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Tolkien’s Legendarium

Flieger, Verlyn and Carl F. Hostetter, eds. Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth. (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 86). Westport, CT; London: Greenwood Press, 2000. ISBN 0-313-30530-7, hc, xvi + 274 pp., $59.95.

(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 37:4 (#217) in April 2000.)

Reviewed by Edith Crowe

The single most significant feature of this new collection of essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is telegraphed by its subtitle. The book is dedicated to Christopher Tolkien, and repeated expressions of gratitude and admiration toward him on the part of the various authors give this the distinct air of a Festschrift in his honor. The editors clearly state in their introduction that “[t]he genesis of the present collection … was a desire of the editors to give The History of Middle-earth the critical assessment it deserves…” Therefore, the element that distinguishes this critical work from the many others about Tolkien is its focus on those of his works that were edited by his son and posthumously published. In some cases the posthumous material is used to illuminate elements of the elder Tolkien’s more familiar works; in others the focus is on those aspects of the legendarium that only saw the light of day in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth. The fourteen essays (and one bibliography) are organized into three sections. The first, “The History,” treats the posthumous work as a whole. Rayner Unwin, son of Tolkien’s original publisher and famed in Tolkien lore as one of the first readers and recommenders of The Hobbit, provides us with an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at just how this unique series managed to get published. Christina Scull is interested in what the History reveals of Tolkien’s method of writing. To illustrate this she follows the evolution of the central story of the Silmarils and their fate — the first of the contributors, but not the last, to trace the development of a single figure or theme throughout the posthumous material. Wayne Hammond examines the tension between Tolkien’s natural tendency to change, refine, and “discover” his mythology through many (often contradictory) versions of the same story or event, and his perceived need to adhere to that version of the mythology that eventually became “fixed” with the publication of The Hobbit and LOTR. Charles Noad insightfully relates Tolkien’s production of multiple versions of everything to his “professional concern with real texts,” which compelled him to produce not just stories but “the distinctive texts that contain those narratives and chronicles, texts that are in themselves historical artefacts.” In one of the lengthier and more complex essays in the collection, Noad proceeds to treat Tolkien’s various “texts” like those Tolkien himself studied in his scholarly work. Based on this textual evidence, he presents a list of those texts that would have constituted The Silmarillion if J.R.R. Tolkien had managed to bring it to publishable form in his lifetime. Concluding the first section is David Bratman’s lively and readable essay on the often-ignored literary value of the posthumous writings — which parts reward us more as readers than as scholars.

Part II is devoted to Tolkien’s invented languages. This reviewer, as one without any formal background in linguistics, initially faced this section with no little trepidation. However, all three essays are well organized, argued with clarity, and presented without an excess of specialized terminology. A non-linguist may not have the knowledge to affirm or refute the arguments presented, but should be able to understand and appreciate them. Christopher Gilson traces the links between the early Gnomish language and the later Sindarin to prove the truth of Christopher Tolkien’s assertion that “Gnomish is Sindarin” — also the title of this essay. Arden R. Smith relates Tolkien’s runic systems to those of the Primary World. Although many of the shapes are identical the meanings are not, and Smith relates this to Tolkien’s changing and sometimes ambivalent attitudes toward the relationship of his legendarium with Primary World history. The last and by far the longest and most ambitious linguistic contribution is that of Patrick Wynne and Carl F. Hostetter. Pulling together widely scattered textual clues, including fragments of poetry in English “translation” and various Elvish languages and dialects, the authors attempt to define the three modes of Elvish verse named by Tolkien.

Part III, “The Cauldron and the Cook,” is the most varied. Each essay focuses more narrowly on an aspect of Tolkien’s work that has been enriched by the opportunity to study the posthumous material. In a nice segue from the previous section, Joe R. Christopher opens with an essay on “Tolkien’s Lyric Poetry.” Christopher focuses on four poems that appear (although not necessarily exclusively) in the History and analyzes them purely as poetry. His view is fair-minded, treating them as worthy of analysis without minimizing their weaknesses, acknowledging that appreciating Tolkien’s Romantic verse forms and those of more contemporary poets need not be an either/or proposition. Paul Edmund Thomas uses the early drafts of the beginning of LOTR to analyze how the voice of the narrator changed and evolved from The Hobbit to its more ambitious and profound sequel. Verlyn Flieger traces the significant concept of “Elf-friend” throughout the History, a figure present from the very beginnings of Tolkien’s mythology to its most “challenging presentation” in Smith of Wootton Major. One of the most eagerly-awaited revelations of the History were the aborted attempts at Tolkien’s time-travel story, planned to match C.S. Lewis’s on space travel. John D. Rateliff discusses the close relationship of “The Lost Road” and “The Notion Club Papers” to Lewis’s “The Dark Tower.” As part of this discussion he presents a compelling argument for a later date for the Lewis work than Walter Hooper suggests. Marjorie Burns shows how the History reinforces and expands the intuitions of earlier scholars (limited to The Hobbit and LOTR) that many of the attributes of Odin are distributed among various Tolkien characters. Richard C. West concludes the essays with a study of Tolkien’s interpretation of the concept described by Old English word ofermod and the significance of that concept to the story of Túrin Turambar.

The last contribution is Douglas A. Anderson’s — a selected bibliography of the works of Christopher Tolkien, with a brief and appreciative introduction. It serves nicely to reinforce the dedication at the beginning. The volume also includes “Suggested Further Reading,” an index with a “Note on Spelling and Usage,” and information about the contributors. Taken as a whole, Tolkien’s Legendarium is a significant contribution to the study of J.R.R. Tolkien, one that should be added to anyone’s collection of basic critical works on that author. The contributors, most of whom are long-time Mythopoeic Society members (including more than one Mythopoeic Scholarship Award winner) are clearly well versed in their subject matter. Since many are independent scholars not affiliated with university English departments (and even those who are so affiliated share in that independence) these analyses are refreshingly free of turgid prose or theoretical bias. The authors’ obvious appreciation for their subject of study does not preclude either critical acuity or scholarly rigor. Although the price is high, this is a well-produced book on acid-free paper — both its physical package and its intellectual content are designed to last.