Friday, January 28, 2011

The Bones of the Ox

Thirdly and finally, he said, I wish to make an ANNOUNCE-MENT. He spoke this last word so loudly and suddenly that everyone sat up who still could.”

No, unlike Bilbo, I am not going away; you will all be stuck with me for quite a long while yet. But I do have an announcement, and a pretty big one. A few of you will know this already, but for the most part, I have kept it pretty quiet. But here it is: I am delighted to be able to announce my first book! Some of the details could still change a little, but I have checked with my publisher, and they have given me the green light to go public. Alors, allons maint’nant!

“The Bones of the Ox”: J.R.R. Tolkien and Source Criticism is being published by McFarland. If you know your Tolkien, you’ll recognize the quotation from “On Fairy-stories” (itself a quotation of Sir George Dasent). This phrase spotlights the central issue of the book: source criticism, as applied to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a multicontributor collection which I have been assembling, then editing, for more than two years now. Its purpose is basically two-fold: (1) to explain and justify source criticism as a valid critical approach to Tolkien’s works, and then to lay out a systematic methodology for how it ought to be conducted; and (2) to demonstrate it through a series of new source studies, ranging across Tolkien’s works and through the many periods and literary sources from which he borrowed — and transformed — so many ideas, images, characters, episodes, phrases. To put it another way: (1) theory, and (2) practice. In the end, I hope also to answer the inevitable, “so what?” That is, what is the point? What good does source criticism do us as readers? What can we learn, and why should we care? I happen to believe there are very good answers to these questions.

Why has it taken so long for these seeds to bear fruit? Admittedly, a lot of the time was spent in plan(t)ing the book: ruminating on what I wanted to accomplish with it, what it should do that other books about Tolkien have not done before, and so on. Then too, I spent a good while considering which scholars I wanted to invite into the project, after which I sent out personal invitations to that effect. Nearly all the scholars I wanted — those whom I most admire and whose research fits best the goals of my book — were able and eager to accept. A few others were eager but unable; there is only time enough for just so many projects. But as things turned out, I had such an embarrassment of riches that I could not have accepted more in any case. For that reason, I never needed to run a general call for papers — and this explains how the project remained so secret.

We then met — online mostly; in a few cases in person or by telephone — “to discuss our plans, our ways, means, policy and devices”, the kinds of essays I was looking for, what I hoped the book could bring to Tolkien studies, and so on, and then the writing began. As drafts came in, we moved into a collaborative stage — posing and answering questions, tracking down ref-erences, reading drafts, suggesting revisions, reading and commenting on those, and so forth. And then came more editing, copyediting, structural arrangement, and layout — which was a much bigger job than I had bargained on. If I make it sound exhausting, it was! But exhilarating too. I have a completely new appreciation now for the work that goes into a multicontributor collection — such as many a one I have so cavalierly marked up with the reviewer’s pen. Well, turnabout is fair play, and I expect no less thorough a treatment from my reviewers as I would give this collection myself (as indeed I have already given it myself). I think it can stand up to the best and the worst of them.

So here we are. I walked to the post office and mailed off the final manuscript to Jefferson, North Carolina this very morning. As you can see from the photo above, it’s a pretty big one. I never quite appreciated just how big until I printed the whole thing out, all 325 pages of it. To give it another metric, it’s a bit more than 100,000 words — longer than The Hobbit. It consists of eleven chapters, of which three deal with the theory, and eight the practice, of source criticism. Treat this table of contents as preliminary — though I do not expect it to change in any substantial way. I hope after reading this you will be as excited about the book as I am. In addition to a preface, index, and various other front and back matter, the contents are:
  • Introduction: Why Source Criticism? / Tom Shippey
  • Source Criticism: Background and Applications / E.L. Risden
  • Tolkien and Source Criticism: Remarking and Remaking / Jason Fisher
  • The Stones and the Book: Tolkien, Mesopotamia, and Biblical Mythopoeia / Nicholas Birns
  • Sea Birds and Morning Stars: Ceyx, Alcyone, and the Many Metamorphoses of Eärendil and Elwing / Kristine Larsen
  • “Byzantium, New Rome!”: Goths, Langobards, and Byzantium in The Lord of the Rings / Miryam Librán-Moreno
  • The Rohirrim: “Anglo-Saxons on Horseback”? An Inquiry into Tolkien’s Use of Sources / Thomas Honegger
  • William Caxton’s The Golden Legend as a Source for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings / Judy Ann Ford
  • She and Tolkien, Revisited / John D. Rateliff
  • Reading John Buchan in Search of J.R.R. Tolkien / Mark T. Hooker
  • Biography as Source: Niggles and Notions / Diana Pavlac Glyer and Josh B. Long
One other exciting piece of news: thanks to the kind permission of the Tolkien Estate, I’m pleased to bring readers some new primary material: quotations from a handful of previously unpublished letters as well as from Tolkien’s unpublished lecture notes on the “Legends of the Goths” (these are not in the same chapters). If your appetites weren’t already whetted enough, that certainly ought to do it.

