Thursday, February 9, 2012

My book reviewed in Beyond Bree

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the first extended review of my book appeared in Beyond Bree (October 2011, p. 7). The review was written by the editor, Nancy Martsch, and with her very kind permission, I am reprinting the entire review here.

When I wrote to her for permission, she added to her reply that she had noticed one slip: “Mary isn’t always represented with dark hair (Rateliff, p 149). She’s blond in Northern European art. (And in some places, dark-skinned.)” For the full context, John had written that “(the physical depiction of [Mother Mary] in traditional iconography is again entirely unlike that of Galadriel, with Mary’s dark hair and blue robes forming a striking contrast to Galadriel’s golden hair and dressing all in white”. Although I think brunette Marys outnumber blond ones (based on a totally unscientific survey), Nancy is right: there certainly are blond Marys. And not only in northern Europe. They were common in the Italian Renaissance as well. Above is a lovely example, Raphael’s Colonna Madonna (ca. 1508).

Something else, not specifically related to Nancy’s review, but this keeps coming up. In spite of the effort I have made to explain why source criticism can be valid and worthwhile in spite of Tolkien’s personal dislikes, people continue to argue the point. For example, here is Beth Withers commenting on the book at GoodReads: “Since Tolkien didn’t care for source criticism, or people spending hours trying to decide where he got his ideas, it seems strange that this book should come together. The author makes it clear from the beginning that there is indeed value in wondering what influences might have been present when Tolkien wrote his most famous work. […] But, if I am understanding Tolkien correctly, he intended only that we enjoy Middle Earth [sic] and not try to second-guess how it came into being.”

Now don’t mistake me. People are welcome to do this — it’s perfectly fair to question my assertions, pace Tolkien — but here is a good analogy which I hope may help drive home the point.

Tolkien did not like the idea of biographies of him either (“strong disapproval”, “premature impertinences”, “I doubt its relevance to criticism”), but nobody questions the value of biography in Tolkien studies today. There are several indispensable ones, and of course, a few that are not so good, along with one or two that are quite bad (but so it is in all things: good and bad, valuable and useless, mixed together). Would anyone prefer that Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s Chronology or John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War had never been written, simply because Tolkien was uncomfortable with being the subject of biography? The question is purely rhetorical. So if nobody avoids biographical studies (writing them or reading them) on the basis of Tolkien’s dislikes, then why do so with source criticism? One may certainly object to source criticism on other grounds, but one should not object to it merely on the basis of Tolkien’s wishes for how he should or should not be studied. That is not up to him. I tried to say this at one point in my chapter in the book (see p. 41), but I didn’t make the case as well as I could have. I hope this clear analogy helps.

Anyway, enough preamble: here is the review from Beyond Bree. I have added a few comments in square brackets, marked “/JAF/” — not to be confused with Nancy’s bracketed comment near the beginning. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Review by Nancy Martsch

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays ed by Jason Fisher; McFarland & Co, Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2011. Paper, 5 15/16 x 9'' (15x22.9 cm), 240 pp; $40. Ten essays plus Introduction, Preface, and Index. Cover: “A Conversation with Smaug” by Ted Nasmith, with brown borders and yellow lettering above and below. [The sketch for “Smaug” was in “Beyond Bree” Oct’10. Ed.]

The purpose of this well-written and well-edited volume is to define “source criticism” and to provide examples. Tolkien expressed his disapproval of source study: should this preclude us from practicing it? The answer is a resounding “No!” In his “Introduction” Tom Shippey cites specific reasons why Tolkien might have objected to the study of his sources, and he proposes three areas where source-criticism can enhance our appreciation of Tolkien’s work: personal/ cultural, professional/historical, and the “Cauldron of Story”.

The first two essays attempt to define source criticism. EL Risden describes types of source criticism, especially its derivation from the study of Biblical sources. Jason Fisher defines the terms of his study: How do we recognize a good source? Tolkien, Fisher asserts, resembled the Medieval writer who is willing to modify his sources but not to invent from scratch. [Note: that’s not exactly what I say. Both Medieval writers and Tolkien certainly did invent from scratch. See pp. 32–4. /JAF/] If a scholar cannot verify a source, says Fisher, then he should present his findings as a comparative study.

The eight remaining essays are examples of source criticism, following the criteria defined above. In “The Stones and the Book: Tolkien, Mesopotamia, and Biblical Mythopoeia”, Nicholas Birns sees echoes of Old Testament stories in Tolkien’s legendarium: the Creation, the Fall, and the Flood. Two of these, the Creation and the Flood, predate the Hebrew Bible, having antecedents in Mesopotamian myth — and many discoveries about Mesopotamia were made before or during Tolkien’s lifetime. If the world of his legendarium pre-dates the Bible, then Tolkien could incorporate Semitic prehistory into his work. But the Fall, being of Hebrew origin, remained off-limits.

