by Michael N. Stanton
Palgrave for St. Martin's Press 2001.
Hardback. ISBN 0-312-23826-6
Review by Helen Armstrong
Michael N Stanton has taught English Literature at the University of Vermont
since 1971. During that time he has taught LotR every
year, and inaugurated the university's standard course on science fiction
and fantasy literature.
He began this book during 1997 while on medical leave, "to
entertain and instruct
himself". Prior to publication he had help and input from colleagues and
students, and expresses a debt to earlier Tolkien critics, including Randal
Paul Kocher (he cites both quite frequently). Two and a half pages of bibliography
list most of the familiar names who have had books in print about Tolkien
over the last 25 years. (The list includes David Day's Tolkien: The
Illustrated Encyclopedia and one or two other titles that can hardly
be called primary sources for Tolkien criticism.) He thanks the students
Tolkien with me and taught me about Tolkien over his years in the classroom.
With this quantity of basic Tolkien-related input on hand one might expect a weighty tome, sizewise at least. While not exactly a slim volume, it clocks up a modest 179 pages (including notes). The first part of the book gives some introduction to the geography, history and themes of the story, followed by chapters tracking the six books of LotR, with a short intermediary chapter split into "laws of the world" and "laws of the work" - the ways and expectations within which Middle-earth functions, and the literary techniques Tolkien uses to direct the reader through the story. (The borderline between the way he directs the reader and the way providence directs the characters is of course blurred at times in the story.)
The second part of the book performs a similar summary and commentary on the inhabitants of Middle-earth (by race) and some other important components, chiefly language and "mind, spirit and dream".
Each chapter is fairly short, broken down into clearly marked subject headers, and takes the form of a commentary on the part of the story under review, with analytical suggestions and statements. There is an emphasis on clarity (always a good thing). The chapters following each book of the story, which are the heart of this work, are themselves broken down into thematic sections on the issues and personalities that arise in the book in question.
The book definitely does not delve into complexities. It is an introduction to LotR. It is structured almost like a guide, but there is sufficient comment, and of a good enough quality, to put it into the category of genuine criticism, albeit basic. Michael Stanton's comments will be useful to any new reader of Tolkien and a sound summary for more involved readers. He writes clearly and although the book blessedly avoids the more leaden jargon of academic criticism, the language is uncompromisingly literate. Here's a section from the first chapter:
"... to invent a language, with vocabulary, sounds, rules of grammar and syntax, and idiom, is a profound operation psychologically." (This assertion is not illustrated or examined further.) "But that was Tolkien's metier: he had invented a couple of languages before he reached his teens, and during his career he invented at least a dozen others ... He knew at least four languages before he reached the British equivalent of high school. This is a roster of the languages Tolkien knew or studied, besides Greek, Latin, Lombardic, and Gothic: ..." (etc.)
From here he goes into a bulleted list. This wouldn't be a bad book to study in conjunction with a course on "How to Write a Report", which is itself of value to students. No numbered paragraphs, though, happily.
His background - he stresses that the book is about LotR, but he sometimes refers to other works, and more often to the Letters or Biography - is sound and the general accuracy of the book is high. Not too many places where even the non-pedant in me goes "ow!" I am not sure why in a couple of sections he seems to think Gimli is called "Gimli Gloin" - that seems odd for a teacher who has taught LotR for 30 years. One could postulate a sub-editor with a misunderstanding, but the tradition in academic books is that mistakes are the fault of the author. The theoretical non-culpable sub-editor can't spell Caradhras, either. The crack about 'were'-wolves on page 139 is cute, but it isn't explained and so is misleading about the meaning of the word.
Taking some comments from the first chapter as examples:
His date of birth: it is important to keep in mind that Tolkien was a grown
man before World War I even begun. His thought and sensibilities were products,
to some extent, of late Victorian culture. This, in accord with the book's
brevity, is not developed, but it is an important point that is often overlooked
As a mature man, Tolkien was flagrantly ordinary: dowdy clothes except for
the occasional brilliant waistcoat, plain food, a dull house, unremarkable
pictures on the wall ... Some of this is taken from W H Auden's famous comments
to an audience, and is not sourced as such. Stanton himself has not met Tolkien
(or his home, which was run by Edith).
It is necessary to avoid, resist and indeed combat purely allegorical readings
of it: Mordor is not Nazi Germany, Tom Bombadil's little province is not Switzerland,
and so on. (Now there's a thought. Would Tom Bombadil have a cuckoo clock
with a real cuckoo in it?)
Under Moral Themes, in Chapter 2, he states
Consider that Good is relatively
weak and divided because it is free; Evil by contrast seems strong because
its forces are united - though they may be in chains. But a turning point
comes, very late. This is a compressed and valuable view on the moral underpinning
of the work as a whole (whether you agree with the detail or not), and he
goes on to put a series of questions that might be asked concerning the moral
themes of the story.
He devotes about a page and a half to woman characters, and doesn't mention Luthien. He might usefully, as so many commentators skim over the women (blaming it on Tolkien as they go), have devoted a bit more thought to them.
One real oddity (to me) in a book largely free of serious oddities is calling the exam-paper story of the birth of The Hobbit "apocryphal", apparently on the basis that other information is given about the genesis of the story by Humphrey Carpenter. I don't actually see anything to contradict the story as told. Does anyone know anything about that?
Michael Stanton's book seems to me like a good, thoughtful primer. It seems from a UK perspective more a primer for A-level students than university level, but these days students put demands on colleges somewhat different from those of 30 years ago. At £14.99 when it first appeared in the UK it was a bit pricey for a primer, but worthwhile for new students of the story. Now there is a UK paperback - apparently at the same price as the previous hardback! And the hardback is more expensive. The original US price $19.95 was probably better by US living standards. Quite likely a paperback has appeared in the US by now.