Tolkien and Wales
Reviewed by Damien Bador
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:7 (#348) in July 2011.]
With this work, Carl Phelpstead corrects a flagrant injustice. Many books have studied the influence of Germanic or Finnish language and literature upon J.R.R. Tolkien, and rightly so, but nothing similar had yet been attempted for Wales, also a major source of inspiration for Tolkien, both for his academic and his literary works. Phelpstead’s book focuses on Welsh language, literature, and identity in the British Islands. A short chronology mentioning events linked to Tolkien’s interest for Wales, and a description of Tolkien’s Welsh library, now hosted in the University of Oxford, complete his study. Examining the annotations left by Tolkien in his books is one of the strengths of Tolkien and Wales, as these annotations provide crucial evidence of Tolkien’s interest in Welsh. Hence, the description of his Welsh library is particularly useful.
The first section of the book deals with Tolkien’s Welsh studies. While it doesn’t bring many new facts, it is interesting to see how Tolkien’s expertise in Celtic and Germanic philology informed his academic research. Phelpstead provide a detailed analysis of the paper “English and Welsh”, where Tolkien presented his theory of inherited linguistic predilections. According to the author, Tolkien’s acute taste for languages made him sensitive to the interaction between history, language, peoples, and lands. Indeed, Tolkien was entranced by Welsh, but did not like Irish at all. He dismissed clichés on so-called Celtic characteristics, considering them to be grounded in unscientific beliefs.
Tolkien’s taste for languages made him invent his own Elvish tongues, whose history soon became interwoven with the Middle-earth tales. Phelpstead reminds us that E.L. Epstein noticed the similarity between Sindarin and Welsh as early as 1969. However, it was only in An Introduction to Elvish (1978) that Jim Allan proved this to come from phonological and structural grounds rather than simple lexical borrowings. This chapter can serve as a useful introduction to Tolkien’s language invention method, but we can only regret that the author chose to comment on secondary sources without bringing any new elements of his own. No linguistic manuscript published after I·lam na·Ngoldathon is discussed, which forecloses any serious discussion on the evolution of the language that ultimately became Sindarin.
The second section is perhaps the most interesting, though fans won’t find any new information on The Fall of Arthur there. But nobody can blame Phelpstead for that. The first chapter deals with Tolkien’s interest for Welsh mythology and the Mabinogion, whose first branch he partially translated. Phelpstead summarizes how Tolkien reused the Welsh matter through his Red Book of Westmarch, a fictive equivalent to the Red Book of Hergest. The similarity between Tolkienian Elves and Welsh tylwyth teg is mentioned, but not thoroughly studied. The ambiguous relationship between Tolkien and Arthurian literature clearly interested the author. He notes how Tolkien stressed the Celtic origin of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in his edition of this medieval text. He is also interested in Tolkien’s literary inroads in the Arthurian matter, and summarizes what is known on the alliterative poem dealing with Arthur’s demise. Phelpstead tracks down Arthurian echoes in The Lord of the Rings, such as Frodo’s departure to Tol Eressëa. He shows how Merlin’s figure is diffracted through the three Istari, in a reversal of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who aggregated several legendary figures to build his Merlin Ambrosius. The causes of Tolkien’s dissatisfaction with Arthurian myths are investigated, and their “imperfectly naturalised” nature linked to the fact that they describe Anglo-Saxons as the enemy.
The last chapter in this section discusses Tolkien’s interest in Breton legends — most noticeable in “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun”, which derives from the ballad “Aotrou Nann hag ar Gorrigan”, published by Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué in his Barzaz-Breiz: chants populaires de la Bretagne (1839). Phelpstead mentions Tolkien’s archaic use of Britons and Britain to mean Bretons and Brittany, underscoring their links to Wales and Cornwall. The reuse of the legendary Breton name of Meriadoc in The Lord of the Rings is also mentioned, but nothing is said of the parallelism between the colonization of Brittany by Cornish people and the colonization of Buckland by Hobbits from the Marish.
In the last part, Phelpstead further explores the notion of identity in Tolkien’s works. Not only did Tolkien distinguish between the various Celtic peoples, but he was of the same mind for England, as shown by his frequent comments about his Mercian origins. Thus, his conception of peoples seems to be rooted in the early Middle Ages, when each Anglo-Saxon kingdom maintained its independence while being open to external influences. Referring to Mercia, the English “March” at the Welsh boundaries shows that Tolkien’s passion for Welsh was an integrant part of his English identity.
Phelpstead’s style can sometimes seem too academic, but this is compensated for by the thoroughness of his documentation. The endnotes are particularly numerous, covering more than 40 pages out of a total of 183. A couple of mistakes suggest that the author is more familiar with medieval Welsh literature than with Tolkien’s writings. He mistakenly claims that all Hobbits came from the Angle between Hoarwell and Loudwater (p. 19), whereas only the Stoors went to this region during their westward migration. Elsewhere, Phelpstead seems to mix up the various Teleri tribes and suggests that the Noldor’s return to Middle-earth was a consequence of an exile imposed by the Valar for their disobedience, quite a regrettable misinterpretation (p. 44). Fortunately, these errors have no influence on the main topic.
In the end, this book will surely interest Tolkien’s fans who would like to learn more about his Welsh sources of inspiration. The mutual influence of literature and linguistics in Tolkien’s works is particularly well described, and this confirms the usefulness of such an approach. The study of Tolkien’s academic works is interesting, and their impact on his literary inventions well documented. Still, many parallels mentioned would have deserved a closer examination, rather than being potted in a mere paragraph.