J.R.R. Tolkien’s Double Worlds and Creative Process
Reviewed by Andrew Higgins
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:8 (#349) in August 2011.]
Like many, if not all, of you I am always on the lookout for new books about J.R.R Tolkien. I probably hit the Amazon search button two or three times a week to see what is both out there already and on the horizon. (You’d think they’d have a twelve step program for this!) So it gave me great delight some months ago to see that Professor Arne Zettersten’s new book on Tolkien was available for pre-order. At the same time as this rush of excitement I also had that usual tedious inner dialogue with myself regarding rationalizing the price for this book against other projected expenditures like rent, food, the dog, etc. As I remember, the internal dialogue for this book went on a bit — not as long as the continuing one for purchasing an original copy of The Songs for the Philologists — but finally my mind rang with “YOU SHALL BUY”, and I ordered it.
Before his retirement from teaching, Zettersten was a Professor of English at the University of Copenhagen. What probably tipped my purchasing decision over the edge was the fact that Zettersten is one of those fast-fading people who actually knew and worked with Professor Tolkien. Zettersten gave the keynote lecture at the 2004 Blackwelder conference at Marquette, where he discussed his work with Tolkien in the 1960–70s. At the time, Zettersten was working on his doctoral thesis on the AB language, a term coined by Tolkien to describe the dialect of a series of works in Early Middle English (e.g., the Katherine Group and the Ancrene Wisse), connecting them to the West Midlands, the area of England that interested Tolkien most, both linguistically and historically.
Zettersten’s book is an incredibly focused blending of personal reminiscence and a biographical sketch that includes the greatest emphasis and discussion I have seen to date on Tolkien’s philological development. He also gives an in-depth analysis of Tolkien’s professional and academic work and his parallel work on his legendarium. It is from this analysis and personal experience that Zettersten draws one of the key conclusions of the book, a conclusion I felt made the book worth the price of purchase — but more on that later.
The very cover of the book sets the tone for this exploration: a hand-sketched map from The Hobbit with an inset picture of Tolkien from the 1960s in his garden. The book starts with Zettersten’s reminiscence of his first meeting with Tolkien in June, 1961. It is a scene I am sure every Tolkien lover has fantasized about — the walk up to the front of 76 Sandfield Road, the first glimpse of Tolkien standing by the garage (that garage with all its documents, maps, and some yet still to be revealed secrets!), and Tolkien offering him a cup of tea and saying, “Mr. Zettersten, do come in.” This was the first of Zettersten’s meetings with Tolkien, which would continue up to Tolkien’s death in 1973. As Zettersten points out, their shared love of languages, those of the primary and Tolkien’s secondary world, and their depth of friendship resulted in Tolkien in the last year of his life asking Zettersten to call him “Ronald” (which Tolkien reserved “for my near kin” only (Letter #309). In addition, in March, 1973 Tolkien wrote a letter to Zettersten addressing him, “Dear Arne.”
While the biographical sketch (which covers close to ten chapters) does have strong echoes of the key Tolkien biographies we already have (Carpenter, White, and John Garth’s excellent work on Tolkien and the Great War), Zettersten gives us a much more focused analysis of Tolkien’s academic and philological development and especially the key role his mother Mabel Tolkien née Suffield played in this. According to Zettersten, Mabel Tolkien was a lover of language, calligraphy and drawing — all loves and talents passed on to her son Ronald. Zettersten gives an example of this with a Christmas card Mabel wrote in 1893 on behalf of the then two-year old Ronald to his father in South Africa (a precursor to her son’s later Father Christmas letters perhaps?). The card includes a rendering of “baby speech” including “Toekins” for “Tolkien (babies have a hard time saying the letter l)”. As Zettersten says, “She taught him to read, write, draw and paint. She instructed him in both classical and modern languages. She placed the right books in his hands at a very early age and practised the precise and ornamental handwriting that was characteristic of him.” While this is certainly not new knowledge, what I found interesting is the emphasis on Mabel’s love and experience with languages herself before passing it on to Ronald. Zettersten brings Mabel Tolkien the person out of the shadows a bit more and emphasizes that very early bond between Mabel and her son — cut tragically short by Mabel’s death in that postman’s cottage at Rednal in 1904.
Another new area of insight that comes out of Zettersten’s work is through his focus on Tolkien’s ability to live in different worlds at the same time (the “double worlds” of the book’s title). Zettersten observes that in his meetings with him, Tolkien could suddenly move from the primary to his secondary world without the slightest difficulty or doubt and he did this with same rapidity that one would switch from one language to another. Zettersten uses the linguistic term “code switching” to describe this ability. He traces the development of this gift back to Tolkien’s early development (for example, his use of the Gothic language to construct new Gothic-inspired words for his very early languages) and up through his research work in the 1920s for the Oxford English Dictionary. For example, parts of drafts of The Fall of Gondolin were written on slips he used for researching the word wariangle (a kind of shrike) for the dictionary.
Zettersten’s main point here, and this is what I thought was so revelatory in the entire book, is the effect Tolkien’s remarkable ability to switch between the “real” world and his secondary world had on the quality and depth of his work in both worlds. This “code switching” allowed him to put as much focus and emphasis on the history, language and culture of Middle Earth as he did on the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic literature and culture he taught and researched in the primary world. He had the remarkable ability to hold both these worlds in his grasp and to be able to discuss, debate, and explore each of them almost simultaneously. The primary world complimented and enriched his secondary world. Tolkien’s work as an academic and scholar gave him the process and methodology for the development of his secondary world, and his work on his secondary world informed his love and passion for the primary world and its “Northern Spirit.” While others may have frowned on Tolkien’s “waste of time” building a fantasy world, it seems clear from Zettersten that to Tolkien there was no division, they were in the same mold, and each was as important as the other. An area of Tolkien studies that perhaps could do with more focus and investigation!
I always judged the value of a scholarly work on the amount of highlighting I have done in it, and I must say at the first pass through this book (and there will be others), I would give it high marks all around. The appendices offe r a goo d summar y o f th e key points from each chapter and Zettersten gives some interesting insights into the screen versions of The Lord of the Rings (in the preface Zettersten states that Sir Ian McKellen — Gandalf — gave him some insights!).
This book includes some interesting illustrations and pictures of documents, including a photo of a handwritten page showing Tolkien’s time scheme for The Lord of the Rings (currently in the Marquette University Tolkien Collection). There are also some very useful charts, including a list of the books in Tolkien’s private collection when he was a student at Oxford (donated by the Tolkien family to the Bodliean library in 1982).
There is much more to dig into in this book and, speaking as an amateur Tolkien academic and philologist (who certainly lives in the primary world but takes extended visits to Tolkien’s secondary world), I would highly recommend Arne Zettersten’s book to all lovers, students, and aficionados of Tolkien’s works, in both primary and secondary worlds. I do hope other reminiscences from Professor Zettersen are on the horizon!