Thursday, December 15, 2011

New reviews of past work

Reviews of my book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, are beginning to appear — so far, they’ve been unanimously positive! I’ll be writing some posts about these in the near future, but today I wanted to share excerpts from newly published reviews of two other books to which I contributed. Both reviews appear in the new issue of the journal VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review, Volume 28 (2011).

Jonathan Saylor, a professor of music at Wheaton College, which publishes VII, reviewed Brad Eden’s collection, Middle-earth Minstrel: Essays on Music in Tolkien (McFarland, 2010), to which I contributed the opening chapter, “Horns of Dawn: The Tradition of Alliterative Verse in Rohan”. The overall character of the review is mainly positive, and of my own essay, Saylor has this to say:
In relating the Kingdom of Rohan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, Jason Fisher underscores the singing of alliterative verse structure and the Rohirrim [sic] militaristic use of horns. He also defends Tolkien’s sensitivity towards things musical though not a musician himself, using words and phrases that resound “like harp-strings sharply plucked” (19).
Turning the page, veteran Tolkien scholar Richard C. West reviews Middle-earth and Beyond: Essays on the World of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Kathleen Dubs and Janka Kašcáková. For those who have not heard, Kathleen passed away very recently after an illness — very sad that she didn’t live long enough to see reviews of her last published work. My contribution to this collection is titled, “Sourcing Tolkien’s ‘Circles of the World’: Speculations on the Heimskringla, the Latin Vulgate Bible, and the Hereford Mappa Mundi”, and West had the following remarks on it:
An editor tries to open a collection with a particularly strong essay, as is the case here with Jason Fisher’s tracing the sources of Tolkien’s oft-repeated phrase “the circles of the world” to Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (a thirteenth-century collection of Old Norse sagas that takes its title from its opening words “Kringla heimsins” meaning “the circle of the world”), and the common Latin phrase “orbis terrarum” with the same meaning (with particular reference to the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom in Saint Jerome’s Vulgate Bible where Fisher noticed that the phrase occurs ten times in a short text). That Tolkien revised his original phrase “the girdle of the Earth” to “the circles of the world” just may have been suggested to him by such sources. Fisher is properly cautious that there is no direct evidence of his reading either one, but it is virtually certain that Tolkien read all of the sagas in the original Old Norse — he founded the Coalbiters at Oxford for that purpose, and would not have overlooked Snorri whom the Icelanders consider their greatest saga writer — and highly probably that he read Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, both because it is still the official Roman Catholic Bible and because it was the version known throughout the Middle Ages and therefore relevant to his work. Fisher offers a good deal more linguistic speculation, filled out with information about medieval maps and their possible relation to Tolkien’s shaping of the world of Arda (chiefly the Hereford Mappa Mundi which was created and is still housed in Tolkien’s beloved West Midlands). I was particularly struck by the discussion of the relation between Old Norse kringla (circle) and hringr (ring), which I agree would have delighted Tolkien whether or not he had already thought of it himself.
So there you have it. Both books are recommended by their reviewers, especially Middle-earth and Beyond, and I am gratified my contribution to each elicited comments and some praise. If you haven’t read these two essay collections, let me recommend them again now. Both are a bit expensive, but I think they’re worth owning — both have a lot of interesting things to offer that have not been said before. If they are too dear, then maybe you can look for them at your local library. And if they don’t have copies, suggest they buy them! For those who would like a taste, you can read all of one of my essays and part of the other online (here and here). I’d love to hear your thoughts.