J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances

Clark, George and Daniel Timmons, eds. J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-313-30845-4, hc, $58.00.

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(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 38:12 (#237) in December 2001.)

Reviewed by David Bratman

Not too long ago, Greenwood Press issued two important new collections of essays on Tolkien. Tolkien’s Legendarium, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter, discussed “The History of Middle-earth” series and our new understanding of Tolkien’s other works obtained through it. The present collection focuses on The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. Some of these essays began life as Mythcon papers, and most of them are comparative studies of Tolkien and other authors, particularly those from whom he may have derived ideas. Perhaps the best of this group is Jonathan Evans’s discussion of Tolkien’s use of Old English and Old Norse dragon lore in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Charles W. Nelson’s attempt to find one race in LOTR to embody each of the Seven Deadly Sins is very intriguing, if a little strained. In other essays, George Clark compares Bilbo’s, Frodo’s, and Sam’s heroism to Beowulf’s and Beorhtnoth’s; William Rogers and Michael Underwood compare Gollum to a similarly degraded character in H. Rider Haggard; Roger Schlobin finds numerous thematic similarities between LOTR and Sir Gawain; Debbie Sly compares Valinor to Milton’s cosmos; Tanya Wood compares Tolkien’s theory of literature with Sir Philip Sidney’s; and C.W. Sullivan points out, but does not take very far, LOTR‘s use of forms and techniques of saga and fairy-tale in the form of the novel.

Turning to more recent comparisons, David Sandner discusses C.S. Lewis’s creation of Narnia, and how it resembles both theory and practice of Tolkien’s sub-creation. In a most interesting essay, Faye Ringel applies Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence to four recent women writers of fantasy (including MFA winners Patricia McKillip and Delia Sherman), showing how both a love for Tolkien and a desire to find their way out of his path influenced the creation of fantasies very different from his.

What all these essays have in common is their demonstration of the rich applicability of Tolkien’s work. Schlobin, for instance, takes care not to claim that Tolkien derived his themes from Gawain (though he thinks it likely), but the similarities show the care Tolkien put into crafting his work, and the rich reward in store for a thoughtful reader.

A few essays are less comparative. W.A. Senior uses Tolkien’s evocation of great loss and sorrow to defend him from charges of light escapism. Geoffrey Russom gives a close analysis of metrical structure in Tolkien’s verse. He does not address the vexed question of whether the verse is any good, but like the other critics in this collection, he demonstrates that Tolkien took care in his work. This essay may be paired with Joe R. Christopher’s discussion of Tolkien’s poetic diction in Tolkien’s Legendarium, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s similarly close study of the prose of LOTR in the forthcoming Meditations on Middle-earth.

Lastly, the finest two essays in the book are by the two most distinguished scholars. They show that, even after 45 years of commentary, it’s still possible to say something startlingly new about The Lord of the Rings. Tom Shippey begins by showing that evil in Tolkien’s characters is a form of self-delusion, a cognitive dissonance between their ethics and their behavior; and concludes by praising Tolkien for his close integration of public and private morality. Along the way he compares C.S. Lewis’s similar treatment of these themes, and contrasts with contemporaries who ignore the vital issue of public morality. And Verlyn Flieger will bring every reader up short with her observation that Tolkien’s favor towards trees was not unmixed: what Saruman is cursed for doing in Fangorn is exactly what hobbits, in Merry’s historical account, are praised for doing in the Old Forest. The only difference is motive, which can hardly matter to the trees. How his writing led him into this inconsistency, and why, in the end, it compliments Tolkien to point it out, are subjects that take up the remainder of the essay.

These two searingly thoughtful essays would grace any critical collection. But all the contributions are well-put and worthwhile, a bouquet of demonstrations of the depth, subtlety, and resonance of Tolkien’s fiction.

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