Thursday, August 4, 2011


So, yesterday's mail brought my author's copy of TOLKIEN AND THE STUDY OF HIS SOURCES: CRITICAL ESSAYS (formerly 'The Bones of the Ox', taking its cue from Tolkien's Cauldron of Stories in OFS), edited by Jason Fisher, which includes my essay "SHE and Tolkien, Revisited".* This is a re-casting and expansion of my v. first scholarly essay, which appeared in MYTHLORE as far back as the summer of 1981. I was glad to be asked to revise this piece, which seems to get cited a lot over the years. We have so much more material available to us now than then (e.g., LETTERS of JRRT, the HME, the Scull-Hammond chronology), but my basic premise still held, I think, and it was good to be able to include more evidence in support of my conclusions. And it was interesting to revisit a piece written so long ago (thirty years) -- my style and also I think my critical acumen have both evolved over that time.

I'm also glad that I'll now have a chance to read my fellow contributors' essays, which cover a range of subjects from Mesopotamian sources and the Goth/Lombard/Byzantine connection to writers whose lifespans overlapped Tolkien's own like Haggard and Buchan. It's not an exhaustive collection -- it's hard to see how it cd be** -- but it's a good place to start a look at how Tolkien handled his sources (which is as interesting a question as what the sources were).

And of course congratulations to Jason for his first book. Putting together a collection of essays by diverse hands can be like herding cats, and it's a tribute to his organizational powers and stick-to-it-ness that we now have this book. Kudos!

--John R.

*which I delivered at last year's MythCon in Dallas.

**a thought which conjures up visons of a companion volume someday with pieces on MacDonald, Morris, Dunsany, &c.


Jason Fisher said...

Thank you, John. I will naturally be very interested to know what you think of the whole once you've had the chance to read it. I was really glad to have your essay as well, not just for the excellent case you make about Tolkien and Haggard, but for its perfect example of how source-studies can evolve as new material becomes available. :)

Speaking of a follow-up or companion volume, yes, that idea has been in the back of my mind for some time now. A number of people — you are only the latest — have also independently suggested the idea, so I think there's clear evidence of interest.

It might be putting the cart before the horse, since this one has only just come out, but I certainly might do another volume. Not only is there Macdonald, Morris, and Dunsany, but there are Old Norse sources, Roman sources, influences from the New Testament and Early Church Fathers, and even negative influences such as Shakespeare (Macdonald is another example). There's plenty more to say.

The collection was never meant to be exhaustive. As you say, how could it be? Not only would the length have become unmanageable, but claiming a collection was exhaustive would be implying the work is largely done, which I don't believe at all. Rather, it was meant from the beginning to be expansive — I think it is that — and to open up new vistas and encourage further exploration — and I think it does that as well.

Look forward to your thoughts.

Brer said...

Has there ever been any work done on possible Japanese sources or influences on Tolkien? Every now and then I think I detect a hint or an echo (especially in his drawings or designs). I wonder if it is really there or simply in the eye of the beholder.

Jason Fisher said...

Brer, not too much, no, though I have seen a few attempts. The difficulty is in establishing any direct causality, since Tolkien is not known to have had any particularly strong predilections toward Far Eastern art or literature. What you are seeing might well be in the eye of the beholder — and there is nothing wrong with noticing similarities, so long as one doesn't claim without evidence that there must be a causal relationship.

Or it could be a case of Tolkien tapping into universals of the human condition, into which Japanese writers have also tapped. Generalized mythical archetypes, that sort of thing. Direct influence is not impossible, but it would probably be difficult to prove.

Dragons were very important in both Japanese folklore and in Tolkien's fictive world, for example, but nobody would suggest Tolkien got his dragons from the Japanese tradition. But everyone who writes about dragons gets them from somewhere — they seem to be native to the human imagination at some fundamental level.

Robert Parker said...

In J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, Hammond and Scull mention Japanese or Oriental influences twice:

p. 9: "Carpenter mentions that as an undergraduate at Oxford Tolkien bought Japanese prints for his rooms; but such prints were popular at the time, and do not seem to have had much influence on his own art except perhaps to suggest to him ... a simplification of natural forms and the use of flat colour for pattern effect rather than for modeling."

p. 197: "Among his later work is a series of drawings of naturalistic and stylized plants, mainly rushes, grasses, and reeds, in the manner of Oriental bamboo paintings" see figures 2 and 196

Besides the grasses, Hammond and Scull also point to figure 47, "Glorund Sets Forth to Seek Turin" depicting the dragon that would later be called Glaurung.

Besides what Hammond and Scull mention from Carpenter's Biography, Carpenter also writes: p. 183: "during his undergraduate days ... beginning to develop a style that was suggestive of his affection for Japanese prints"

So there is some evidence for Japanese sources at least for Tolkien's visual art.