Reviewed by Douglas C. Kane
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:6 (#335) in June 2010.]
Verlyn Flieger is widely considered one of the most insightful commentators on J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. It was, therefore, quite a surprise to me to discover that no review of her most recent book, Interrupted Music: The Making of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mythology, which was published in 2005, has appeared either here in Mythprint or in Mythlore. I was equally surprised to find no review in either publication of the revised and expanded edition of Flieger’s classic book, Splintered Light: Logos and Light in Tolkien’s World, which was published in 2002, and is unquestionably one of the most important books about Tolkien’s work ever written. I hope to remedy that lack in the near future, but first, Interrupted Music, which itself stands at a critical junction in Tolkien scholarship.
Previous books on Tolkien have tended to focus mainly on aspects of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. There have been a few earlier books that have addressed aspects of The History of Middle-earth (HoMe) series. In fact, Flieger herself did so quite successfully in her previous books. A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie focuses in large part on Tolkien’s two unfinished time-travel novels, The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers, both printed in volumes of HoMe, and the revised edition of Splintered Light is also enhanced by details taken from HoMe (as are other works, including the revised and expanded third edition of Tom Shippey’s seminal Road to Middle-earth). Another book, Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth, edited by Flieger and linguist Carl Hostetter, brought together a series of unrelated essays that each address different aspects of HoMe. However, Interrupted Music is perhaps the first book-length attempt to look at Tolkien’s legendarium as a whole.
Ironically, the material in Interrupted Music did not start out as a coherent whole. Many of the disparate parts of the book had appeared individually in “slightly different forms” in previous publications. Flieger notes in her preface that in rereading them she realized in hindsight “that they formed a coherent and revealing picture. Taken together they showed the motives, the methods and the narrative strategies that went into the making of Tolkien’s ongoing, frequently interrupted yet stubbornly persistent creation, conventionally referred to as his mythology for England” (ix). It is therefore all the more remarkable that the book hangs together so well. There is little impression in reading through Interrupted Music that it is largely comprised of separate stand-alone essays cobbled together only later. In fact, it is perhaps the most accessible of Flieger’s three books about Tolkien (I do not, of course, include in this tally the “extended editions” of Tolkien’s works that she edited or co-edited, or the collection of essays that she edited). Like Splintered Light and A Question of Time, Interrupted Music is certainly full of insightful ideas that probe deeper beneath the surface than most Tolkien scholars have been able to achieve, but it is not as densely challenging (though also perhaps not quite as deeply insightful) as the other two books.
Flieger uses the creation story of the Ainulindalë, in which the music of the Ainur is interrupted and never ultimately completed, as a metaphor for Tolkien’s creation of his “mythology”. She notes in her introduction that “[t]he result has been that, over the course of time, the entire structure came to resemble real world mythologies in the cumulative process and temporal span of its composition, as well as in the scope of its subject matter” (xiv). And she concludes that “[t]he fact that Tolkien never completed his mythology is its flaw and its virtue, its greatest weakness that is also its greatest strength. The general outline (especially if we discount the never concluded time-travel stories) is secure, but the elements, as with most real-world mythologies are within their own parameters, dynamic and changeable” (143). In between this introduction and conclusion she probes the motives, methods and narrative strategies referred to above to paint a compelling portrait of how one remarkable and complex man created a body of work that (without conscious intention) so closely mimicked real-world mythologies.
While Tom Shippey is justly renowned for scholarship rooted in a philological background that closely paralleled Tolkien’s own, I would argue that no one does more to open new avenues of thought in examining Tolkien’s work than Verlyn Flieger. She is not afraid to look at things from challenging new angles (e.g, her provocative and controversial essay in Tolkien Studies 6, “Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will”). Flieger certainly does not attempt in Interrupted Music to say everything there is to say about Tolkien’s mythology or the material in HoMe – far from it. But perhaps her greatest contribution with Interrupted Music is that it has helped broaden the scope of Tolkien scholarship by encouraging readers to look at the legendarium as a whole, rather than to focus only on its individual pieces. It is clear that Elizabeth Whittingham was inspired by Interrupted Music in writing her book The Evolution of Tolkien’s Mythology: A Study of the History of Middle-earth, which looks at a similar subject matter, but from a different angle. I also certainly took inspiration from Interrupted Music in writing my own book, Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion. I hope that others continue to follow this lead.