Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The New Arrival: VII

So, today the mail brought the always-welcome sight of a new issue of VII, the journal put out by the Wade Center at Wheaton devoted to the seven authors in their collection: MacDonald, Chesterton, Ch. Williams, Tolkien, Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Barfield. This being the twenty-sixth volume of this well-established journal, the contents are pretty much what one would expect -- two essays on Lewis, one on Sayers, and one on MacDonald and Wms and Dante. But the editorial is of unusual interest, being an account of the recent (October 2009) presentation of the Kilby Lifetime Achievement Award to Walter Hooper for contributions to Lewis studies. This is only the third time the Wade has handed out this award,* and it's hard to think of anyone more deserving in Lewis studies. In addition to a photo of Hooper receiving the award and a close-up of the award itself, they also reprint one of the Tributes read aloud at the event -- a rather curious exchange of angelic letters written by David C. Downing as a sort of antithetical twist (if I can put it that way) to the Screwtape Letters, this about two angels ('Suriel' & 'Jophiel') arranging for Hooper and Lewis to meet. V. odd.

Of course, I have an additional reason to be looking forward to this issue's arrival: its inclusion of what is now my latest publication, my review of Elizabeth Whittingham's book THE EVOLUTION OF TOLKIEN'S MYTHOLOGY: A STUDY OF THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH [2007]. While I like the idea of this book and think it helps pioneer a new branch of Tolkien studies, I had felt at the time that I was rather hard on it, rather reluctantly pointing out the book's shortcomings despite having a favorable opinion of it overall. The issue of unfavorable reviews has been on my mind of late, since I've recently written two more reviews that are still forthcoming, both of books I found sadly lacking despite having wanted to like them (sometimes it's hard to say that, however well-intentioned a book was, it just didn't succeed in achieving its aim). But skimming through the other reviews in this issue I see mine of Whittingham's book was not only more positive than I remembered it but far from the most critical one here.

For example, there was Fr. Peter Milward's review of TOLKIEN AND SHAKESPEARE in which he comments that at one point it "exceeds my powers of understanding" to follow the thought processes of one contributor, or when he ends by applying Tolkien's alleged comment** on Shakespeare's plays to these essays about Tolkien and Shakespeare: "they just haven't got any coherent ideas behind them". Ouch.

Or there's Donald T. Wms' review of Lee Oser's book on THE RETURN OF CHRISTIAN HUMANISM: CHESTERTON, ELIOT, TOLKIEN, AND THE ROMANCE OF HISTORY, in which he finds the book worth reading for its occasional insights but advises the reader to "Lower your expectations" (!), saying he "found myself defeated in my attempts to find his book wholly satisfactory by [the author's] overly allusive style and lack of focus . . . much elegant phrasing but little guidance . . . how well the goal might have been achieved had the author been less in love with the seductive possibilities of allusive suggestiveness in his own prose and possessed of a bit more no-nonsense . . . discipline and clarity".

On the other hand, it was interesting to see Ch. Huttar's review of TRUTHS BREATHED THROUGH SILVER: THE INKLING'S MORAL AND MYTHOPOETIC LEGACY, which I reviewed myself elsewhere (in MYTHLORE). I'm glad to say that Dr. Huttar was able to praise it more than I did. With so much coming out these days, so much of which has to be bought sight-unseen if at all, I'm finding the review section of TOLKIEN STUDIES and MYTHLORE and VII more important than ever in sorting out the should-buys from the if-there-were-worlds-enough-and-time.

So, it's on to read the rest of the reviews in this volume and see if there are any gems I've missed, or books resting unread on my shelves that should be bumped onto the 'read soon' pile.

--John R.

*the first was to Barbara Reynolds, original editor of VII, for her work on Sayers; the second to Aidan Mackey for his Chesterton work.

**the phrase was put in Tolkien's mouth by Humphrey Carpenter in his re-creation of an Inklings meeting; I'm not sure if H.C. had an actual source for this or penned this line himself to represent Tolkien's view.

CORRECTION (Th. 1/14-10): In the original post, I gave the title of one of the books mentioned above as 'Tolkien On Shakespeare'. The correct title, of course, is TOLKIEN AND SHAKESPEARE. I suspect I'd conflated the title with TOLKIEN ON FILM, which sits next to it on my shelf, having the same editor. Thanks to Merlin for pointing this out to me; accuracy is always a Good Thing. Accordingly, I've fixed the title in the main body of the post.


Extollager said...

Yes -- there is a real need for fair-minded reviews that let readers know about books that are not really worthy of their time or money. I'm grateful for conscientious reviewers such as Jason Fisher. (I'll have to order this VII and enjoy your review.)

Brian Murphy said...

Hi John, I've been enjoying your blog, and sorry if this seems a bit out of place here as a comment, but I could not find your e-mail address.

What are some recommended works of Tolkien criticism, outside of the two Shippey books and John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War (which I already have)? I'm looking to branch out in my reading and would like to ask someone knowledgable to point me in the right direction.

Thanks very much.

John D. Rateliff said...

Extollager: I'm sure the good folks at Wheaton will be glad to see you order a copy of VII. If you're at all interested in HME I hope you'll order the Whittingham book as well.

Hi Brian: that's a topic a little too big for a comment, so I'll try to make a separate post to that effect this weekend. Glad you're enjoying the blog.

--John R.