Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, reviewed by Mike Foster; on the strength of his contagious enthusiasm, I certainly plan to seek out this book.

The issue concludes with David Bratman’s “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies,” covering 2006, and a bibliography of work published in English in 2007 compiled by Jason Rea, Kathryn Paar, and Michael D.C. Drout. Bratman’s annual column is a great service to the field; his concise reviews of both major and shorter works miss very little that goes on, and to my delight, at least, he is never shy of expressing an opinion. (Even the decision to reverse the editors’ names on the two volumes of Tolkien and Modernity gets the exasperated sigh it truly merits from a library cataloger [315], and the description of one essay as “a thoroughly muddled and superficial piece which adds nothing useful to this discussion” made me glad I was not the hapless target of his pen [322].) The well-organized bibliography includes an addendum for 2006; I hope there are future plans for collecting and consolidating these bibliographies in cumulations covering multiple years.

I have to add that each year I find myself more envious of their handsome hardback binding with its distinctive red cloth spine tooled in gold; West Virginia University Press does a lovely job on the physical production of this journal.

Works Consulted

Glyer, Diana Pavlac. The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2007.

Gray, William. “Pullman, Lewis, MacDonald, and the Anxiety of Influence.” Mythlore 25.3/4 (#97/98) (2007): 117-132.

Johnston, Allegra. “Clashing Mythologies: The Elves of Shakespeare and Tolkien.” Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language. Ed. Janet Brennan Croft. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy #2. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2007. 9-24.

Nikakis, Karen Simpson. “Sacral Kingship: Aragorn as the Rightful and Sacrificial King in The Lord of the Rings.Mythlore 26.1/2 (#99/100) (2007): 83-90.

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