I don’t have a release date yet, but when I know it, you’ll know it. Stay tuned for more news as it develops.


  1. Wow! Congratulations to you and to all who worked with you.

  2. That is a really fabulous achievement! I know you are proud of yourself, justly so, but remember that all of your far-flung friends and fans are equally proud of you.

    Let that stand until I read it, of course!

  3. Jason. Wow! Please let me know when this is ready to order I will be first in line to read. Sounds like it will be an incredibly important work of
    Tolkien scholarship!!! And the unpublished notes on The Legends of the Goths is really exciting!!! I have been living in Isidore of Seville land for the last couple of weeks and expect some postings on the Etymologies on my blog soon!!


    Best Andy

  4. How splendid! I certainly look forward to get my hands on this. Congratulations!

  5. Ah, great, more unpublished material!

  6. Wow, this looks fabulous, Jase! I'm looking forward to reading it!

  7. An order-on-sight item.

    I've enjoyed reporting instances of possible influence of Haggard, Buchan, M. R. James, and Wells on Tolkien for Drout's Tolkien Encyclopedia, Beyond Bree, and Mallorn, but I don't know if those of us who pursue such topics mention that, much of the time, the things we read are good reads in themselves. Here I will invoke the oft-cited anecdote about Lewis saying to Tolkien "There's not enough of what we like to read; we must write some ourselves" (inexact quotation). But Lewis was saying that to a friend who, like him, had already read a lot of Haggard and others. No, in my reading of those authors I haven't discovered anything that is as indispensable to me as The Lord of the Rings and the Ransom trilogy. But I have discovered dozens of good books and stories -- many of them worth rereading; good stuff in its own right. I would much rather tackle a Buchan I've not yet read, or to reread one of Haggard's best, than to begin some 25-volume fantasy cycle cranked out for Tor Books.

  8. That's wonderful, Jason! Congratulations!! *hugs from a fellow scribe*

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie :)

  9. WOW!!!! So excited! I will certainly want to read it when it releases!! Congratulations!!

  10. Congrats, Jase! As another who is currently working on an edited collection (31 authors + myself), I am in great agreement with your remarks on the difficulties of putting together such a volume. It sounds like a very useful and important addition to Tolkien Studies scholarship. Thank you for such an effort. I will await anxiously its publication!

  11. Congratulations, and thanks! I'm looking forward to this book, after hoping for years something like this to come into existence.

  12. Thanks, everyone! I appreciate the encouragement and enthusiasm, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts once you’ve actually read the book.

    Dale: Yes, I agree! The putative sources are, themselves, usually well worth reading on their own. As to your comment about “enjoy[ing] reporting instances of possible influence of Haggard, Buchan […]”, you’ll find your work is cited more than once in my book. :)

    Leslie: You have 31 contributors?! Yikes! I’m looking forward to your book as well. How far along in the process are you?

  13. Wot fun, Jase! I'll probably check your index for my name, and even while I do I will feel shame as I inevitably recall the anecdote William F. Buckley apparently told, about writing "Hi, Norman!" next to Mailer's name in the index of one of Buckley's books. Which will be the first and last time I have ever thought of myself in connection with Norman Mailer. ...Mailer by way of Tolkien criticism.... too weird...

