Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is this a review? You tell me.

I learned a few days ago that Amon Hen, the monthly publication of the Tolkien Society in Great Britain, had just published a review of my book in its most recent issue. I am afraid I let my subscription lapse some years ago, so I had to beg a copy of friends. The editor very kindly obliged. I had been warned already that it was not particularly flattering, but I have no objections whatsoever to a critical review — if it is an informed, carefully considered, and constructive one. Sadly, this review is not that. I hesitate to call it a review at all.

I am really at a bit of a loss after reading it. It comes across as less a review, per se, than the personal credo of a true believer. How dare I look behind the curtain, and that sort of thing. For those of you who know it, I was reminded a bit of the preface to the first edition of J.E.A. Tyler’s The Tolkien Companion (1976). This preface, with its true-believer silliness, was wisely dropped from the more recent reprint edition of that book. But it appears there are still fans of this stripe going strong, dutifully defending the Professor from every perceived attack of scholarly investigation. The nerve I have!

It’s a great pity, in my view, that a serious scholarly book, which ought to call for a serious scholarly review, should be subjected to such careless and pointless ramblings. And of the shameful abuse of a Tom Shippey quotation, the less said the better! My consolation, of course, is that no serious reader will take seriously a “review” of this sort. But I have already said too much, when I had intended to remain above the fray. Let me say no more now, but allow the review to speak for itself. I welcome your comments and reactions (though let's keep it civil).
TOLKIEN and the Study of His Sources CRITICAL ESSAYS
(McFarland, 2011 ISBN 978-0-7864-6482-1; PB 240pp)
reviewed by Adrian Tucker

Source Criticism – something to strike fear and loathing into the hearts of those of us who like to believe that The Lord of the Rings is a true account of an alternative world history. We can console ourselves with the knowledge that Tolkien felt the same way.

Clearly someone with his classical education would have been aware of the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire, and would have used it to give a sense of familiarity to his history of Númenor; but to quote Tom Shippey in his Introduction “no-one needs to know… to appreciate The Lord of the Rings.” Still, there are those who must enquire into everything, and the name for such people is Source Critic.

Anyone can set themselves up as a Source Critic: there is no academic qualification to be attained, only access to a Search Engine such as Google. Just type in a word like “Uruk” and see what pops up. It won’t be long before there’s an App for it!

There are various areas to be explored, such as Biblical, Nordic, Classical, Byzantine, Anglo-Saxon, and Medieval; but the most interesting for me is contemporary fiction.

My School Library, like Tolkien’s, was stacked with Henty, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and Buchan. Like him, I was brought up on adventure, and treasure hunts in the Wild Places, unlike modern children, who have to make do with gritty tales of urban realism.

I was surprised to learn that J.R.R. was a fan of She, a tale which enchanted my early years, but it never occurred to me to regard it as a source for Galadriel! Indeed, Ayesha seems to me a much more powerful figure than the Lady of Lórien, who plays a fairly peripheral part in the Destruction of the One Ring. Almost any tale of mines and caves can contain allusions to Moria or Cirith Ungol, but we have to show that Tolkien actually read them and he has admitted to having read Haggard in his schooldays. Unlike him, I missed out on John Buchan’s historical novels, which are hard to find nowadays except perhaps in a Charity Shop.

Anyway, this is all quite fascinating, so long as it does not spoil one’s appreciation of the Book which never disappoints, no matter how many times it is re-read. Let those who wish, seek for Sources even in the pages of The Beano!!


  1. That review was deemed fit for publication? Three paragraphs denigrating source criticism, a puzzling reference to the reviewer's "school library" (how is this remotely relevant?), an abrupt shift in tone from his previous anti-source criticism statements ("this is all quite fascinating") and we're done! No visible critique, no independent evaluation of any of the essays... Wow. Grade school book report quality.

    1. I agree, it's hard to tell exactly what his complaint is given the poorly constructed argument and the quality of the writing. If you don't like Source Criticism, fine, but at least tell us why, for Pete's sake!