Astronomer Kristine Larsen takes the Classical legend of Ceyx and Alcyone (Halcyon), married lovers who were transformed into sea birds, and compares it to various forms of the story of Eärendil and Elwing. Tolkien knew the legend from both Classical and Medieval sources. Larsen remarks on Tolkien’s astronomical knowledge, and equates Eärendil and Elwing to the planets Venus and Mercury in the morning and evening sky. [Something that has occurred to me but isn’t in the book: if Larsen is correct, as I think she is, then Tolkien has reversed the genders again, just as he did with the Sun and Moon. In Classical mythology, Venus is a woman and Mercury a man. /JAF/]

In “‘Byzantium, New Rome!’ Goths, Langobards, and Byzantium in The Lord of the Rings” Miryam Librán-Moreno lists many parallels between Byzantine history and events in LOTR, noting that Tolkien mixed and recombined his sources. She suggests that, if Byzantium = Gondor, and Byzantium could be seen both as corrupt and as a keeper of knowledge, then Aragorn might represent Charlemagne, who both revived knowledge and restored the purer Northern tradition.

Thomas Honegger offers a resolution to the apparent contradiction of the Rohirrim as “Anglo-Saxons on horseback”. When Tolkien needed a language related to modern English to represent the speech of the Rohirrim, he used Mercian Old English, a language which he knew well. Furthermore, of all the early Germanic languages, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) has the largest extant literature, and provides the most information about its speakers. Thus Tolkien could envision his fictional Rohirrim as representing the “pure Germanic spirit” while speaking Anglo-Saxon.

Judy Ann Ford suggests “William Caxton’s The Golden Legend as a Source for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”, noting that this medieval best-seller, a compendium of saints’ lives, contains many fantastic elements. “Religious” writing should not be overlooked as a source for fantasy! John D Rateliff gives an analysis of Rider Haggard’s She (which Tolkien read as a boy), comparing Ayesha and Galadriel; Leo & Ayesha and Beren & Lúthien; Kôr, Gondolin, and Númenor; and the concept (and problems) of limited immortality. Mark T Hooker does a similar study of three works by John Buchan: Midwinter (Tom Bombadil, deep pit, ring), The Blanket of the Dark (Old Forest, Strider), and Huntingtower (many similarities to Bilbo and elements of LOTR). The Huntingtower segment is reprinted (with permission) from “Beyond Bree” Sept, Oct, Nov’08. (There are a couple of other borrowings (uncredited) from “Beyond Bree” in this book. [I am not sure what Nancy is referring to here. It must be other passages from elsewhere in Mark Hooker’s essay. /JAF/])

Lastly, Diana Pavlac Glyer and Josh B Long use Tolkien’s life as a source, focusing on autobiographical elements in “The Lost Road”, “The Notion Club Papers”, and Smith of Wootton Major.

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources is an excellent book which can serve as a “how-to” guide for both research and writing. The authors are careful to avoid the assertion x = y, noting that Tolkien drew upon many sources. It is important to consider Tolkien’s work in relation to events of his time (such as the discovery of Hittite). And finally one may derive ideas from Tolkien’s work, such as Librán-Moreno’s comparison of Aragorn to Charlemagne, which may not have been intended by the author but which may enhance the reader’s enjoyment of his writing.


  1. Jason

    Thanks for posting this a much more helpful review I think. I understand the personal bio arguments but think we need to temper this with the fact that Tolkien was a man who experienced many things and that as much as he was dipping his ladle into the cauldron of story he was also bringing to this a series of experiences and encounters which he had in life. All this made up the leaf mould of his mind. I am focusing on the very early Tolkien right now and those formative years of his life were very rich with personal experiences such as losing his father, his mother converting to Roman Catholicism and being shunned, his mother then dying and Tolkien and his brother moving ten times. Etc. No I don't you can directly say that this motivated his development of Tuor, Turin, and Beren but there must have been something in the personal experience mix when Tolkien developed these and other characters and events in his mythology. And also as Tom
    Shippey and John Garth have indicated Tolken's post World War One reaction to the animal horror of war was to write. The Fall of Gondolin, for example, is

  2. Written by a man who has seen, experienced, and been effected by war. So while I don't think Tolkien's personal bio should be used as the "aha I solved it," it should go into the mix/soup of understanding Tolkien

  3. Yes, I agree, Andy. These sources are elements in solution, and even for some of the more “straightforward” cases (e.g., Eärendil) there are many such elements. Or, to go back to the “Cauldron of Story” metaphor, a soup consisting of a single ingredient would rather bore the palate, wouldn’t it?

  4. Thanks for republishing! Suddenly the author can reply to the reviewer, how excellent :-)

    My own personal interest in source studies is partly for the personal enjoyment, partly for curiosity -- in particular where serendipity can only take you so far. Consider for instance the following quote:

    "[There] lay a big black fortress. Only in one window was there a light. It looked like an evil eye, that window -- a red and terrible eye staring out into the night and wanting to harm us."

    Sounds vaguely familiar? This is the black castle of Sir Kato, the black lord of Astrid Lindgren's _Mio, My Son_ (1954). Prince Mio journeys to his black realm with his best friend (the gardener's son). They get help: cloaks that hide them and Bread that Satisfies Hunger. They enter the dark land through a mountain tunnel ...

    I've always been mystified by the many apparent similarities to LotR, and if I could find any common source(s), I'd be delighted. Or these may just be coincidences ... (Even Browning's "Childe Roland" only takes you so far with this one.)