    But yeah -- Lewis and Tolkien had good taste in reading. I couldn't list all the books that I've read over the years thanks, at least in part, to the comments of one or other of these gents, or even just a good chance that they'd read the books too. Over 15 years ago I taught a course on Late Victorian and Edwardian Fantasy. The dates were 1887-1912. An astonishing number of classics in science fiction, the mysterious, high fantasy, and eerie fantasy date to that period, and many of them were certainly or likely read by JRRT and/or CSL. Some of these things are ones you can read again and again with enjoyment. Examples: Morris's Well at the World's End, MacDonald's Lilith, Haggard's She, Doyle's The Lost World, Blackwood's "The Wendigo," M. R. James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, W. W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," some of Dunsany's best, the faerie poems of Yeats, most or all of the best Sherlock Holmes stories, Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night," etc. -- to mention just some that readily come to mind. These authors didn't labor under the crude sensationalism of some earlier Victorian pop fiction, nor excessively sentimentalized moralizing, and, on the other hand, had not yet undergone the Great War and modernism. Apparently many of these authors could feel that it was okay to write stories that "boys of any age" could like without having to be too didactic.

  14. I didn't make clear there -- Buckley had given a copy of the book to Mailer.

  15. This is wonderful news!

    I am myself a bit wary of source criticism (both in general and with respect to Tolkien), so a work that sets out to justify it, and to 'lay out a systematic methodology for how it ought to be conducted' will be a good opportunity to get a vocabulary to express what I think is good and useful about source criticism and to express my own critique of source criticism. And judging by the provisional table of contents, it will be good opportunity also for seeing some examples of the best of source criticism.


  16. Thank you very kindly, Troels. Readers such as yourself, who are somewhat skeptical of the approach, are a big part of the intended audience for the book. I will welcome any thoughts you may have when you’ve read it.

  17. Troels, others can delve into Theory more if they wish. For my part, I make a simple distinction between "source" and "influence." Furthermore, I acknowledge varying degrees of certainty as regards sources.

    Sources: In his preface to The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis acknowledged that a science fiction story whose author he couldn't remember was the source of the bullet-raindrops in Lewis's own story. Here's an example of a confirmed source. Tolkien acknowledged that a Swiss (?) picture of a wise old man was a "source" for his conception of Gandalf. That's another example. People who have read widely in the literature that an author certainly or likely read may come up with proposals for other "sources." This seems to me a legitimate and certainly an inevitable form of literary inquiry. I think that the tentacled monsters in H. G. Wells's "Sea-Raiders" may well be the "source" for the creature outside the Moria-Gate in The Fellowship of the Ring. The latter creature is really rather strikingly science-fictional for a story so steeped in medieval literatures, etc. What's that creature doing there? I would not be surprised if it wandered over from Wells's story. But of course I don't know if it did. I think the possibility is worth raising because, for one thing, it draws attention to an incident that (especially before Jackson's movie) was not much commented-on. The bit has an improvised feel to it. The palantirs are more important to LOTR. I think anyone reading Wells's "The Crystal Egg" may wonder if they owe something to the Wells story. We know that Tolkien read Wells. So what? Well, I think the matter is of interest, for one thing, because it helps us situate LOTR not just in connection with Icelandic sagas and so on, something everyone knows about, but also in connection with the classic British tradition of science fiction and fantasy.

    Influence: Jared Lobdell was good on this back in England and Always. He's one of the readers who help us see what kinds of narrative expectations and so on Tolkien evidently meant to arouse. Again we see that Tolkien was working within a modern tradition that is quiet distinct from his professional study -- which also obviously enriched his imagination enormously.

    And, again, if you like LOTR you may well find that you like Wells, Haggard, MacDonald, Buchan, Morris, et al. as well.

