Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In the new volume of Tolkien Studies

Something I look forward to every year in the new issue of Tolkien Studies is David Bratman’s extensive “Year’s Work” essay. For the past couple of years, these have included assessments of my own work. In the newest installment, David discusses The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On (ed. Allan Turner; Walking Tree, 2007). He offered the following thoughts on my contribution to that collection:
“From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, and Jerome” by Jason Fisher (111-38) surveys the thematic and linguistic inspirations from the Kalevala in The Silmarillion, noting also stylistic echoes of the Bible. (Fisher is discussing Jerome’s Vulgate, but one suspects readers who call The Silmarillion Bibli­cal are thinking of an English translation, probably the King James). Fisher hits on his true subject briefly when he notes that unlike the Ka­levala, The Silmarillion is not in verse (122)—though it could have been, had Christopher Tolkien selected different source texts. (Fisher’s error in stating that nothing from The Lays of Beleriand appeared in The Silmarillion is unimportant.) This eventually leads to a comparison between Christo­pher Tolkien and Elias Lönnrot, compiler of the Kalevala. Each smoothed out complex, irregular source material into a coherent text. [1]

I’m not quite sure what David means when he says I ‘hit on my true subject briefly’ in the formal comparison, but David is certainly right to point out the mistake; it was kind of him to call it unimportant. In my essay, I erred in saying that “Christopher elected not to include in The Silmarillion any of the thousands of lines of poetry that would later comprise the Lays of Beleriand” [2]. But I was carelessly forgetting that Christopher did include about thirty lines from the (unfinished) Lay of Leithian. This is less than a drop from that bucket, but it’s a mistake I never should have made — moreover, one that the editor should have caught. My assertion could be made accurate by the addition of a single letter, emending “any” to “many” (though this would produce an awkward-sounding sentence).

And now, speaking of the Kalevala, it’s time to start devouring Tolkien’s “Story of Kullervo” and draft essays on the Kalevala, some very exciting new material published in the latest issue of Tolkien Studies. Isn’t it wonderful, after so many references to these works, to be able to finally read them? It’s wonderful to see Tolkien’s early verses in the Kalevala meter too. You have to read these aloud to get the full effect. I’m hearing Tom Bombadil in my head, with a little of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha mixed in, as in this brief example:

O Terenye maid of Samyan
Little daughter of the forest
Clad in soft and beauteous garments
With thy yellow hair so lovely
And thy shoon of scarlet leather [3]

It will take some time to digest all of the new material, but I certainly hope to see a broad and careful reassessment by scholars who have weighed in on Tolkien’s debt to the Finnish national epic (such as myself). In many cases, we should see our guesses corroborated by these “new” comments and admissions from Tolkien himself; in other cases, we may have conjectures to reconsider.

[1] Bratman, David. “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2007.” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 347–78, p. 359.

[2] “From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, And Jerome.” The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. Ed. Allan Turner. Zollikofen: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007. 111–38, pp. 121–2.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. “‘The Story of Kullervo’ and Essays on Kalevala.” Transcribed and edited by Verlyn Flieger. Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 211–78, p. 225.


  1. Any word on when Project Muse will release it? They still show Vol. 6 as the current issue.

  2. Although they haven’t updated the main page enumerating the issues, Volume 7 is on Project Muse now. They always seem to be a little behind on adding a link to the new issue to the main page. In the meantime, follow this link.