  2. I think that this is an example of the point of view of someone who is interested in only the fantasy, not in where the fantasy had its beginnings. It is painfully obvious that the reviewer really doesn't care about Tolkien's sources and that reading your book was annoying to him, simply because it was "ruining the magic" of the story. In which case, he never should have read your book at all, much less attempted to review it.

    It's a bit of a shame that Amon Hen would even publish it, I wouldn't be too disappointed about having cancelled my subscription if I were you...

  3. MYTHLORE published a more detailed review of this excellent collection last year.

    Did this reviewer even read the book once, much less study it and allude to authors and their words and their arguments?

    I think not.

  4. Not only is it not a proper review, it seems to be written by a person uninformed about how scholarship is done in general, let alone how it was done here. For one claiming to honor Tolkien, who was himself a person who approached literature simultaneously as art and as a subject for scholarship, the dismissiveness of critical treatment as a legitimate pursuit seems odd to me. Apparently there are some whose mental furniture does not allow them to accommodate both ways of appreciating Tolkien: through secondary belief and through criticism.
    —Deborah Sabo

  5. It's such a shame that someone can take your hard work and simply dismiss it, without first having the courtesy to actually read it and approach it as a piece of serious academic writing. Don't take it personally. This isn't a review, it's an excrescence.

    Sara Brown

  6. Sounds like you had good reason to let your subscription lapse, if this is a fair sample.

  7. I second the other comments here, Jason, and particularly the first. I can't even believe that this was published as a review! 'Anyone can set themselves up as a Source Critic'? Good grief.

  8. I've heard that not very many people are submitting stuff to Amon Hen. Let's take this as a sign that we need to make lemonade and add Amon Hen to the places where we send good stuff to be published.

  9. When I read a review, I hope that it will help me decide whether to buy the book immediately, put it on my wish-list (an ever growing list that sometimes feels as if it just short of the third option), or if I should just forget about it.

    Speaking of a critical work such as this, I would expect this help for my decision-making to be achieved by summarizing the contents and by the reviewer pointing out both strong and weak points. Ideally the review will also give sufficient details of the contents to allow me to see if there is some work there that pertains to some special area of interest (something that could be expected to be known to someone writing or speaking in the field) — after all, I might borrow the book from the library or even approach the author of a specific contribution to see if I might get a copy of her work.

    It is, I think, perfectly OK for the reviewer to voice their own opinion not only of the work, but also of the subject, but I would certainly expect this to be only a small part of the total review.

    This review unfortunately wouldn't help me, and only by knowing the book, can I guess what is hinted at with the list of "Biblical, Nordic, [...], and Medieval" — except for Nordic, that is, which doesn't really appear in the book, making the list rather unhelpful.

    In defence of Amon Hen I will add that the review of Michael Adams' From Elvish to Klingon by Susan Frances Edwards that precedes this is excellent (in the bulletin her review is some 90 lines, whereas Tucker's is a mere 25 lines).

    The best I can say of this is to refer to your (Jason's) statements in the interview at the Tolkien Library site that "To readers who reject source criticism as a valid approach, I confess I hope to win them over." In the case of Mr. Tucker you seem to have been unsuccessful, but his review may, then, stand as a test for at least one reader of that sort . . .

  10. Jason, I can appreciate your sense of frustration at this "review." It's a shame that Amon Hen deemed it fit to print. I hope it doesn't have the effect of dissuading anyone from purchasing your book who otherwise might have done so.

    Ed Pierce

  11. Jason I quite agree. I usually very much enjoy the reviews in Amon Hen and agree with Troels on the Elvish to Klingon. I was quite taken back by the "short shrft" review your excellent and might I had key book for Tolkien Source study received, Seemed very rushed to me and not at the usually quality of Amon Hen review - I might add that I have read your book twice and it is incredibly helpful in the Postgraduate research work I am doing on Tolkien and The Book of Lost Tales. Happy to reprint my review on Amazon anywhere. Perhaps at Return of the Ring in August we can explore further?