  18. I don't think it really matters whether something is a source, an influence, or a mere analogue. Lewis may have said that such-and-such was his source for so-and-so, but does he really know? He has, after all, no privileged access to the Pot in his own head in which the bones were boiled. Lots of people, for example, have used the line "As for living, our servants will do that for us" from Axël by Villiers de L'Isle Adam, but that doesn't mean they are familiar with the play or that it is a significant source or influence for their work. It's just the origin of a catchphrase they have fished out of the general Pot.

    What really matters is whether the comparison tells us something about the work we are investigating, or perhaps even both works at the same time. "Give me the fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself." —Vilfredo Pareto

  19. A very good point, John. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it doesn’t matter whether something is a source, but I would say it is not all that matters. I fully agree with you that the comparison should offer insights into at least one, and ideally, both of the works in question. But that, so far as it goes, can be accomplished by comparative studies alone; a good source study can illuminate the two works in themselves and in relation to each other as well as illuminate the process by which the later work was constructed, the motives of the author, and perhaps more besides (depending on the particulars of the case).

  20. Let's recognize a distinction. Someone can read deeply in authors whom Tolkien (or some other author) is known to have read. This reader might point out numerous instances of what appear to be noteworthy similarities. I think that even doing only that much is worthwhile. Other readers may examine the first one's findings and debate what, if anything, they mean. I don't think the first reader is obligated to provide his/her own elaborate theory of what the similarities mean, though of course the reader may choose to do that.

    I'll offer my own reading of Haggard as an example. In my entry on 19th- and 20th-century literary influences on Tolkien, and in a number of updates to that entry that have appeared in Beyond Bree, I pointed out quite a number of similarities. It was many months before I felt prepared to offer a theory as to what these similarities may well amount to (namely, that when Tolkien was pressed by his publisher to write a "new Hobbit," that wasn't what he really wanted to write, his center of interest having been the legendarium; but he agreed to try; and consciously or, more likely, unconsciously, he drew on Haggardian "compost" to help him move the story forward, notably in connection with Trotter-Strider and with the climactic scene on Mt. Doom). I am not sure that this theory is correct or even that it ever could be proven one way or the other; it may be that, if it is discussed, the effect will be gradually to increase or to decrease the felt probability of its validity. But this is distinct from the "findings" that I offered. What they amount to may always be debatable, but so striking and numerous they are that I would hope they would get people thinking. At the least they must mean this, that the kind of thing LOTR is, is, in part, the kind of thing that Rider Haggard was writing a couple or so generations earlier.

    But of course LOTR is much more than that, too.

  21. By "my entry" I meant my longer article in Michael Drout's J R R Tolkien Encyclopedia.

  22. “I don’t think the first reader is obligated to provide his/her own elaborate theory of what the similarities mean […]”

    Sure, the person noting the similarities is not obliged to offer any theory explaining them, but if he does not, then he should not be surprised if the reaction is a shrug and a “so what?” Offering a theory, or at least some general thoughts, helps to circumvent the “who cares?” response. But of course, if you yourself don’t care about the meaning or purpose behind the similarities, then you won’t mind if the response to your work is the same, eh? :)

  23. Jason, have you seen this yet:

    Is August 16 accurate?

  24. No! Thanks for sharing this, Josh. The book is not yet on the McFarland website, so I had not expected to find it on Amazon yet either. I’ve looked a couple of times, but not in the last few days, maybe weeks. Do you happen to know roughly when it appeared there?

    I have no idea whether August 16 is accurate, but I hope it is! That would be a little earlier than I expected! Actually, this gives me a good excuse to write to McFarland and inquire. I haven’t even gotten the galley proofs yet, so there is still a good deal of work ahead. But I have been hearing from fiends who have seen the flyer at the PCA and Kalamazoo conferences.

  25. I'm guessing it was in the last week. I am constantly looking around for new Tolkien books for my own library and just happen to stumble upon this. FYI Barnes and Noble and The Book Depository also have the book available for pre-orders. B&N lists the same August 16th date.

    It would also be beneficial to probably get a description added to those sellers' pages.

  26. I agree that a description would be beneficial. I’ve sent an inquiry to publisher to check on the reliability of this date too, and I’ll let everybody know as soon as I have more information. Thanks again for the eagle-eyes. :)