Monday, May 24, 2010


So, today's mail brought the new issue of MALLORN (#49), the journal of the Tolkien Society, and with it my latest new publication: the Guest Editorial.

Having been a member of the Society off and on for going on thirty years now, it was quite an honor to be asked. And I find myself in good company: this adds my name to an interesting and eclectic list of guest editorialists, including Tom Shippey (#45), Tanith Lee (#46), and Jn Garth (#48).

As for my topic, I called the piece "How Do We Know What We Know?", and discussed how working scholars take pieces of evidence and assemble them to give us clues about things we don't have direct knowledge on -- like, say, when did the Inklings begin to meet?* When did Tolkien write MR BLISS: circa 1928 or circa 1932-33?** Did he write FARMER GILES before or after THE HOBBIT?*** Did Tolkien really think the ground in Ireland was saturated with ancient evil?****

But it's not so much the specific answers that I focused on as the ins and outs of the process. Which is better: when the evidence is sketchy but all points in one direction (as, for example, in the probable date Tolkien finished THE HOBBIT) or when we have more evidence but it's contradictory (as in when Tolkien started THE HOBBIT)? Are we allowed to reach conclusions at all, or shd every date be surrounded by a cloud of "perhaps" and "maybe" and "might" and "possibility" &c? There's a lot of evidence still out there: how long do we wait to gather it before proceeding to conclusions, or at least preliminary conclusions that may later get shored up or disproved by new evidence, or a new assemblage of the evidence?

I think the next big step in Tolkien studies will be when someone assembles a detailed timeline focussing solely on all Tolkien's writing, as scholars have done decades ago with other major writers (e.g., Chaucer), so that we get a better idea of when he was working on what, what works were being carried on concurrently (e.g., THE LAY OF LEITHIAN and THE HOBBIT), &c. Taum attempted this back in 1984, but there just wasn't enough information out there yet for it to hit a sort of internal critical mass. We're a ways off from that yet, but I think we're getting close: within a decade we shd be there.

I end with a mention of how much I'm looking forward "to seeing what projects, by scholars whose names I don't even know yet, will see the light of day over the coming decade" -- and I shd have added, what awards they'll be winning.

Exciting times ahead.


*answer: circa 1933-34.
**answer: prob. circa 1932-33.
***answer: prob. before, but the question is still open.
****answer: who knows? My guess is the anecdote is true but referred to a specific spot, not the whole island.

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