by Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie
Medea Publishing 2002.
£18.00. 250 pp. Paperback only
Review by Helen Armstrong
This is one of those books that starts from a dozen different places, and
could lead the reader off in a score of directions. It is, as the authors
about exploration. It covers a lot of ground, and I can
only give a few examples of what is here to find and how I responded to it.
The authors are frank that much of the book is speculation, but there is also much solid reading and research, and they try to show how they reached their conclusions without stretching the links too thin. They do not always succeed, in my view, but I did find myself saying "oh yes - so it is" after passages of scepticism on a number of occasions. Along with the speculations, and the general Tolkien-related interest, there is real material for serious students, particularly in the "Gender" section and the first two chapters of "Inspiration".
The book is split into "realms", of which the core four are 'Ecology', about Humboldt; 'the Perilous', mainly concerned with folklore; 'Inspiration', split fairly evenly between the worlds of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and 'Gender', looking closely at Tolkien's female characters.
First, 'Realms of the Mind' gives an overview. The choice of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Mars' series as a possible prompt for Tolkien's interest in adventure stories (and a contrast to his own approach in terms of depth and consistency) is plausible. We know that Tolkien was interested in modern science fiction, if little about his actual reading. This reminds us that he was not inspired only by ancient literature and its Victorian and Edwardian retellings , but that he was constantly interested in contemporary imaginative writing, as well as scientific and speculative theories about the physical world, just as writers (and their readers) are now.
'Realms of Ecology: Tolkien and the Physical Universe' is not about "green" issues (try Patrick Curry's book Defending Tolkien for that), but about Tolkien's ability to create a convincing secondary world, and some of his possible sources.
The possibility that his interest in natural sciences was kindled by the writer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt is explored in depth. This is conjecture (as the authors point out), and I found the initial suggestions unconvincing. Tolkien himself went mountain-walking as a young man, and his description of the landscape of Ithilien has analogues in Classical and Renaissance sources, as well as contemporary travel books.
But having said that, the observations that Humboldt's books were popular in Tolkien's time, freely available, extremely interesting and worth reading both in their own right and as an introduction to exotic travel in the century preceding Tolkien are genuinely valuable. The link with his philologist brother Wilhelm is intriguing, and there are resonant analogies between Humboldt's life and Frodo's quest.
As another example, Tolkien's interest in catastrophism seems to owe less to his religion than to his mythological and geographical sources. The Atlantis story (in various versions) was well known in his day, as were the traces of sunken lands off the coasts of Europe. Despite the contemporary interest in slow geological change, catastrophism had by no means gone into its decline (from which, as the authors point out, it is now recovering - in a slightly different form - in modern earth sciences) and was still quite respectable. So the question of how Tolkien's religion may have influenced his view of earth sciences could benefit from being looked at from a slightly different angle. He did not feel the need to take the Biblical legends literally, but he certainly understood their power as story, and he understood the same power in classical tales and in phenomena (including volcanoes) reported in the press. This book begins to address this cocktail, and gives interesting pointers to events and sources available to Tolkien and the many other writers of his time and afterwards (Velikovsky is unfashionable now, but he was still in print in the 1980s) who produced quite different works.
'Realms of the Perilous' begins with folklore in the early 20th century, and the theories of "pagan survival" and unchanging folk tradition, which remain popular even though study has turned to other interpretations. It attempts to trace how some elements in Tolkien's fiction may have been linked to theories of folklore in his time, and also to his own experience. There are some real gems of research and observation. Readers must form their own opinions about the authors' suggestions, but much of the material is fresh and unusual. For instance, personally (and speaking as someone with an interest), I doubt that Tolkien drew the notion of the Balrog directly from tales of firedamp, but this is a reminder that, in Tolkien's day, mine-fires were still frequent and deadly. It points to a natural connection between Balrogs and mines which appears only indirectly, and late, in the Silmarillion material.
The section on the hobbits spends much effort analysing their possible connection with an unknown animal tale about an unattested badger, and produces much (in itself) fascinating background to present this (admittedly) unsupported idea. (The authors emphasise that they have used only publicly available sources.) At the beginning of the section, in contrast, are a couple of bits of factual research which I have not seen discussed elsewhere and which are thoroughly interesting and I reckon very likely to be pertinent, although, sadly, the second reference is not given precisely.
Moving on to 'Realms of Inspiration', the first two chapters are a detailed examination of how the stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings developed independently of the world of The Silmarillion, and did not connect closely with it until late in the process (and only tenuously in The Hobbit). It was barely there in the early stages of LotR, and dovetailed only gradually as the story was revised. In the post-Silmarillion enthusiasm for the vast background of the Arda cycle, the non-Arda elements have often been forgotten. These two chapters, drawn closely on the volumes of the Histories of Middle-earth, are a valuable and detailed reminder that the matter of The Silmarillion, dear though it was, was not the only furrow in the fertile field of Tolkien's imagination.
The third chapter in this section doorsteps that popular patron of speculative
argument, Tom Bombadil. This is not a re-run of the "is Bombadil a maia?"
chestnut. The authors present some theories and follow up, quite rightly,
the most important aspect of his character. I cannot recall who said
has clearly wandered in from another story, or of whom it was said (although
I think the answer to both may be "Tom"), but this is literally
true of Bombadil. The authors' yearning for possible unpublished source tales
can here have free rein. At the time of publication, Tom B was genuinely the
inhabitant of a little-known work, the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,
which had no previous connection to the developing Arda cycle and whose fit
into that cycle was not entirely clear to his creator. Yet, as the authors
point out, Tolkien actively kept Bombadil in the story when he eliminated
much else. They quote Tolkien's correspondence and muse on the reasons. I
think their main achievement here is gathering Tolkien's own comments and
drafts into one place alongside Tom's earlier history, and providing a good
deal that is thought-provoking and entertaining on the way.
If you have no other reason for consulting this book, the fourth main section, 'Realms of Gender', should provide one. Although some heat has been expended in the past in huffing that Tolkien has insufficient "roles for women", comparatively little space has been spent on looking at the actual context of his female characters. The most important contribution that the four chapters in this section make is to look closely at writers and society in Tolkien's own time, and come to some provocative conclusions about Tolkien's women. I think this is possibly the most valuable section of the book, and I appreciate the input provided by the authors' research.
Taken as a whole, the book is genuinely thought-provoking, and readers will find plenty to get their teeth into. It is not what the Americans might honourably call "Tolkien 101", but an advanced study, and I suggest that it would be a good thing to be acquainted with the "standard works" by and about Tolkien - by which I mean the main Arda stories, plus On Fairy Stories, The Letters of JRR Tolkien (ed. Carpenter and Tolkien) and The Road to Middle-earth by T A Shippey (who offers a breadth of knowledge and a willingness to explore matched by few other Tolkien commentators) - to lay a basic foundation from which to assess the ideas put forward. Some readers may think that from time to time the authors over-state a point of view, and feel the need for the same pinch of salt as for one of those heated Weblist debates which their expression occasionally seems to echo. There are ways in which the book might have benefited from a path to publication that offered more editorial support, and I think they should look at that carefully when planning another volume.
Generally, however, the arguments are well linked to Tolkien's known life (or at least his times) and work. The book to some extent redeems a lack of detailed referencing with a reasonable bibliography, but I would have liked full notes, even at the expense of losing a chapter somewhere.
The book is softcover only. The perfect-binding of the spine has stood up
well to reading on the move, and the abstract cover design by Ruth Lacon is