Tolkien Studies VII
Reviewed by Mike Foster
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:4 (#345) in April 2011.]
The seventh volume of this annual series bolsters the belief that this century has been a silver age of Tolkien scholarship: Rivendell redux.
Anchored by two diverse but essential studies — Verlyn Flieger’s on “The Story of Kullervo” and Tolkien’s lectures on Kalevala and John Garth’s brief biographical piece on the author’s relationship with King Edward’s School friend Robert Q. Gilson and his family — this volume begins with ten essays and ends with Douglas A. Anderson’s 55-page compilation of book reviews and David Bratman’s survey of 2007 Tolkien scholarship.
Flieger’s transcription and commentary on Tolkien’s work on the Finnish national epic, an early, deep taproot of the story of Túrin Turambar, joins her 2005 extended edition of Smith of Wootton Major and the 2008 co-edition On Fairy-stories with Anderson on the Tolkien Required Reading List. When Tolkien discovered The Kalevala in 1911, he was inspired by its “unfettered exuberance, the unspoiled pagan quality, and what he called ‘the delicious exaggerations’ of what were to him ‘wild […] uncivilized and primitive tales.’” Tolkien’s retelling of Kullervo’s compelling story, from the cygnet snatched away by an eagle to the tragic hero’s suicide by sword, certainly possesses all of these. Flieger traces the links between events and names here and those in Túrin’s tale (e.g., Wanona “weeping” to Níniel “tear-maiden”). Cogent comments on Tolkien’s two essays on the work presented early in his Oxford career likewise illuminate the legend. Bonuses, like the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow allusions, abound. The relationship of Kalevala to The Song of Hiawatha demonstrate the catholicity of Tolkien’s reading. And one cannot read the excerpts of the ode to ale without imagining the delight of Tolkien’s voice chanting it: “O thou ale thou drink delicious. Let the drinkers be not moody. / Urge the people on to singing; let them shout with mouths all golden, / Till our lords shall wonder at it, and o[u]r ladies wonder at it.”
Nine rare photographs and new biographical lore enrich John Garth’s “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Fairies,” which tracks down a single line found in “On Fairy-stories,” a lovely light dessert following Flieger’s Finnish feast.
Of the five book reviews, Tom Shippey’s 33-page discussion of The Legend of Sigrid and Gudrún leads off. Lengthy but lucid, this first-rate work is another argument for beginning Tolkien Studies VII at the end. David Bratman’s spirited survey of 2007 scholarship, enlivening and enlightening, is another. After seven solo years, Bratman will team up in good and faithful service with Merlin DeTardo for the 2008 assessment, to be published in Volume VIII this summer.
“Refining the Gold,” Mary R. Bowman’s contribution on The Battle of Maldon and Tolkien’s Northern notion of courage, stands tall in the dectet of essays. Beginning with Gandalf’s self-sacrificial standoff with the Balrog in Khazad-dûm, Bowman contrasts the wizard’s bravery with Byrhnoth’s foolishness. Subtitled sections on defeat, duty, flight, “seeing it through,” and “the problem of hope” divide her commentary on the likenesses and unlikenesses between the original and The Lord of the Rings and “The Homecoming of Beorhntoth, Beorthelm’s Son.”
Another superb source study, Thomas Honegger’s “Fantasy, Escape, Recovery, and Consolation in Sir Orfeo,” begins thus: “A king in exile, having spent years, asks for the hand of his beloved lady from the king of Fairy, is finally re-united with her and, after testing the loyalty of his steward, re-claims his throne and lives happily ever after with his queen to the end of his days.” Employing “On Fairy-stories”, including its epilogue, as his template, Honegger observes that “the poet brings even the ‘strangeness’ closer to home by bringing the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice closer to home”: Winchester, England.
Elladan and Elrohir, the often under-noted siblings of Arwen, are mentioned only five times in The Lord of the Rings and once in The Peoples of Middle-earth. Sherrylyn Branchaw’s links them to Indo-European myths of divine twins. Given Tolkien’s predilection for Northern mythology, Branchaw sees Elrond’s sons rooted in classical Greek and Roman legends, especially those of Castor and Polydeuces (called Castor and Pollux by the Romans), brothers of Helen of Troy and sons of Zeus. “The rescue [of their mother from the orcs] by Elladan and Elrohir forms an even closer parallel with the Theban twins, Amphion and Zethos, who rescue the mother from captivity and punish her tormentors,” Branchaw writes. She also notes that Elrond’s sons, unlike the Dioscuri but like Boromir and Faramir, share morphemes, as the Dwarvish brothers of The Hobbit share rhyming names. Citing the glossary in The Silmarillion, she adds that Tolkien “presents el-rond as a kenning for the heavens. The ‘sons of Elrond,’ then, are ‘the sons of the sky,’ just like the Dioscuri.”
