Thursday, June 7, 2007

Context (1937)

Yesterday made a long-delayed trip down to Suzzallo-Allen to do a little research on the Marquette paper, which I started writing this week. Didn't have time to look up all the things I wanted, so concentrated on getting copies of what seem to be the very first pieces of scholarly criticism of Tolkien's work published, the two brief book reviews by his friend C. S. Lewis published in the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT (Oct. 2nd 1937) and the London TIMES (Oct. 8th). I had the text of the former thanks to Fr. Hooper's collection C. S. LEWIS ON STORIES (pages 81-82) but not the latter, although Doug Anderson quotes a goodly portion of it in THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT (rev. ed. page 18). It'd been far too many years since I'd last read it, so got to make the acquaintance of the library's new state-of-the-art microfilm reader -- which turns out to be just as touchy as any other microfilm reader, but with an impressive array of bells and whistles.

Of the two pieces, two things stand out. The first is that whereas in the TLS piece Lewis mainly compares THE HOBBIT to Lewis Carroll's ALICE books (taking a hint, most likely, from the blurb on the dust jacket; see LETTERS OF JRRT p. 21), in the TIMES piece it's Grahame's THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS instead that dominates. The second is a matter of context. For me, the significant thing about those two issues was the appearance there of these two pieces, but of course they are merely small items nestled among many other notices: in both case not a featured review but a second-tier mini-review. This makes the context amusing: among the more than a dozen other books with which the October 2nd piece shares the page is Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN and Rex Stout's THE RED BOX, one of the early Nero Wolfe novels. The October 8th piece similarly sits next to even shorter reviews of Hemingway's TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and Charles Williams' DESCENT INTO HELL (and an ad for a book of James Thurber cartoons). A good example of how the coincidences of chronology remind us that we over-compartmentalize the things we know. How many people remember that Poe and Lincoln were the same age, or that Tolkien was born the same year as the Red Baron?


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