    Thanks Andy

  12. Amon Hen is usually pretty open for 'response pieces' to stuff published in previous issues. If a balanced response or two were submitted for the next issue, that would probably serve to balance out any negative effects this review has had, and I'd guess would also please the editors.

  13. The thing is, this kid (assuming the 'review' was written by a kid, although that assumption might be erroneous), could have made essentially the same point by quoting Tolkien's "bones of the ox" statement, without looking like an embarrassing fanboy. The review still wouldn't have been very helpful to anyone looking for information on the actual content of the book, but at least it wouldn't have been quite so off-putting.

  14. Ignore it. This person has no understanding of scholarly research. I can't believe this "review" was even published!

  15. Jason, sorry that you're peeved by this - utterly understandable given that
    this is a review that says more about the reviewer than the collected
    essays. I agree with Troels that reviews should be about helping people choose a book to buy, borrow, or ignore.

    I think though that it should be understood by your readers that as
    a membership organisation the TS has members of all sorts of abilities and
    educational backgrounds and the Amon Hen editor has to work with what he's
    given as copy especially I gather in this case where time was too tight to send it back or ask someone else to review it - I believe Andrew's looking at getting someone else to review it. Personally I think the review copy was wasted on that member but I don't think the editor is in a position to demand CVs from potential reviewers. I do think that the next issue's letters will be interesting on account of this.
    Ian Collier

  16. Sounds like somebody bright on your reader list ought to volunteer a response for the next issue, definitely!

  17. I think the comments on this thread are more interesting than the actual review.

  18. The real question is why anyone so blatantly opposed to a Tolkienian "source study" would choose to review a "Source Study". There had to be more fitting alternatives. The odd fact is that the review itself makes almost NO REFERENCE WHATSOEVER to the contents of the book.

  19. Where is the review in this "review"?

  20. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and feedback, and especially for your support. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to reply to each comment individually this time around. There have just been too many, both here, on Facebook, and in private emails — a good problem to have, but it has kept me busy!

  21. I must confess when I received Amon Hen I noted your book in the contents list and quickly turned to the relevant page. The subject matter, contributing authors and beautiful cover has ensured this title has been on my 'must read' list since publication. I was somewhat confused by the nature of the 'review', in fact I read it over several times in case I was missing some clever aspect. However, I know Andrew has a very challenging task assembling AH and there has been a paucity of material, of late. Nevertheless, I look forward to a proper, more deserving, review in AH.

    Michael Cunningham

  22. Well, my review went off to Mallorn at the end of December, Jason. I think it's an excellent book, personally. But this reminds of the very first review of Tolkien and Shakespeare that appeared on Amazon (it disappeared pretty quickly after more reviews started showing up) saying that since Tolkien hated Shakespeare, it was pointless to write or read this book. The reviewer was obviously just reviewing the cover and hadn't read a word of it!

    Janet Croft

  23. That is one of the most self-serving reviews I have ever seen.

    It unfortunately sends me back to when critics originally reviewed Jethro Tull's 1972 album, 'Thick As A Brick'. While not being able to describe what was so "horrible" about the album, they bashed it and Ian Anderson while propping themselves up to be as high (no pun intended), or even higher (pun definitely intended), than Beethoven.

    Maybe the readers of Amon Hen should be asking for Adrian Tucker's credentials as a critical reviewer . . .

    Keep writing, Jason, and definitely don't let that review dishearten you in the least


  24. Thanks so much, g-stormcrow. I appreciate your kind comments. I have no plans to let this dishearten me in the least. It was more baffling than discouraging, and it makes the “reviewer” look far worse than it does me, I think. Particularly when it seems more and more evident that Mr. Tucker is going to find himself in a minority of one, as contrasted with the balance of the reviews.

  25. See my recent update in 'New reviews of former publications (? I think)

    Both Amon Hen and Mallorn have reviews just out.

  26. Have now read the Amon Hen review, which is 50 times better than the previous one, and also Janet Brennan Croft's in Mallorn, which is excellent and does everything you would wish it to.