Kristine Larsen’s “Myth, the Milky Way, and Tolkien’s Morwinyon, Telumendil, and Anarímma” also has its eyes on the skies. A survey of the legendarium’s links to astronomy, this work moves beyond the Valacirca “sickle of the gods” equation to the Big Dipper and Borgil equaling Alderbaran to suggesting that Morwinyon can be identified with Arcturus. Her exegesis, after noting other nominations, finally chooses Telumendil as Boötes and Anarímma, “edge of the sun,” to Sagittarius and Gemini, favoring the former. She concludes that “the famous Elvish list of constellations become[s] a literary painting of the sky for the astronomically astute reader.”
In “Monsterized Saracens,” Margaret Sinex keeps quotation marks around “Saracens” throughout, based on the idea “that Tolkien mirrors the Western Europeans’ methods of constructing their imaginary Saracen.” Stained glass windows, color symbology, dualism, and scholarly and historical citations strengthen Sinex’s study. She deserves extra points for citing Sam’s reflection on the dead Swerting warrior he sees in Ithilien, so evocative of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed”: “He imagines what he shares with his enemy, not what divides them.”
Leading off the volume, Vladimir Brjlak’s “The Books of Lost Tales: Tolkien as Metafictionist” notes H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allen Poe as earlier such writers. Tolkien trumps them all: “Where Poe had a simple manuscript found in a bottle, Tolkien has whole libraries of books-within-a-book, in a variety of meticulously invented languages and alphabets; where Stevenson had an ‘authentic’ treasure map, Tolkien has several detailed, painstakingly crafted, realistically scaled maps of an entire continent.” His three “tattered fragments of his book of Mazarbul, carefully burning, damaging and soiling the paper in accordance with the the text’s description of the Book” outdo Verne’s facsimile of a fragment from Heimskringla and Haggard’s fourth-century Greek pottery shard. “What we are reading, then, is perhaps best described by the words of the pseudo-editor of Farmer Giles of Ham — ‘a legend, perhaps, rather than an account, for it is evidently a late account, full of marvels.’” Concluding, Brjalk writes of The Lord of the Rings that each page is “a translation of a redaction of a distant record of an immemorial past.”
Tolkien’s influence on computer gaming is analyzed in Peter Kristof Makai’s “Faerian Cyberdrama: When Fantasy becomes Virtual Reality.” Makai asserts that “the connexion between “On Fairy-stories” and computer games is especially thrilling since it has been noted that works like The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings [quoting Matt Barton] ‘paved the world for a new kind of game, one that would allow fans to go beyond reading and actually enter worlds of fantasy to play a role in their own adventures.’” While video gaming is not this reviewer’s cup of miruvor, Makai contributes a solid study of written and ludic narrative. “[A]t their deepest, both forms play on our capacity to simulate other people’s feelings and behaviour.”
Michael Milburn’s entry on Tolkien’s definitions of Faery and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s defining of imagination has Anderson and Flieger’s study of “On Fairy-stories” as its foundation. “Tolkien’s definition of Faery ‘recovers’ Coleridge’s definition of imagination, much the way Faery itself is supposed to provide recovery from everything else, to free it all ‘from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.’”
Thomas Fornet-Ponse’s “‘Strange and Free’ — on Some Aspects of the Nature of Elves and Men” discourses on Tolkien’s theology of death. “Men have an eschatological ‘future’ — fairies / elves not. […] Tolkien did regard death (as the end of biological life, not as painful experience) not only as part human life but even necessary for the eschatological perfection of Men.”
Finally, linguists will linger over Yoko Hemmi’s essay on Tolkien’s idea of “native language,” which expands on works by Dimitra Fimi, Carl Hostetter, and others in an impeccably organized disquisition.
Like the Longfather tree of Samwise Gamgee, Tolkien Studies has grown steadily from 191 pages in the first volume to 363 pages in the sixth. At 401 pages, Volume VII more than doubles Volume I in size. Moreover, the contributors here draw on essays from the six preceding, and for that, all praise to the editors and editorial board for their scholarly sapience. Beautifully bound and admirably annotated, Tolkien Studies VII raises the bar for this series. This reader is surely not alone in looking forward to summer and the eighth volume of the best anthology of Tolkien criticism and commentary.