Monday, April 7, 2008

The Golden Age of Tolkien Studies

So, hard to believe, but it's already more than half a year since I gave my Marquette lecture ("A Kind of Elvish Craft: Tolkien as Literary Craftsman"). My essay has now been accepted for publication, but in the process of revising it I cut out most of the opening section, which had been focused towards the oral presentation. Still, since I put a lot of work into it, and it's on a topic that means a lot to me, so thought I'd share it here. Enjoy.

Seventy years. It was almost exactly seventy years ago today* that Tolkien scholarship began, with publication of a short review of THE HOBBIT on October the 2nd, 1937 in the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, followed up a few days later (on Friday October 8th) by an even briefer piece in the London TIMES by the same anonymous reviewer (in fact, Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis**). Certainly works in what we now think of as Tolkien’s legendarium had been critiqued before--the early Earendel poems by a rather baffled G. B. Smith in 1914 (Carpenter 75, Garth 64), the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ and Lay of Turin by an equally puzzled Dickie Reynolds around 1926 (HME.III.3, HME.IV.11), and, more perceptively, the Lay of Leithian (the Beren & Luthien story) by an attentive and wholly sympathetic C. S. Lewis in 1929 (HME.III.150–151 & 315–329), the year before Tolkien began work on THE HOBBIT. But only with published commentary on a published work did the tradition of Tolkien criticism properly begin; a tradition that has continued, intermittently but in ever-growing volume, down to the present day.

And on the whole we have been fortunate. While there have been many bad books and misguided articles, from Edmund Wilson’s notorious ‘Oo Those Awful Orcs’ [1956] to more recent but equally inept examples we need not name, and many more inoffensive but unremarkable pieces, or interesting but flawed ones, there have been a number of superlative works, from Paul Kocher’s MASTER OF MIDDLE-EARTH (still after thirty-five years the best single-volume introduction to Tolkien’s work) through Tom Shippey’s THE ROAD TO MIDDLE-EARTH and AUTHOR OF THE CENTURY.

Indeed, in his recent review of the published proceedings from Marquette’s 2004 Tolkien Conference, Brian Rosebury conveys his sense that

". . . fairly gentle adjustments and additions are now being made to a generally accepted understanding of Tolkien’s art and thought. We are on the putting green of scholarship, as it were, rather than the fairway." --TOLKIEN STUDIES Vol. IV [2007], p. 282

Leaving aside his unfortunate metaphor, which suggests a coziness wholly at odds with the ongoing battles over the ultimate impact of the film adaptations upon Tolkien’s audience, or the continuing fratricidal struggle among Tolkien linguists, or even the exact role Tolkien’s faith did or did not play in his work, Rosebury’s remark suggests that we are now nearing the end of Tolkien scholarship: that little remains to say other than to add a few refinements upon an almost completed picture. Such a conclusion does not accord with my own impression of the field at all; in fact, I am reminded of the apocryphal story about the head of the U.S. patent office who supposedly predicted a century or so ago that there would soon be nothing left to invent; an anecdote invented solely to show that such a prediction would have been egregiously wrong.

And indeed, just the three years since the conference whose proceedings prompted Mr. Rosebury’s remarks have seen the publication of major works such as Verlyn Flieger’s INTERRUPTED MUSIC, which explains better than anywhere else just what it means to sit down and create a mythology; Marjorie Burns’s PERILOUS REALMS, which not only shows how Tolkien drew on a balance of both Norse and Celtic mythological elements but is the best analysis ever of Tolkien’s characteristic ambiguity; Christina Scull & Wayne Hammond’s J. R. R. TOLKIEN COMPANION & GUIDE, with its masses of biographical detail. And more work of comparable importance is on its way: an expanded critical edition of Tolkien’s most important essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, is due out soon, shortly to be followed by a collection of all Tolkien’s interviews, an important primary source never before gathered in one easily accessible place. Add to these the relatively recent advent of the journal TOLKIEN STUDIES [debuting in 2004] and the now well-established ‘Tolkien Track’ at the annual Medievalism Conference at Kalamazoo, which has produced several erudite volumes over the last four years,*** plus a number of active Tolkien websites, including the soon to be launched Tolkien Estate website, and I think you could make the case that we are in fact living in the Golden Age of Tolkien Studies, where we have a community of Tolkien scholars in regular touch with each other, constantly exchanging information and critiques of each others’ work, and increasingly beginning to collaborate on joint projects.

This is, I think, a development after Tolkien’s own heart . . .

*[Nt 1]This paper was originally delivered as the 2007 Blackwelder Lecture at Marquette University on October 4th, 2007.

**[Nt 2]Both these two brief reviews together total only a little over seven hundred words. In them, Lewis compares THE HOBBIT respectively to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and to Grahame’s THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, praising Tolkien’s world-building. Lewis of course had the advantage of having been the first outside Tolkien’s immediate family to read the book back in February 1933, immediately upon its completion, and had more recently heard it read aloud to the writers’ group to which both men belonged (and indeed had co-founded), the Inklings. The first piece is reprinted in ON STORIES, ed. Walter Hooper [1982], pages 81–82, while Douglas Anderson quotes a goodly portion from the second piece in THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT [rev. ed., 2002], page 18.

***[Nt 3]The three volumes so far are TOLKIEN THE MEDIEVALIST, ed. Jane Chance [2003]; TOLKIEN AND THE INVENTION OF MYTH, ed. Jane Chance [2004]; and TOLKIEN'S MODERN MIDDLE AGES, ed. Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers [2005].


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