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The Evolution of Tolkien’s Mythology

The Evolution of Tolkien’s Mythology: A Study of The History of Middle-earth. Elizabeth Whittingham. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, 2007. xii + 230 pp., $35.00 (softcover). ISBN 9780786432813.

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Reviewed by Douglas C. Kane

[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:3 (#332) in March 2010.]

Elizabeth Whittingham’s The Evolution of Tolkien’s Mythology is one of the first pieces of Tolkien scholarship that examines the History of Middle-earth series (“HoMe”) in detail. Among the only previous scholarly works that focused on the series were the excellent Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter, and Flieger’s books A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faërie and Interrupted Music: The Making Of Tolkien’s Mythology (as well as the updated and expanded edition of her classic book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World ). But Tolkien’s Legendarium consists of a series of independent essays that each focus on different aspects HoMe, while Flieger’s books looks as particular parts of the series, with A Question of Time mainly examining (in terms of content from HoMe) the The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers, the two time-travel novels that Tolkien began and abandoned and which were published for the first time in HoMe, and the other two mostly focused (again in terms of content from HoMe) on the material showing Tolkien’s later work on the legends of the first age and earlier. Whittingham’s book is perhaps the first attempt to systematically examine the full series in order to show how Tolkien’s overall legendarium (or mythology, if one prefers) evolved over the course of almost 60 years. Moreover, she attempts to place this evolution in context by showing how the different stages of Tolkien’s work compare with – and were influenced by – older mythological traditions.

As is often the case, the biggest strength and biggest weakness of Whittingham’s book have the same root: her highly systematic approach. After an initial largely superfluous chapter examining influences in Tolkien’s life, Whittingham traces the development of different aspects of Tolkien’s mythology, and compares them with different mythological traditions, including Greek and Roman classical mythology, Norse mythology (particularly the Eddas), Finnish traditions as represented in the Kalevala, and also with Biblical texts and history. Each chapter covers a different aspect: Tolkien’s creation mythology; his mythology of divine beings; the physical world of Middle-earth and Eä; death and immortality among Elves and Men; the last days of Middle-earth; and the Final Victory. For each, she follows the same pattern: first she lays out the comparable mythological and biblical traditions, then she describes the history of that aspect of Tolkien’s work and how it developed over time, followed by a detailing of how it compares to and was influenced by the mythological and biblical traditions over the course of that history, and finally a brief summary of the chapter. This systematic approach makes the work clear and very easy to follow. However, it can also be quite limiting at times. The Evolution of Tolkien’s Mythology fails to achieve the kind of penetrating insights that one finds in Flieger’s works (which are frequently cited by Whittingham, particularly Interrupted Music, which covers some of the same territory). But then very few if any works do reach those heights.

That is not to say that Whittingham does not make interesting and valuable observations; she does. One particularly thought-provoking pattern that she demonstrates is how Tolkien’s female divine beings start out being presented as virtually equal in power and authority to their male counterparts in the early phases of the creation of the legendarium, then are significantly marginalized in the middle phases, and finally returned to positions of power and majesty in the last phases. Also intriguing is the observation that while the return of the female divine beings to positions of power and majesty renders them more similar to pagan goddesses, the overall trend over the course of the history of the creation of Tolkien’s mythology is for his divine beings to become less similar to the pagan gods and goddesses, and more similar to the angels of Christianity. These observations show the value of Whittingham’s approach; a less comprehensive and systematic study would have inevitably suggested a misleading picture.

The Evolution of Tolkien’s Mythology reaches its peak in the final two chapters. The rest of the book often feels like a series of largely separate essays, each following roughly the same pattern. However, these two chapters, “The Last Days of Middle-earth” and “The Final Victory,” are closely related, and build significantly on what has come before them. One of the most fascinating details that Whittingham shows is how Tolkien responded to reader reactions to The Lord of the Rings in subsequently revising the works that would eventually become The Silmarillion. This really gives the sense of Tolkien’s full legendarium as a single evolving entity. Here we see the clearest demonstration of how Tolkien’s legendarium moved further away from resembling the pagan mythologies that he began by emulating, and became more and more closely aligned with his own Christian theology. Whittingham notes that in the end “Tolkien finds personal hope in the assurances of Christianity, and in the world that he created, he provides a source for hope in its eschatology, the tales that in times of loss and defeat promise a ‘final victory’ to come” (171) and shows how that final victory was to provide the ultimate “eucatastrophe” for his whole legendarium. Sadly, that development is almost entirely missing in the published Silmarillion, rendering works like Whittingham’s all the more important.

In summary, The Evolution of Tolkien’s Mythology is a somewhat limited, but still highly valuable work. Even if it does not quite reach the level of insight achieved by the best Tolkien scholarship such as the books of Shippey and Flieger, it does cover significant new ground in comprehensively examining The History of Middle-earth series. One hopes that more such studies will be forthcoming in the future.

The Evolution of Tolkien’s Mythology: A Study of The History of Middle-earth. Elizabeth Whittingham. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, 2007. xii + 230 pp., $35.00 (softcover). ISBN 9780786432813.

Buy Online